examining "BoriquEn"

Figure 1: Man protesting in front of an all-black Puerto Rican flag, a symbol of dissent (Haaretz, 2017).

Figure 1: Man protesting in front of an all-black Puerto Rican flag, a symbol of dissent (Haaretz, 2017).

 

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. The Category 4 storm was one of the wettest and most violent storms to ever hit Puerto Rico. In its wake, the island suffers from: extensive damage to electric and water infrastructural systems, severed emergency response systems, extensive damage to housing, and a lack of food, potable water, and gasoline. Following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico finds itself at a standstill. Without food, water, and basic services (like electricity), the island is threatened by multiple environmental and social hazards. This research marks the beginning of a multi-year project examining long-term rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico by asking: What does equitable redevelopment look like and how is it defined in Puerto Rico? The first phase of this work examines the role of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. Analysis of existing data sources from status.pr, news articles, Facebook posts, and Reddit groups will form the base of the project and, hopefully, a peer-reviewed publication.

Figure 2: The border of the United States exerts a violent force on Puerto Rico, the distance creates a disconnected zone of sovereignty that exacerbates the island's second-class citizenship (Rivera, 2017). This disconnected sovereignty also distances the Puerto Rico diaspora from the island, making diaspora-directed redevelopment efforts difficult to manage.

Figure 3: #YoNoMeQuito -- "I will not give up," Puerto Rico has been experiencing an "emptying" of the island since the turn of the century (Rivera, 2017). Pew Research Center estimates that 48,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to the mainland U.S. between 2010 and 2013 alone, with another 100,000 leaving the island after Hurricane Maria.

The Puerto Rican Diaspora

An estimated 4.9 million people describe themselves as "Puerto Rican" in the mainland United States. This diaspora outnumbers the population in Puerto Rico, 3.4 million. As such, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rican diaspora constituted a major potential life line for the island. However, lack of communications and sluggish federal response left the diaspora disconnected from the island. Examining the geopolitical boundaries between the mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico (Figure 2), the disconnection becomes apparent. Furthermore, this disconnection sharply separates Puerto Rican identity between "mainlander" and "islander" in a highly individualized form of identity that downplays the role of systemic issues and coloniality. As an example, the decision to leave the island or stay is highly contentious, even in the wake of Hurricane Maria. There are immense pressures to stay on the island and fight against its hollowing out (see the #YoNoMeQuito movement); however, the island is saddled with an immense debt that is dissolving public services and high paying jobs. The decision to stay or leave then becomes fraught with discussions of what it means to be a "good citizen."

Figure 4: Percentage of the Puerto Rican population with access to electricity following Hurricane Maria (Rivera, 2017; Data from status.pr).

Figure 5: Percentage of the population with access to water, broken down by regions (Rivera, 2017; Data from status.pr).

Figure 6: Percentage of the Puerto Rican population with access to water following Hurricane Maria (Rivera, 2017; Data from status.pr).

debt and disinvestment

The enormous Puerto Rican debt disallows any investments in public services and utilities. Unable to declare bankruptcy to escape it, the debt is eating away at Puerto Rico's most basic social goods. This is not occurring without a fight. As an example, prior to Hurricane Maria, students at all eleven of the University of Puerto Rico's (UPR) campuses held a two-month walk-out and barricaded the university to protest proposed cuts to the university budget. Their mantra was "cerrar para abrir" or "close to open." The doors of the Río Piedras campus was sealed shut, preventing the semester from commencing.

The enormous debt has also strained basic utilities across the island. Since the debt must be paid before any investments to infrastructure, Puerto Rico's utilities have fallen into a state of disrepair. Because of this, initial studies of social media accounts prior to Hurricane Maria showed that many Puerto Ricans knew power and water would disappear following Hurricane Maria. What was surprising to Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of the hurricane, then, was the slow federal disaster response that continues to cripple the island. Figures 4-6 show how slow the response rate has been. 

 

Figure 7: Map of flood-prone areas in Puerto Rico (Rivera, 2017; Data from FEMA and Puerto Rico Open Data).

Next Steps

From this starting point, the research will begin engaging Puerto Rican communities through an activist-scholar project aimed at creating equitable redevelopment plans. The community will engage in defining what "equitable" means and also in participatory mapping exercises to envision their communities in a more social and environmentally resilient manner.

 

Funding Sources

CU-Boulder Innovative Seed Grant (With Professors Amy Javernick-Will and Abbie Liel in Civil Engineering)

CU-Boulder Environmental Design Start-Up Grant