On September 20, 2017, Hurricane María made landfall in Puerto Rico. Just a few weeks prior, many Puerto Ricans had breathed a sigh of relief because, while Hurricane Irma delivered rain and flooding, cut off power from much of the grid, and took several lives, its eye had missed La Isla. But María’s scale was massive and no part of the island was spared the darkness, destruction, despair, and death that ravaged and settled on the island that day.
We Puerto Ricans in diaspora wept for our Isla. But with virtually no communication channels open, initially we did not even know the fate of our family members there, nor could we do anything to help them. Day and night we waited for news from Puerto Rico. When finally the first few images and news stories appeared, we were in a state of disbelief: this cannot be our island! This cannot be happening!, we thought. More shocking and painful was listening to the cries from our fellow Puerto Ricans on the island, and the recognition that, again, the US had neglected our people—as it would continue to do for the following months. Indeed, the structures of “US citizenship” makes little or no difference when the US considers the particular citizens in question not to be fully human. In short, we saw a graphic retelling and amplification of our history.
The conference panel through which these reflections were first presented was organized so we could be truth tellers to this history, to raise awareness about the past and present context of Puerto Rico, and to construct pathways forward. In part, my task on the panel was to think about theological and ethical frameworks that could structure a decolonial future for Puerto Rico. This was an arduous task. It is doubly taxing to perceive and grasp the radical, decolonized hope necessary to envision a better, liberated, future when one is overcome with grief. However, this was our task. All of us on the panel were Puerto Ricans, either living in Puerto Rico or in diaspora. We are also all in some way associated either with the Academy as scholars of religion and/or theology or with organizations working on the ground in Puerto Rico. So, naturally, we began to think about the ways our own work could function toward bringing about this better future. I came to this task humbled, not certain I was the best person for it, but ablaze with a loving rage as I watch my fellow Boricuas struggle to survive, to be heard, to see in the darkness, to find adequate food, water, shelter, to be considered human, to have their cries addressed.
Nuyorican artist, Caridad De La Luz, also known as La Bruja, poetically put into words what many of us are experiencing because, in the wake of María, “it seems as if it is 1492 all over again.” Indeed, it does seem that it is 1492 as much as it is 1898 (the year of the US invasion of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War) and, yet, it was 2017 when that hurricane hit. Though the eye of María left Puerto Rico in darkness, it sharpened our vision and focus. We could see and tell how what followed this meteorological ravaging of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans was only the most recent manifestation of colonial logics and practices. These most recent iterations of forced dependency, the repeated transfer of Puerto Ricans and their affairs from colonizer to colonizer with no regard for human lives, the imposed debts where requested repayment functions as blood dowries, all enable the continuation of an unbalanced and abusive relationship. La Bruja rightly characterizes the continuous “whoring of our people,” the unbridled “rape culture” of our land, our resources, and of the people and dignity of Borinquen as masquerading as paternalistic care. Such “care” is needed, our colonizers have suggested, because we suffer from an intractable laziness. They say we are incorrigible, and our only worth as persons is instrumental. Puerto Ricans are those made to sustain violence and death by fighting in US wars. We suffer under the plight of global coloniality. Yet we are deemed not worthy of agency, voice, and representation. These same colonizers mockingly throw paper towels at us, as if to suggest this ought to be sufficient for us to mop up the tears and to soak up the incessant rains of oppression that have befallen Puerto Ricans for centuries. The eye of the storms – whether of Spain, of the United States, or of hurricanes like María – has laid bare the logics of coloniality in the United States’ relationship to Puerto Rico. We must not look away.
In our original panel in November 2017, we heard the cries of seemingly unending grief that haunts Boricuas both on the island and in diaspora. I suggest that such grief stems from what decolonial theorist, Nelson Maldonado-Torres terms the “sub-ontological or ontological colonial difference.” He claims that this space is characterized by interminable violence (epistemic, physical, and sexual). “Ontological colonial difference” is the “difference between Being and what lies below Being or that which is negatively marked as dispensable as well as a target of rape and murder.” This colonial difference was created, legitimized, and has been maintained via concurrent processes that construct and then relegate persons to a subhuman/subontological status by virtue of their race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality. With these constructs, ontological colonial difference creates and sustains bodies as subhuman in order to justify the unending enactment of violence upon them. Maldonado-Torres’s theorizing of the ontological colonial difference must, of necessity, be coupled with his analysis of what he terms the “phenomenology of the cry.” This “cry” he understands as “the first marker of an enslaved and suffering subjectivity…a sound uttered as a call for attention, as a demand for immediate action or remedy, or as an expression of pain that points to an injustice committed or something that is lacking.” Maldonado-Torres indicates that the cries of those at the colonial difference are rooted in the grief of knowing that we are not recognized as human, at least not in the same way as others are. It is a lament imbued with love and rage, which beseeches the Other to recognize our humanity. This space and the cries that emerge from it have characterized our existence as colonial subjects and as colonial migrants. Since María, these wounds have been put on full display before the world. They are a bitter reminder of our disposability, of how we do not matter.
When I think about the fact that we are still deemed not to matter, I think about a particular Twitter hashtag linked with the Black Lives Matter movement called #LastWords. #LastWords record the last utterances of Black persons prior to being killed by police officers. They include the cries of Eric Garner, “I can’t breathe,” of Michael Brown, “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting,” and of Kimani Gray, “Please don’t let me die.” The list goes on and on, and grows each day. Along with them, let’s recall how the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, displayed the cries for our people on her tee shirts as she conducted interviews and press conferences. These included the cries of “Help us, we are dying,” cries that still have not been answered. I think, too, of her comments indicating that the inaction of the US in the aftermath of Maria was “close to genocide,” and her tearful pleas to the Trump administration at a press conference:
We are dying here…I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out the logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles. So, mayday, we are in trouble…So, Mr. Trump, I am begging you to take charge and save lives. After all, that is one of the founding principles of the United States of America. If not, the world will see how we are treated not as second-class citizens but as animals that can be disposed of. Enough is enough.
Puerto Ricans continue shouting from the place of colonial difference, and the lack of response to them is no accident. When I consider the cries and the laments stemming from this colonial difference—actually, this colonial indifference— as an ethicist I find myself feeling that we must amplify these voices, we must amplify the cries stemming from such indifference. How to do that?
Clearly, our current theo-ethical frameworks are insufficient. As I pondered to which set of frameworks and theories I could turn to provide us with such an theo-ethical framework, it became apparent that we cannot rely upon categories that were never created with persons like us in mind. These frameworks were not created with any critical awareness of global coloniality, and yet are indebted to it. By this I mean that our theological and ethical frameworks are rooted in the very logics that perpetually replay history, whether of 1492, 1898, or now of 2017, and our particular subservient place in it. So, I ask you: What do our anthropologies and epistemologies look like? And how do they contribute to the neo-liberal logics of coloniality? For we will be hard-pressed to deny that this is the case.
Yet, there is work to do, and we are the only ones who will put our shoulders to the task. So how can we move forward? How can we imagine a decolonial future for Puerto Rico, and indeed for all of us? How can we refuse to be indifferent about the colonial difference? We can start, of course, by addressing the immediate material needs of Puerto Ricans, as affected by María. We can make donations to those organizations that we know will actually route that money to vulnerable persons. We can continue to work towards the restoration of power on the island and resist disaster capitalists who seek to profit from our despair, who seek to create a “Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans.” We can also continue to be in touch with our congresspersons, we can march, and we can advocate for a repeal of the Jones Act. We should advocate for independence for Puerto Rico, but we cannot pretend that this alone will amount to real freedom or liberation. It is a point, but not the end point. There is more work that we need to do – epistemological work and anthropological work—and everyone is responsible for doing it.
One of the first steps that we can take as theologians and ethicists is to privilege a hermeneutics of el grito. This privileging builds upon the work of María Pilar Aquino and Maricel Mena-López, who name the importance of a “hermeneutics of lament” that can function as an “epistemological break with kyriarchal epistemologies,” but only when individuals consider a “whole history, not just a moment of suffering.” It is necessary that we begin to break through colonial ways of knowing that ground so much of our thinking about the human person in relation to one another and in relation to God. In the context of the indifference to suffering and violence produced at the colonial difference/indifference, as evidenced by the phenomenology of the cry, the past and present sufferings of our people must become the locus of our work as theologians, ethicists, and educators. Naming the importance of a hermeneutics of el grito reminds us of the history of the processes of global coloniality that continue to relegate subjects to a subhuman status. It challenges us to listen and recognize how our current categories inhibit rather than facilitate liberative possibilities. It reminds us of our long history of struggle against colonial powers and invites us to imagine the ways that “El Grito de Lares” can be repeated. “El Grito de Lares” (“The Cry of Lares,” a mountain town in central-western Puerto Rico) names the 1868 uprising against Spanish colonial rule, motivated by the desire of Boricuas to be free for self-determination, agency, and personhood. A hermeneutics of el grito is one way that we can recall the history of our struggle to survive and resist the logics of coloniality. To revive El Grito de Lares resonates with the advice of Lola Rodriguez de Tío, who wrote a revolutionary version of the Puerto Rican national anthem La Borinqueña, including the line, “El Grito de Lares se ha de repetir, y entonces sabremos vencer o morir” (“The Cry of Lares shall be repeated, and then we will know victory or death”). Such a hermeneutics compels us to consider how we can bring to our classrooms cries of freedom that stem from this colonial difference, and how we can incorporate them into our pedagogies and into our ways of being in the world.
A hermeneutics of el grito demands that we critique the theological categories that perpetuate neo-liberal, global coloniality. Such a critique requires not a simple reimagining of our theological categories but a complete obliteration of them. Only once we have done that can we rebuild. I admit that I do not fully know what this might look like, but that is all right. Such an admission is in line with Otto Maduro’s reminder that when we do not exercise epistemological humility, we tend to perpetuate violence against persons and deny their humanity “without wanting, without knowing, without wanting to know.” We may not know precisely what the future looks like for Puerto Rico, but we will not be without wanting, or without wanting to know. The type of hubris that knows it all already is one we must avoid in order to attend to the gritos in our midst. That is the work that lies ahead of us.