The Plight of Puerto Rico: Coloniality, Diaspora, and Decolonial Resistance


“The Bible… unlike the books of other ancient peoples, was… the literature of a minor, remote people – and not the literature of its rulers, but of its critics… The prophets of Jerusalem refused to accept the world as it was. They invented the literature of political dissent and, with it, the literature of hope.”
–Amos Elon


Ioriginate from Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island that has been aptly described by a foremost juridical scholar as “the oldest colony of the world.”[1] Christopher Columbus claimed possession of the island for the crown of Castile in 1493 and it remained part of the Spanish empire till 1898, when it was conquered by the United States.

The transfer of imperial sovereignty from Madrid to Washington was accomplished through the two classical ways of solving conflicts among powerful nations: war and diplomacy. War was perpetrated in the tropical Caribbean and the Philippines; diplomacy was negotiated later in elegant and cosmopolitan Paris. No need to consult the natives. Washington, Madrid, and Paris were the sites of privileged historical agency. In early 1898 Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony; at the end of that fateful year, it had become a colony of the United States.

It was the end of the Spanish imperial saga and the initial stages of imperial pax americana. It was part and parcel of the Age of Empire, so aptly named by the British historian Eric Hobsbawm. From the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii, in the Pacific, to Cuba and Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean, the American ideology of manifest destiny, with its vigorous religious undertones, aggressive military perspectives, and strong commercial interests, was transgressing national boundaries. The military conquest of those Pacific and Caribbean nations, according to the president or the United States, William McKinley, took place “under the providence of God and in the name of human progress and civilization.”

We have learnt much from Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatry Chakravorty Spivak, and Walter Mignolo about colonial discourse and postcolonial critique. Even before these four distinguished émigrés, there were the crucial analyses of colonial ideology and mentality drafted by Franz Fanon and Albert Memmi. Also, the critical examination of the strategies of coloniality – military power, economic domination, racial hierarchy, cultural arrogance – by the Peruvian Aníbal Quijano. The colonized subjects providing theoretical paradigms to their colonizers? Dislocated, “out of place”[2] Third World intellectuals giving lessons to the masters of the world and challenging their epistemic dominion? Quite a paradox of these postcolonial times!

Imperial power comprises at least three interrelated domains: political subordination, material appropriation, and ideological justification. Colonial discourse mystifies imperial dominion. It diffuses and affirms imperial ideological hegemony. It crafts by persuasion what the mechanisms of coercion are unable to achieve: the fine-tuned consent and admiration of the colonized subjects. “Rulers who aspire to hegemony… must make out an ideological case that they rule…. on behalf of their subjects.”[3] Its greatest creation is what V. S. Naipaul has called mimic men.

In 1493 the Spaniards came to Puerto Rico with the proclaimed purpose of converting its idolatrous inhabitants to the one and only true religion, Christianity, to teach them how to live according to the European ethical norms of a civil and ordered society, and, as concurrent objective, to reap substantial material benefits for the imperial purveyors of those spiritual goods. As Christopher Columbus wrote in his 1493 report of his transoceanic exploration: “All Christendom ought to feel joyful and make celebrations and give solemn thanks to the Holy Trinity with many solemn prayers for the turning of so many peoples to our holy faith… and afterwards for material benefits, since not only Spain but all Christians will hence have refreshment and profit”.

In 1898 the Americans came to impart upon us, poor tropical barbarians, the blessings of liberty, justice, humanity, and enlightened civilization. To crown its generosity, in 1917, without consulting “the Inhabitants of Porto Rico,” (again, who cares about the views and feelings of colonized subjects?) Washington bestowed upon us the gift of American citizenship. That citizenship has allowed our people to participate in the military adventures of Washington to extend its “empire of freedom,” from the First World War trenches to the streets of Kabul and Baghdad. As an added bonus, we do not need to mess with any of the crucial decisions regarding our political condition and fate. We can rest assured that those decisions, usually important dimensions of democratic sovereignty, are well taken care by the wisdom and benevolence of the powers that be in Washington. How fortunately colonial we Puerto Ricans have been!

Maybe this is another occasion to reiterate Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous query, “can the subaltern speak?” A question that Edward Said dared to answer affirmatively: “Indeed, the subaltern can speak, as the history of liberation movements in the twentieth century eloquently attests.”

Coloniality, migration, and diaspora

To the ambivalence of a postcolonial colony, whose residents as citizens of the empire can claim in the courts the civil liberties of their citizenship but not its political rights, we should add the crucial fact that more than half of the Puerto Rican population resides in mainland United States. Legally, those Puerto Ricans are not migrants. Psychologically and culturally, they are. They belong to the history of modern diasporas. And diasporas are the source of the bewildering multiculturalism of the postmodern mega cities.

Migration and diaspora are crucial dimensions of human history. They constitute an experience shared by many former and present colonial peoples all over the world. Nowadays they have also become important themes of conversation in postcolonial cultural studies. But, as Homi Bhabha has stressed, diaspora is an important object of critical analysis because it is the sociohistorical existential context of many displaced Third World peoples: “For the demography of the new internationalism is the history of postcolonial migration, the narratives of cultural and political diaspora . . . the poetics of exile . . .”

Diaspora entails dislocation, displacement, but also a painful and complex process of forging new strategies to articulate cultural differences and identifications. In the Western cosmopolis, with its heterogeneous and frequently conflicting ethnocultural minorities that belie the mythical e pluribus unum, the émigré exists in ambivalent tension. More than half a century ago, Franz Fanon brilliantly described the peculiar gaze of so many white French people at the growing presence of Black Africans and Caribbeans in their national midst.[4] Scorn and fear are entwined in that stare. The diasporic person frequently feels, alas, “like a man without a passport who is turned away from every harbour,” the anguished dread that haunts the persecuted whisky priest of Graham Greene’s magnificent novel, The Power and the Glory.

Frequently, nostalgia grips his or her soul, in the beautiful words of a painful biblical lamentation:

“By the rivers of Babylon –
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
. . .
How could we sing the Lord’s
in a foreign land?”

Psalm 137:1,4 (NRSV)

Often, however, and sometimes simultaneously, the displacement of migration creates a new space of liberation from the atavistic constraints and bondages of the native cultural community and opens new vistas, perspectives, and horizons. To repressed persons, exile in a metropolis like London, Paris, or New York could convey an expansion of individual autonomy, even if its sinister hidden side might turn out to be despair or death.[5] Diasporic existence, as Bhabha has so forcefully reiterated, questions fixed and static notions of cultural and communal identity. In the diaspora, identity is not conceived as a pure essence to be nostalgically preserved, but as an emancipatory project to be fashioned, in an alien territory, in a foreign language, as a polyphonic process of creative imagination. In many instances, yet, “the restoration of a collective sense of identity and historical agency in the home country may well be mediated through the diaspora.”

As Walter Mignolo has so provocatively asserted, diaspora, as a site of critical enunciation, compels the rethinking of the geopolitical distinction, so dear to many Third World thinkers, between center and periphery, and elicits a border thinking that changes not only the content, but also the terms of intellectual global dialogue. The émigré’s cultural differences produce subaltern significations that resist the cultural cannibalism of the metropolitan melting pot. Diasporic communities are, to quote once more Bhabha, “wandering peoples who will not be contained within the Heim of the national culture and its unisonant discourse, but are themselves the marks of a shifting boundary that alienates the frontiers of the modern nation.”

Migration has become one of the main issues for theories of human rights and theological creativity done in solidarity with the pains and sorrows of displaced communities. Diasporic displacement has been an essential and historical consequence of imperial domination. “There are 65 million displaced persons around the globe… And the mass drowning of migrants has become so routine that it scarcely qualifies as news.”[6]

We have seen, during this last decade, a tragic outcome in many Western and Northern nations: extreme xenophobia. But it also conveys urgent challenges to the ethical sensitivity of religious people and persons of good will. The first step we need to take is to perceive this issue from the perspective of the migrants, to pay cordial (that is, deep from our hearts) attention to their stories of suffering, hope, courage, resistance, ingenuity, and, as so frequently happens in the wildernesses of the American Southwest or deep in the Mediterranean waters, death. Many of the unauthorized migrants have become nobodies, in the apt title of John Bowe’s book, disposable people, in Kevin Bales’ poignant phrase, or, as Zygmunt Bauman poignantly reminds us, wasted lives.[7] Their dire existential situation cannot be grasped without taking into consideration the upsurge in global inequalities in these times of unregulated international financial hegemony. For many human beings the excruciating alternative is between misery in their third world homeland and marginalization in the rich West/North, both fateful destinies intimately linked together.

The existential dislocation of diaspora, its cultural hybridity, recreates the complex intertwined ethnic and racial sources of many migrant communities. Asked to whom does she owe allegiance, Clare, the Jamaican protagonist of Michelle Cliff’s novel No Telephone to Heaven, replies: “I have African, English, Carib in me.” She is a mestiza moving between Kingston, New York, and London, searching for a place to call home, torn between the quest for solidarity in the forging of a common identity and the lure of solitude in a strange land. To be part of a pilgrim diaspora is a difficult and complex challenge, which, to avoid utopian illusions, must be faced having in mind the superb irony of that master of twentieth century skepticism, himself a displaced wanderer, James Joyce: “We were always loyal to lost causes . . . Success is for us the death of the intellect and of the imagination.”

From the margins of empires and metropolitan centers of powers, the crossroads of borders and frontiers, in the proximity of so many different and frequently conflictive cultural worlds, in the maelstroms of the global mega cities and the virtual imagined communities of the internet, arise constantly new challenges to the international structures of power and control. There colonial discourses meet their nemesis: postcolonial defiance. In the ecumenicity of diaspora, to quote again Bhabha, “we must not change merely the narratives of our histories, but transform our sense of what it means to live, to be, in other times and different places, both human and historical.”

It is usually there, in the counter invasion of the “others,” the colonized barbarians, deep into the realms of the lords of the world, that the silenced peoples find the sonority of their voices and reconfigure their historical sagas into meaningful human stories. The quasi-beastly shadows of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) dare to disrupt the imperial monologue. They hybridize the language of the colonizers to reshape and narrate their own histories. As Chinua Achebe, engaged in a critical dialogue with the specter of Conrad, so eloquently has written in a text significantly titled Home and Exile, “My hope for the twenty-first [century] is that it will see the first fruits . . . of the process of ‘re-storying’ peoples who had been knocked silent by the trauma of all kinds of dispossession.”

Puerto Ricans constitute an important part of the US Latino/Hispanic population, that sector of the American society whose growth, in the view of many, enriches multicultural diversity, but has also led Samuel P. Huntington to warn that it constitutes a “major potential threat to the cultural and possibly political integrity of the United States.”[8] How interesting that the former prophet of the “clash of civilizations,” beyond the frontiers of the American colossus, became the apostle of the “clash of cultures,” within its borders. According to this eminent Harvard professor, the main problem of Latino/Hispanics is not the illegality in which many of them incur to reside in the US, but the threat they represent to the American national identity and its allegedly traditional “Anglo-Protestant” culture.

In that clash of cultures, we Puerto Ricans are distinguished warriors. We excel in the “double consciousness,” the transculturation, and the border thinking that Walter Mignolo has so suggestively rescued from the African American W. E. B. Dubois, the Cuban Fernando Ortiz, and the Chicana Gloria Anzaldúa. In Puerto Rico, we take delight in our Spanish language, in the mainland we share the linguistic fate of the diaspora, we experience “the pain and perverse pleasure of writing in a second language,” in the words of that exceptional Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot. The experience of heteroglossia, of thinking, speaking, and writing in a different language, opens unexpected spaces for a heterodox understanding of the hybridizing encounters of peoples and cultures. For, as Mikhail Bakhtin so adeptly has written, “the word lives, as it were, on the boundary between its own context and another, alien, context.”

The colonial situation, encompassing its political and juridical subjugation, its ensuing cultural symbiosis, and the persisting socioeconomics inequities, constitute the historical matrix of many modern diasporas and, thus, a crucial source of the multicultural collisions in the imperial metropolitan centers. The postmodern and postcolonial mega cities compress times and spaces into borderlands of cultures, religiosities, traditions, and values. There it is impossible to evade the gaze of the others and the primordial biblical question — “am I my brother’s keeper?” — acquires new connotations and urgency. A new sensitivity has to be forged to the rendering ambivalences, the sorrows and joys, of diasporic existence of the peoples who live day and night with the uncanny feeling of existing as Gentile aliens within the gates of holy Jerusalem. Always remembering that we belong to a colonized and subordinated nation and thus we are called to creatively imagine and forge a decolonial theology.

In the borderlands of the empire a new poetic of political and decolonizing resistance is developed, as the late Gloria Anzaldúa so hauntingly perceived:

“In the Borderlands
you are the battleground
where enemies are kin to each other;
you are at home, a stranger . . .
To survive in the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.”

[1] José Trías Monge, Puerto Rico: The Trials of the Oldest Colony in the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

[2] Edward Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (New York: Knopf, 1999).

[3] James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 18.

[4] Franz Fanon, Peau Noir, Masques Blancs (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952).

[5] This was the case for two creative Caribbean writers, marginalized and despised in their homelands, the Cuban Reinaldo Arenas and the Puerto Rican Manuel Ramos-Otero, who found in New York a wider horizon for their literary talents, a greater realm of personal freedom, and AIDS related death. See Rubén Ríos-Avila, “Caribbean Dislocations: Arenas and Ramos Otero in New York,” in Sylvia Molloy and Robert M. Irwin, eds., Hispanisms and Homosexualities (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 101-122.

[6] Jason DeParle, “The Sea Swallows People,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. LXIV, No. 3, February 23, 2017, 31.

[7] John Bowe, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy (New York: Random House, 2007); Kevin Bales, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004); Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts (Cambridge: Polity, 2004).

[8] Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 243.

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