Puerto Rico and Maria: A View from the Diaspora
“Diaspora” is an ancient word. It is a word used in the Septuagint to refer to the Judean community that was deported to Babylon in 587 BCE when the armies of Nebuchadnezzar II conquered Jerusalem. The word acquired fresh and equally painful currency in 70 CE, when Roman legions under the command of Titus brought the so-called First Jewish Revolt to an end by taking Jerusalem and destroying the second Temple. Thus did Rome come to be called “Babylon” by those who survived the siege and fled to rebuild their lives elsewhere.
Yet the circumstances that led the psalmist to wonder aloud how anyone among the exiles by the waters of Babylon could sing one of Zion’s songs in a foreign land (Psalm 137) also provided the conditions for the possibility of shaping a sense of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish identity that were neither necessary nor possible before 587 BCE. In a not dissimilar way, the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE provided the conditions for the development of rabbinic Judaism and a reaffirmation of Jewish identity over against the imperium of Rome. The First Letter of Peter addresses late first-century CE followers of Jesus in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (in present-day Turkey) as “exiles of the diaspora” (1 Peter 1:1). The addressees of 1 Peter are invited to reimagine themselves as a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9), a designation that reappropriates the language of Exodus 19:6 to claim for them an alternate identity that pushes back against their minoritization.
This is the remote but relevant historical backdrop against which I suggest we might be able to understand the significance of diaspora as it describes the Puerto Rican community on the US mainland in the 120 years since the US violently occupied Borikén. As we gather to think hard about the impact of Hurricane María in the light of Puerto Rico’s history as the world’s oldest colony, a strange irony arises from recognizing that it was in August 1899 that an earlier hurricane, San Ciriaco, gave rise to the first large-scale migration of Puerto Ricans, when unemployed men were recruited as laborers by the owners of sugarcane plantations and were transported to Hawai’i under conditions that were so awful that many sought to escape when the ships that carried them docked at intermediate ports along the way.
The Diaspora has long provided a generative space for the construction and negotiation of Puerto Rican identity. It was in New York in the 1890s, for example, that the Puerto Rican flag was designed. That flag that was so closely connected to the affirmation of an anti-colonial Puerto Rican nationalist identity that from Puerto Rico’s annexation in 1898 until 1952, displaying the flag in public was punishable as a felony. Besides providing a space in which Puerto Rican political nationalism was nourished and advanced, the Diasporic community on the US mainland, and especially in the New York metropolitan area, provided a standpoint from which cultural remittances nourished a cultural nationalism that subverted the lack of Puerto Rican political self-determination.
Let’s talk about numbers. The current population of Puerto Rico, that is, the number of Puerto Ricans living on the island itself, is approximately 3.4 million. According to the 2010 US census, the number of Puerto Ricans on the US mainland, that is, the Puerto Rican Diaspora, was 4.6 million. That means that Puerto Ricans in the Diaspora currently account for 57.5% of all self-identified Puerto Ricans.
In an article entitled, “A Great Migration from Puerto Rico is Set to Transform Orlando,” the New York Times reported that “More than 168,000 people have flown or sailed out of Puerto Rico since the hurricane, landing at airports in Orlando, Miami and Tampa, and the port in Fort Lauderdale…an additional 100,000 are booked on flights to Orlando through Dec. 31.” The title of the article very deliberately invokes the so-called “Great Migration” of Puerto Ricans to New York City in the 1950s, the wave of economic migration in which my own parents participated.
The aftermath of Hurricane María is significantly exacerbating what has been an ongoing trend, with Puerto Rico experiencing a net loss of nearly 450,000 people between 2005 and 2015, the majority for job-related reasons, a consequence of the island’s ongoing economic crisis. The Diaspora is growing larger, while the island’s population is in alarming decline. Interviewed by the New York Times, Mr. Edwin Aponte, from the hard-hit south-central town of Coamo, wondered out loud “if the sluggish and inadequate emergency response was not by design.” Land, he said, was now less expensive, and outside investors had been circling even before the hurricane. “For me, Mother Nature just helped the gringos move forward to where we will be a minority in our own land.” He goes on to express his concern that Puerto Rico “will become Hawaii, an overpriced place controlled by white people while bomba dancers do demonstrations for tourists.”
What, then, is the responsibility of those of us who belong to the Puerto Rican diaspora? Participation in disaster relief efforts is only the beginning. Recovery, rebuilding and reconstruction are longer-range objectives, with a rethinking and a reconfiguration of US policies towards and the US relationship with Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican self-determination as the foundational issue that must be addressed. The political clout of the Puerto Rican Diaspora needs to be mobilized. Consider Florida, for example, which Trump won in the 2016 presidential race by only 112,000 votes out of a total of 9.6 million votes. What difference will the hundreds of thousands of newly-arrived Puerto Ricans in Florida make in 2020, since those of us who live in the mainland US are eligible to vote in the presidential elections?
As scholars of religion, we are by no means exempt from participating actively in that political process. Yet I would also insist that Puerto Rican scholars of religion on the island and in the Diaspora share a responsibility that is specifically our own at this crucial moment. Just as activist thinkers in earlier decades lent their voices to shaping and mobilizing a distinctively Puerto Rican identity that resisted the colonization of Puerto Rican bodies and minds and souls, our own times call for teaching and writing that focus without flinching on the situation at hand. Because we are scholars of religion, it is not up to us to merely chronicle the present crisis as it unfolds, but instead to participate through what we write and what we teach in the dismantling of the underpinnings of coloniality, to challenge a status quo that is killing the bodies and the souls of our people, to call to deep accountability the powers of church and state, and to dare to imagine—together with our poets, our artists and our musicians—a different and life-giving way of being.