Hamacao, Puerto Rico, submerged: aerial view of the devastation in the greater San Juan area after hurricane Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico. Carol Guzy/PA Images. All rights reserved.Two days ago, eleven days into the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, a typically divisive tweet from Donald Trump struck a very sensitive cultural and political chord when, in response to the Mayor of San Juan’s plea for help, he said that islanders “want everything to be done for them [by the US] when it should be a community effort”. As we have come to expect, his words, which followed Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke’s injurious claim that this was “a good news story” because of a low number of reported deaths (so far), reproduced and inflamed historically racist tropes that have devalued Puerto Rican lives as second-class, undeserving, geopolitical waste.
His words reproduced and inflamed historically racist tropes that have devalued Puerto Rican lives.
These tropes grow from cultural narratives that run deep through the island’s life. Firstly, these words offend by making explicit Puerto Rico’s all-too familiar colonial condition and its shackled status, breaking the islander’s silence – an everyday taboo – and shattering a performance of autonomy. Exposing the ugly truth of the colonial order and the disdain with which Puerto Ricans are treated, the tweet has created a fraught situation, which the local conservative government has attempted to assuage by suggesting it was an isolated comment directed solely at the mayor.
Indeed, despite their differences, the governor and the mayor were both quick to appease Trump and his powerful government by saying that the dispute is not personal, and that their claims are merely about being treated equally as ‘proper Americans’ in receiving post-hurricane aid (military troops, FEMA relief, and financial and logistical assistance). They cite New Orleans and, improbably, Haiti, as examples of better treatment. Leaving aside the supposedly unproblematic calls for a military take-over, for the mayor, this call for help is entangled in a broader, more complex plea for returning Puerto Rican life to the realm of humanity in a context of longstanding colonial dehumanisation. Though she does not mention race explicitly, she invokes Black Lives Matters tactics with the rallying call (and t-shirt), ‘Help Us, We Are Dying’, pleading that islanders not be killed through systemic inefficiency and bureaucracy – an organisational morass that is undoubtedly impacting some Puerto Ricans more than others.
Donald Trump on 30th September 2017. Twitter used under Fair Use. Trump’s words will also have flown in the face of the story of autonomy and entrepreneurialism that underpins the lives of many Puerto Ricans. Dependence, as locally understood, is the bogeyman many have worked against. In local parlance, reliance on government is a characteristic reserved for one of the most culturally reviled figures on the island – the poor public housing resident. These stigmatised ‘others’ have been historically racialised as inferior ‘abusers’ of a benevolent public system because of what is portrayed as inherent weakness – an inability to exist independently – leading to the violence of low-income spatial segregation and criminalisation we see today.
Amidst this entrenched landscape of social and moral opprobrium, where needing help is vilified, Trump’s suggestion that all Puerto Ricans are somehow on the same plane of dependency effaces what, for many, is a historic system of internal differentiation that has kept social inequalities along racial, class and gender lines in place. For those on the island who – despite spotty internet connections – became aware of the tweet, the suggestion of dependency provoked a reaction. This represents a sudden disturbance of a taken-for-granted social order; while of course doing nothing to change the massively unequal way in which people are feeling the heat, thirst and hunger of the current crisis. Dependence, for most, is not a choice but a necessity.
Trump’s suggestion that Puerto Ricans want things done for them is not just inaccurate, but diminishes the collectivising spirit that has kept things going in these trying times.
Finally, Trump’s tweet sought to erase the eleven days’ worth of struggle – falling differently on different people according to their vulnerability – for survival that has taken place. It has been a time of people literally depending on one another for subsistence in a state of crisis. On the ground, stories have been about people doing things for themselves and others, whether kin, neighbours, friends or strangers, in the face of a mostly absent and unprepared state. Organised communities and local non-profit organisations as well as private initiatives have stepped in to fill the various voids. The public, in its truest form, has been a lifeline for most people, even while public authorities have been absent. The diaspora has also generated an impressive movement of transnational aid provision and distribution of its own. Trump’s suggestion that Puerto Ricans are lazy people who want things done for them is not just inaccurate, but diminishes the collectivising spirit that has kept things going in these trying times.
It also injures a wider, historically nationalist sense of pride initiated by the late modernist governor Luis Muñóz Marín who claimed Puerto Rico to be a great large family (la gran familia Puertorriqueña). At the time, this was an extremely powerful (and racially homogenising) tool that helped to sell the island’s special colonial status (Estado Libre Asociado) by subsuming all islanders under a common trope of cultural family ties; that is, of people that care for one another. However fictitious, these normative imaginaries have remained critical to collective portrayals of Puerto Rican selfhood – especially as distinct from American selfhood. And so, in a way, de-legitimising community efforts already taking place is a way of attacking a wider notion of Puerto Rican belonging as a community of care.
What remains obscured, if not willfully neglected, in the public handling of this terrible on-going fiasco is the fact of pre-existing political and economic conditions that have determined the ability of the island and its infrastructure to cope with the magnitude of this natural event. This, of course, would require sustained attention to precisely the kind of colonial logic Trump’s remarks fleetingly revealed, and which has made Puerto Rico as vulnerable as it is. Though people are becoming more and more aware of how vulnerable people and countries are ripe for exploitation, and Trump tweets that the debt must be re-paid, speaking about the political nature of this disaster is treated as a treason of sorts. Some voices – both individual and collective – have nevertheless been speaking out against this tide and laying bare the need to adopt a ‘people before debt’ perspective. In this moving, hourly-changing landscape of dire need, time will tell whether the forces that stitched this crisis into being will be confronted head on, or remain a hidden architecture of oppression.