The devastating impact of two major hurricanes in 2017 and their ongoing aftereffects reveal the inequalities that have long marked the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Following the storm’s passage, when the media showed images of Puerto Ricans standing in the rubble of their homes or drinking from contaminated bodies of water, a narrative emerged that the U.S. government needed to step up recovery efforts because “Puerto Ricans are Americans.” The reality, however, is that American citizenship has seldom extended bodily protection or sympathetic recognition to racially and economically marginalized others under the dominion of the United States.
This was true following Hurricane Katrina, when Black residents of New Orleans’ low-income communities were left to die in the flooding, or stranded on rooftops waiting for help that never came. And, after Hurricane Maria, it is true for those Puerto Ricans who continue to live without electricity and struggle to survive only to be told by the current U.S. President that “they want everything done for them.” Citizenship provides little refuge because it always carries within it violent cleavages and deadly exclusions that reinforce structures of racial, economic, and colonial domination.
Narratives about Puerto Ricans as a people spatially situated within the territorial “protection” of the United States also tend to hide the fact that the United States did not come to Puerto Rico in order to offer assistance, but to take territory and assume strategic military position in the Caribbean through force. Conversations in the contexts of U.S. media, politics, and everyday life are predicated on a myth that the United States has failed to deliver aid; these conversations hinge upon an untenable contradiction: the expectation that the United States is going to rescue that which it plundered.