During the days after Hurricane Maria ripped through the archipelago, Puerto Rico seemed to be silenced.
You couldn’t hear from your loved ones, even if they lived a 10-minute drive a way. With no functioning cellphones, no water or electricity and meager medical care, the residents of this United States territory faced Sept. 21, 2017, no longer the same.
For those who were on the mainland during those days, every hour was immeasurably long.
We searched avidly for information, baffled by an ocean of bureaucratic contradictions. One cry for help interrupted the silence to denounce the deaths of thousands due to lack of efficient support from the U.S. government. It was the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, who first told the world about Puerto Rico’s humanitarian crisis in the wake of the storm. The mayor and other first-responders were fighting a losing battle to succur the poor.
During those days when most Puerto Ricans lacked a lot more than their daily cup of coffee, desperation was settling in. Yulín Cruz took it upon herself to speak on behalf of the most frail. Her work was recognized by Time magazine, which included the mayor in its list of 100 most influential people of 2018.
"Cruz's legacy will be marked by her uncompromising refusal to let anyone ignore the lives of those affected by the hurricane," Academy Award winning Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro wrote in the magazine. "For this we are forever grateful."
In May, while the archipelago expressed its collective discontent, with protests on the streets of Puerto Rico’s most prominent banking district, the mayor of San Juan answered questions from me about how the island’s colonial status has affected its recovery process.
Q: There was no way to silence you during a national emergency such as Hurricane Maria.
A: I always have that problem. Since my childhood, when I feel that there is an injustice, it’s not time to kneel down. That’s how I was raised. And those who did not want to understand that Puerto Rico is a colony before Sept. 20, must feel it now in their souls. It hurts. (Her eyes water.) It hurts being a colony. It hurts that some people don’t realize it. It hurts that some people want to continue being colonized. But what hurts the most is that some people play with the definition and the concept of colonialism. Because if you are a colony, there is only one option: to stop being one.
That we must respect all of the voices, I agree. But those voices are respected in a process of decolonization and of free determination, where the solutions are not part of the problem.
Q: I imagine that our colonial situation did not take you by surprise.
A: I come from the right wing of the Popular Democratic Party. Some people marvel when I say this. And it was a process of education, of a lot of generosity from others who understood that I needed to be made aware of things. But to me the catalyst was when the [FBI] killed Filiberto Ojeda. (He was the leader of the Boricua Popular Army, a clandestine independence group that the FBI says was involved in terrorism. Ojeda died in a shootout with federal agents in Puerto Rico in 2005.)
A person called me that night and told me, ‘Yulin, they are letting him bleed to death.’ Of course, they choose to kill him on Sept. 23 (when Puerto Ricans commemorate El Grito de Lares, the day of the national independence revolt against Spain in 1868) to send us a message. They could have apprehended him the day before or the day after; they knew where he was. But they wanted to send us a message and then they let him bleed to death. And so you see the blood of Filiberto, how it’s engraved on the steps in front of his house and then you start to ask yourself if the so-called “good” are actually good and if it’s not time to end the indignities that we have been forced to endure. So it did not take me by surprise on Sept. 20, but at a certain time, several years ago, it took me by surprise. It was like they say in English, “an 'A-Ha!' moment.”
Q: It was more like a cold shower for me. I have been looking into the history of our nation, and this moment what Puerto Rico is experiencing resembles what happened during Hurricane San Ciriaco when we lost 3,400 people. At that time in 1899, the United States imposes the U.S. dollar and devalues the local currency, the Spanish peso, by 40 percent. Both currencies had equal value until then. With diminished wealth, Puerto Rican landowners borrowed money from the Colonial Bank and soon lost most of their land.
A: Yes, and they began a process that I think is even more important than the economic process. Because there’s economic domination and there’s cultural domination. They start to make us believe that we are less and that they are more. For instance, in the town of Guanica (where the U.S. first invaded the archipelago in 1898) there was a fence on the beach, a cyclone fence — as if the water would not move it from side to side — separating the Americans from the Boricuas. The benches in the Catholic Church, the front benches, were reserved for the Americans. Even if the Americans didn’t show, Puerto Ricans had to stand through the mass. The houses were painted in a particular color to visually distinguish who lived on one side and who lived on the other. So you say, either you like to be beaten or you wake up!
I hate to attribute anything positive to Maria because I would have wished that Maria did not take the lives it has taken. But the country begins an awakening after Maria that I consider very important and that establishes new avenues that go beyond the strict political party politics.
Q: I believe that, to an extent, we are living the repercussions of a colonialism that is also mental, in which we inadvertently become the catalysts of our own misfortune because we can’t seem to figure out who is helping us and who is taking advantage of us.
A: And the other thing is that they have divided us — that saying of divide and conquer. And so they put Puerto Ricans to fight against other Puerto Ricans. The police, which have also been battered, to fight the people, beating them with a baton. (That very scene was happening a few miles away from our interview). And this is a state of great stress, of great economic stress, of great identity stress. It’s the rebirth of a new Boricua. It’s a rebirth that perhaps the majority has yet to cough up.
I agree with the governor in one thing: that Puerto Rico is a colony. We have different ways to approach that colonialism. I believe that little by little, this country has begun to swallow this sour taste to then be ready to exercise its right to free determination. And if it’s not now, it won’t ever be.
Q: Who benefits from our current situation?
A: It’s convenient for those who want to keep a group of people — who depending which market you’re looking at constitute between the fifth and the 10th consumer of the American product — captive. They want to keep these people captive so that they keep consuming.
Q: How does the colonial situation affect the recovery efforts after the hurricane?
A: I had phone calls from people in other countries saying: Mayor, we want to help but the American embassy won’t allow us.” So when you are denying a group of people their capacity to survive, well damn it, where is that leading us? You know there is a song that says: Coño Wake up Boricua!
Q: Can there be enough change within the Popular Democratic Party for it to become a movement like you say it should become?
A: There has to be a change because otherwise the country will find the change. Almost 300,000 people did not identify themselves with any of the parties, with none of them. These 300,000 people are as Puerto Rican as the ones that voted for those political parties. You need to have a structure, but the structure must not be what dominates. It’s the agenda that must dominate. And in that sense, my call to the Popular Party is a call to return to its roots. Bread, Pan, Tierra y Libertad (the party slogan) meant Bread, Land and Freedom, that was not a joke!
And the Independence Party emerges in 1952 when Munoz (Luis Muñoz Marín, Puerto Rico's first elected governor) says: "No, the [colonial] status is not an issue." Maybe in 1952 that worked, but status is the issue. The Populares always forget that toward the end of his life, Munoz said that if he were younger he would create a new party.
Q: And who can we complain to?
A: To everyone that listens. The American understands [social justice]. When I sit down to talk with Congress leaders they ask: ‘What’s next for Puerto Rico? And somebody says statehood. I say: ‘Why statehood?’ I understand that the American can say that ‘being a state is making you equal to me.’ But then I reply: ‘What does that mean? And what about that phrase in the Declaration of Independence that says that we have all being endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights that include Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness … does it only apply if one is an American citizen?
But when that document was signed there were no American citizens. The people who signed this were immigrants.’
Q: Is the federal court the way of change for Puerto RIco?
A: It’s through the federal courts, it’s through the United Nations, it comes through doing what we did during Hurricane Maria. With Maria we were able to attract the eyes of the world to Puerto Rico, by saying the truth. Well we cannot get tired, we have to bring the world’s attention back to Puerto Rico. The United States doesn’t want to be looked at by the world as a country that has a colony, that’s why they try to say that we are not a colony.
We must go to Latin America, we must go to Europe, we must attend any medium or platform that allows us to say the truth, and people can identify the truth. I always say: I didn’t do everything well during Maria. I am not perfect, I make mistakes. It took me four months to clean 283 billion pounds of debris. “Shame on me,” I placed my priorities elsewhere and if San Juan or Puerto Rico wants to punish me for that, they have a right to. What no Puerto Rican has a right to do is to give up the fight.
We have the right to get tired, to get frustrated … What we don’t have a right to do is to stop demanding dignity for our country. We don’t have the right to allow the sale of our most vital services, to allow them to take our home from our hands. None of us have the right to allow that to happen.
Q: Are the tax exemptions available to foreign investors cohesive with the goal of developing the local economy?
A: Well there are two things: You have to fly the airplane and fix it at the same time. People here don’t have jobs and we have to keep people from leaving. To avoid losing them, we must produce new jobs, but we must also have a resilient economy.
Q: How did the Jones Act (which requires the transporation of goods between U.S. ports to be conducted by U.S.-built vessels) affect the recovery process in Puerto Rico.
A: President Trump eliminated the Jones Act for seven days during Irma and for 10 days during Maria. But that was wonderful because the United States has always denied what we all know: That these laws are bad. If you eliminate something to allow help to come, which never came because it was too short of a time, you’re admitting to colonialism. You’re admitting financial domination. And the Puerto Rican says: ‘Hold on, why did you remove these restrictions permanently in Texas? And why do the Virgin Islands have an exemption when it comes to energy? What are we?’
I would give anything for the governor to really stand up to the fiscal control board. But he doesn’t mind having an owner. It’s not that he doesn’t suffer from slavery, it’s that he sees in slavery a way to make his life a little easier. It’s like the slave that lived indoors and thought that he was better off. He had some benefits living in the owner’s house, but he was a slave. He was still a slave.”
And the moment is now, this cannot wait anymore.
Q: Is Puerto RIco ready for a movement that goes beyond party lines?
A: The country is ready for a movement. Now we have to be able to put our long pants on and sit down to talk. Because otherwise, we divide into that little group and that other little group.
Q: What would be the agenda for a coalition of leaders from various parties such as the women coalition that you are a part of?
A: The elimination of the Fiscal Control Board, the development of a sustainable economy, food sovereignty, which is something that we don’t mention enough and that is extremely necessary. We have food here for three to five days and when there was no electricity we didn’t even have food for one day.
Q: What is the main common ground for the Coalition of Women’s Leaders?
A: We all want sovereignty for Puerto Rico. We must educate, talk about what is important. Because the Fiscal Control Board affects all of us. Because the labor reform is a threat against the Puerto Rican woman because it takes away the protections against unjustified termination, allowing the unscrupulous practice of firing women when they get pregnant.
Q: Say that tomorrow you are the governor of Puerto Rico, and you must face the current climate in the United States and Puerto RIco, where is your greatest strength?
A: It’s not my strength, that is something that all of us Boricuas must keep in mind. This has to be a countrywide movement. It must be a movement of dignity. That dignity is not something that somebody gives you. That dignity is created from within. And what I see is a country that is ready and a diaspora that is even more ready than just the island is.
Q: And they are the majority now...
A: Indeed, I believe that we are the diaspora now. We are 3 million here and 5 million on the mainland. We must embrace this. There are days when I wake up and say to myself: ‘Why the hell have I chosen to do this now. I could be making loads of money. I could be making loads of money in the private sector.’ But then something happens that I end up visiting a neighborhood and a woman looks at me with tears in her eyes and says: ‘Yulín please help me!’
So we cannot wait until we have all the answers. It must be an act of faith and an act of will.
Q: Is Puerto Rico ready for the change you envision?
A: Gandhi didn’t wait, nor Mandela or Rosa Parks. The Black American did not wait until the rest of the interamerican class was prepared. You must force the issue in a peaceful way. There is nothing that someone who is violent fears more than pacifism because it unmasks them. Pacifism doesn’t mean kneeling down or weakness. Americans possess that sensitivity for social justice. And we must tap into that moral compass to give us strength so that they help to move this divisive line, so that there is a decolonization process.
Q: What would constitute a successful decolonization process?
A: I insist on a Constitutional Assembly. Not only constitutional in terms of status, but that assembly must continue its constitution so that we can discuss the environmental code that we want to foment in our country. It’s not only the status. It’s the status in service of what? A status to serve education, to serve a true economic system that allows us to attract foreign capital without allowing to dominate. When you see the reality, you have two options: you either submit or you stand up. And when you see people die, people without medicines, people without food; children without milk, bedridden elderly folks sticking their hands out the window saying help me please! If in that moment you don’t look for a profound change and a transformation, your life will be worth very little, will be worth very little.
But no matter how many times I hit the wall, now matter how disillusioned one can get, I believe in this country, I believe in the Puerto Rican generosity and in the strength of the Boricua. I believe in that more than any other man on the face of the Earth.
Q: What happens if another hurricane strikes?
A: We start over. We have no other choice, but we are not ready.