I spent the entire second week of July traveling to Puerto Rico for the first time! It was incredible and I’m going to document and reflect here.
I was visiting a friend who is on a Watson Fellowship and currently living in San Juan. We were joined by two other deeply close friends of ours. I hadn’t seen any of them in the entire year since we graduated college, and we all have big life shifts coming up. Host friend’s Watson is ending and they’re coming back to the United States and beginning the job hunt. Another friend just finished their year as a paralegal and has been accepted into the prestigious Iowa Creative Writing program. The final friend just finished a Calculus class because she’s a total badass, is getting ready to give notice to her first post-grad job, and is letting herself be open to maybe moving!
And I just finished my six-month AmeriCorps job, drove a U-HAUL 14 hours out of Boston, have no idea what I’m doing with my life, would like to pursue financial independence, and desperately needed this vacation. So it was hectic, but ultimately excellent, timing.
Yes, obviously we went to the beach. The beaches are absolutely stunning. But here is the only beach picture I’m including:
Which I say because I don’t just want to share my experience as a tourist. I want to share what I was able to learn and observe from being in Puerto Rico (mostly in San Juan, specifically.) A lot of times I read travel blog posts that go in depth about the place and its features, but hardly mention the people who actually live there full-time. So I want to use this as a space to share the adventures I had and also discuss some issues I saw affecting the people who call that place home.
Puerto Rican Independence
Puerto Rico is essentially an occupied colony of the United States. Residents have American citizenship but no representation in the federal government and no ability to make financial or other national decisions without dictation from the U.S.
My friends and I were trying to push each other and ourselves to confront our own complicity in the U.S. imperialist occupation of Puerto Rico. Here is a place where the American government benefits while not suffering repercussions of their actions on foreign soil; that is exploitation. Puerto Ricans don’t have a voice in Congress; that is undemocratic.
For some Puerto Ricans, the solution to this is statehood. And I respect that, but I fundamentally believe that the United States has an obligation to return colonial territories to their pre-occupied state. In the case of Puerto Rico, that would mean granting Puerto Rico complete independence and autonomy, formal apologies for environmental damage, and reparations for forcing the country from an agrarian to industrial economy and having it tank. I think a public recognition of the dangerous reproductive experiments performed on Puerto Rican women by U.S. corporations is needed as well.
Having entities that are disconnected from a place, its people, and its land is so harmful. The unaffected can’t determine the state of the affected. That’s not democratic or sustainable. Puerto Rican land belongs to Puerto Ricans and they are the best equipped to take care of it and its affairs.
Environmental (in) Justice in Puerto Rico
One place I wanted to visit was the island of Vieques. A lot of people know this spot because of its famous bioluminescent bays, but lesser known on the island is the half-century worth of hazardous waste created by the U.S. military.
From 1941 to 2003 the U.S. Navy operated a training base on the eastside of the island Vieques and a bomb dumping zone on the west side. The Navy has admitted to testing everything from Agent Orange to nuclear bomb deployment during its sixty-two year stay on the island. As one could easily predict, the residents of Vieques have experienced health issues from exposure due to environmental hazards. Their water has been contaminated from Naval wastewater and the soil and vegetation now contains dangerous levels of heavy metals. Residents have recorded abnormally high rates of cancer, hypertension, heart disease, and other health concerns. The Navy claims there is no connection between the health issues and their presence on the island, despite scientific conclusions of a definitive correlation.
In 2010 a U.S. District Court Judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit brought by 7,000 residents of Vieques on the basis that the U.S. government has immunity from damage resulting from its military. The class action is now pursuing a case against the Department of Defense and the “Rothman’s Vieques Recovery and Development Act” (2011) has been brought forth in Congress.
While I researched Vieques more extensively for a paper I wrote in college, I sourced my summary for this post from this article on the Navy’s role in the health crisis. I highly recommend reading it.
And you can read more about the U.S. military’s role in global environmental pollution in a series of curated essays by Professor H. Partricia Hynes. Vieques is casestudied in detail.
Pollution Elsewhere + Environmental Justice Art
At El Museo De Las Americas (The Museum of the Americas) I had the opportunity to view and engage with Herminio Rodríguez’ installation “Contaminados.” It is a series of portraits depicting everyday life and resistance of individuals and groups covered in ash, representing the coal pollution experienced by the communities of Peñuelas and Guayama. You can read about the pollution here, but essentially two low-income towns on the southside of Puerto Rico are laden with contaminants from the nearby AES power plant and “Peñuelas Technology Park” industrial dump. The ash that coats the towns has deep effects on quality of life, but little is being done to reduce the damage inflicted on these communities.
Some of the portraits and the artist’s project summary in English can be viewed here.
You can read a piece in Spanish about “Contaminados” here.
The photos were in black and white, most taken up close, and all were striking and provocative. Some of my favorite individual portraits included one of a pregnant womxn whose womb was covered in ash, and one of a parent feeding their child a spoonful of ash with their cereal. I love art like this because
a) I am a sucker for portraits.
b) It displays the common and places it on a pedestal that we all need to be seeing and thinking about.
I think it’s neat that famous people like bands and actresses were photographed for the project, seemingly to heighten awareness about it, but the power of the project is in the photos of residents of the ash-ridden towns. It is their narratives that are worthy of the attention. It is their stories that make the art.
I think social practice art, particularly environmental justice artistry, holds incredible potential and implications. Art is an integral part of the revolution and, as a more mission-driven activist, I have to remind myself of this. It was important for me to see this project when I was in Puerto Rico. I had read about the pollution sites at Vieques, but it was necessary for me to bear witness to other places and people who continually deal with environmental pollution.
Environmental justice art does two things, I think:
a) It portrays issues in an accessible and provoking way, often to large audiences.
b) When done right, it uplifts the narratives of the most affected, and financially contributes to their activism.
I don’t know if artist Rodríguez gave profits from this installation to the residents he photographed, but I hope so. As much as I loved this installation, I don’t love that these people have been poisoned every single day for generations. The attention art can gather only goes so far as to inspire. We have to take that inspiration and turn it into action.
El Yunque and the National Park System
On our vacation we also went to El Yunque, the federally owned and operated national park in Puerto Rico. I have a lot of feelings about the existence and maintenance of national parks, places that removed indigenous communities for the sake of ‘preservation and enjoyment,’ but for now I’ll leave it here with the notion that yes, I had a wonderful time in El Yunque, but I wondered if it was at the expense of the Taino people who named the region.
Of course on my vacation I relaxed, soaked up the Sun, spent time at the ocean, and enjoyed eating good food and making memories with my friends. But I was highly conscious of the political and environmental realities of the place I was in. I think this is an essential best practice for all of us who love to wander. It’s easy when you’ve uprooted yourself to feel the whole world is groundless. But everywhere we go, there is indeed ground beneath our feet and people who have relationships with the land we walk upon.
I was in a place that was colonized by the Spanish and then handed over to the United States in 1898. Its people were not considered citizens until 1917 and today still are deprived the democratic right to vote for their federally elected officials. The U.S. Navy occupied part of the island and polluted its population by poisoning the water and soil. U.S. owned and influenced companies continue to poison small communities for the sake of energy and profit production, because the health and safety of poor people is considered inconsequential. There on the island exists a beautiful and important national park, that is maintained by the same government that denies its citizens their own rights and regulates access to the area from the very people that live there. And I know there’s more complicated histories that I couldn’t get a sense of because I was only there for a week and I’m nothing of an expert.
Visiting Puerto Rico as a white American, I was trying to be conscious about my passive and active actions, their implications, and their impact. I felt, and feel, really helpless in my complicity in colonial imperialist institutions as this well-meaning tourist. My presence alone forced people to defer to me in certain ways, to accommodate the fact that I don’t speak Spanish, it used my dollars to reinforce the importance of the tourist industry.
I really struggle with figuring out what I can do, even though I know there are things to be done.
I think education and research in an attempt to understand a place is so critical. I really do recommend reading about the places you go and, better yet, talking to people to learn about their experiences. I also think that is not enough. As this white American who can vote, whose voice is recognized by my government, I have to use that voice to amplify the desires of those who don’t have that power.
With this in mind, these are the things I want to be held accountable to. I had the privilege to take this vacation, and I have the responsibility to not be the only person who benefits from my experience:
Next Steps for Now:
-Continue to try and reduce my shitty tourist footprint by visiting places where people I know are living, buying groceries cooking in, spending money at locally owned business (preferably owned by people of color, and ideally by womxn of color.)
-Contact my Congress people to advocate for Puerto Rican Independence.
-Campaign for the closure of the industries polluting Peñuelas and Guayama.
-Campaign for the courts to recognize the U.S. Navy's responsibility for causing the Vieques health crisis.
-As soon as I have some spare money, financially support Puerto Rican activism, and in the meantime boost it on my platforms. (Taking suggestions for organizations you know and trust!)
-Educate friends/family/strangers on the economic crisis and how the U.S. forced P.R. into defaulting on their debt.
-Learn more about what steps people are asking imperial colonists to take in order to decolonize our personal relationships and ways of life.
I’m going to check back in about these steps with an update and reflection by Aug. 31st. So look forward to that and, of course, feedback and thoughts is always welcome.