On Puerto Rico (how to learn, how to help) …

This post will not be complete or even sufficient, but it’s what I have in me right now.


Fifteen years ago I spent time on Guam and in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (which together form the Mariana Island archipelago) to help make a documentary about the indigenous communities there and the impact of U.S. militarism and imperialism – yes, imperialism – on these places. My friend Vanessa and I wanted to make films about all of the U.S. colonies – yes, colonies – which we euphemistically call territories, commonwealths, etc. But there were so many stories and so many sadnesses and so much complexity in the Mariana Islands alone that we stayed there.

I am not surprised by the apathy and inaction around Puerto Rico’s devastation, because apathy and inaction around devastation of many types, in all of our colonies, has been ongoing for over 100 years. Cultural devastation. Environmental devastation. Psychic devastation.

It’s hard to know what to do because now the administration (#notmypresident) has even refused to waive shipping restrictions (the Jones Act, which we heard about in the Marianas all those years ago, strangles trade and commerce with these island colonies all the time, not just during emergencies), and volunteers cannot fly in easily to survey and help. We are watching, waiting, feeling powerless, astounded maybe, outraged. We are astounded even by our inability to watch, with power and communications demolished, so used are we to instant, numbing scenes of disaster.  So many people need help. We don’t know how to reach them. So many people have been devastated.The human family – the human species – feels more precarious than ever.

There is a way across. It’s called awareness + empathy + self-care + action. When one of these is atrophied, the others become ineffective, sometimes even perilous. For me, right now, if I am going to be totally honest, action is atrophied. I post and post on Facebook and sometimes here and try not to get overwhelmed by my own life (including being prepared for wildfire – as I write, hot, gusty winds blow over the ridges and a fire hazard watch is in effect). I seem to be in some holding pattern trying to figure out what I care most deeply about so I can move that way – and nothing seems to surface.

See? Incomplete. Insufficient.

What is enoughness when it comes to this perilous world?

This seems to be the question I am currently living.

The one thing that makes me feel okay right now is that my children, now 7 and 10, have watched the film about fourteen times, so they know a thing or two about American colonialism. They will not be surprised by the current abandonment of Puerto Rico, and if we sit down as family to make a plan to help, as soon as we can see a way through to do so, they’ll understand.

That’s something.


I found this book (with this bumper sticker as a bookmark) on my shelf this morning. It is riddled with post-it notes, because I used it in our research for the film. Below I’ve transcribed a piece that dates from the Bicentennial of 1976 – another moment of national reckoning, which seems almost quaint in comparison with the torrents of today. It is worth reading now:

“Since …1898, the United States has looked upon Puerto Rico as belonging to the United States, but hardly a part of it. Puerto Rico has always had an immense strategic value for the United States. The island lies over fifteen hundred miles southeast of New York, almost five hundred miles east of Cuba, and about a thousand miles from Miami.

Thus, during Congressional hearing on the Jones Act, the 1917 law which forced citizenship on all Puerto Ricans, Congressman Cooper of Wisconsin declared, ‘We are never to give up Puerto Rico for, now that we have completed the Panama Canal, the retention of the island becomes very important to the safety of the Canal, and in that way to the safety of the nation itself. It helps to make the Gulf of Mexico an American lake…’

The United States began a systematic drive to get Puerto Ricans to come to the United States as a cheap labor force, thus making more room for colonial representatives to occupy the island, and to work to crush the ideals of independence.

… the United States replaced the gun and whip with the weapons of economic pressure…

Puerto Ricans have no say in the control of their natural resources. As of this very moment, outside U.S. interests are negotiating to begin strip-mining our copper. The … oil industries of the U.S. are attempting to build a super-port, proposing to turn Puerto Rico into a giant gasoline station, which will open a veritable Pandora’s box of pollution and environmental destruction. One-third of the women of child-bearing age have been sterilized as an answer to unemployment and national resistance. Where agriculture once thrived, it is now dead, the arable land occupied by large military bases, petrochemical plants, and rich tourist hotels.

To my way of thinking, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were only meant for the ruling class. Proof of this is the woe that has befallen Native Americans and other non-whites, as well as poor whites. The very originators of this ‘democracy’ came from European countries with a long history of building empires on the homes of other peoples… For Puerto Ricans, being citizens of the United States has only meant that they were meant to be cannon fodders for the huge war machine…

… Humans cannot mouth the words of freedom while holding others in bondage.”

– Piri Thomas, “A Bicentennial Without a Puerto Rican Colony,” The Crisis, December 1975. Excerpted in Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire, ed. John Nichols (2004).

The Crisis is the magazine of the NAACP. You can read Piri Thomas’s full piece here, on the searing and important resource site called History is a Weapon: http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/pirithomasbicent.html


I have read a lot of complaints this past week that the controversy over kneeling in the NFL is a distraction from what is happening in Puerto Rico. It is not a distraction. It is the same story.

“Humans cannot mouth the words of freedom while holding others in bondage.”  


Now let’s deepen our awareness, be curious about the human story, be gentle with ourselves, and get to work.



ColorLines has published a list of WAYS TO HELP:

For an excellent, immediate, mainstream media response to Maria that includes an understanding of Caribbean colonial history, read Ishaan Tharoor’s Worldview in the WaPo: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/09/27/puerto-rico-is-still-a-victim-of-colonial-neglect/

For more on the Jones Act, try: http://www.grassrootinstitute.org/2017/04/the-jones-act-in-perspective/

For information on political status in Puerto Rico, start with: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independence_movement_in_Puerto_Rico  (but of course never stay with Wikipedia alone)

For the intimate relationship between Puerto Rico’s environmental and colonial histories, go to: https://enciclopediapr.org/en/encyclopedia/brief-environmental-history-of-puerto-rico/  for a start, and  https://rccsar.revues.org/524, for even more depth.

And since that man in the White House has so helpfully, if flippantly, raised the issue of debt, be sure to read this recent piece on debt, austerity, and resistance from The Nation: https://www.thenation.com/article/students-are-now-leading-the-resistance-to-austerity-in-puerto-rico/

For a better understanding of the connection between climate change and migration, you can start here, with Maria: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-27/hurricane-maria-may-be-u-s-preview-of-climate-fueled-migration

…. but learn more (and help) through the UN Refugee Agency, here: http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/climate-change-and-disasters.html


One thought on “On Puerto Rico (how to learn, how to help) …

  1. Wow Amy, that’s depressing… And so important. I’ve been listening to KPFA, I’ve been reading the emails from 350.org, but you have a way of making me realize what it is I’m holding even while I’m refusing to let myself think about it.

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