Puerto Rico Resilience Fund - 24 Months
Lolita, Maria, and I
The Possible Puerto Rican Nation
by Irene Vilar*
¡Libertar a tu Pueblo,-
no es delito o pecado!
¡Es sublime deber!
¡Es tu deber sagrado!
-Lolita Lebron, "Grito Primoroso"
When five years ago I received a Guggenheim fellowship to write a third memoir I thought I knew the story to tell. It would be titled “An Impossible Island” and give the environmental testimony of my hometown of Barceloneta –and the island of Puerto Rico- charting my own journey toward becoming a conservation advocate and the shift of an identity from ethnic to ecological through the experience of migration and motherhood. I grew up in the most polluted region of Puerto Rico and in one of the most environmentally battered areas in the Americas. My coastal town of Barceloneta looked out at the Atlantic Ocean, and yet, set against that pristine view, the largest pharmaceutical industrial complex in the world, surrounded the sugarcane fields (and later pineapple agricultural lands), looked back at us, damning the town with polluted water and toxic chemicals: PAH'sm TBT, and POP pesticides such as DDT, dieldrin, endrin, toxaphene, and plenty more. A mile from my backyard swing, Pfizer leaked out methylene chloride gas, violating time after time the Clean Air Act. Right next to Pfizer, Upjohn leaked right into our aquifers thousands of gallons each year of waste material containing poisonous carbon tetrachloride. Fourteen industries determined the quality of the air I breathed and the water I drank. This power was granted in part because of Barceloneta’s underground water reservoirs. The water of my town was so pure that it required little treatment for use in the manufacture of pharmaceutical products.
My childhood memories are riddled with dizziness, nausea, stomach pain, hospital visits, and the burying of dead fish that often covered the sand beaches surrounding my home in the barrio Palmas Altas. The story then was to merge the personal and familial with the historical, political, and environmental, creating a document that, as in my previous two memoirs, The Ladies Gallery: A Memoir of Family Secrets and Impossible Motherhood, would be both intimate and political, only that this one would attempt to open a new chapter in the literature of place and inheritance and shed a personal light on environmental injustice, which too often is ignored for its complexity, abstraction, and the minority status of those most affected. If an EPA report could be written with a body this memoir would be it. And it would intertwine a historical account of post-World War II America's love affair with heavy industry--regardless of its deadly by-products and its imperialistic lethal effects on American territories--with specific details of ailments my classmates and I suffered as we ran down the streets, chasing DDT-spraying airplanes and trucks and drinking water contaminated with lead, mercury, cadmium, tritium, alpha radiation, benzenes, PCBs, chlordane, vinyl chloride, lime, mercury, cyanide.
The story would include shards of case studies, piecing together cause and effect, to show the inner tangle of toxic mental life: the depression, listlessness, confusion, and self-medication of barely understood symptoms. Toxicity affects both body and mind and so I was to ask myself and the reader, Is this toxicity a family disease or a national disease, and how far can its causes be traced? Is it heredity? Is it toxicity? “Impossible Island” was to be part case study, part phenomenology of altered consciousness and ultimately an inquiry into environmental responsibility and property rights, colonialism, and the nature and rights of the Commons. The structure of the narrative would be built upon two frames, each made of a ten-year timeline. The first frame was to begin with my birth and my family’s move to the town of Barceloneta in 1969. My father had been named chief civil engineer of the Cambalache Sugar Processing Plant and granted a house in the midst of the sugar cane fields.
The following ten years were to be cushioned by a quasi dream of American material success with reigning processed foods, and denial, passing over in silence—and made the subject of jokes-- of the abundant evidence of the toxic danger around us]. This frame was to end with my mother’s suicide and my subsequent departure to boarding school in New Hampshire. The second frame would begin in 2004 with the birth of my daughter, Loretta, in Colorado, which closed my last memoir, Impossible Motherhood, and would end this year in DC on the steps of the Capitol after the Peoples Climate March, my grandmother, Lolita Lebron, having gone up those very steps sixty years earlier to open fire on the US Congress. We would cross paths and the three memoirs come full circle.
But the months and the years piled up and everything but writing took precedence. Little did I know I was only waiting for Maria. “Impossible Island” is no more. All I care for now is the opposite of that story. I want to document the “Possible Nation” Maria is birthing and discover if and how my grandmother’s struggle for Puerto Rico’s sovereignty speaks through me today in response to Maria’s attack on the colony of Puerto Rico. Because, just as my grandmother attacked the US Congress six decades ago to lift the veil of injustice and illegal colonialism holding down our potentialities as a people and as a nation, Maria’s assault has laid bare my island as a colony by another name, denied basic rights afforded to states, and preyed upon by disaster capitalism.
If my grandmother was reduced to a terrorist status and partially failed at her main goal--to bring international attention to Puerto Rico--Hurricane Maria succeeded. A 100-year colonial history truth teller, Maria is truly La Revolucionaria. Eight weeks since the hurricane's landfall, millions on the island are still suffering. Twenty five percent lack access to clean drinking water and fifty five percent lack electricity. Food and medicine remain scarce in significant parts of the island. Despite all this, the federal response continues to be almost criminally insufficient and what little there was is already being scaled back. The General in charge of the relief effort has just announced he will be departing from Puerto Rico. President Trump is delivering on his threat that the federal forces cannot stay in Puerto Rico “forever.” His insults and attacks in the early days of the post-Maria crisis made grotesque in his paper towel toss continue to live in the $4.9 billion in aid for Puerto Rico offered as a loan, not a grant. True recovery is estimated at $100 billion plus and mandates evaluating the colonial foundations determining the island’s past, present, and future, and doing away with the unfair and illegal laws preventing sustainable and resilient recovery.
Trump’s response to the hurricane is consistent with U.S. colonial history and white supremacy. When our heroic San Juan’s Mayor criticized the Administration’s slow response, Trump uttered racial stereotypes of Puerto Ricans as lazy people who “wanted everything to be done for them.” But this should not surprise us. The entire legal structure that defines Puerto Rico as an unincorporated territory that “belongs to but is not part of the U.S.” since 1898 is anchored in race. Through the Insular Cases (1901-1922), the Supreme Court advanced laws to distinguish incorporated territories on the path to statehood from the newly gained possessions (Guam, Philippines, Puerto Rico). The laws justified why the constitution didn’t apply across the board. The court that ruled on these cases was made up of the same justices who reached the 1896 “separate but equal” decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, upholding state racial-segregation laws. The history of our U.S. citizenship only expands on this white supremacy story and had little to do with citizenship rights. Through the little-known Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917, Congress extended a “partial” U.S. citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico with no voting rights. Its people belonged to “lesser races” and could not understand “Anglo-Saxon principles.” And political incorporation could result in “nonwhites” governing the “whole American people”. In response to the growing opposition to American colonial rule, citizenship's primary aim was to promote loyalty to the U.S., criminalize pro-independence action, and underscore that the island was not a polity but American property.
Today Puerto Rico and the Caribbean islands constitute the frontlines of climate injustice in the Western Hemisphere. They contribute the least to emissions and yet they will be destroyed by the actions of the United States and other first world carbon use abusers if a shared responsibility is not addressed. To make climate change’s disproportionate burden on Puerto Rico even more redundant, there is its political, quasi U.S. territory status, placing noose after noose, like the Jones Act and Chapter 9 ineligibility of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, on its already fragile neck.
Let us repeat because it deserves repetition: Puerto Ricans, despite being U.S. citizens, even if “partial” ones, and despite having served and died in every American war for the past 100 years, have no vote in Congress and no vote for president. The historical absurdity of the Puerto Rico-U.S. colonial relationship prevents recovery and makes for a ground zero global debate on what is sovereign and the meaning of the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (also known as the Special Committee on decolonization or C-24), established in 1961 by the General Assembly with the purpose of monitoring the implementation of the Declaration (General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960). Puerto Rico is currently not included in the list of the UN 17 Non Self Governing Territories (the Virgin Islands are) thanks to that Commonwealth -or unincorporated territory- status of 1952 that has my island stuck in a no man’s land of colonial like laws that denies it benefits that would come with statehood or independence. Maria is revealing this truth loud and clear.
This then is my first attempt at a monthly testimonial grounded in the Puerto Rico Resilience Fund 24-Months campaign our non profit, Americas for Conservation + the Arts, in partnership with various organizations, and the #JustRecovery efforts of Uprose and the Climate Justice Alliance, launched shortly after Maria. Our campaign is grounded on powering the restoration and the establishment of local sustainable food systems and reforestation of decimated forests. We are committed to help power authentic civic engagement through Promotores Verdes civic leaders and the mobilization of "solidarity brigades" (small groups mobilized for the cleaning phase, planting phase, and overall education of farmers communities on sustainable practices) with our Guagua Solidaria. Ecologica. Puertorriquena. We are invested in advancing self-sustaining farms that are autonomous and efficient with irrigation systems, including rainwater collection techniques & clean solar energy. And we are determined to chronicle and document the relief and rebuild efforts to use as a model of resilient communities’ ability to rebuild in the face of climate change destruction.
But where to start? How do I begin to tell the story of this “possible nation”?
Let’s go to the beginning, the day I died. I was eight and Jimmy Carter was president of the United States. My uncle had parked the car on the side of the road a kilometer away from my house as thousands had blocked the road in an attempt to get a glimpse of my grandmother visiting from prison with a special accommodation granted by the President. We walked through a mass of bodies that crowded the cane fields around us while I fought the story I was told the day before: My mother had gone to heaven, they said, and today was her funeral. I didn't know then what I know now, that this kilometer walk, me fighting that story, was me fighting for my own life, for when a mother dies, you die too.
I have gone back to this day of March 1st, 1977 many times so that I may discover something new not given to me then nor through the years. This is the eternal predicament of writers. Each time I see the same things, the blinding sun above and the asphalt below, the colorful shameless umbrellas, the shiny back of black polyester clothes, the purses hitting me in the face. No new discoveries. Until now. A Puerto Rican flag is over my shoulders and Lolita holds me too close to her chest so that I can’t breathe, whispering comfort that scares me as much as it soothes me. She says “your mother didn’t go far, Mirenita, she’ll be watching over you and we all need mothers, yes, but more than mothers we need to be free, and the fight must go on, you hear me well, Mirene?” Her breath is cool on my cheek and everyone around us, almost in unison, chants those three playful syllables that make up the name of my eleven-year-old, second daughter, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita with a cadence that still today, if I will it, I can hear.
I said yes to her. I only remember this now. I said “Si” almost with gusto, louder than she spoke her own words. I was ashamed of the life in my voice. I remember that too now. I can feel it. That “Si” was the first thing I ever said to my grandmother and it was a Yes that sealed my mother’s death. I didn’t fight the story any longer. My mother was dead. I was dead. This is a discovery. Today. Now. Telling you this. That “Si” is the key to our “Possible Nation”.
To be continued next month...
*This the first of twenty four testimonials by AFC+A`s founder Irene Vilar