Thoughts on Puerto Rico

Posted July 12, 2008 6:10 pm (about 4148 days ago)

I recently spent a week in Puerto Rico, which was my first time on a Caribbean island. It was one of those situations of not knowing how ignorant you are until you’re confronted with it. I quickly realized that most of my knowledge of P.R. was actually filtered through New York and music. Actually setting foot on the island changed my view everything from coffee to the African diaspora.

First off, I was there as guests of my friends Frankie and Ray who are Bay Area residents but whose roots are in Puerto Rico. Being with “locals” made all the difference in the world. Otherwise, I might not have ever gotten past the casino and hotel at the airport! But seriously, because of them I was able to get a taste of literally all four corners of Puerto Rico, plus the island of Vieques. More importantly, I got to meet some interesting people including the only two Puerto Ricans to ever run a marathon in Antarctica(!) (check out this article on one of them) as well as former Puerto Rican political prisoners such as Dylcia Pagán. After 20 years in prison she was pardoned by President Clinton and PBS featured a documentary about the life of her son while she was imprisoned. He was raised by a couple in Mexico and thought he was Mexican until he was 10 years old and was told the truth about his parents. It sounds quite interesting so I definitely have to track it down. Regardless, I love hearing different people’s perspectives and talking with Dyclia felt like being a part of history. All that aside, she’s pretty charismatic so it was enjoyable just listening to her.

In general, my views of independence and the concept of freedom were broadened. I’m already pretty cynical when it comes to power dynamics and I definitely felt like I was on a colony.  Puerto Rico may be part of the United States, but getting away from the tourist areas, it was like no other place I’ve been to in the U.S., except for Hawaii and maybe Key West. What I mean is, the tourist areas were pretty generic and geared toward mainstream Americans (and I don’t just mean White). They had the typical shopping areas with stores like Gucci, Señor Frogs, and “island souvenirs” including the typical Jamaican figurines that you can even find in Japan. But like Hawaii, once you leave these areas there’s immense poverty and the local culture has little to do with the tourists. The feelings range from burning resentment towards the U.S. government to cowering, with everything in between. Of course one can stay in the mainland to find this. Detroit’s “Greektown” district hardly reflects Detroit residents (Greek or otherwise), South Beach doesn’t reflect the rest of Miami, and I’m writing this from just outside of East St. Louis, a down-and-out city with great people, but one that has definitely been forgotten by its country. But I guess due to the tropical weather, diversity, language, and predominance of non-White or Black Americans, Hawaii and Puerto Rico just felt more distinct to me; no doubt heavily due to their physical disconnection from the mainland. It’ll be interesting to see how Alaska compares, if I ever make it up there. Still, after living in California for the past five years, I did not feel totally out of place as P.R. and Cali both have so much Spanish and English mixed in and the topography is similar to Taiwan, where half of my family is from.

Just driving around through different towns and cities, I saw murals and graffiti reflecting discontent with Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status and there were references to the independence movement and anger towards the FBI for incidents such as the killing of Filiberto Ojeda Rios, an independence activist who was part of a a $7.2 million bank heist.

Having said that, beyond anecdotal conversations, I have no idea what the general sentiment is on independence. However, just seeing the graffiti, murals and artwork in so many places, in such public forums, was thought provoking, especially since you see so little counter-culture art on the U.S. mainland, outside of college towns and places like New York or the Bay Area.

I also made it out to Vieques island, which is beautiful, but controversial due to its use by the U.S. military for target bombing practice and military exercises for decades.

The military is gone now, but the wounds are still fresh and murals and protest sites weren’t hard to find. Furthermore, more than one person told me about coming across unexploded bombs while swimming.


1. ann said at July 13, 2008 12:32 am:

hi dan, since i can't seem to get an email back from you, i thought i'd catch up w/ what's up w/ you via your site. i feel totally dissed! anyway, i'm proud of you, the one who is known as Mr. Z. you've worked hard and dedicated your heart and soul to your students. your blog on PR made me contemplate writing about my Spanish immersion experience in CR. i lived in a small beach town of about 2000. i lived with a tico family and took classes in Spanish everyday. i miss thinking and speaking in Spanish. hope to hear from you : O

2. Daniel said at July 13, 2008 6:05 pm:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Check your e-mail. I didn't even know you were back in the country, or that I owed you an e-mail ; )

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