Nearly 5 months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans – American citizens – remain without power. It is the biggest blackout in U.S. History and still some homes are not anticipated to regain power until May. Emergency efforts dealing with power devastation following the hurricane were centralized, and consequently exhausted, on the mainland of the United States, leaving the island vulnerable. In times of devastation, it becomes clear just how low of a priority Puerto Rico is to the rest of the United States – out of sight, out of mind, perhaps.
It was not until a week after the hurricane hit that short-term federal aid was sent to the island and that the news cycles addressed the disaster. That week, journalist Julio Ricardo Varela commented on this neglect: “The United States may not like to see itself as the type of nation that has colonies, but if you’re not treating Puerto Rico and its American citizens the same way as you treat states and theirs, that’s the only explanation. The island always struggles to get federal aid for natural disasters that flows virtually automatically to people on the mainland. Maria is the worst example, but it’s hardly the first.” Puerto Ricans have long been reduced in the eyes of Congress and mainland citizens. In fact, according to a recent poll, only 54% of U.S. adults were aware that people born in Puerto Rico were American citizens. Author of War Against All Puerto Ricans Nelson Davis believes Puerto Rico is seen merely as “a profit center for the United States: first as a naval coaling station, then as a sugar empire, a cheap labor supply, a tax haven, a captive market, and now as a municipal bond debtor and target for privatization.” Many Americans view Puerto Rico in terms of how it can benefit the United States as a whole; it is considered a territory rather than a part of the United States or a home to 3 million Americans, Americans who are treated like second class citizens – if citizens at all.
After three months without power, Puerto Ricans took to protesting. Hundreds of citizens of Aguas Buenas and Trujillo Alto filled the public square of Aguas Buenas and demanded a restoration of power. Protesters made a banner reading “We demand light,” something taken for granted everyday on the mainland.
Existing as an unincorporated territory leaves Puerto Rico in a state of limbo, having neither the full powers of a state nor complete independence. Though Puerto Rico is subjected to U.S. Congress, the island sends a single non-voting representative to Washington. Deprived of the power to motivate solutions to $115 billion debt and to correct deeply rooted problems in government structure, Puerto Rico is trapped, confined as a territory, reduced to a colony. In times of crisis, like when hit by a Category 5 hurricane that destroyed an already faulty power grid and left the island without power, the territory is powerless in a greater sense, too.
But this does not stop Puerto Ricans from seeking change; in the wake of the hurricane, some have made a push for Puerto Rican statehood, to establish the full rights of citizenship for Puerto Ricans. In January, a delegation of politicians from Puerto Rico travelled to Washington, D.C. to appeal as voting members of Congress. Yet Alexia Fernández Campbell deemed this act “largely symbolic”because “voting on Puerto Rican statehood is nowhere close to the top of Congress’s agenda.” Members of Congress recognize the issue, but there has been little done to rectify it.
Continually neglected by disaster efforts from the mainland to restore power, Puerto Ricans have been taking the power into their own hands – literally. One woman in Coama, Carmita Rivera, unable to sit idly and wait for rescue any longer, led a local meeting to take action to restore power to her neighborhood. Rivera was no longer content with being treated like a second-class citizen. She said “Desperation set in. We all felt like: ‘What about us? We’re human beings. Enough is enough.’” Together, fifty neighbors restored a power line, laying a 300-pound electric post on top of two logs and placing the pole into a five-foot deep hole. Another group, this one composed of retired company workers and volunteers, has restored power to 2,000 homes in the town of San Sebastian.
These people demonstrate incredible resilience and care, but they shouldn’t have to in the first place. Undeniably, residents of Puerto Rico are treated unequally and unfairly; Puerto Ricans are American citizens, too, yet the United States seems to fail to acknowledge them as human beings. Disempowered by natural disaster and country, Puerto Ricans have been channeling the power within themselves to manifest the rights they deserve.