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Genocide to Exodus: Why the Average Joe Should Care About Puerto Rico

In fall 2017, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez for the 4th District of Illinois educated the Trump administration on the status of Puerto Rico. Gutierrez stated, “Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States of America, it had self-governance in 1898. My forefathers had self-governance and it was self-sufficient. It fed itself and took care of itself. And 119 years later without any self-governance, they want to blame us for all the problems on the island of Puerto Rico.”

Puerto Rico and the ongoing colonization of the island is nothing new. 1898 marks the official year in which the genocide of the Puerto Rican people became a legal act of the United States. Fast forward to today, we are in the same situation. Unfortunately, Gutierrez highlights a history that “the average Joe” in the United States is unaware of, so why should you care?

As reported by a research team at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 4,645 deaths have occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. If that is not genocide, I do not know what to call it. History is repeating itself and with each day we ignore what is happening in Puerto Rico. People are suffering, dying and are reverting to exodus.

This is a call to your humanity.

What I need the average Joe to know about Puerto Rico and its people are:

1) Under the Jones Act of 1917, Puerto Ricans are involuntary citizens of the U.S.

2) Operation Bootstrap of 1947 contributed greatly to the Puerto Rico debt crisis and allowed for Puerto Ricans to provide invisible labor to build the economy of U.S. mainland.

3) The U.S. government (including you, average Joe) needs to #RebuildPR, not displace Puerto Ricans from the island due to Hurricane Maria.

March of 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson signing the Jones Act of 1917, forcefully making Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens. While Puerto Ricans have citizenship status, those on the island are limited in their abilities to participate fully in U.S. politics. For example, they are not allowed to vote for the president in the general election and they have no voting representatives in Congress.

What does this mean? Puerto Ricans are second-class citizens under colonial rule on the island and mainland. As second-class citizens, Puerto Ricans have been denied their basic rights in terms of economic and social mobility, and equitable education.

Operation Bootstrap of 1947 transformed Puerto Rico’s economy from agricultural to manufacturing. Prior to Operation Bootstrap, the island cultivated its wealth through its natural resources, namely sugarcane. However, as the U.S. allowed for the depletion of natural resources to gain profit, they faced a crisis as it went dry. Therefore, to boost the economy and decrease unemployment rates, manufacturing became the economic model imposed on the island. The mass implementation of factories placed Puerto Ricans into vocational tracks with low wages and made the economy of Puerto Rico completely dependent on the U.S. Again, the debt crisis and Puerto Rico is nothing new.

How do you expect Puerto Ricans on the island to want to live in genocide and not take exodus when they do not have food, clean water or electricity? Hurricane Maria simply highlights the injustices that Puerto Rico has been facing for decades. To date, there are more Puerto Ricans in the U.S. mainland than the actual island of Puerto Rico. The displacement of Puerto Ricans is only continuing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

To find constructive solutions for how to invest in the island and prevent further displacing the people of Puerto Rico, in fall 2017, the Puerto Rican Studies Association cohosted its biannual symposium at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College titled “Learn, Connect, and Act.” Academics, community members and activists stateside and on the island engaged in critical dialogues for solutions.

This is what you can do, average Joe:

First, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College has launched a campaign to #RebuildPR. Please share this hashtag widely to educate the average Joe on the conditions of the island. Also, visit the Center for Puerto Rican Studies website, as they have meticulously outlined where you can help.

Second, contact local, state and national government officials to put pressure on the U.S. government to fix what they broke!

Finally, donate to relief efforts across the nation. The support is needed, and your investment in the island will begin the process of rebuilding.

Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia is an assistant professor of Higher Education at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. You can follow her on Twitter @DrNicholeGarcia

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