Growing up in Puerto Rico, I always felt the presence of the United States as that of a tio who always forgot your birthday, asked for favors with nothing in return and often bashed you in front of your entire family. Yet, Uncle Sam always spoke of “freedom.” His best friends — United States presidents — stood in front of reporters to invoke U.S. principles of democracy and liberty but only seemed to deliver deadly bombs and unstable governments in the other side of the world — all done in the name of, yes, freedom.
At home, we always thought Uncle Sam’s practices only affected those who had brown skin, prayed five times a day and spoke Arabic. The evils of our dear uncle toward our island were always carefully hidden. At school, the United States’ invasion of Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War in 1898 was described as an “arrival.” In my family, figures like Luis Muñoz Marin, founder of the Popular Democratic Party, and Rafael Hernandez Colón, a three-term governor of Puerto Rico and former president of the PPD, were venerated as national heroes who fought to give Puerto Rico access to U.S. wealth and resources. We celebrated the Día de la Constitución on July 25 as remembrance of the agreement reached by the Truman administration and Muñoz Marin to establish the Estado Libre Asociado (or “free associated state”), an oxymoron term that stated Puerto Rico is a “free” territory of the United States.
For all we knew, Puerto Rico was a commonwealth. Our people had been “blessed” with the gift of U.S. citizenship in 1917 and our island wasn’t poor under the greatest economic power in the world. Therefore, we never spoke of independence. By all means, we were free.
“Colony” was a word I hadn’t heard of until I was a senior in high school. Our history professor took the time to explain the Nationalist Movement of the early 20th century that sought to decolonize the island. That’s when I first started questioning the political bubble I was raised in. I learned about the Ponce Massacre, where 19 Puerto Ricans died at the hands of the police during a peaceful nationalist protest. I was taught about figures like Pedro Albizu Campos, a Harvard graduate who led the Nationalist Party until he was imprisoned and exposed to radiation that eventually caused his death. I became aware of the Gag Law of 1948, which made all Puerto Rican flags illegal, and the 1950 Nationalist Insurrection, which led to the bombing of the town of Jayuya by U.S. military forces.
The blood spilled at the hands of the United States government to ensure the colonial status of Puerto Rico is evidence enough that the spread of “American freedom” is a mask that safeguards the imperialist nature of the U.S. government.
In time, my naïve view of the love affair between Puerto Rico and the United States became a deep belief that our island deserved to be independent — one that has only strengthened since Hurricane Maria left my island in destruction.
In September 2018, as the Category 4 storm ravaged the Caribbean, we were reminded of the real meaning of our alleged liberty as the oldest colony in the world. It became too obvious to ignore that the hundreds of years of colonialism have led to a painful economic reality that forced thousands out of their homes and onto “a better life” in the mainland. More than 4,000 Puerto Ricans lost their lives at the hands of government negligence, when the island was left with no power, no drinking water and no food supply thanks to the restraints of the Jones Act. Established in 1920, this shipping regulation requires all goods transported to Puerto Rico be sent on U.S.-made ships. In the wake of a humanitarian crisis, the Trump administration only waived the regulation for 10 days, limiting the amount of aid received by neighboring nations and international relief agencies. Puerto Ricans were left to fend for themselves, surrounded by “big water, ocean water,” as Trump himself mocked in a press conference, with only paper towels to show as sympathy from the president.
The truth about freedom was unearthed when the economic and political chains of the island were too tightly closed for Puerto Ricans to survive the worst natural disaster in a century.
My own family, who used to celebrate July 25 as our own Independence Day, was confronted with the painful reality of colonialism and its deadly consequences. A week after the massive storm, I received a call from my mom saying my aunt Guillermina, who was at the hospital during the hurricane, died. None of my family members who relocated to the mainland due to scarce employment opportunities was able to say goodbye to our titi. While the government’s official death toll was less than 20 people, my own family held the funeral of a Puerto Rican who was not counted among the dead.
That, too, is a form of colonialism.
In the nine months since Hurricane Maria, the United States’ grasp on Puerto Rico is stronger than ever before.
U.S. freedom now comes in the form of an oversight board, which was established in 2016 by the Obama administration under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (or PROMESA). The board, which Puerto Ricans did not elect, has slashed the budget of the University of Puerto Rico as well as the island’s retirement fund and advocates to derogate Law 80, which protects workers from being fired without just cause.
U.S. freedom is the police force breaking up a peaceful May Day protest on the island with tear gas and rubber bullets.
U.S. freedom is the recent bill introduced by our resident commissioner Jennifer Gonzalez, a non-voting member of Congress, that promises to deliver statehood to Puerto Rico by 2021 under the guise of “equality.”
In 120 years of colonialism, Puerto Rico has developed a Stockholm syndrome that allows the United States to make promises it knows it won’t keep. It’s enabled the erasure of a revolutionary history that keeps Puerto Ricans in a bipartisan limbo that continues to favor the United States above all. I can only hope that the pain of the last decade, as we’ve seen our island dismantled by vulture funds and destroyed by a vicious hurricane, makes Puerto Ricans understand that a colonial future is deadly to all of us.
Maybe then I could tell you what real freedom feels like.