My abuela, a woman born in Old San Juan, taught me how to make café con leche. She taught me how to wake up my mind and my memory. So every morning, I wake up a few minutes early to make coffee. It’s a ritual that goes back generations. This particular ritual reminds me of conversations with my mom and abuela—it pulls their spirits into the room even when they’re hundreds of miles away.
It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that this ritual was a way for me—for many of us Boricuas—to keep our culture and loved ones alive. To keep our culture and loved ones together. Recent (and not so recent) attacks on our minds and memories have made clear that, in order to remain together, we must simultaneously look backwards and march forward.
On June 30, 2016, President Obama signed a piece of legislation that both reflects violence and is violence. The bill, referred to as “PROMESA,” (promise) implemented a colonial-style fiscal control board of 7 non-elected U.S. officials who will control and govern the Puerto Rican people. PROMESA proponents argued that the legislation was needed to address the economic crisis on the island of Puerto Rico. Four months later, on the 20th floor of a Wall Street skyscraper, the governor of Puerto Rico officially handed over Puerto Rico’s central government to the fiscal control board.
PROMESA is an extension of the U.S. imperialism that Puerto Ricans have known and lived with since 1898, the year the United States murdered its way to the top of the island’s colonial hierarchy. Even after the United States granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans and created the existing “Commonwealth” status, U.S. corporate and military attacks on our minds and memories have never ceased (e.g., bombing of Vieques, imprisonment of Oscar Lopez Rivera, stripping land ownership through the Foraker Act, and more). As such, Puerto Ricans remain without a humane degree of political, economic, or social power. And, for more than 100 years, it has been illegal for Puerto Ricans to vote in presidential elections or have representation in the U.S. Congress.
While this U.S.-made crisis is usually framed as a “debt crisis,” this language grossly ignores the realities of how a multi-pronged crisis harms Puerto Ricans—those living on the island and throughout the world. In Puerto Rico, there is rampant unemployment, lack of social aid and healthcare, and home foreclosures, among other hardships. For a country that has a population about the size of Kentucky or Arizona, there is no effective water management system. Eighty-four percent of Puerto Rican children are living in extreme poverty, over 100 schools have closed, and people are not getting treated because of a lack of doctors.
Even with a hundred-plus years of exploitation, marginalization, and colonial violence, some Puerto Ricans continue to resist being controlled and destroyed. The current movement, mainly referred to as “Se Acabaron Las Promesas” (promises are over), is not only a movement against the fiscal control board. It’s a movement for Puerto Rican liberation and decolonialization, a fight that undoubtedly was passed down by abuelas who didn’t want to be forgotten by the island or its descendants.
PROMESA, on the other hand, is digging up our deceased abuelas, digging a deeper hole, and re-burying them even further from us. The erasure of the effects of PROMESA (which includes implementing a minimum wage of $4.25 for everyone 25 years old and younger) and the broader 21st Century economic war against Puerto Ricans is to be expected. Corporate, elite, and white supremacy has driven the Puerto Rican people beyond what Professor john a. powell calls the Circle of Human Concern. Professor powell explains that those inside the circle of human concern belong. Powell explains: “Belonging means more than just being seen. Belonging entails having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of social and cultural structures. Belonging means having the right to contribute to, and make demands on, society and political institutions.”
In the United States, even with U.S. citizenship and a U.S. military that claims to intervene around the world in order to spread democracy and peace, Puerto Ricans do not fully belong. For over a century, Puerto Ricans have lived outside the United States’ Circle of Human Concern. The effects of such gross erasure are all around us. When a group of people—be it Puerto Ricans, Palestinians, Native Americans, or other marginalized peoples—are moved outside of the Circle of Human Concern, they are pushed out of the limits of public consciousness, creating a sense of apathy in others towards these people who are suffering.
Still, some Puerto Ricans and other people of faith and conscious are fighting back. Mass demonstrations have taken place in Puerto Rico and throughout the diaspora. For example, on August 31, 2016, young people and elders stood side by side as they shut down the first “PROMESA” conference. Activists and organizers have been occupying the area outside the federal courthouse in Puerto Rico since June. Artists and filmmakers are collaborating to document our resiliency and resistance. In New York, public fiscal control board meetings are met with consistent protests and civil disobedience.
The need to wake our and others’ minds and memories is more pressing than ever. Forced migration, a ritual familiar to too many groups in the United States, continues to pull the island and its people apart. Over 80,000 in 2014 alone left the island of our mothers and abuelas.
I fear that my homeland and our culture will cease to exist. And whether it's the threat of exploding bombs or exploding colonial debt, the fear persists: I feel like a piece of me is being attacked and is disappearing. While waking up early to make café con leche may sound trivial, it’s a way for me to hold on to my people, to my memories, to my mind.
The time to wake up and stand in solidarity with the Se Acabaron Las Promesas movement and the people of Puerto Rico is now. Every morning, I hear those words in the sounds of the boiling cafetera, and I remember. And, I hear: “It’s not enough to be woke. We must fight, together. Esta lucha sigue, cueste lo que cueste.”