Firm roots, fluid futures
November is Puerto Rican Heritage Month, a time to acknowledge the past, act in the present and hope for the future. In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, we have been wrestling with feelings of guilt, despair and anger. Guilt for not being there, despair with feeling useless and anger with institutional apathy. For all the people who have felt this way, this is for you. We write this in honor of those who are on the island, of those came before us, of those who are hopeful, of those who are fighting across seas and still loving the same island que nos dió a luz — that gave birth to us, that brought us light.
Too often news clips and press releases fail to capture the way Puerto Ricans feel in their own words, so we interviewed six Puerto Rican women who are defining for themselves what it means to be Puerto Rican. Being Puerto Rican has never been, is and will never be a monolith of experience, but one thing connecting us is how we carry Puerto Rico, and that which came before us, in our hearts. This is our story in our words.
When we were young our mothers would say, “Te las arreglaste para nacer en una isla,” “You figured out a way to be born on an island.” Not the island of Puerto Rico, but the island of Manhattan (Gloriela) and Hawaii (Angélica). Despite this poetic coincidence, we often found ourselves feeling inadequate. We wanted to be born on that island, not this one. We longed to be surrounded by the sounds and smells that enveloped us and let us know we were home. When asked what Puerto Rico means to her, Yomaira Figueroa, assistant professor of Afro diaspora studies in the departments of English and African American and African Studies at Michigan State University, said, “This island … that is both a homeland and an impossibility. … I am so proud of our diasporic histories and how we have cleaved to ‘home’ across generations and against structures and policies that were created to sever these ties.”
So how do we strengthen our ties? Our struggle to reconcile responsibility and respect, of dancing the lines between insider and outsider, reflect the consequences of colonial policies governing Puerto Rico, wherein Puerto Ricans living in the continental United States have greater political say than those on the island. Given these geographic and political dynamics, how can we engage respectfully with our island counterparts? Where do we go from here? Recognizing the poderosas (powerful women) already doing the work feels like a great start. The women’s voices woven throughout this article exemplify the different and beautiful ways Boricuas are empowering each other to continue reclaiming, remapping and rebuilding our beloved Borinkén.
María Levis Peralta, founder of consulting firm Impactivo, spoke about the importance of leveraging our political opportunities: “Puerto Rico has one nonvoting member in Congress. This means that at the federal-level Puerto Rico only has advocacy power. Thankfully, our power is more expansive than many realize. Puerto Ricans in the diaspora are one of the most powerful tools we have to make our voices heard in Congress. Congress members listen to their constituents and we must utilize our political power to advocate for our island and its future.” We are already powerful and through our relationships with each other, we are empowered to make change.
Through teaching students about the real-life consequences of colonialism — like Delia Fernandez, a professor of history at Michigan State University — the work and voices of Boricua’s communities are able to highlight the political fortitude of ancestors and elders who taught us how to remain resilient in the face of oppression. During Puerto Rican Heritage Month, we are ecstatic to celebrate Boricuas who are using their voices and stories to disrupt disparaging narratives about Puerto Ricans and improve the lives of those on the island and those in the diaspora. Remembering Figueroa’s words, “I am bound up with my kin, ancestors and communities on our island and in diaspora,” our futures are linked and we women are the ones whom we are waiting for.