My Diasporriqueña Story
I’d been digesting island population doomsday news since way before the NY Times pushed the panic button: news of the “Would-be 51st Junk Bonds State” spread like wildfire over the business and financial wires, to our national disgrace. Our island economy sinks to the darkest depths of Davey’s Locker in the Caribbean, strapped to a $70 billion government debt—the third largest after California and New York, my former stomping grounds. From where I sat at my laptop—perched on a breezy penthouse deck nestled in lush green hillsides, the panapén breadfruit treetops of my favorite tostones de pana holding me captive—the “breaking news,” Economy and Crime Spur “New?” Puerto Rico Exodus (Feb, 8, 2014), seemed rather anti-climactic. What about the other side of the story? Puerto Ricans who are sticking it out on the island—like yours truly.
I’m a DiaspoRican (diasporan returnee), a bilingual rural community development adviser in the San Juan Metro Zone. Hope’s still alive in a small northern elevated coastal town (population 39,000) cupped in Mother Nature’s gracious hands, warmed by her soothing ocean breezes breath; embraced in her long arms of glorious coastlines and captivating sun-drenched beaches; tropical lush green forests and rolling hills on all sides. Ask yourself, who would want to leave this Garden of Eden—lock, stock and barrel—and why?
Not yet of retirement age, I moved back from San Francisco in 1999 to my late parents’ Guayama rural homestead along the depressed Southeastern coast of the island. We are descendants of African slaves who up until the early 1900s toiled the sugar cane fields for “La Colonia”—the long-gone Central Aguirre US sugar processing plant—elders of my clan are proud to relate to their “Americana” niece, born and raised in NYC.
In those early days, mi familia—acá y allá—didn’t know what to make of my sudden return, or California exit, my aging parents and adolescent daughter in tow; no job prospects and no pockets bulging with the “American gold” it is the custom to bring back to Borinquen to provide for the sturdy, affordable, tropical getaway or permanent island home.
“Sobrina, how could you return to Puerto Rico pelá?” blurts Tío, my mother´s rather blunt brother. “Prima, don´t expect to earn the higher salaries of the States” my cousin, his son, gives me another reality check. What kind of a welcome back is that? I privately mused. And my California transplant family thought I was crazier than the Mad Hatter subjecting my 13-year old to the backward adventures of “Third World Land.” Who knew? I expected more sustainable island progress had been attained from the US commonwealth affiliation since 1952. Never say never to a woman on a mission; some surprises were in store for both me and for them.
I came back to Puerto Rico banking on me. A struggling single working mom, I was determined my derailed Calirican child be infused with El Orgullo Boricua, the pride of our Puerto Rican people; the wholesome family values and time-honored cultural traditions, comida criolla y música Salsa I fondly remembered and missed. Unlike my siblings, Puerto Rico was always in my blood since my first summer sojourns, a wide-eyed teenage ASPIRA Leadership Trip, cultural exchange tourist from the South Bronx. My homeward journey thirty years later, in a sense, was pre-ordained by the circumstances of a traumatized childhood, a witness to, and survivor of, domestic violence and alcohol abuse in New York.
Now a quasi-sociologist, 40-year veteran of the wars on poverty, economic inequality and racial injustice in the hottest political campgrounds of New York City, the San Francisco immigrant mecca and, in recent years, Puerto Rico’s marginalized rural and urban Barrios, I was drawn like a magnet to the signs of island unrest and the heat of debate (in 1999). News said: “the natives are getting restless in the Caribbean,” a rare piece of network footage reaching Puerto Ricans on the California coast—today close to 190,000. I said: it’s time to go back and lend a patriotic hand, so glad that I did.
Despite the spiraling energy costs of the insolvent monopoly La Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica, electric power company gouging islanders [the government’s half-baked privatization plan under fire at the turn of the 21st century still embroiled in controversy today] Puerto Rico was the happiest place on the planet, according to the “World Values Survey” released a few years after my return (2002). Coupled with our people’s keen philosophical sensibilities, natural-born altruistic and irrepressible fun-loving ways, I found it was undeniably true.
Almost ten years later, the word gets out: "Puerto Rico is a sick society. Our economic, social and political institutions are rotten and falling apart…our socioeconomic system is visibly reaching its end; everyone knows it, but no one is saying anything” the think tank, Puerto Rico’s Center for a New Economy sounded the alarm on the Manhattan National Institute for Latino Policy blog (March 26, 2010).
I felt compelled to chronicle my life on the island, paint an eye-opening picture of the backdrop to our cultural immersion experiences; looking back at the transformation of la isla del encanto, into la isla del espanto, or “Fear Island,” right before my incredulous eyes. Otherwise, the outer world might never come to know or believe how it was that we got here, nor what the next generation of Boricua Social Transformers (here and there) could learn from past mistakes.
The words of my childhood hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echo true: “peace is not just absence of tension: it is presence of justice.” Inside our distressed Spanish-speaking homeland, injustice takes on a whole new meaning that is apparently lost in the American translation.
We are the “Forgotten Americans,” SO POOR, our $14,500 per capita income is half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the Union. The 1 in 4 that do work, contend with chronic job shortages, double the US 7% jobless rate (arguably at 15%); 1 in 4 works for government (in shrinking mode), and for another 4 in 10 (in a “welfare state” still lacking welfare-to-work reform) it makes more dollars and sense to make a living off Food Stamps and federally-funded social programs for the poor, than it does to work for an unlivable wage concluded the popular political pundit Jay Fonseca in his independent study,“¿Somos un Pueblo de Vagos?” (Primera Hora blog).
Meanwhile, (simply couldn’t resist) back at the DC Ranch, members of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement Society” are convened behind closed doors, tokin’ on their Virginia-tobacco cigars.
“Dag nabbit, what do them thar Porto Ricans want?...Five status referendums…they still can’t reach majority consensus? What a fine mess they’ve made. Too bad the budget cuts and massive layoffs cost our man Loueese Fortoono the Governor’s chair. He was doing such a splendid job for business. Gentlemen, it’s time to make our move and decide for them. Who’s on first? Governor Olliejandro Puhdilla…playing for the status quo…running interference for the crippled commonwealth. Who’s on second? His DC Resident Commissioner Loueese Perloosy keeps pushing onward for statehood…sporting a “Vote Democrat” party jersey. Who’s on third? The Hispanic Gentleman from Illinois…Congressman Loueese Gooteerez…still dreaming of Puerto Rico self-determination and justice for them wetbacks.”
“Well, Gentlemen, the Congressman can dream on. Put a call in to Lady Liberty to switch the sign in the window “Spanish Speaking Immigrants Back to Where You Came From” to stop the mongrels from taking over. You hear? Can’t have all those Porto Ricans scattered in the 50 states voting in the next island plebiscite neither. And don’t let the cat out of the bag. I can see the headlines now: “Leader of the Free World Harbors a Colony in its Own Backyard” t’aint good for business boys.” Their friend and ally President Barack Obama is up at bat…keep his hands tied the way we like it. There will be no Habla Español and no Junk Bonds State coming into this here Union.”
Makes you want to head for higher ground from the tsunami of indifference, blind ambition and bad faith. For the first time looking at the survival cards I’d been dealt my 15 years on the island, I hoped for the “One-Way-Ticket Back to the Mainland” too. Instead, the survival card read, “Remember Gandhi’s inspiration, you must be the change you wish to see in the world. Stay put. Finish your memoirs unmasking ´The Colony.´”
NEXT: “Return to Barrio Mosquito Guayama, the year 1999”