Eduardo Lalo

Isla en su tinta

Por Eduardo Lalo
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Unnatural Disaster: Puerto Rico and Hurricane María

Nota editorial: Esta conferencia de Eduardo Lalo se dio el 15 de junio de 2018 en el marco del Simposio Puerto Rico After Hurricane María: Culture, Politics, Place, organizado por María Pilar Blanco en la Universidad de Oxford, Inglaterra.

I write more than 250 days after hurricane María barrelled across Puerto Rico on September 20th, 2017, more than eight months ago. Exactly two weeks earlier another enormous hurricane, Irma, brushed lightly the north coast of the island, before veering west and causing great destruction throughout Cuba. Apparently, we were lucky then; after all, that was what people were saying in the streets, in the newspapers and radio and television stations. Time and time again, politicians and talk-show hosts repeated that our island was blessed. Somehow, hurricanes miracously changed course when they were about to make landfall in Puerto Rico and the havoc was diverted to other islands and continental areas of the Caribbean. 

This presumption was a product of a magical thinking that ignored or was blind to the history of Puerto Rico and its relationship with devastating hurricanes. We had been “lucky” with Irma, but that was only a self-serving mirage, because at the time, in the immediate days after Irma's slight contact with Puerto Rico, most of the population was suffering an inexplicable blackout. In the case of my neighborhood, it took 13 days for electric power to come back. I remember how my wife, my youngest son and myself celebrated, when all of the sudden, in the middle of absolute darkness, a lamp went on.

However, the exhilaration of recuperating a normal life was to be short-lived. In just 48 hours, Hurricane María was to reach the eastern islands of the Puerto Rican archipelago, and soon after midnight its first gales were felt in San Juan. For almost 20 hours, there were hurricane force winds and tremendous rains. During the more intense phase of the storm, my family spent three hours huddled inside a bathroom. It was a miracle that the windows of our old house resisted the winds. From there we could see, shortly after daybreak, that the water level on the street was becoming dangerously high and that a fallen tree was blocking our driveway. We soon found out that all radio stations were off the air and that there was no telephone or internet services.

Those who were fortunate enough to still have a house without serious damage, clustered together on the first night in front of candles and flashlights to eat crackers, fruit, and canned tuna. My family spent the next 72 days without electricity. Today, more than 250 days after the hurricane's passing, there are still thousands of Puerto Ricans for whom time stood still and seem to be on day one of the crisis.

The blessings that the politicians and commentators had alluded to, that sort of divine shield of protection, proved to be just another unfulfilled campaign promise. The delusions of our government seemed to have no limits; just a few months earlier it had organized a referendum fostering the illusion of American statehood for Puerto Rico in which a mere 20% of the electorate participated. Their ineptitude went beyond geography and history, beyond responsibility and even common sense. The day after the storm, they did not even have a way to communicate effectively with the population. They were not able to send or receive messages from entire regions of the country.

The unnaturalness of history had hit us harshly, and the people in power were shockingly unprepared. The colonial isolation of our country could not summon a fantastic extirpation from the Caribbean Sea out of thin air. We were soon to understand that we were not, as some believe in both Washington and San Juan, “American citizens residing in Puerto Rico”, but simply and unavoidably Puerto Ricans, another people of the Caribbean.

Two days after the storm, I went out with my wife on our bicycles. I wanted to ride from Guaynabo, on the outskirts of San Juan, to Río Piedras, to see the state of the University of Puerto Rico's main campus where I have worked for three decades. Streets and avenues were filled with the debris of roofs, signs, fallen lampposts and trees. There were no traffic lights and circulation was chaotic. Slowly, we zigzagged our way through Roosevelt Avenue and entered a sector called El Vedado where we used to live. Then we got to Ponce de León Avenue and saw at a distance the iconic clock tower of the University. At least, it was still standing.

When we arrived, although all the gates were locked, never before we had been able to see the old buildings so distinctly. I suddenly realized how this came to be: there were almost no trees left. The campus, as the whole city, seemed to have been bombarded.

We rode into the streets of Río Piedras. Somehow, there the devastation seemed to be less prominent and out of place: it was just another added layer of decay, ruin, and abandonment. Nevertheless, there was something eerie lurking there; a never experienced silence that gave the impression of living outside of time. No engines or electrical appliances could be heard, no any human voices. This was something that could be expected. Riding the empty and dilapidated streets, feeling the breeze on my face, I realized all of the sudden what created the uncanny silence: there were no birds anywhere.

Probably on the third night, I was finally able to tune in to a radio station. It was the only one that could be heard in San Juan's Metropolitan Area and probably on the whole island. I must say that it was sort of a disappointment. WAPA Radio is known for its extreme right-wing ideology and its pro-statehood demagoguery. Its offerings are so outlandish and sometimes obnoxious that at times it seems a parody of its partisanship.

Fortunately, for the days and nights to come, it offered company and some comfort. The usual gang of zealots were off the air and they gave the microphones to people that could be considered journalists. However, there not seemed to be any news. The station was used instead as a collective telephone. People came or called in and sent messages to their relatives or tried to alert the government about people in plight. Nobody knew if anyone was listening. Hour after hour a succession of calls for help went on and on. For the most part, they were lost in the dense darkness of a country without power and hope.

Soon time stopped to a grinding halt. When the news services of most of the world were showing scenes of severe devastation and human misery, most of the population on the island had a limited sense of what had and was happening. Sadly, even if it had been shell-shocked, the illusion of Puerto Rico's exceptionality, the unheard off condition of a “blessed” land, was still influencing the perception of the moment. But the rains and winds of reality never stopped hitting us, even if meteorological conditions had changed from a hurricane to a stifling all day and night heat plagued by Biblical swarms of insects.

On the radio a cohort of government officials gave incomplete and contradictory information in which governor Ricardo Rosselló was always mentioned. The strategy was crude and seemed out of place. Someone wanted to use the emergency to build up the image of a young and inexperienced politician. Even in times like these, when supplies of food and water were scarce and quickly consumed to their end, obscure political collaborators were thinking about strengthening their chances in the elections that were going to be held in three years.

The truth, we were soon to find out, was that the government was not at all prepared to cope with the hurricane. It had no reserves of food, water or fuel; it had no alternative ways of communication, other than the private cell-phone companies whose systems were either inoperable or handicapped by physical inaccessibility to their antennas and the absence of electric power. Countless communities were sealed off by landslides, people had died or were in the process of doing so, and the local authorities were absent or inaccessible.

The State had disappeared and everywhere people came together to find ways to survive. They opened roads, shared resources, rebuilt bridges, sent emissaries out of the central mountains to try to reach the capital with their desperate messages. The international airport seemed like a refugee camp for the elderly and the sick. Businesses, industries, schools, shops, restaurants closed indefinitely. For weeks we lived in a blank calendar. No dates were given for anything.

Many months later, we still live in a world of imprecisions. It is estimated that more than 400,000 people left Puerto Rico and nobody seems to know how many have since returned. The 16 deaths famously reported by Governor Rosselló to President Trump, during the latter's infamous lunch stop in a San Juan under siege, have increased to 4,645 according to a recent Harvard University study. The many millions of dollars in emergency relief, that Puerto Rico was supposed to receive from the United States in emergency relief, never seemed to have materialized. At a maddening slow pace, street by street, electric power has been reinstalled, although there are still towns and sectors of cities where darkness reigns until today. Life goes on and makes you adapt and forget. But the millions of trees that went down during the storm can no longer obstruct or distract our field of vision.

One hundred and twenty years after the American military invasion, a century after the imposition of American citizenship to Puerto Ricans, 66 years after the United States manipulated members of the United Nations and other international organizations into believing that the colonial status of Puerto Rico had been resolved by the establishment of the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, the political, legal, and social situation of my country seems comparable to the one that it had in 1899, when another historic hurricane, San Ciriaco, hit the island and left it at the mercy of the nation that had taken possession of it a year before.

We do not ride donkeys or go barefoot nowadays as we used to do then, but an ominous feeling of defenselessness seems to unite the times of the two most devastating catastrophes in our modern history.

Puerto Rico was socially engineered by the United States during the Cold War. A vast social experiment was initiated, which transformed a country that had been turned in the first half of the 20th century into a giant sugarcane plantation, into a modern industrial society. This transformation did not prove to be painless. Agriculture went into a deep crisis, close to a million mainly poor Puerto Ricans emigrated to the northeast of the United States, the members of the Nationalist Party of Pedro Albizu Campos were viciously persecuted, imprisoned, and killed. The fifties were a mixture of electrification, road building, and heavy industry, coupled by the instauration of gag orders and the creation of political outcasts.

In 1952, the recently proven inexistent “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico” or “Estado Libre Asociado” approved its Constitution and its American backed leader, Luis Muñoz Marín, became the head of a rapidly growing society that served as a showcase for the United States' sphere of influence in the Americas.

In this story, as in most, there were many mirages that helped built very powerful myths and superstitions that have gripped the Puerto Rican imagination to this day. The conception of the United States as a powerful and generous benefactor, has proven to be an outlandish belief in these times of bankruptcy, unplayable debt, and hurricane destruction. Nevertheless, the two political parties that have monopolized elections since 1968, still support and justify their ideological premises and governmental policies on the conviction that the American government is well intentioned and dependable.

Recent decisions by the United States Supreme Court and Congress have hit hard the candid faiths of the two main Puerto Rican political parties. In this development, even the very reality of the limited political powers of the Constitution of 1952, have been put in doubt, creating a profound and incapacitating crisis in the pro-autonomy Popular Democratic Party. Its rival, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, who in recent decades has been the beneficiary of the evolving mirages and superstitions originated in the fifties, has too suffered substantial blows to its hopes for complete and definitive political assimilation and “permanent union” with the U.S. Powerful politicians and institutions of the American government, have discarded any real possibility of a U.S. state in the Caribbean that is part of Latin America. Innumerable times, cultural, racial, and linguistic differences (that simultaneously function as ingrained prejudices and forms of discrimination) between Puerto Ricans and North Americans, make distant any real possibility of political and constitutional unification.

At either ends of the spectrum, statehood seems uncanny, like a body with three arms or a foot with extra toes, a sort of tropical, imperialistic Frankenstein.

So then, what is Puerto Rico? What is the reality and meaning of a nationality without a state, of a country constrained by colonial rule that has been able, since the middle of the 19th century to produce a vigorous culture? What is relevant, in the globalized 21th century about a small, mostly poor, and almost defenseless country that holds the questionable distinction of being the oldest political colony in the world?

To put it succinctly, Puerto Rico shows the perils of the future. The global world is one of receding frontiers and at the same time it faces increasingly absolute limits: those of economic growth, global warming and other environmental problems, and the continuous erosion of sovereign powers. The electronic age not only diminishes or erases distances, but also sizes, volumes, and bodies into the thinness of a screen and the invisibility of an instant transaction in which quantity is no longer a physical dimension. Globalization is a recolonization of the world by obscure or hidden armies and the economic and political societies that are being created now have more to do with the 19th century of colonialism than the 20th century of decolonization. The Era of Conquest that began in the Caribbean at the end of the 15th century, has never ceased, and what we are witnessing in our time is another one of its chapters.

Puerto Rico suffered on September 20th, 2017 an unnatural disaster. A Category 4 hurricane produced by the rise in the temperature of the oceans caused greatly by the Industrial Age, leveled a living political fossil of reiterated conquests, a recurring colony that, for more than 500 years, has been a pawn in the world’s political chess. It has been re-designed, according to the times, to supply military protection for Spanish or American interests, sugar, low wages, no environmental protection laws, a human laboratory for pharmaceuticals, a propaganda asset for free enterprise, or masses of consumers with no freedom to look for alternative markets. It has been a land where the inhabitants have always been thought as an addendum to the property. Their right to possess it has been never recognized nor has ever been taken into account. It has been a blind spot for political rights because it has been such a hotspot for conquest. Its economic development is the result of predatory prowess; culture and the arts are the expression of a despised collective and individual survival. In it oblivion is a part of life. History belongs to others and recounts the almost infinite possibilities of aggression. In it the venerable clichés of Western Civilization are narcotics and opiates, uppers and downers in a frontier town of invisibility and degrading shame.

Less than two weeks ago, I published an article in the Puerto Rican press that made reference to the fact that I was going to participate in this congress organized by the University of Oxford. Its title was “Escribiendo para el inglés” or “Writing for the English”. In it I listed the events, errors, lies, and horror stories that occurred in Puerto Rico after Maria. The title of the article also plays with words. There is an old Puerto Rican saying that may had originated during the brief domination of the island by the British, when in 1598 Sir George Clifford, Count of Cumberland, landed with a thousand men and, after a fierce battle with the Spanish forces, took San Juan. Only three years earlier Francis Drake had attacked the island. Two centuries later, in 1797, a formidable invasion commanded by Ralph Abercromly tried again to add Puerto Rico to the British Crown. We could have easily become another experiment of English colonialism and oppression.

However, in 1598, the British invasion was successful, and for a few months the English dominated its territory until dysentery forced the Count of Cumberland to make a desperate decision and leave the land that his forces had conquered. Maybe it was during this brief period that the expression “trabajando para el inglés” or “working for the English” came into usage, which means to work for free or, depending on context, for almost nothing at all.

In Puerto Rico (as in many other countries) “writing for the English” could be reduced to the act of writing itself. The reader could be English, American, or Spanish; colonial lords and empires are interchangeable. In an asymmetrical relationship of power, we are always “writing for the English”, working on words for anything or almost nothing. And this, of course is not to be understood just in economic terms, but also conceptually, politically and philosophically.

We could relate this expression just considered with another: “Reading Puerto Ricans”. After all, this is what you are doing now. What sort of meaning do you get from the words read by or heard from a Puerto Rican author? We both use the same words, but according to our origins, they are interpreted at different levels of pertinence.

A day after “Escribiendo para el inglés” was published in El Nuevo Día, I received a letter by an unknown reader. In it, a woman commented the article and at the end wrote this sentence: “The English will understand, even if you speak of what is undecipherable.” This crucial adjective, “undecipherable”, refers to a text whose meaning is impossible to make out; one that is lost in the act of reading. Nevertheless, my reader was presuming a generous openness: “The English will understand...” in the end what might first appear as undecipherable.

Here lies the great challenge of literature in general, but with special acuteness in literatures considered subservient or peripheral because of colonialism: words are written to communicate what history has forced into silence or into what it has been disfigured and transported to the unkempt margins of the “Universal”. When I read in my reader's letter the word “undecipherable”, another word came immediately to my mind. At first it came in French, maybe because I had read long ago Samuel Beckett's L'innomable. “L'innomable”, “the unnamable”, “the undecipherable”. Literature is a territory in which words never abandoned words and where words never reach absolute meaning. To write is to whisper everywhere, but there are whispers that come from the unnamable, undecipherable lands of colonialism.

The consequences of colonialism and conquest are both unnamable and undecipherable. That is why colonialism and conquest always bring up crucial questions regarding reading and writing, and of the use of language itself. What does it mean, where do we put in the mental map of Western imagination the “reading” of a Puerto Rican “writing” for the English? What is “lost” not in translation, but in the conventions and traditions of Western reading that are overdetermined by imperialism?

There has never been a Puerto Rican invasion of Britain nor a Mexican invasion of Germany nor a Cuban invasion of Switzerland. The “ownership” of words is organized by class, race, and culture. That is to say by history. Do the 4,645 deaths caused by hurricane María have a different meaning than the 16 that Governor Rosselló informed President Trump 13 days after the storm? Is the sense of death different if one speaker in the conversation (Governor Rosselló) believes that he is addressing a fellow countryman or if, as in the case of President Trump, the other does not believe that he is speaking with a true American, but a colonial subject. Words carry privileges that come from the spoils of war and history. Colonial subjects use the same words, but often those very words do not include or even conceive those subjects.

Reading Puerto Ricans (as reading Congolese, Barbadians or Native Americans) is to walk through the battlefields of European and American expansionism throughout the world. When you read authors of one of these nationalities, neither conquest nor colonialism are things of the past; and they form an ominous, never ending, nightmarish, eternal present in which words are maimed and turned into caricatures and still are compelled to circulate, mutilated by the geopolitics of Western reading.

So, at this point of the discussion, we can ask what was the true nature of hurricane María? Was it, as a reductionist view would make us believe, a huge storm caused by winds and high temperatures? After conquest and colonization there are no true natural disasters. A purely natural phenomenon presupposes an horizontal axis of equality. Its victims lie on leveled field. After conquest and colonization, disasters hit with multiplied force where Empire has divided populations into castes, classes, and races. After the hurricane has scorched the land, a new chapter of conquest and colonization begins. Harvests have been lost, roofs have blown away, roads are flooded, people are dead, but for some this turmoil will be the right moment for economic and political entrepreneurship. Victims are victims, but in conquered lands victims are better victims, fatalities of optimum quality.

Months after María, an army of American electrical workers arrived in Puerto Rico. They stayed in luxury hotels, worked occasionally, and were paid very high wages. A smaller contingent of powerful Bitcoin millionaires descended on the island, like the troops of the Count of Cumberland in 1598, buying innumerable properties and dreaming of acquiring in its entirety the oldest and historic sector of San Juan or the whole southeast region of Puerto Rico, to build an independent fantasy resort for the super-rich that they intended to call Puertopia. Puerto Rico could become, after all the profiteering exploitation the unnatural disaster of María allowed, a new Dubai: a conquest within a conquest within a conquest, a never ending colonization.

Colonial countries always seem to be at the end of their history. This condition of being at an extreme limit, places them in a continual struggle against oblivion and influences the structure and interpretation of their reading and writing. In colonial societies (and to a certain extent in others) any text is a testimony of survival and resistance. In this way, ironically, colonial writing is potentiated and becomes a textuality that surpasses the traditional rhetoric of the Western canon. Thus, our texts do not embrace the cult of classics nor presume a national literary history. Instead, they emerge from darkness to show that darkness exists. They are textual black holes that, through their bleakness, counteract and dissipate the artificial illumination of the glories of Empire.

Throughout the centuries, the Western World had thought itself immune to the perils and obstacles of terminal history. It is probable that the 21st century will bring an end to this privilege. Just as the deserts of the globe, colonialism as a structure is growing, invading with its harshness the lives of millions that believed themselves to be very distant from its opprobrium.

Empires today have changed and they rarely carry the name of a nation. But the nature and purpose of conquest and colonization remain intact.

On September 20th, 2017, I felt the hurricane winds and rains for 20 hours. That was just the beginning.  What happened in the following days, weeks, and months —and probably in the coming years— is the true and deepest sense of the nature of this unnatural disaster. Puerto Rico after hurricane María is a disaster within a disaster, an exponential and manmade calamity.

In Mars or Jupiter storms are purely meteorological phenomena, but in the human earth hurricanes are actualizations of history. After their passing, centuries of opprobrium resuscitate and come to the forefront and what we see and go through is so vast and unnamable, that it seems undecipherable.

I come from darkness with words of darkness. This is what means to write for the English. This is what writing is all about in the new Troys of conquest and colonization.

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