On Saturday night I played a set of music in tribute to Puerto Rico. I got these records from my family, my grandparents, uncles … I even played my mom’s La Pandilla album. I sat in the basement studio, alone, trembling, and having a difficult time getting it together because I’d pulled these records and was just gonna talk about them, but the thing with music is it’s so incredibly powerful I found myself absolutely overwhelmed and breathless. The memories. My grandmother. My cousin.
When I was a kid, Puerto Rico was just a place I went to to see my grandparents and cousins. A place to eat delicious fried things and drink Kola Champagne while running in circles on the beach.
In 1992, I was in high school and we went as we did every summer and, it being the quincentennial of Columbus’ discovery of the Caribbean, replicas of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria were docked in San Juan. While there was celebration, there was a lot of protesting and noise. It was then that I really became aware of the island’s seemingly endless history of abuse and the obliteration of an entire indigenous population.
When people meet me, they always say, “You don’t look Puerto Rican.” Like we’re supposed to look a certain way. People fundamentally don’t understand that Puerto Ricans are essentially the bastard children of history. We come in all shades, shapes, and sizes because our blood is that of, at times, consensual but mostly non-consensual relations between Conquistadors, native Tainos and African slaves.
After 400 years of Spanish colonial abuse, Puerto Rico was “liberated” by the United States in the Spanish American War. The island became an outpost and a good place for Naval ships to target practice on neighboring islands. Sovereignty was never an option, and to this day the US government’s approach to the island has been an endless series of indignities. Votes for independence or statehood would never be honored because as second-class citizens Puerto Ricans don’t have full congressional representation, despite being natural born US citizens.
Mostly all of my immediate family is accounted for. Extended family, I don’t know for sure. Both of my grandfathers’ childhood communities were essentially wiped off the map. Watching the news, seeing people (who look like my family) standing in lines for hours for water or gasoline, when 2 weeks ago they were streaming Netflix and posting selfies like we are so accustomed to, is hard to comprehend. Like, it can’t be! But, it most certainly is. And they most certainly deserve better treatment than this. Not because it’s 2017 and they’re US citizens. Not because they’re my people. Because they are people. And the response to every other recent disaster seems way more urgent.
I can’t do anything. It feels like none of us can do anything. But, we can donate. And talk about justice. And cry. And sing.
I would suggest doing some research on the truly heartbreaking history of Puerto Rico. I’d also suggest at some point in your life going there yourself. See it. It’s stunningly beautiful and completely haunted. As broken as it is incredibly proud and spirited and welcoming. Pronto volvere.
Here are a handful of good relief organizations to donate to: