The Radical Concept Missing from Diaspora Relief Efforts
By: Yasmín Hernández
Population control has been the plan for Puerto Rico for the last century. After the devastating effects of the catastrophic Category 5 Hurricane San Felipe, coupled with The Great(er) Depression, the U.S. government declared Puerto Rico as “over-populated.” To supposedly manage poverty, population control plans were enacted, most notably mass migration to the states and the mass sterilization of Puerto Rican women. Almost a century and several destructive hurricanes later, as cross-charco salchicha shipments continue, there is mention, but little action, around the continued decline in Puerto Rico’s population.
Where are the discussions on strategies for the retention of Puerto Rico’s residents and for the replenishing of Puerto Ricans lost to migration and to death? The closing of almost 200 public schools in Puerto Rico was attributed (by the Puerto Rican government) to a significant decline in enrollment due to the number of families leaving Puerto Rico. All this before Hurricane María. The statistic of doctors leaving at a rate of one per day is also pre-Maria. With Puerto Ricans still leaving in droves, is it simply assumed that there will be more salchichas to go around? Let’s be clear: the depopulation of Puerto Rico is intricately interwoven with continued US domination over Puerto Rico.
Migration and displacement are as old as humans themselves. We leave in search of better conditions. We are displaced by conditions we cannot control. Colonialism however has taught us to fear our own homeland, thus making repatriation an undesirable prospect for most. Ironically, many Puerto Ricans consider living in the conquered lands of our colonizer as a more secure option. The media has deemed Puerto Rico virtually uninhabitable, but for whom? I live in the northwest of la isla grande where expats happily continue to arrive and frolic in our waves. What are the spiritual implications of all of this?
For generations our people have been banished from their lands. Disconnected from their source, our African ancestors saved the fallen umbilical stumps of their babies’ belly buttons to take back to the motherland. Not foreseeing a return, they planted them at the foot of an old tree, in homage to what lies beyond the earth, our ancestral, spirit source. Not fully understanding, but nonetheless feeling this ancestral tradition, when we were kids in Brooklyn and our dog gave birth, my sister and I saved the fallen ombligos of each puppy. We carry the imprint of our ancestors from birth.
Ombligos, as the symbol and site of life, hold high spiritual significance to our Taíno ancestors as well. The dead were distinguishable from the living by one feature, they lacked belly buttons. However prominent they may be in our bodies, we the Diasporas of so many lands, we the people cast away, sent astray, carry a symbolic void in our navels. Our ombligos, that central point that our indigenous ancestors likened to Polaris, the star that all other stars revolve around in our sky. That center, that constant, is thrown off kilter when we are physically disconnected from our motherlands. Colonial mentality and miseducation then cements a disconnect of the conscious, of the spirit, that leaves us as the opía/ the dead, roaming like zombies. The journey to wholeness begins when we set out in search of our source and start recovering lost parts of ourselves. I am not suggesting that all of us living in the Diaspora are disconnected from our source. We do however carry the spiritual and genetic trauma of our ancestors taken from their lands, and we too carry our own trauma for living this dichotomy of motherland/ otherland. What weighs most heavily however is our collective trauma as a people.
We continue to be banished from our lands like the land appropriations carried out by the US Navy in Culebra and Vieques. Entire communities are being told that the hurricanes rendered their homes uninhabitable and are being forced to leave. We are banished from pristine coastlines like Playuela for the construction of corporate capitalist playgrounds for the rich. We are banished not by hurricanes, but by a weak colonial infrastructure never intended to secure our stay. Or by emergency management re-marginalizing the marginalized, providing no real solution towards rebuilding and sustainability. Though it seems voluntary, people really leave forcibly.
I am a different kind of refugee: fleeing the recolonization/ gentrification of my Brooklyn. I am a refugee in search of wholeness, healing and liberation. I am a Brooklyn-born and raised Boricua by virtue of my Ponce-born parents. I repatriated to my ancestral homeland in 2014. I came as others went. I was here during the storms. I am still here after the storms. There are many who share this narrative, counter to the one you’ve always heard. This is not an indictment on those that left. They’ve done their time. They would not have left if conditions did not make it necessary. This is about the need to bring people back—not necessarily the same people, but perhaps Boricuas-that-have-never-lived-here type people, like myself.
The Diaspora proved its power in moving money, food, supplies and love for Puerto Rico. These were received in full gratitude and love. These provided relief at a time in which governments (both colonial and imperial) failed at providing what was needed. Diaspora efforts and the efforts on the ground to receive these supplies, organize and distribute them, are testament to our power of self-reliance; testament to our capacity for self-sufficiency and independence. It is the spirit of what I see here every day. Our people get shit done. They build their own houses, grow their own food and if need be, they will build their own bridges and light their own communities.
Many wanting to continue giving are asking what is needed. We the Diaspora who have for decades spoken out against the genocide carried out in our home islands since the arrival of Columbus to Cornelius Rhodes cancer experiments; mass sterilization to contraceptive experiments; mass migration to the assassination of Nationalists; Vieques bombings/ Depleted Uranium contamination to Toxic Ash dumping; the withholding of water and food supplies to the fudging of post-hurricane death tolls. We the Diaspora who have unfairly accused “islanders” of not being “Boricua enough, black enough, political enough, radical enough, revolutionary enough, mad enough, woke enough” and of “not doing enough.” How do we respond to depopulation and genocide? We respond with a plan to repopulate. How do we repopulate? We repatriate!
This is not a tourism ad to a permanent vacation. I will not speak on the liberating effects of permanent access to el monte y el mar. Nor will I speak to the cantazos and cocotazos of living here, cuz you probably already know. It’s all you’ve been told. Life here is not peaches and cream, just like life in New York never was and never will be. There will be no vibranium. This is not a futuristic utopian society. This is Planet Earth today, and this here is a colony! There will be no incentives. Those are reserved for the rich. There will be no land grants. That only happened with the 1815 Célula de Gracias to pacify and whiten Puerto Rico after the Haitian Revolution. This is a call to sacrifice for all those who hurt over the condition of our homeland. This is a call to bring your knowledge, your skills, your spirit, your talent, your wisdom here where it is needed. A call to scrap the master’s tools. Don’t come here looking for a job. You probably won’t find one. But you can, like many Boricuas already do, start a business, create a hustle, work the land, help the people. This is real. Shit is real and will be realer if we continue to expect a colonial government to fix it.
Nothing I have ever read or heard could prepare me for, or replace the experiences that I have lived here. Just like no hellacious hurricane footage, for whatever sick feeling it generated, is comparable to the sustained 30-hour-horror of living it in the flesh. Just like there is no hellacious category 5-30-hour-over/ through/ in-your-home-hurricane that can outdo the effects of a sustained, centuries-long colonialism that has blown apart every aspect of your psyche and spirit. ome call Borikén the land of the brave/ la tierra del valiente. These lands teach that warriors are not fearless. Warriors are bad ass enough to be vulnerable, put themselves at risk, be afraid and push forward anyway. We dive head-first into our fear and craft tools and weapons from that shit.
The truth is that while the media was busy reporting on the exodus out of Puerto Rico, it failed to tell you of the repatriation that has already been in effect. So I’m here to tell you by classifying an already-existing repatriation spectrum under these categories I’ve crafted in the hopes of you possibly envisioning yourself in one. Each is presented very simply, yet merits a whole separate article and more.
REPATRIATORS ALREADY IN EFFECT:
The returners: These are the islands-born and/ or raised that were either taken to the states by their families, left as students, left for work, left after the storms and have returned! Many do return. Many return with incredible ideas and ventures to build their homeland.
The students: Some folks choose to arrive as students. There are myriad UPR campuses and private institutions as well. The UPR system is currently battling against colonial austerity measures. But before you think the US is better, it might help to put in perspective how many of us are still crippled by preposterous costs of higher education in the states, borrowing what we couldn’t pay back.
The caretakers: Many have traveled across waters to care for an ailing family member. Hacen patria by nurturing our elders, keeping them alive and/ or aiding them in their transition. They carry our people and deserve to be carried too.
Lxs locxs. The crazy mofos. I’d like to file myself under this category. We came here with no promise of anything. No job lined up. We might still be suffering some consequences as a result, most of it mental, but it all pales in comparison to the daily endorphin rush of having done the unthinkable and waking up in this ancestral womb. We are the anomaly that leaves our families and friends perplexed. Withstanding power outages, hurricanes and the mocking of our Spanish, we remain. We even bring our children into this and raise them just the same. It is a deliberate choice we ceremoniously carry out each day.
The retirees. These are not casino-goers. They are kick ass repatriating retirees that might have come here with their pension, pay a fraction for their property and use the rest to travel the island, self-liberate and travel the world. They hop from bombazos to healing ceremonies in el monte, they go to the beach and rivers for self-healing and share their wisdom along the way. They lived and battled through the 60s and 70s and know a lot more about revolution than the rest of us.
The jíbarxs. They either purchased, inherited or are squatting some land. They may or may not live on it, but plant food in it. They harvest and share it and may show up at one of many markets with their goods. Planting isn’t just sexy for urban rooftop gentrifier gardens. Planting is sexier when you feed your people. Especially when you confect quenepa jam o chocolate artesanal.
The brinca charcos. These cats hop back and forth across the pond to the point you don’t even know where they live. They are like water, they transcend, exist on both sides simultaneously.
The half-timers. They have seasonal work or might be academics with summers off and weeks off here and there. They have figured out how to live in both sides. They are children of el charco, honing their tools and working for their people on each side.
The Allies: Pedro Albizu Campos’ wife, Laura Meneses was Peruana. Father of our nation, Ramón Emeterio Betances, was also of Dominican heritage and designed our first flag in solidarity with the Dominican flag. Former Young Lord, Vicente “Panama” Alba, known for the land he was born on, deepened his commitment to Puerto Rico by moving here. The struggle for liberation is a global one. There are many allies living in Puerto Rico, working towards this effort and working to ensure that the destiny of Puerto Rico is placed in Puerto Rican hands. Walking alongside me on my repatriation journey is my college-sweetheart, born and raised in Queens, NY to parents from Colombia.
Envisioning futuristic possibilities for repatriating BorikWakandans
I publicly profess that I pay $500 rent for a three-bedroom house with two Terrazas, an acre of land and a valley/ ocean view. My last rent in Queens, NYC for a 2nd floor, no access to green space, cold-ass apartment was $1650. It is time to rethink the north-american concept of more bang-for-your-buck. I should note that my rent is in el campo and all my neighbors believe it is too high. An area metro rent is more. Urban rents outside the metro area could be $300 or less. Campo rents are more affordable and provide land for expanding/ planting. If you won’t repatriate, what if you and a group of others sponsored someone who would? Could you identify a few individuals willing to make the move? If 20 people pay $25 a month, they could fund the rent of about 3-4 or more willing to repatriate and share a space. Shelter solved. With land access they could plant food and craft a sustainable lifestyle. This could free them up to dedicate their time to organizing and liberation work. Could the Diaspora move past salchichas to create a sort of peace corp or liberation corp where folks commit a year to this work then are free to move on to whatever they’d like. They might like it and stay in the end. They might free Puerto Rico.
Some of us pay ¼ million dollars or more for houses where you hear your neighbor’s TV, have views of brick walls, and a backyard that only fits a grill and kiddie pool that your neighbors can see you splashing in. What might this money buy you in Puerto Rico, in addition to investing in your own homeland? Land co-ops are already happening in Puerto Rico. Folks from here team up with folks in the Diaspora to purchase a giant plot of land. These are then divided into plots for constructing homes and a portion is designated for planting. The Diaspora could make a huge impact by considering possibilities for more land co-ops with family, friends, organizations. The same way corporations take plots of land for developing/ exploiting, we could do the same to ensure our land remains in our hands.
We hear of time shares and Air B&Bs. We could provide similar opportunities specifically for movement work, allowing those visiting here with a purpose to invest their funds in self-sustaining liberation ventures. These can incorporate an aspect of planting/ working the land so visitors are contributing to the community and also consuming from the land versus purchasing food at foreign corporate chains. Some of us are disconnected from family and cannot claim a home-base here. If we provide opportunities for people to visit and feel connected, it could demystify the idea of eventually living here permanently.
Colonialism has taught us to subscribe to the psychology of scarcity. If you spend $15 to $20 on one drink, you’re rich-as-f*$K by colonial standards. 20 people sacrificing one bougie drink per month can fund the rent of a few new repatriators. Some of us crowdfund for whatever piquiña and people still give. The colonial mentality of dependency has us denying the very resources we already have in our hands. Additionally, moving towards liberation requires that we stop behaving like crabs in a bucket. Our neighbors’ resources should be pooled in our collective resources. Puerto Rico would not have survived this many months post-storm were it not for neighbors who shared their harvest, their water, their phone signals and the power of their generators. Likewise, it is necessary to reiterate and celebrate the collective power, strength and capital generated by the Diaspora in hurricane relief efforts. We also must consider and value our many resources that transcend the confines of capital.
We must self-liberate from the colonial concept that our ancestral homeland is uninhabitable, inaccessible. It is time we collectively address how the prophecies of Albizu and Betances materialize more each day as our homeland is depopulated of its people and repopulated by creepy crypto colonials. Given the context of xenophobia with which the US government has presided over Puerto Rican affairs, statehood is by no means a path to empowerment and decolonization. Might the colonial statehood government be encouraging Boricuas to flee their nests, while simultaneously incentivizing the colonization of wealthy, white north americans for land purchase and business-building, blurring the lines of who is who and who lives where, to make a stronger case for statehood? What crazy myth have we bought into that we leave vacancies for others to flip and build their empires on our lands, without seriously considering how to take it back? How do we continue to be complicit in the further colonization of our lands.? We must galvanize this opportunity for cross-migration, swapping those who leave for those willing to return. his is not a competition of who’s more committed. In taking each other’s place, in carrying each other’s weight, we begin to dissolve the divide that has always polarized us in this aquí verus allá mentality. This cross-charco swap already happening, cultivates a mutual understanding and compassion, placing us in a better position to unite and implement strategies for nation-building and for cross-charco, collective, spirit-based liberation. It is all a master plan already in process with or without our participation. We need to figure out how plug in and use it best to a liberationist (not colonial) advantage.
In gratitude always to my goddess/ teacher Borikén, my fellow repatriators, and my sister friends Lin Benitez and Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan for the conversation that fueled this piece.
Yasmín Hernández is a Brooklyn-born and raised/ Moca, Puerto Rico-based artist and writer Yasmín Hernández uses art as a decolonial strategy and self-liberates through love. She shares her artwork on her website www.yasminhernandezart.com and blogs her cross-charco revelations at www.repatriatingboriken.wordpress.com.