“Many residents were frustrated with this feeling of stalled time, the halt of capitalism, and the halt of modernity that suddenly made it clear that Puerto Rico was one of those islands.”
By Mallory Adragna, LAI Intern
UCLA Latin American Institute, February 01, 2018- Yarimar Bonilla, Associate professor in the Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Rutgers, spoke about the politics of recovery in Puerto Rico, specifically how catastrophic events impact the experience of time, progression, social action, and political possibility within the context of Puerto Rico. On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, causing havoc on the island with widespread destruction and disorganization. The Latin American Institute, The Culture, Power, and Social Change Working Group, and the Program on Caribbean Studies co-sponsored the event which was followed by a Q&A session.
(Photo by Mallory Adragna, LAI)
The Act of Waiting
Professor Bonilla characterizes the impacts of Hurricane Maria as a “temporal mode called emergence”. She described the status of emergence as a “heightened state of awareness, a surge of adrenaline, and perceived need to move fast accompanied with the expectation of change, only met with crushing stand still and delay”. Residents anticipated storm’s arrival by stocking essential provisions and securing family safety. The storm’s arrival brought about rain beating down on homes, water pouring through leaky roofs, trees smashing cars, and rivers spilling from banks that pushed residents to their rooftops. In addition, individuals outside of Puerto Rico waited for the storm’s passing by watching via social media or news outlets to which they felt the lights and cell towers go out. According to professor Bonilla, the true disaster was not the storm, but what was revealed in its wake, “the neglected infrastructure of an island in crisis, a society marked by the inability of a colonial government preventing a disaster from becoming a catastrophe”.
As the winds subsided, residents had to wait again for roads to be cleared, electricity to be restored, stores to reopen, food and water to be redistributed, cell service to return, but mostly they waited in line for bare necessities such as pumping gas or pulling cash out. As professor Bonilla stated, “many residents were frustrated with this feeling of stalled time, the halt of capitalism, and the halt of modernity that suddenly made it clear that Puerto Rico was one of those islands”. The stagnation of recovery caused local residents to rethink their global status. Bonilla explained, “The cavalry did not arrive, government trucks did not arrive to clear the debris or tankers of drinking water did not appear. Instead neighbors had to clear their own paths with their machetes and folks headed to river with buckets and made their own infrastructure, makeshift PVC pipes”.
Just two years before Hurricane Maria, Alejandro García Padilla declare that the US territory was on the verge of a "financial death spiral". Years of over borrowing had led to a multimillion-dollar debt that the state was now incapable of serving. Due to Puerto Rico's territorial status, it was unable to declare bankruptcy. In 1952, Puerto Rico was determined as a non-sovereign nation by US intervention that provide lucrative loop holes for both foreign investors and local elite. The priority to serve debt led to social abandonment and a dilapidated infrastructure. For example, the electric grid had not received proper maintenance, and year prior to Maria there had been an island wide three-day blackout. About 45% of population lived at or below the poverty level, twice as many as Mississipi the poorest state in the US. As a result, crumbling infrastructure and lack of social service led to a high migratory wave with more Puerto Ricans residing in the US. Furthermore, serving the debt crisis led to precarious labor laws: job insecurity, elimination of sick days, extending probationary periods, and lowering the minimum wage. The debit crisis that proceeded the storm shifted the expectation of what local citizens were entitled to receive from the State.
(Photo by Mallory Adragna, LAI)
Professor Bonilla interviewed folks on the ground, an emphasis of self-reliance echoed throughout interviews such that the popular hashtag #PuertoRicoSeLevanta (Puerto Rico gets itself back up) spread like wildfire on social media. Puerto Rico’s government used this as a slogan during Hurricane Irma to inform the public about the process of recovery, but during Hurricane Maria, the government's role was absent. Thus, the slogan's meaning shifted, showing residents and local mayors coming together to create solutions to intermediate emergencies. In addition, “Puerto Rico Se Levanta” sprayed on walls was often accompanied by the Puerto Rican flag. People said that these flags meant proof of life, others said it raised spirits, channeling sportsmanship and team spirit such as “we can do it”, but according to professor Bonilla the Puerto Rico's flags or the hashtag “Puerto Rico Se Levanta” could be a double entendre of Puerto Rico rising up or Puerto Rico is having an uprising.
The event concluded with Professor Bonilla suggesting that Puerto Rico's future did not exist within the European framework of state citizenship or national parties, but perhaps encompasses small "s" sovereignty that functions at the micro level with community organizations or political parties.