by Silverio Perez
Translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell
I travel through the Diaspora as the country rapidly diasporates before our very eyes. Thanks to the passport I carry: my voice, a book and a guitar, doors open to me, allowing me a better understanding of the phenomenon of the diaspora.
First, I want to understand the concept of the diaspora, since I don’t like to simply repeat things like a parrot without truly understanding their substance. Diaspora means, in migratory terms, the dispersion of the members of a country across other lands. But I like the botanical concept of diaspora better. This is the phenomenon through which plants disseminate their seeds in order to maximize their propagation. In other words, it’s a strategy. Some plants expose their seeds and the wind carries them off to distant places. Others produce an internal explosion that expels them. Well then, Puerto Rico is a seedpod which, because of conscious internal processes, has strategically expelled its seeds off the island. Each seed germinated in the terrain in which it landed and in accordance with its individual capacity for survival.
From the book I carry with me, I extract some information about those first seeds sent into flight. It is not a coincidence that this occurred after the San Ciriaco hurricane of 1899. The sugar cane workers’ salary in those days was between 30 and 50 cents a day. And, just like today, despite the historical distance between then and now, country folk came down from the mountains to the city, towards the port towns of Ponce and Guánica, seduced by the promise of good salaries, food and a better quality of life. The newly arrived governmental regime began to export these unwanted poor: it sent them to Hawaii. On November 22, 1900, the seed began its long journey: by boat to New Orleans, by train to Los Angeles, by ship to Hawaii. Some stayed in San Francisco, not being able to withstand the subhuman conditions on the ships on which they were transported. There they established a Puerto Rican community, the seed of the diaspora. Others put down roots in Hawaii, planting sugar cane and pineapple, but they never received what had been promised to them. There are tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans living there today, descendants of those first arrivals. Some of them imported the coquí, God only knows how, so that that tiny frog, the symbol of our identity, might remind them every night or rainy day, of where they came from.
The internal force that has compelled the Puerto Rican seedpod to expel its seeds has almost always been inequality heightened by misfortune. After Hurricane Felipe made landfall on September 11, 1928, Rafael Hernández came to the island and bore witness to the poverty and desperation suffered by the people. When he returned home to Harlem, New York, he composed Lamento borincano in which he asks, just like the jibarito of his song: “Dear God, what will become of Puerto Rico; what will become of my children and my home?” That song has traveled around the world many times over because it is such an accurate portrait of the Puerto Rico that existed thirty-two years after the invasion.
The Puerto Rican diaspora is not one single thing. It is beautiful in its diversity, its exquisite complexity, and it deserves to be approached with honesty and respect from those of us still on the island. The bridge of communication, being a bridge, after all, should go in both directions, because we have much to learn from one another.
Any politician from the island who expects to use the diaspora in service of his or her own immediate ideological objectives will be met with a great surprise. Those people of the diaspora have struggled mightily, they have suffered discrimination and rejection first hand, they have lived inside the belly of the beast and they know it well. Be careful. That approach could backfire. We must treat the diaspora with humility and respect. In each city of the diaspora we will see a different outline, but there will always be a common thread that unites us all: the pride of being Puerto Rican, that indelible characteristic that ensures that the seed produces the same plant no matter where it lands. This is why, no matter which generation of the diaspora they belong to, the people all keep singing: “Mother Puerto Rico calls to me, this country is not mine, Puerto Rico is pure flame, and here I’m dying of cold.”
This is a part of a series of 24 chronicles that will be published weekly in English and Spanish, as a part of www.24weeks.us.