New Jersey & the Ode to Puerto Rico
“[Bad Bunny] hails from the world’s last colony, Puerto Rico, where tourists go to seek paradise.”
In recent times, it’s calculated that about 5.8 million(M) Puerto Ricans take residence on the mainland United States, this is compared to 3.2M now inhabiting the island herself. [Puerto Rico Report] Speaking from the perspective as one of those on the continental US, I’d like to bring more attention to Puerto Rico, as it’s in danger in more ways than one; with the hope that the voices of the many can enact change in this world for the better.
Con tanto amor que tengo para mi tierra y mi cultura (with so much love that I have for my land and my culture), I have a tendency to bring up Puerto Rico in conversation to hear others’ opinions on the island. Often, if not always, the person brings up the beauty of the island itself. While true, responses like this upset me. Why? Although most everyone recognizes the paradisal nature of Puerto Rico, its struggles as a US colony are seldom brought up on continental America. While not being a state, residents of Puerto Rico are not granted the same liberties as citizens of states like New Jersey. This makes it difficult to do more than protest in order to bring change. While Hurricane Fiona leaves the island attacked, Puerto Rico has been left to fend for itself. If history is to repeat, federal aid will be slow to reach those on the island; passing the job of caring for those uncared for – to us – here on the mainland .
So, Puerto Rico, what’s really wrong, and How can we help?
A Brief History
The island of Puerto Rico was originally home to natives called Taínos. At that time the land was called Boricua. Eventually, the island became conquered by Spain, and with that, was renamed Puerto Rico (Rich Port). Following along its history with Spain, Puerto Rico was used as a military port and cash crop colony for sugar. Controlled by Spain ever since Christopher Colombus’ initial landing in 1493, Puerto Rico was eventually granted independence in 1897. This independence was short lived however, due to the US invading/acquiring the island after the Spanish-American War in 1898. Later, in 1917, it was passed that anyone born after this time would be considered a United States citizen. Since its inception, as part of the New World, the island has never stopped fighting for basic rights like political representation. [History.com]
Puerto Rico’s Current Standing
While yes, Puerto Ricans have US citizenship, making them eligible for military conscription, they still lack congressional representation. Federally it’s titled as Commonwealth, Territory, or Colony. Puerto Rico holds one member seat at the House of Representatives. This person is known as the resident commissioner, and speaks on behalf of Puerto Rico & its interests, yet has no voting power. More than that, residents of Puerto Rico cannot cast votes in regular countrywide elections like the presidential race.
As being a territory of the United States of America, Puerto Rico is not permitted venture out to communicate with the outside world. This hinders the territory in more ways than one.
Puerto Rico’s Financial Situation
Puerto Rico is home to a major economic crisis, ongoing, and seemingly eternally increasing. This is mostly due to badly juggled debt and poor 20th century legislation.
Not long ago, the commonwealth was “$72 billion[B] in debt and more than $55B in unfunded pension liabilities with no legal way to restructure the liabilities or reduce debt payments,” according to the US government’s PROMESA board (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability; founded by President Obama in 2016). [OversightBoard.PR.gov]
All of the technical jargon aside, and knowing governments accumulate debt on purpose, Puerto Rico realistically had about $33B that it needed to pay and no way to pay it. Luckily, the PROMESA board made deals with Puerto Rico and its debtors, in January of 2022, to cut debt obligations to about $7.4B. While sounding great, Puerto Rico’s weak economic structure still makes it hard to pay even this off. Furthermore, parts of the deal cut things like health care and education.[CFR.org] As if healthy, smart, people were not critical in the financials of an area. To make matters worse, the shadow of poor 20th century legislation still looms over the island.
The afore mentioned legislations allowed (and more recently allow) wealthy people to get away with tax exemptions of up to 60%-100%. That, along with a 20 year decree guaranteeing these rates (Puerto Rico Act 20 / 22 ), leaves the island up for the highest bidders to do as they please.[CFR.org] It was not until doing research on Puerto Rico’s economics, did I hear of anyone, let alone big businesses, being taxed NOTHING in America. But it doesn’t stop there. As the ease to invest in dividends become more widely open, in Puerto Rico, their tax exemptions flourish. While the rich get richer, there’s no room for simple necessities like education to continue.
Unfortunately, this is the current fate of Puerto Rico right now; with schools no longer being able to prosper. Knowing that, it is hard to argue that things will get better soon. In 2019, the New York Times reported hundreds of Puerto Rican schools had closed within a three year span. More recently, it has been found that indeed 600 Puerto Rican schools have closed in the past 10 years.
The sheer weight this has on communities island wide is haunting. Financials aside, more daunting, life threatening matters are at the forefront of Puerto Rico’s days right now. As the commonwealth sits in the Caribbean Sea, it surely endures a lot of impact from hurricanes and other phenomena. The most recent being Hurricane Fiona.
The Worst Parts
Natural disasters like Hurricanes Maria & Irma ravaged the island; along with the massive earthquake at the beginning of 2020. Bringing blackouts island wide. So much damage was done to the already weak infrastructure. To only add further to the turmoil, it’s clear that aid came in much smaller and slower than it it did for those recognized states who were also touched by the storms. As it is not independent, Puerto Rico cannot call for the aid of the International Monetary Fund, as Greece did when declaring bankruptcy. At the same time, Puerto Rico can neither file for Chapter 9 aid, as it is not a state. This only greatens the gap between Puerto Rico and the rest of the country.
Entering the pandemic in 2020, the island had a poverty rate almost twice that of the poorest state (Mississippi). As many rotten policies come to bear, big business has the ability to force residents to move, treating them as second class people. While not ok, this treatment is not new; just growing more so now. [CFR.org]
Just in time for all of this, Hurricane Fiona now sweeps through Puerto Rico. President Biden has just declared emergency in the region. This newest Hurricane brings catastrophic flooding, more blackouts, etc. If you’d like to reach a helping hand to Puerto Rico as Hurricane Fiona hits the area, please click this heart <3 . All of this in mind, where do we go from here?
The Next Step
Zooming out a bit, in 2021 President Joe Biden opened the door for more of the island’s allocated emergency aid to be used. [WhiteHouse.gov] This is a slow process however, and other problems still persist.
Moving forward, I’d like to start off by proposing that mainland citizens bring more awareness to the situation. As outspoken as my/our generation is, it’s about time we actually bring another voice to the voiceless. Within New Jersey’s population, 5.24% are Puerto Rican. This translates to Garden State being home to 455,615 Puerto Rican residents, including myself and my family. New Jersey holds the fourth most Puerto Rican population by state (in order: Florida 1.19M, New York 1.09M, Pennsylvania 0.49M, New Jersey 0.45M, Massachusetts 0.34M, Connecticut 0.3M, Texas 0.23M, California 0.22M, Illinois 0.2M, & Ohio 0.13M). [Puerto Rico Report]
Interestingly enough, in 2020 Puerto Rico held a poll deciding how inhabitants felt about becoming a state within the USA. It was concluded with 52% voting yes. [PBS.org]
Already in 2021, NJ Governor Phil Murphy further opened communication with Puerto Rico by establishing the New Jersey Puerto Rico Commission as a ways to build on the interconnectivity between island natives and Jersey migrants.[NJ.gov] Still the federal government has not acknowledged a status change for Puerto Rico. This cannot be it though. Think about it, and ask people, ‘what should be the next step for Puerto Rico?’
Some possible options could be: sticking to the status quo, upgrading to an Enhanced commonwealth or Statehood, achieving Independence or Free association (like some other US territories, i.e Marshall Islands). [CFR.org].
Any which way, just make sure the people of Puerto Rico know you’re thinking of them during these times. A little help from everyone is a big help! One way Bad Bunny is helping comes by way of his newest music video for “El Apagón“ (“The Blackout“).
I am not the only one trying to bring knowledge about Puerto Rico’s situation to the masses. Latin music artist, and Puerto Rico native, Bad Bunny is extremely outspoken on the topic in his music, in addition to other forms of activism. Part music video for “El Apagón“, part documentary for Puerto Rico and its current struggles, the video just above is Bad Bunny’s way of using his voice for change. Intercutting music and journalism, the perspective of those living on the island shine bright here; exemplifying the real life hardships regular citizens of Puerto Rico face everyday. While I myself was aware of some of the things going on there, this music video lit a fire within me, and inspired me to sit down to write this article.
I say all of that to say: Puerto Rico is in dire need of help, especially with Hurricane Fiona hitting the island hard. If you are looking for some different ways to assist, look no further, all you’ve got to do now is tap on this heart <3 . If you cannot help fiscally, or by donating essential supplies, then please use your voice, and spread the word.
This article, and B985’s microphone, are a couple of my ways to help create change. Some others can be found on my social media, you can find me on Instagram & Twitter @RiosDanielSun .