The silence coming from home has a texture. There’s anxiety in it, as we on the mainland wait for any word from relatives trapped on the small prison island known as Puerto Rico.
There’s fear in it: Close your eyes and you see your aunts and cousins, abuelos and nieces scramble for clean water to drink and wash with; your sick family members unable to find medicine for their diabetes or high blood pressure; no food for anyone; no money in the ATMs; no safe roads into or out of town; no electricity to clean the mounting sewage or cool the unbearably hot living rooms; no Wi-Fi to help them touch base with the rest of the world; no cellphones to wreck the reckless silence; no light at night against the darkness, deeper and more ominous than ever.
There’s anger in the silence: Back in the States, you watch your distracted and indifferent president play to his base, pick unnecessary fights, avoid taking the high ground or giving the island the gift of an eloquent expression of sympathy and support. At a time when words could have as much power as medicine and food, the steady quiet from slow-footed Washington has an ugly, racial texture. That same government refused until Thursday to lift the archaic Jones Act, which states that only American ships can carry goods and passengers from one U.S. port to another. And when Trump waived the act, he agreed to to do for only ten days. So while the door is open for international ships to reach the island with supplies, manpower and uplift, it will close again soon. Long-term relief will have to wait.
Waiting is what Puerto Rico does best. We waited 500 years for the Spanish empire to wane. When it finally did, in 1898, the U.S. Navy bombarded San Juan and 1,300 infantry soldiers rolled in to take the crown’s place. The dream of independence would have to wait, as the island saw itself become a de facto colony of the self-proclaimed anti-colonial United States; that dream is still waiting.
The country that preaches self-determination and nationhood to the rest of the world stubbornly holds on to this piece of Caribbean real estate, 3,500 square miles of tropical beauty, a great variety of ecosystems, a diverse population of resilient, big-hearted citizens. Puerto Rico is effectively a zombie state, a U.S. territory with no true self-governing power, expressing its “will” in periodic toothless plebiscites, most recently in June with a nonbinding referendum in favor of statehood. The U.S. Congress makes the laws that Puerto Ricans must obey, but we have zero senators, zero representatives in the House, and zero electoral votes in the presidential election. Thankfully — and we are deeply thankful — we are all protected by the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.
Although we lack meaningful representation in Congress, Puerto Ricans can be drafted into war. It’s no coincidence that we became citizens in 1917, during World War I, when the United States was in need of fresh meat for the grinding trenches of Europe. In World War II, the all-Puerto Rican 59th Infantry Regiment received 90 Purple Hearts. Some 61,000 Puerto Ricans fought in Korea. The Vietnam Memorial is graced with the names of hundreds from the island. When we’re not drafted, we volunteer, as my four brothers have done.
All my adult life I’ve yearned for a free, sovereign, independent Puerto Rico — one with its own president, constitution, currency, ambassadors, embassies, treaties, Olympic teams and seats at the United Nations. An independent island would be in control of its borders. It would be able to accept aid from Cuba, Colombia, Brazil or Norway. The international community has proved its compassion time and again, and I have no doubts that it would open its heart to a small, wounded nation in the Caribbean. I’ve often asked myself: What creative powers, what initiatives, what native genius would be unleashed if the island were truly free?
And yet, after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, for the first time in my life, this die-hard independentista has begun to think the previously unthinkable. If independence is out of reach — the romantic dream of an artist who doesn’t live there? — wouldn’t it be better for the island to end its Twilight Zone status forever and become a state of the United States? Isn’t statehood better than the never-ending limbo of commonwealth-hood? Statehood would give the island two U.S. senators, five members in the House of Representatives, seven electoral college votes. The political voice of Puerto Rico, an island of 3.7 million, would be impossible to ignore. We could help write the laws that dictate our destinies. In a close election, we the people could decide America’s next president.
Free nation or U.S. state: Six hundred years of paralyzing colonial rule would end overnight. A long, historical silence would close with the joyful words: “We are here.”
The silence that pained me most came from a beautiful little barrio off Route 638, called Las Arenas (“The Sands”). It’s just south of Arecibo, near the slightly larger towns of Miraflores and Espino, but you won’t find it on a map. The narrow bumpy roads, many without names or logic, take you past small concrete houses of bright colors and vegetable gardens, lazy pigs and animated chickens, cows and old nags chewing grass on sloping hills. Dogs don’t know fences or leashes. At night, the famous singing tree frog, the coqui, performs her two-note symphony into a deep sky of stars and warm breezes. A cluster of families lives there, all related to me on my mother’s side — cheerful, energetic, soulful people, brimming with music and eager to feed a long-lost relative from New York who speaks awful Spanish. A week passed before word arrived: They are safe, but the matriarch, my mother’s first cousin Petra, had died of a heart attack and was not buried until this week. A funeral delayed by the winds.
An angry Earth has sent its shock troops to Puerto Rico in the form of a hurricane innocently named Maria. She has killed and disabled, and she promises more long, slow, not-so-subtle horror, an epic humanitarian crisis, forming a well of tears as deep as the Caribbean. In the face of such suffering, part of me wonders if this talk about status is the conversation we should be having. But another part of me believes it’s inevitable and germane. If anything good can come from Maria’s visit, it may be that the U.S. Congress, the only body on Earth empowered to determine the fate of the island, will be forced to make a key decision. Will it give us our independence? Will it take us into its family of states as the 51st member?
José Rivera is the author of 26 plays, including “Cloud Tectonics,” “References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot” and “Marisol,” which won an Obie Award. He is the first Puerto Rican screenwriter to be nominated for an Oscar, for “The Motorcycle Diaries.”