It’s Not You, It’s Me (or, What I Wish Americans Would Say to Puerto Rico)
Hello, my fellow American citizens! I’ve been reading a lot about Puerto Rico lately because, let’s face it, who doesn’t love disaster porn, and because the media has helpfully packaged your struggles in bright, colorful, TRUMP IS BAD wrapping paper that I, well-meaning liberal, am drawn to like a moth to a flame. (Lesson #1: Even when it’s about you, it’s really about us.) Anyway, I’ve read a couple of long-form thinkpieces on how Puerto Rico’s status is so problematic and, honestly… I think it’s time for us to break up.
Look, this is really awkward for me to say, because I learned in postcolonial studies class that I’m not supposed to tell brown people how to live their lives, but since the U.S. has been doing that to you guys (and nearly everybody else) for 120 years anyway, I figure it warrants an exception. Besides, if people like me don’t speak up, that just leaves the field open for more unscrupulous sorts who have no such qualms about talking down to Puerto Ricans — usually, it seems, to your detriment.
And yeah, I’ve read that only like 5% of you support independence (which is weird!) and it feels really icky to push for something that goes against the will of the people. It seems like that’s been America’s stock answer for a long time on this issue: that we’ll “respect the will of the Puerto Rican people.” (Lesson #2: We haven’t, and won’t, unless it suits us.) But that sounds like a bit of a canard designed to maintain the status quo; one that conveniently ignores all the messed up reasons for the state of public opinion about our relationship.
Besides — and I know this is going to sound terrible — “the people” can be pretty stupid; or, at the very least, uninformed and easily misled. And that’s not a knock on you guys; the will of our people just elected Donald Trump. Nobody should be feeling too great about the wisdom of the masses right now. In any case, some things are just unacceptable, no matter what people think. There was a time in this country when large majorities thought black people, or gay people, shouldn’t have equal rights. The will of those people sucked. To paraphrase your Lin-Manuel Miranda (whom we adore, by the way): wrong is wrong is wrong is wrong is wrong.
But I’m not here to lecture you on the inherent immorality of colonialism; if that’s not obvious enough at this point, I don’t know what to tell ya. Ditto for the economics of this whole commonwealth thing — mostly because it’s really hard to understand. I took two econ classes in college and I still can’t quite wrap my head around all this stuff about corporate tax rates, maritime shipping laws, and triple-tax-exempt municipal bonds. Do you guys get it? Are you sure, behind all that fancy financial wizardry, you’re not getting screwed? (Lesson #3: Pay some attention to the man behind the curtain!)
I’m not even gonna get all poli sci on you and talk about the political impossibility of statehood at a time of rising populism with white nationalist and nativist tendencies, a gerrymandering-manufactured Republican majority that may survive even Trump’s disastrous approval ratings, a weak Democratic minority that can barely summon the backbone (or, as you might say, the cojones) to defend its actual priorities, and a Fox/Breitbart/Drudge-fed “news” industry that feeds outrage to old people about ethnic minorities and fans the flames of a new version of the culture wars, centered not on abortion or pornography but on racial identity. Sorry — I couldn’t help myself. I’m such a political junkie these days!
No, my boricua friends. What I want to say to you is something far simpler but far harsher; a truth that lies at the heart of everything I just outlined — of all the inequities and indignities, big and small, that I’m only now learning we subject you to. And it’s this:
You’re not Americans. Not really. Not to us.
I get that, technically, you are. But that’s technically with a ginormous capital ‘T’ and all 10 other letters too. We may share a common citizenship, but that’s a legal abstraction that confers on you some rights and imposes on our government some responsibilities; it cannot compel some dude in Nebraska to feel a sense of national kinship with a guy from Arecibo, and to consider him his countryman. (And that works both ways! Be honest, Puerto Ricans, how much do you care about your fellow Americans in Guam or the Northern Marianas?) I, myself, am trying my best to extend all of my patriotic fervor to the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans on the island but, honestly, the best I can muster is a reasonable facsimile: an intellectual understanding that I should feel you’re as American as my next-door neighbors, but that — in the very cockles of my heart — I simply don’t. And I’m one of the good ones! At least 60% of the country that won’t even go that far.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But America is a country of immigrants. There are 50 million Latinos in the U.S. already and liberals, at least, have spent the past couple of years (kind of ) standing up for them and proclaiming they’re as American as apple pie.” I can see how that might seem contradictory. But, for whatever reason, there’s something comfortingly unambiguous about someone living in the continental United States (Lesson #4: We haven’t really cared about Hawaii since Pearl Harbor, and Alaska is mostly just a setting for Sarah Palin jokes — and those are actual states!) that seems to make all the difference.
Maybe it’s the choice to move to America that matters; that, even to those of us who purportedly hate such jingoism, there’s something subconsciously gratifying about the idea that these poor people have come to our country to pursue all their aspirations, and that by championing their right to do so we become the defenders of our own national greatness — of the American dream itself. That may be why a Puerto Rican woman in San Juan is an out-of-sight-out-of-mind, enigmatic sort-of-American, while as soon as she lands in Orlando she immediately becomes one of the wonderful people of color that strengthen America with their diversity. But, I digress.
Look, I wish this weren’t the case. I wish our my country’s national consciousness was open and generous enough to accommodate an expansive notion of Americanness that transcends geographical distance, language barriers, racial differences, and so much more. (Even then, there’s the matter of how much that Americanness would have to come at the expense of your Puerto Rican-ness, but that’s a conversation for you to have amongst yourselves). But it’s not, and it’s nearly impossible to fathom what would have to happen for it to ever be. I mean, we’re still trying to convince half the country to accept, not just those immigrants I mentioned, but our own black people as real, equal Americans — and it’s not going particularly well.
Even if we could somehow change a hundred million hearts and minds, the truth is that provoking a national reckoning with, not just our political relationship to Puerto Rico, but our emotional relationship to Puerto Rico, is not terribly high on our list of priorities. Sure, the hurricane has stirred up some interesting conversations, and maybe half of one percent of us will keep thinking and talking about the island. But most of us have already moved on. I mean, even with your people probably drinking poisoned water, we’ve just about reached the limits of the personal and political outrage we feel compelled to express and act on when it comes to Puerto Rico. I can’t imagine we’ll ever do much better when it comes to the less urgent, more mundane changes it would take to make life in Puerto Rico a little fairer and a little better. This is the best we can do for you, and it’s obviously not enough.
I love you, Puerto Rico, and I hate to see you like this. I even hate that I can’t offer you more, but there it is. It’s not you, it’s me. You should go; it’s for the best. We’ll still be friends! Nothing can erase the time we’ve spent together, and you’ll always have my support. And when we run into each other in the years to come I’ll be so happy to see you thriving and free; or, hell, even struggling and free, but secure in the knowledge that your future is your own and no longer encumbered by a people who could never quite make what’s in our shared passports match what’s in our national soul.