Puerto Rico’s Experience of Colonization – with Marie Cruz Soto

The World and Africa is a collaborative podcast project that puts high school students in conversation with scholars on a subject related in some way to Africa and its diaspora. In the spirit of Du Bois (from whom the name is borrowed) it seeks to think Africa in an expansive way. Small groups of students co-produce and co-host these conversations following a period of study connected to their existing programs of learning.  It gives scholars the chance to engage with aspiring undergraduates from underserved communities and bring their expertise to a broader public. As producers and hosts, students must develop key critical questions and map out a way to introduce a complex subject to a general audience by engaging an established scholar. They work as valid interlocutors, co-creators and disseminators of knowledge. Podcasts were recorded at scholars’ offices, encouraging students to experience university spaces as welcoming, supportive and stimulating.

Two pilot episodes feature students from Wings Academy, the Bronx, interviewing Marie Cruz Soto (NYU) on the colonial history of Puerto Rico, and Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Columbia) on the Negritude movement. Each is timely in its own way, and it is hoped that these conversations can provide a resource to anyone interested in these topics.

As facilitator, I owe warm thanks to all the students who participated, and to Prof Cruz Soto and Prof Bachir Diagne for their generosity and hospitality in hosting these conversations and providing their expertise and insight. I am very grateful to Tom Quick, AP Rhetoric teacher at Wings, and to Eileen Gillooly, Emily Bloom, Adam Capitanio, Tess Drahman and Natacha Nsabimana for helping make the project possible. Alejandro Jaramillo assisted with recording and editing. The World and Africa was created with generous support from Humanities New York and the Heyman Center for the Humanities, Columbia University. – Elliot Ross 

The Polis Project is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) collective. If you like what we do, please support us here, or through Patreon.

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So today we are talking about colonialism in Puerto Rico. Describe…describe to us the island of Vieques.

Vieques is an island of the Puerto Rican Archipelago that lies to the east of the main island and it’s inhabited by about ten thousand, almost ten thousand people and has been part of Puerto Rico officially since the mid, sort of, late 19th century.

Well, on that subject, I understand that Puerto Rico is now part of the US, right?

Yes.

But in my own opinion, I understand that it is part of the US. But it doesn’t, it doesn’t feel like it is.

It is not a coincidence. It is being made to be like that. That’s at the heart of colonialism.

How would you define the term colonialism?

That’s a very good question and a very difficult one to answer. But I would say that, at the very core, the very…in a basic sense, colonialism for me implies an unequal relationship whereby people and spaces, humans and non-humans are subjected to the will of others.

How has it affected Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico in its, Puerto Rico is a product of colonialism, right? It was the…the Europeans landed in Archipelago in 1493. The indigenous population for the most part, massacred and displaced in the first three decades of the sixteenth century and people came in through all sorts of ways, right? People from Africa, people from other parts of the Americas, people from Europe, some people from Asia and colonialism made Puerto Rico.

Colonialism was basically the reality that stipulated the lives of the people who coincided in the Archipelago and it still does does so, right? And thinking about Puerto Rico, I’m particularly also thinking of Vieques. Colonialism in these past five hundred years has ultimately made a very vulnerable local population, that can, it’s painfully evident post hurricane Maria. People who in many ways cannot ambition, having a future in the place they call home.

Talking about hurricane Maria, how do you think the US could have done better in reaction to it?

Let’s see…how I can give a succinct answer to that. Well the problem started before Maria, obviously. We are talking about colonialism, we are talking about a process which is five hundred years old and the US came in 1898 and then look colonialism in Puerto Rico and Vieques to a new level. But it is a long process.

But even think about Hurricane Maria, prior to Hurricane Maria there was this fiscal-crises in the island, in the Archipelago. So again, talking about people living very vulnerable lives, having difficulty envisioning a future for themselves. People who got, went to school and then went to university and then studied and imagined certain lives that they could eventually have but having that sort of future and imaginings and dreams denied.

And in terms of the US reaction to that. I mean the US has been in many complicit and very active in making that sort of vulnerability of ensuring that Puerto Ricans live as second-class US citizens that exist in many ways for the benefit of others in and elsewhere. And those others in the benefit are, in the elsewhere could be mainlander US but also those others that do come to Puerto Rico and enjoy certain kinds of lifestyles, benefits that Puerto Ricans do not.

Do you feel that Puerto Rico is part of the United States because a lot of people have different opinions about that question?

I think it is and it is not. And if you indulge me, I’m officially a historian and I always have to think about the past to know the makings of…I mean we are talking of Puerto Rican colonialism under the US, right? So, the US invaded Puerto Rico, took over Puerto Rico in 1898. In 1917, the US Congress basically gave, also sort of just forced because Puerto Ricans were not consulted, US citizenship to Puerto Rican.

Early in the 1900s, there were what is now called insular cases which were basically cases that were defined, decided by the Supreme…US Supreme Court, in which Puerto Rico was defined as an unincorporated territory. So that’s basically a word that the Supreme Court used at that time to not use the word colony but to create colonies, to create the possibility of having formal colonies for the US. So, Puerto Rico became an unincorporated territory and an unincorporated colony basically means, and in that time too, a territory populated by racialised others that were never meant to be part of the US, were never meant to be states but were meant to be kept under US control for different sorts of reasons.

In Puerto Rico there was the sugar industry that was definitely beneficial to some people from the US mainland and it was also thought to be strategically important. So, those decisions in the early 1900s, a few years after the US occupied Puerto Rico, made Puerto Rico, officially a colony, the way that it is still today. And indeed, it is still today, an unincorporated territory. And it is not the only one that the US has. US, the US for example, has Guam and other spaces that are equally colonial.

So, to sum that up, Puerto Rico is, is, a part of the US, it is a colony, it is a territory, people are ruled by basically the whim of Congress and the President and it is not because it has been from the start ambition to not really be part of the US, to always be on the margins but subjected to the US.

Do you think that the US will ever change its view on how it sees Puerto Rico?

That is a good question. One that I think it’ about, do I grab onto hope? Sometimes I think, it is very difficult to grab onto hope, specially, with all the things that are happening now in the US and outside the world… you know, and in other parts of the world.

I think it’s totally possible. I think also, the demographic changes that are happening in the US, the increased Latino immigrant population which makes some people in the US very uncomfortable, could potentially lead to an opening, a less racist, more welcoming US, that could potentially have a different view on Puerto Rico. So that when, for example, such a catastrophe like Hurricane Maria occurs again and it will surely occur again in Puerto Rico, there can be more informed US citizens and more empathy to…and more indignation about what is the right response to other US citizens and to other humans too.

Okay, okay…So, before we came here, we researched a bit about you and we found out that you were an activist. What exactly is it that you fight for?

I was not an activist. I am. As in a part of the way I define myself is as I’m a peace and anti-militarism activist and I carry that identity very proudly and very openly. Sometimes, in the academia that’s looked down upon. But I think that if whatever I do, it should be informed by a certain outlook on life and to be me, I’m very worried, concerned, pre-occupied with violence and the way that violence seems to circulate and the way that the world is divided into nation-states that think that their security, welfare, development always has to some degree depend on militarisation, on the exploitation of others, on unequal relationships with other humans and with the non-humans. So, I try to be very thoughtful in everything that I do. Thinking about how to stop the flow of violence in my daily life, in my engagements with my students and also in all sorts of other activism like more openly activist engagements.

Okay. Is there anything in particular that you do to push for reform?

I would say at the most basic level I talk to whoever will listen to me and that I think is a form of activism. So, I talk to my students but I also talk to whoever will listen to what have to say about Vieques, about militarisation, about US empire, about colonialism, about racism, sexism, about the inter-connectedness of all those things, right? So, there are different platforms in which I speak to different kinds of audiences and also listen and try to learn from them too. So, I can benefit from what you have to say. This conversation that we are having, although it’ me mostly doing the talking right now- I learn from my students in my classrooms, in my classroom. I also learn from just outright talking to people in protests, rallies, conferences, community organisations, different settings. But definitely, at the very basic sense, the activism is about having, embracing and creating a space for me to be able to say what I think I need to say and to be able to listen what other’s in that space can also say about the conversation that we may be having.

Do you think that being an activist affects you research, like how you go about finding out your information, what it is that you look for?

Yeah, of course. In the academia there is this pretence that academics- sort of the ivory tower notion- that academics produce knowledge in a vacuum, that people can be objective, that perspectives, passions are not encouraged, not welcomed and that has all sorts of sexist and racist consequences. But, I believe and others have argued that all sorts of knowledge that is produced always have a perspective and therefore is always also political. And if there is gonna be a perspective, I’d rather my perspective be formed thinking about again the flow of violence, to try to stop it, to try to make it more difficult for it to flow, as freely as it seems to flow in the world that we inhabit today.

Okay, so I understand that, you know, you are from Puerto Rico and that’s like who you are. So, is there anything else that influenced your interest in Puerto Rico.

Well obviously, I think you are part of asking, okay..Puerto Rico is personal for me. It is personal for me, it’s where I come from. I also think that Puerto Rico is a really really good case study, example to think about US Empire and US imperialism and it’s for the most part really invisible within the US academia, within the US and I think it is not a coincidence but it is because if people really look up Puerto Rico more closely they cannot but acknowledge that US is an Empire, that Puerto Rico is a colony and that there’s just rampant, just outright impunity. So, that’s also what I take from talking and thinking about Puerto Rico- to potentially get a conversation that makes people within the US to rethink what they think the US is, and maybe also rethink the way they participate in certain kinds of activities within the US and the things they might support too.

Okay…well did you have any experiences that, while you were younger, that you kind of knew you were gonna be interested in?

Interested in what?

Like Puerto Rico’s history…

Sure. So, as I said before, I’m a diasporic Viequense. I define myself as diasporic Viequense. My family going back generations for the most part, they have been born in Vieques, they were born in Vieques, lived in Vieques. But then I was born in San Juan. And the way that I think about why I was born in San Juan, I cannot but connect it to the 1940s expropriation because when both of my families, both of, both sides of my family were expropriated in the 1940s. And I see that after the expropriations there was a long journey in trying, for them trying to find a home. Where to settle, where they could be to some degree, comfortable, secure, have a job, have a family. So, my father and my mother ended up settling in San Juan and so I was born there. But then when we were born there…I have two elder brothers and my parents were always very clear that they wanted us to have a very solid grounding in terms of being Viequense. So, I spent…I grew up between Vieques and San Juan. And I also grew up hearing about stories that even people in San Juan didn’t want to believe, right? Things that were happening in Vieques and people in San Juan were like, “Marie, you are so like just strange.” And to me, it always blew my mind and I as like this is our reality that I take…this is an essential part of my family history. The history of Puerto Rico…and then we have people in San Juan saying, you know, definitely not true. So that always sparked my interest. So, how to think about bringing forth narratives that are suppressed, that people don’t pay attention to and that many people deny to the detriment of, of many people, right? Because in Puerto Rico we don’t speak about colonialism. There is a problem there because then you are really not engaging life in Puerto Rico.

Okay, so…so does being Latino affect your work on Puerto Rico?

Being Latina was sort of complicated for me. So, I was born in Puerto Rico. I, for the most past grew up in Puerto Rico. I did my undergraduate degree in Puerto Rico and I came to the US mainland…I moved when I was 21. So, the term Latina for me, didn’t have that much meaning for me because I justify myself as, let’s say, Puerto Rican, Puerto Rican women, Latin American.

So, Latina is a term that I have come to embrace after moving to the US mainland and I see it as a politically useful term, to also see the way that my reality is also shared my other groups that have found themselves within the US domestic space to some degree but marginalised within the US domestic space.

***

I do have a question though because I’m accustomed to speaking to college students that have been studying, you know, sort of have. already have a certain kind of language that we follow up on. So, I don’t know if I’m making sense to you. And I don’t know if you have questions that you would like me to explain. Because I just keep on talking and to me I make sense but I may not be making sense to you..

All: You make sense. We are good.

***

So why this transition from Puerto Rico to, to the United States and do you think that coming here better, coming here better brought in your sense of, sense of Self?

So, the first question was, why did I end up in the US mainland, right? I ended up…well…may be to make the story short. I went to the University of Puerto Rico and I fell in love with the institution. I fell in love with the campus at Río Piedras…I fell in love with the, sort of the idea of the Latin American public university and so I wanted to become a professor. And I knew I had to do PhD to be able to go back and teach there. And I knew I had to get a PhD, outside of the University of Puerto Rico. So, I went to Michigan with two other friends and that is the most, in the most basic sense that’s why I left Puerto Rico always with the idea that I will go back. It just didn’t turn out at least till now, that I have been able to go back, to move back, right? Because I go back all the time but to be able to work there, to move there, it hasn’t happened. So that’s why I actually did my PhD in Michigan and then ended up coming to NYU.

The other question about how did being in the US mainland changed how I thought of myself?

Basically like, yeah. How you thought of yourself and like your goals basically…

Moving to Michigan, I definitely had to redefine myself. I had to, for example, think about Latina. It wasn’t a category that I embraced before. Not that I was opposed to it but it wasn’t in my daily life. I wouldn’t go around before saying, “I’m Latina”. I would say, “Yeah, I’m Latin American but I’m not a Latina”. So, sort of seeing myself, inserting myself into other sorts of histories. So, with the Latina community, thinking about racialised minorities in the US. So, coming to the US made me rethink essential categories of how I define myself.

So, I wasn’t just only…In many ways in San Juan, I was a middle-class woman that had so many privileges as a middle-class woman. And even though in the US, I’m racialised in certain kinds of ways, in Puerto Rico, it’s pretty normal, right? So, in the US I had to, for example, learn how to deal with the racism in the US and then embrace categories like Latina. I can embrace blackness in a certain kind of way, that I think it’s not about essentializing and saying, okay, this is who I am. I’m a Latina. I’m a black woman. I’m all sorts of things. But to sort of think of them strategically. It’s like okay, society is going to say I’m this and I’m gonna embrace it too and see, what I can make out of it and see what comes out of my mouth, that may say something about that experience, that could be helpful to rethink that experience.

If you were to go…well your plan is to go back to Puerto Rico eventually and to continue your… being a professor, do you think you will stay over there and continue or like eventually transition back to here?

Right now, I don’t know if I would ever be able to go back to work, to teach.

Why?

Complex reasons but one reasons before I finished my dissertation, my PhD… that last year when I was finishing my PhD, I worked for an year as an adjunct professor at University of Puerto Rico. Do you know what an Adjunct Professor is?

[No..]

So usually the academia, universities have full-time tenure track professors that have basically full-time employment, employment benefits, some security and stability that can allow them to at least have some sort of economic security to be able to keep on working at the institution. Adjunct Professors are basically part-time professors that are given a course, may be two, depending on the of the course load of the institution but not enough to be full-time professors and therefore to be eligible for benefits and some sort of working…more stable working conditions.

So, I was there as an adjunct, not as a full-time. And it is basically pretty much impossible to survive economically, materially.

[It is not enough]

It is not enough. You have to depend on other people and that’s life, right? You don’t live alone. We are always dependent on other people. But it’s…it was pretty hard. And I told myself that if I could avoid it, I would avoid it…putting myself in that kind of vulnerability. And that’s not just the University of Puerto Rico. That’s really across, across the board.

So, I understand these territories of the United States don’t have a say. Do you think they should start somewhere with giving them a say with who is in office and who represents them?

Of course, of course. If we think about it, how can there be a democracy? I mean, liberal democracies thrive on the idea that the people vote for people that represent them- that is questionable but it is still something of a gesture, right? We vote our representatives to represent us. But what sense does it make for Puerto Ricans to vote for a governor, to vote for Assembliea, Senado, if whatever these people that are elected into those positions can be overturned by anything that the US says? And even now, it is more egregious thinking about the Fiscal Control Board in which there is a body of people appointed by the US government to basically do whatever they think is necessary in Puerto Rico because under the discourse that Puerto Ricans are unruly people who don’t know how to keep their affairs in order. So, they need the strong-hand of the US to tell us what to do which to me is incredibly interesting, thinking what is happening in Washington. And the way we are thinking about debt, Puerto Rican debt is nothing compared to the US debt.

But democracy becomes a farce if you are electing people that have no real power and that they make, make critiques… Even thinking about the Mayor of San Juan which you may have seen in the news maybe at some point, Carmen Yulín, critiquing the President and being, basically insulted and chained by the President too. But her power is totally limited about what she can do, of course.

So, like in the past they had this law called the three fourths act [the so-called Three Fifths Compromise of 1787] where three-fourths of black votes were added to see who becomes President. Do  you think they should do something like that for Puerto Rico and territories the United States have?

I think that if the US is going to define itself as a liberal democracy, it should then act as one, right? So, all those people who are subjected to the US government should be able to vote equally, for the representatives in the US government. For the politicians that have a say over these people’s lives, every single one of them should be able to vote, should be able to decide who gets to Congress, who becomes the President.

Especially since they are citizens, right? Considered citizens if they’re born in Puerto Rico, right?

Yes, although, that’s also complicated because there are people living under the…and we can also think of undocumented migrants, but not just the documented migrants. There are a lot of people that actually live under the US but do not have the category of US citizens. So, I would just say that everyone that is subjected to the US government should be able to have a say in that government. That is my thinking.

So, if Puerto Rico itself had a voice, how would you think it will sound, basically, or [how would it] reply to the United States, or the other States?

If Puerto Rico had a voice, I think it would sound very confused. And I mean, the subject of this conversation, we are thinking about colonialism. One thing to think about is that colonialism is not just about economic subjugation, political subjugation. But it is also about culture, ideology, education.

Early on the US tried to Americanize Puerto Rico, change our language, make us speak in English, wrote our history books, made us use those history books to tell us our history. In many, many different ways basically, the people of Puerto Rico were, were told by the US…and Spain had done the same thing in different ways…but basically that Puerto Ricans were nothing. That the colonial situation was one that was for the benefit of Puerto Ricans because Puerto Ricans were just like unruly children that needed the civilized Empire to come and take care of them, because they couldn’t, we couldn’t take care of ourselves. And people have that which is many times called the “colonized mentality” is ingrained in them. This idea that we cannot do it. We cannot actually survive without the US. We see ourselves all distorted.

This is like in the past the same situation with the Native Americans basically, right? Because the native Americans were civilized but the US considered them uncivilized.

It is exactly, exactly the same thing. Actually, thinking early on about the US history, those same people that were engaging the indigenous population in the US were also thinking about, how to think about people in Puerto Rico, people in Guam, people in Philippines, people across the world, right? How to make those unruly Others, sort of just discipline them to come under the fold of the US Empire.

So, it is exactly…I think you are totally right. It is exactly the same thing. But this is the most…potentially I would say, this is the most difficult thing.

How do you tell people, that you are actually not worthless? You can’t. They have to be convinced a bit themselves and I can may be say this in my own, sort of, personal trajectory.

I have been privileged in many ways. I have parents who are very political, very open, saying this is this. This is colonialism. This is that. This is unacceptable and you should never be for this. But still I had it in me, this idea that I was less than…and it took me years. And in a way, it took me years of actually travelling to other places, to then figure out, you know what, these people are not better than me. To see, to have conversations, to engage. And not to say that Puerto Ricans are better than anybody else. That’s not the point. But it took me years. And I needed to rely on my privilege of being able to displace myself sort of easily, to other spaces within the US, outside of the US, again outside of Puerto Rico to be able to understand this. Not everyone has that chance. But it is not easy. I had to, I had to see it for myself. I could not be told this, I had to learn it and I had to learn, from this long history, this long journey, personal journey. But what about all the other Puerto Ricans, all the other I mean…We can think about all the minorities in the US too that are told the same things: communities are worthless people and we are not, right? How do we unlearn this? It is a long personal journey that entails to some degree I would say privileges that not everyone can have – to be able to have an education, to be able to travel to different spaces, to talk to different people, to come together…to come into contact with different narratives. It’s not easy.

And if and if people in Puerto Rico, like, as a general vision, what do you think people of Puerto Rico, dream of?

This is a bit of a stereotype. But I would say people dream of having their family, are they in the beach, have food, the adults have a beer and have nothing to do but just be there and relax. And not have to worry about all the chaos: not having electricity, the fiscal crises, unemployment. Just sort of, be relaxed and have a nice day. I think that would be the dream for many. One thing that I actually…I do share that dream.

So, do you think people in Puerto Rico like see this or think about things like this?

What is this? Like what?

Like colonialism, crises and how it affects them directly…

I would say probably not. Just for the same reasons about colonial education, many people don’t, don’t see it, don’t have a language to think about it, to talk about it. Many people do and are very critical, articulate, do things that help others better understand but many don’t.

Do you feel like the people who are doing, don’t not doing enough?

I think the context is such that it doesn’t foster, for, in a way to think about this kind of awakening. It’s just such a difficult context in which people are not encouraged to think critically, to know their history, to think of their connections to other communities across the US and across the world…to make, to be able to make those connections. But they, some people are able to make them. But for the most part many are not.

I mean, people are not taught this in school, let’s say, for the most part. It’s not encouraged to be part of the public discussion. In Puerto Rico, that’s also the thing about colonialism, part of the public discourse is really dominated by this idea of, we have to be careful about what we say, because we cannot anger the US, because there’s the idea that seems to think we are worthless, then the US just took pity on us and keeps us. Even if we are broke and the US has refused to bail us out, to put any money on this. People still think that our survival depends on the US and so we have to censure ourselves and be grateful to whatever comes our way. And there’s also, was important in thinking about the reality of Vieques for over sixty years. Many Puerto Ricans are like, well there’s a price to be paid for the US to keep us, right? So, then Vieques is paying for it. So, let it. Let Vieques pay for it. So Vieques is being bombed constantly. There is a price to be paid for being a US citizen and so that kind of mentality is just prevalent. And it doesn’t allow for people to be able to think critically because they are just afraid.

***

I would also say that, I would be very interested, interested to hear from those who have been very quiet.

[Insert name?]: Well, I was born in Puerto Rico. I’m from Yauco in the south. My family is from Yauco. I was born in Ponce. You know it was pretty hard when I came to the United States..you know

How old were you?

[Insert name?]: I was nine. It was very tough coming to the United States, it was a very different environment. People are different…you know, you have to get used to it. I had to move on. I wish I could go back but it is what it is.

***

I have a question. Did you know how to speak English over there in Puerto Rico or did you learn it over here?

That’s a good question. I would say to that, that I got a very good colonial education in San Juan. So, I was taught how to speak English in San Juan and the language was an absolute requisite for the reproduction of the colonial elite. You need people who can actually speak to the US in their language, to translate.

Puerto Rico is like the, you can say the little brother like comes in handy when you need him, right?

What do you mean?

You know like, say, it’s the little brother that wants to follow you everywhere, wanna, you know, be like you or whatever but you don’t let him and you like tell him no, no, till the time you need him, you basically blackmail him or whatever and say do what you want to…

Sort of, I would say, yeah? And that’s also the way the US try to ambition Puerto Rico like the little kid that is tagging along. That doesn’t really understand but just seems to want to do whatever the US is doing. So, yeah.

I actually have a…now that you mentioned this. I have a…oh this one. So, this is a sort of an illustration from 1905, thinking about after the invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898, taking over of Cuba too. So, this is Uncle Sam and you can see also Puerto Rico here as a little kid, that is basically holding Uncle Sam’s hand, right? So, going to what you are saying…and Cuba is unruly, you see, it’s like they are doing whatever it is…and Puerto Rico is tiny, scary and sort of hanging onto Uncle Sam.

But of course, this was a US made illustration, right? Trying to sell the idea also of keeping Puerto Rico too. Trying to tell people within the US, we should keep Puerto Rico too because they actually do behave and they want to be with us. And if you see, also, you may notice that there is a difference between these two in terms of race. Puerto Rico here is totally whitened and Cuba is darker, right? So, also thinking about how to make Puerto Rico acceptable to others within the US and the US being Jim Crow US, totally, you know, rampant racism. Trying to make Puerto Rico, look more white, to be more acceptable to people in the US in 1905.

***

So, it was great talking to you and I’m glad that you found your identity as an American and a Puerto Rican even though they are the same as they are part of the United States. But I’m glad you identify with both.

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