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Politics of Commemoration

Manhattan’s usually colorful Puerto Rican Day Parade was muted Sunday by black and gray flags and t-shirts commemorating those who died in Hurricane Maria and protesting the federal government’s alleged dismal response to the devastation.

As the second anniversary of the disaster that struck our dear brothers and sisters of Puerto Rico approached, I could not help but think about why in every situation Puerto Rico is forgotten about. Right when school started, I heard more about the 14th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina than I have whilst Hurricane Maria was happening, in real-time! The silence surrounding Puerto Rico ties in with a plethora of institutionalized issues including white supremacy in dealing with natural disasters and how people of color are looked at in terms of disaster.

Every year, Hurricane Katrina is talked about yet, the issue of the incomplete recovery of New Orleans still persists. This is an event that had happened in 2005, 14 years ago! Hurricane Sandy in New York City in 2012, almost 8 years ago yet there are still people struggling to recover from this disaster. Now just imagine if the United States can barely help those within major cities within the 50 states, how can one expect them to help a territory that they barely see as their own?

Hurricane Maria just barely passed two years and the only time I hear about it is in schools and during climate strikes. As Trevor Noah once said, when someone outside of America is suffering there is no story, but once an American is involved then the narrative changes to “It could’ve been me”. I often wonder why we are unable to feel others’ pain when we cannot picture ourselves in a situation. Do we, as human beings have a finite amount of things we can care about? This tends to be an issue that I, myself experience. I am very conditioned to it and it is a product of me being born into this country. I simply should be able to feel empathy for those even though I have no direct relationship with them. This is a big problem in the issue of commemorating Hurricane Maria. Americans just do not see Puerto Ricans as Americans. It is viewed just as we view any other disaster happening in countries that are not ours. In a Washington Post article titled Puerto Ricans are hardly U.S. citizens. They are colonial subjects, the topic of Puerto Rico’s “Americanness” is discussed. One quote that stood out stated “It is true that Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship due to a series of congressional statutes. But it is also true that these statutes were enacted without consulting Puerto Ricans.”

Therein lies the issue. Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, but not really. Not only do the people of the U.S treat Puerto Rico like they are third-class citizens but the government of the U.S barely acknowledges them. The blatant disregard for Puerto Ricans highlights the everlasting issue of white supremacy that permeates the United States as well as the rest of the world. If you do not look like the “ideal American” (ie: white, European features) then you are just not cared for or talked about as much. Latinx communities face this issue every day in and out of the United States and is even worse for Afro-Latinx communities. Institutionally, we saw that the average person who sought out aid from FEMA in Puerto Rico received about 2000 dollars while the average person in Texas, during Irma, received about 5000 in FEMA aid.

In my opinion, I think we can do more. We can continue to commemorate Puerto Rico, Maria, and its victims by bringing them up in conversation in everyday life! Bring them up at summits, protests, marches and any sort of resistance focused event. We need to speak about our fellow brethren in the language that insinuates that they are Americans. We need to speak about Puerto Rico like we do with the rest of the 50 states and start to understand why Puerto Rico has been treated the way it is. The underlying economic reasons that Puerto Rico is the way it is and the legality of some policies that exclude Puerto Rico from the rest of the states. We need to shock those we have conversations with real, raw stories of the survivors of Maria, much like we do in our classes. The idea of someone having to wash their clothes outside two years after a hurricane is insane to us because we are so used to a quick recovery. Someone who still can’t find their children or their spouses after the hurricane to this day may shock people. Someone who may have no bed to sleep in due to lack of funds from lack of aid and jobs may not seem like much to Americans until we are snuggled up on a winter day under our covers and realize that those suffering may never feel that feeling again. I do believe that those who narrate the stories of those who suffer do an amazing job at making us open our eyes to this tragedy that still happens today. Through poetry and detailed accounts on how people are no longer safe, we are able to access these inner feelings that we may have in a way we can somehow relate. I just hope many more of us will read, watch videos or conduct interviews and spread overall awareness on topics as such.


4 Comments

  1. This piece brings up many amazing points, and your discussion of Trevor Noah’s quote was incredibly thought provoking. You stated that “I often wonder why we are unable to feel others’ pain when we cannot picture ourselves in a situation. Do we, as human beings have a finite amount of things we can care about?” This in particular made me stop and consider the question you posed. I feel that this is what makes a powerful piece.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your post. You raised a good point that I believe a lot of people don’t think about. For many, it’s true, if you can’t imagine yourself in the same situation, unfortunately, they don’t seem to care much. I think if people often thought “It could’ve been me” and not be selfish, there would be a lot more helping hands but people tend to read the stories, have personal thoughts maybe even helpful suggestions, but do NOTHING!

  3. I agree with your points in this blog post, and I think the best way to commemorate and spread awareness of disasters is by educating ourselves first and then going out and education other people. Whether it be talking about it in class like we do, or at home, with siblings or friends. We are able to educate people about this, and I think that we owe to people who have less voice representation in our society, like native Americans for example to speak up on the injustices of natural disasters. Many times we ostracize ourselves from these situations because it does not affect us like Trevor Noah said but we can do better in times like this.

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