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Being Puerto Rican

Fuentes de las Raíces (literally, the "Fountain of the Roots"), located at the end of the Paseo de la Princesa ("the Princess Promenade"), next to the Bay of San Juan.

Like I did in Father's Day, this week I take a short hiatus from the discussion of the locations where Justifiable Evil takes place, to briefly address what is happening in my island.

This past fourth of July, where Tampa along with the rest of the country celebrated the Independence of the United States, I found myself grieving for Puerto Rico, the island where I was born. Because of Puerto Rico's massive public debt, Congress recently enacted a law where a committee of seven individuals appointed by the President of the United States, and chosen from a list to be provided by Congress, will oversee all of the spending by the island's local government. This committee, which for the purposes of this blog we will identify as the "Oversight Board", has the power to enforce fiscal reforms, consolidate government agencies, reduce workforce levels, prevent the execution of laws adopted by the local legislature, issue new debt, and adopt new government contracts, among many, many other powers. The law, in fact, takes away from the government of Puerto Rico a great deal of its powers to govern the island, leaving it in the hands of the seven individuals who (hopefully) will help our local economy overcome the terrible fiscal crisis that it faces.

For most Puerto Ricans, this is a pretty bitter pill to swallow.

Some of you may think, "Well, that's a pretty crappy attitude to take towards Congress when it has just enacted a law to help Puerto Rico get out of the mess it's in," and you may be right.

But try to imagine for a moment the following hypothetical situation: the United States has dug itself into a financial crisis, and the only way to get out of it is if a Board of non-elected businessmen takes over the control of the government, with the power to override any laws approved by the government, veto any projects it deems detrimental to the economy, unilaterally reduce the federal workforce, and undertake, without the constituents' vote or say, any other measures it deems necessary to further its goal. Or putting it more graphically, imagine what George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and, yes, Alexander Hamilton, would have done if King George III had appointed his own men with the power to override any laws approved by their constituent assemblies. What would America's Founding Fathers have done? What did they in fact do?

Having moved from Puerto Rico eight years ago, and knowing very little about the law that created the Oversight Board, I cannot and would not dare to comment on the wisdom of the recently enacted Congressional measure. Since Puerto Rico cannot seek relief through the federal bankruptcy laws that protect the fifty states of the Union, and therefore cannot even try to restructure its debt (if indeed it ever could), the newly created Oversight Board might be its only hope. It will all depend on who is appointed to that committee, and how enlightened they all are. Still, for most Puerto Ricans, it is a terrible situation. Most of us were raised in a democratic system where we, the people, elected the government, and where our rights were guaranteed by our local Constitution. That, at least for the moment, does not seem to be the case.

Be that as it may, we must deal with what we presently have, and do the best we can with it. Even if we lose (hopefully temporarily) part of right to self-govern, we must accept the Oversight Board as a "justifiable evil" (to coin the phrase) necessary to help Puerto Rico come out of its desperate situation. Sort of embracing the "When you get lemons, make a lemonade" philosophy.

A few weeks ago, I read in the Washington Post an opinion by a prominent political commentator about the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico. The island, he said, must be used as a clear lesson to some of the states in the Union of what may happen to them if they persist in pursuing their present, wasteful paths. That may or may not be true, (depending on whether you're a Democrat or a Republican), but it does not help Puerto Rico at all. Because by trying to "teach a lesson" to some of the 50 states of the Union, the Washington Post's political commentator refers to Puerto Rico as some abstract economic unit, and forgets the 3.5 million American citizens that live there.

If the Oversight Board is to succeed (and I truly hope it does, as efficiently and quickly as possible), we must understand what it means to be a Puerto Rican. So to the future members of the Oversight Board, here are a few tips of what Puerto Ricans are about (with the disclaimer that there are hundreds of additional facts about Puerto Ricans that I don't mention in this blog), and that you should bear in mind when making decisions that affect them:

A) There is no such thing as a typical Puerto Rican.

I've been told on several occasions, " don't look Puerto Rican!" It's true, I don't. But neither did Tito Puente, or Roberto Clemente, or José Ferrer, or Raul Juliá, and neither do Bernie Williams, or Ricky Martin, or Marc Anthony, or José Feliciano, or Lin Manuel Miranda, or Benicio Del Toro, or the five Puerto Rican women who have won the Miss Universe title, or Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, or Carlos Correa, Roberto Alomar, and Carlos Beltrán, or Jennifer López (born in New York, but of Puerto Rican descent, as is Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, so we'll take them both, thank you very much), or Daddy Yankee, or Roselyn Sanchez, to name just a few. None of us "look like Puerto Ricans" because there is no typical "Puerto Rican look". We come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, from very fair, to tanned, to very dark; from very tall, to medium-sized, to very short; from highly intellectual to highly athletic to both or none. You name it. We have them all. (About forty years ago, while watching a live Tom Jones concert, a gorgeous girl sitting in the front row stood up and kissed the famous singer. "Where are you from?" he asked her. "Puerto Rico," she replied with a rich Latin accent. "'re blond!" he said with undisguised surprise. "So?" she replied.)

In many cases, you don't even have to be born in Puerto Rico to be Puerto Rican (as evidenced by Jennifer López, Sonia Sotomayor, and Marc Anthony as well). In the 1960's and 70's, Puerto Rico received with open arms thousands of Cuban refugees who adopted Puerto Rico as their home, and became as Puerto Rican as those that were born there (my wife being one of them.) Thousands of Dominicans and immigrants from other Latin American countries have followed them since.

B) To understand Puerto Rico, you must learn at least a little about its history and culture.

Having argued how there is no such thing as a "typical Puerto Rican", I must now adopt a somewhat contrarian position, and let the Oversight Board know there are some strong common traits that bind us all. (Complicated, isn't it? And you haven't even started to deal with our problems.) Our culture has been forged by 500 years of Spanish, African, and (to a greater degree than we imagine) Taino Indian heritage. The mixture of the three races is represented in the Fuente de las Raices, or "Fountain of the Roots", shown in the picture above. Add to that mix the more than 100 years of intense association with the United States (all political references set aside), shake it all well, and you get your modern Puerto Rican: loud, boisterous, undisciplined, and sometimes irresponsible, but passionate, hard working, open, artistic, altruistic, and generous to a fault; highly opinionated (just read this blog), and intensely politically motivated. (The status of the island--whether we remain a "Commonwealth", or petition Congress to become a state, or opt for independence--has been a constant source of debate and a driving force in our politics.)

Although many of us speak English, our main language is Spanish. Nevertheless, as a consequence of our close association with the United States, we have incorporated into our tongue (some would say we have "bastardized" the Spanish language) with countless English words. For example, the official Spanish word for "parking" is "estacionamiento" or "aparcamiento". The Puerto Rican word for "parking" is "parking". We use the word "brown" to describe that color, rather than the Spanish term "marrón", "lipstick" instead of "lapiz labial", "spray" (pronounced "ess-pray") instead of "rociador", and "tape" instead of "cinta adhesiva". In Puerto Rico we wear "tennis shoes", "T-shirts", and "polo shirts"; we take "breaks" from work, and ask those who hassle us or who hold an unfair advantage over us to give us a "break"; and we turn our lights with the flick of a "switch" when electricity is available, or use a "flashlight" when the power is off. We write with "magic markers" to make signs, and bind papers with "clips". We eat "tuna", even though the correct word is "atún", "tuna" in Spanish really being a small group of singing minstrels clad in medieval clothes. We buy "tickets" to go to the movies (and get them when we violate traffic laws), and consume "popcorn" (the correct Spanish term is "rositas de maiz", which NOBODY knows exactly what it means). We also eat "pancakes" (with "syrup"), "hamburgers", "hot dogs", "sandwiches", "corned beef" (which some pronounce as "carne beef"), "bagels" with "cream cheese", "cheesecakes", "brownies", "pies", "marshmallows", and "steaks". We fly in "jets", use "dimes" and "nickels", wash our hair with "shampoo" and apply "conditioner", many times while frequenting a "beauty parlor". We read "pocketbooks", wear "braces" (or the more Puerto Rican term "bracers") when our teeth are crooked, and have "cocktails" during "Happy Hour". And, oh yes, we love long "weekends", and go to "picnics" or swim in the "pool", or just watch the "shows" on TV or in the "internet". The list goes on and on.

So members of the Oversight Board, rejoice! Because you can already speak more Puerto Rican than you imagined.

C) Historically, Puerto Ricans have demonstrated to be a people capable of unimaginable acts of courage and sacrifice.

Two examples will suffice.

During the Korean War, the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment was assigned to cover the retreat of the lst U.S. Marine Division when the Chinese Army threatened to overrun and encircle them. Despite the terrible winter conditions to which the men--basically raised in a tropical climate--were exposed, and in spite of the overwhelming forces that the Chinese constantly threw against them, the men of the 65th Infantry Regiment held, and helped the U.S. Army evacuate the Korean Peninsula. They were, in fact, one of the last outfits to leave the port of Hungnam, on Christmas Day, when the remnants of the Armed Forces were picked up by the Navy. (Since and before then, thousands of Puerto Ricans have fought alongside the United States, and many have given up their lives in the defense of our democratic values.)

And in the terrible 1987 fire of the Du Pont Plaza Hotel, where scores of tourists were trapped by the rising flames in the balconies of their rooms, it was amazing to see fire rescuers climbing from balcony to balcony, and helicopters landing on the smoke-filled roof, when the firetruck ladders failed to reach the higher floors. Without a second thought, those Puerto Ricans went far beyond the call of duty, disregarding their own safety, and risking their lives to save total strangers.

So members of the Oversight Board, consider our common history when you make the difficult decisions that you will inevitably have to take in the coming months and years. And remember this: for more than a hundred years, the destiny of our two nations has been inextricably intertwined. The blood shed by the Puerto Rican people in the defense of our common democratic values should count for something.

D) Puerto Ricans are a justifiably proud people that have contributed much to the world and to the United States in particular.

Our island is filled with poets and writers, with great painters, artists, and craftsmen of every stripe and kind, with wonderful singers, dancers, and musicians, with incredible actors, with some of the most talented doctors and best educated engineers, architects, and smartest scientists in the planet. (Many of our engineers used to be recruited directly by NASA after they graduated from the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.) Our athletes--boxers, basketball, baseball, tennis and golf players, to name a few--are fierce and proud competitors, many of them world champions or top-ranked players in their respective fields of endeavor. (The Puerto Rican National Basketball Team, for example, was the first team ever to beat the U.S. Dream Team in the Olympic Games.)

It is not a coincidence that our national symbol is the coquí, which I describe in Justifiable Evil as: "a brown, very tiny frog (about the size of a thimble) with a prodigious voice and lungs of steel (called 'coquí' because of the peculiar sound it makes), revered by most--if not all--Puerto Ricans, and adopted as the symbol of their tiny nation, a nation whose voice--like that of their beloved frog--resonates throughout the world."

Puerto Rico's "coquí"

So please, members of the Oversight Board, when you make the difficult decisions that you will be forced to undertake in the near future, take into consideration our national pride. If you adopt inflexible positions, where you fail to explain the motives behind your actions, you are doomed to fall flat on your faces and fail.

And that is all I have to say about the Oversight Board...except for maybe one more thing: Puerto Ricans are firmly rooted in the traditions of a democratic society. Their voter turnout is significantly higher than that of any state in the Union. In the year 2000, for example, 82 percent of all registered voters voted. For nearly seventy-five years, we have strongly believed that our voices count in the way that we are to be governed. It would indeed be tragic if you suddenly took away our beliefs in what constitutes a democratic government.

(Next week, a return to Justifiable Evil)

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