Puerto Rico: What We Need to Know

Maria in dance

Who can’t love Maria? Happy, loving…. full of vibrant life, unconditionally accepting, and totally dedicated to her purpose. Maria is a dedicated chaplain at Baptist Hospital, a key part of the leadership team for Wentz Memorial Congregational Church (in a volunteer position), an expressive liturgical dancer beloved by other the sister congregation to Wentz, and mother of three adult daughters—Nina, Melissa, and Jessica. When my church, the sister church to Wentz, wanted a face we knew to bring us closer to the Puerto Rican crisis after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, we called Rev. Maria to share her personal story with us.

Maria surprised us with a dramatic performance, not of dance, but a spoken, poetic creation she had written herself, demonstrating her love for her beautiful home island, her family and her heritage, and her passion for salsa — the dance that lives inside of her. Salsa music and dance are an expression of her life…even in her housework while mopping her kitchen floor. We were enchanted!

The historical description of Puerto Rico, however, ripped our hearts open. Maria began to share the history of how her beautiful island has been rejected, abused, and exploited. Originally inhabited by the hospitable Taino Indians from Venezuela, a subgroup of Arawak Indians. Puerto Rico’s indigenous population was basically “eliminated” by the first colonizers – Spain.  Remember good old Christopher Columbus? The West African slaves brought by the Spaniards, the Taino Indians, and the Spanish explorers created the rich and diverse mix of people known as Boricuas – from the island of Borinken – whose name change to Puerto Ricans after colonization. The Taino people along with West African Slaves were forced to adopt Catholic traditions. Borinken also had the first female Cacique or Chief name Yuisa, and her town is known as Loiza.

The Spanish American war and the invasion of the United States resulted in the Treaty of Paris in 1898, and Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Dominican Republic were ceded to the US.  In 1917, citizenship was imposed on the Puerto Rican People in time to fight WWI.  As a result, 236,000 registered for the draft and approximately 20,000 fought in WWI, and all were segregated as their African American siblings.

As for the economic crisis in Puerto Rico, it is a complicated matter grounded on a century old law – The Jones Act of 1920 – to understand the economic crisis of today, one must understand the Jones Act.  This law “requires all goods ferried between U.S. ports to be carried on ships built, owned and operated by Americans. Critics say the Jones Act costs American jobs by encouraging residents in Puerto Rico, to buy foreign-made goods that are shipped on foreign flagged vessels, rather than goods made in America. Puerto Ricans pay more for certain goods because of this act. For example, cars cost about 40% more in Puerto Rico than on the U.S.

Moreover, American manufacturing companies, such as pharmaceutical companies, moved to Puerto Rico to benefit from tax incentives, but the island does not benefit from the tax breaks. It is the opinion of economists and historians that the Jones Act created by Woodrow Wilson, perpetuates the oppression and the exploitation of Puerto Rico.  Large investors, manufacturing companies such as Hanes and Reynolds, and many pharmaceutical companies, came to the island, made their billions, saved on taxes, and when it ceased to be a benefit to them, they all left leaving thousands unemployed.

Maria’s 87-year-old mother, brother, nieces, uncles, and cousins all live in Puerto Rico. Her mother is in a home for seniors, high in the mountains, in the central part of the island…it took her brother and niece 3 weeks after Hurricane Maria to get to her. There is still no clean water, or electricity on 70% of the island. Her brother goes to a local bank to recharge his phone to send updates. The devastation is so massive, the first people to be evacuated were those very ill, on dialysis and oxygen. The roads need to be rebuilt. Much of the Puerto Rico Maria Teresa enjoyed in June, just three months before the hurricane, does not exist, and yet, despite the devastation of her beloved island, Maria Teresa wants to return to her home.

It will take years to rebuild and for farming and vegetation to flourish. The animals and poultry are all gone. Tourism, the number one source of revenue, is tragically impacted. Many people wonder why Puerto Rico has not become a state yet. Perhaps the US never wanted the island to become a state. And now, “we are too much of a liability. Perhaps that is why Puerto Rico was never allowed to vote for the U.S. president.  There would need to be multiple amendments, and ratification to even vote. The U.S. territory-property of Puerto Rico has provided many rich resources, and soldiers, and we remain “the unwanted” property, especially now.

Maria Teresa grieves the devastation of her island and how desperate times make for desperate and dangerous behaviors. “Our island has been raped and exploited by Spanish and American colonialism and natural disasters. Fortunately, We the Puerto Rican people are a people of resilience and great spirit so, our Beloved Puerto Rico will come back strong. It will take time, but we will make it!”

If you would like to reach out to them, here is an organization that Maria feels can be trusted:

https://www.unidosporpuertorico.com

United for Puerto Rico is an initiative brought forth by the First Lady of Puerto Rico, Beatriz Rosselló, in collaboration with the private sector, with the purpose of providing aid and support to those affected in Puerto Rico by the passage of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane María. 100% of the proceeds will go to helping the victims affected by these natural disasters in Puerto Rico.

 




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