In mourning Papi, I am also mourning the possible destruction of the Puerto Rico familiar to Papi and me.
By Michelle Carroll
On Wednesday, September 20th, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. The following afternoon, we lost Papi.
My 101-year-old grandfather passed away in an antiseptic hospital bed in Central New Jersey, hundreds of miles away from Puerto Rico. I believe it was the distance as well as his old age that shielded him from the knowledge that once again the island had been failed by its colonial overseers. In Papi’s last days, he returned to the memories of an island and people untouched by the current devastation. He spoke often of the family returning to Puerto Rico, buying a small home and growing mangoes, plantanos maduros, and aguacate. His death and the aftermath of the hurricane makes his dream impossible.
Papi was born in 1916 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. He was born less than twenty years after the United States acquired the island as its newest colony and only one year before Puerto Ricans were afforded (second-class) citizenship by Congress. According to family history, his mother was a maid in a hacienda owned by a wealthy Spanish man, a holdover from the previous three hundred years of colonization by the Spanish. Papi’s father, the owner of the farm, was never in the picture.
In the 20 years before Papi was born, the United States media began a racist campaign against the Puerto Ricans. In newspapers across the mainland, brown and black Boricuas were described as lazy, simple-minded alcoholics. Racist stereotypes normalized the idea that Puerto Ricans were subhuman, and thus worth less than one white American. These stereotypes allowed for corporations to profit off of the island’s farmland and its people—in the 1920’s, a Puerto Rican farmhand was paid $4 a week compared to the mainland average of $35. After the island was forcibly colonized, the United States’ government and corporations spent the next two decades stripping the island of its resources, agency, and culture.
Papi once mentioned that he used to walk over an hour from Santurce to go to school in Viejo San Juan. After that laborious walk, he sat through federally mandated English lessons intent on re-educating Boricua laborer children to be complacent and replaceable cogs in the capitalist wheel governing Puerto Rico. He was able to achieve a sixth-grade education.
As a child, I was wholly unaware of Puerto Rico’s history of violence and how it intersected with my family’s history. How could anyone explain this to a child so far removed from an island, thousands of miles away from Central Jersey? Despite my American-ness, Papi always spoke to me of Puerto Rico, if I asked. I remember in Elementary School I asked how he came to New York. He said that he climbed aboard a ship and stowed away in a container in its bowels. He laughed big and loud in recounting this adventure.
To a nine-year-old, there was nothing more romantic than sneaking aboard a ship to begin a new, sparkling life in New York City. I know now that the Puerto Rico Papi left offered a young enterprising man few opportunities beyond factory work, poverty, and an early death. Instead, he illegally boarded a ship without paying to go to a place that openly hated Puerto Ricans.
Papi loved music. All types, it didn’t matter what genre. When he moved into the nursing home to be with my grandmother, he brought his electric piano, boxes of music books, and a treasured photograph of his younger self playing the infamous Copacabana. My memories of Papi are never without a vibrant soundtrack. It’s clear that Papi’s connection to Puerto Rico was kept alive through his love of music. Despite leaving Puerto Rico as a young man and raising children in New York, he never truly left the community of his childhood. Even now, I can still picture Papi’s excitement when he excitedly shared Daddy Yankee’s infamous Barro Fino album in 2004 with my mother on our living room stereo (Barro Fino introduced the world to the seminal Gasolina). My inheritance is my love of salsa and bomba.
When I was 24, I lost my job. Groundless and without purpose, I decided to finally go to Puerto Rico. I needed to go home. It was during these few months that all of the snippets of culture, language, and memory finally coalesced into experience. I visited ancestral places. I walked the streets of Santurce, where Papi was born, I spent Christmas Eve in a bar around the block from where my grandmother grew up, and I fell asleep to the sounds of the coqui, a frog that had lived in an imagination fueled by Papi’s stories.
Spending time in Puerto Rico helped me to build my own relationship with the island. My understanding of Puerto Rico became more than just a timeline of colonization or a child’s fantastical musings of an island covered in rain forests—I could contextualize Papi’s life within a larger understanding of the history and current events on the island. My connection to Puerto Rico became more than my grandfather’s memories.
When Papi was born, Santurce was an impoverished farming community forcibly beholden to corporate farms that employed Boricuas on land that was once owned by Boricuas. Before Hurricane Maria, Santurce was a thriving neighborhood with world-class street art and a drive to temper the nearly unstoppable force of gentrification. Today, it is one of the few communities on the island that has access to free, spotty WIFI.
My personal grief is compounded by a boundless heartache shared with the Puerto Rican diaspora—an agonizing feeling of powerlessness and impotence that is made worse only by the timeless truth that help is not coming for our island. As the news continues to slowly meander its way off the island, it’s clear that the larger cities are receiving a small level of aid. But the diaspora has heard little to nothing of the more vulnerable areas of the island. We know that the United States Congress and Wall Street will look for ways to profit in rebuilding the island. We know that many people will lose their lives while waiting for adequate water, food, and electricity.
In the 200 years of colonization, the United States government and corporate structure have held Puerto Rico hostage in the effort to squeeze more profit out of its people and land. Hurricane Maria will not usher in reform or a push to self-determination—it is the death knell of a place systematically consumed by capitalism and colonization. In mourning Papi, I am also mourning the possible destruction of the Puerto Rico familiar to Papi and me.
Please continue to donate to grassroots organizations serving Puerto Rico. Including the Coalición Puertorriqueña Contra la Violencia Doméstica y Agresión Sexual here: https://www.paypal.com/donateCPM
Author Bio: Michelle Carroll is an online feminist activist and co-founder of the NYC Feminist Action Network community. By day, she is the Director of Campus Projects for the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault. You can follow her musings on @troy_tastic.