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Journal of Hispanic Policy

Topic / Politics

Trump’s Atrocious Behavior Towards Puerto Ricans is Nothing New

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, leaving 3.4 million people without power and with scarce access to potable drinking water and food. Two weeks later, less than 50% of people can access clean water and only 5% have power

Due to the slow response, it is unclear when electricity will be restored, let alone healthcare and education.

Trump reliably responded to Hurricane Maria via Twitter, calling Puerto Ricans “lazy” because they expect support from the United States. He also used his platform to remind Puerto Ricans of the debt their government already owes the U.S. Trump’s delayed response pairs well with a stark lack of media coverage of Hurricane Maria during and immediately after its landfall.

While Trump’s response has been lambasted notably on SNL and by San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, not enough people are aware that his atrocious behavior can actually best be understood as part of a long and storied legacy of the U.S. treating Puerto Ricans as dispensable bodies used to advance American military and science.

For over 100 years, Puerto Rico has been subject to U.S. governance as a territory and commonwealth. There are legal nuances to this relationship, but in many ways  Puerto Rico is still a colony, a remnant of the old imperial regime.

A focal point in Puerto Rican history is the 1917 Jones Act, which was signed under President Woodrow Wilson, granting Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. However, this citizenship was imposed on Puerto Ricans as a military tactic. About 2 months after the law was signed, President Wilson enacted a compulsory military draft. 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted and deployed for World War I.

As an island in the Caribbean, not the in middle of the ocean like Trump thinks, Puerto Rico’s geographic location enabled the U.S. to maintain a dominant presence near the Panama Canal. Its proximity to the U.S. mainland aided American military’s hydro-electric power in subsequent wars. While not a military hotspot anymore, Americans enjoy Puerto Rico’s proximity as a nearby vacation spot.

And unfortunately, Puerto Rican women specifically have been used by the U.S. as testing sites in the name of “scientific advancement”. Over the span of 20 years, from the 1950s to 1970s, about 1/3 of Puerto Rican women were sterilized. From being used as trial experiments for birth control pills and being coerced to have “la operacion,” which become a popular epithet to refer to tubal ligation, Puerto Rican women were exploited as science experiments while simultaneously being blamed as the cause of overpopulation.

Rather than providing comprehensive sex ed and access to safe contraception, which was on the rise during the feminist movement on the U.S. mainland, women were coerced by the government and health workers to undergo surgery. In many communities, health workers door knocked on homes and offered government subsidies as financial incentives for sterilization. Often health workers and physicians explained the surgery as getting your tubes tied, causing many Puerto Rican women to think the surgery was reversible. This abhorrent violation of women’s bodies is a manifestation of the harrowing colonial relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico on the backs of women.

As a feminist Nuyorican (Puerto Rican born and raised in New York City), this history and the current reality facing Puerto Ricans on the island doesn’t surprise me. We are a hybrid of our indigenous Taíno and African roots. Many people love our food, music, and beaches. But when it comes down to systemic racism, sexism, and classism impacting our island, it is easy to forget how much Puerto Ricans have contributed to the wellbeing of the  United States, as Donald Trump’s beyond offensive comments and inaction shamefully demonstrate.

It is convenient to evade this discomforting history, but right now solidarity and support are needed. Here is an up-to-date list of ways to get involved.  Make a donation to a local organization, collaborate on a disaster relief drive, or volunteer your time directly on the island. For those of you wanting to be part of the resistance, start here with Puerto Rico.

Photo credit: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters