My great-grandfather, Marcos Burgos Santiago, died at the age of ninety-nine. His funeral, as my cousin Denise recalled, was larger than life. It seemed as if the entire town came to pay their respects to the oldest man that they knew. He had never lived anywhere else but in Juncos, Puerto Rico, in the same barrio, just like his parents before him. His house, once made up of dirt floors and a tin roof, now serves a new generation of family residing comfortably behind concrete walls. I remember still how he would show me, with pride, a missing part of his finger, chopped off from a machete while he worked harvesting sugarcane. In a way, he was showcasing how much the land was bounded to him and to the extent in which it left its mark.
Though he lived what many would call a long and full life, one thing haunts me. Born at the turn of the 20th century, Don Marcos resided completely under the rule of the United States. Almost one hundred years of life and he never knew what it meant to live in freedom. He knew love, being married to my great-grandmother for nearly seventy years. He knew pain, having comforted his six-year-old daughter, as she lay in her death bed, waiting for his return from the fields so as to pass finally into oblivion. But not freedom. Even worse, nor did his parents, who lived under Spanish rule, or their parents before them. Five-hundred-years have passed and Puerto Rico remains a colony, property of another country with a government that does not nor is expected to have our interests or our feelings in mind. Even the most ardent pro-statehooder acknowledges this. The same for some populares, if you catch them in a bar on a warm Saturday evening. Five. Hundred. Years.
There was more for Don Marcos to care about, of course, than some nebulous and abstract concepts like freedom, self-determination, and a representative democracy that shares a stage among a league of nations. He had to feed his family (made increasingly difficult by the guzzling-up of arable land by corporate greed that transformed the island into a sugar monopoly). He had to ensure a formal education for his children (who were taught that Spanish was a primitive language and that their forefather was George Washington). His severed finger was a life-long indicator of his endurance and hard-work. But such a scar dug deeper than it appeared to be. It cloaked the entire island. The ugly and disgusting scar of colonialism.
Like millions of others, Don Marcos’ son left the barrio for the fields of New Jersey and then to the decaying Chicago metropolis, to make a new life with his wife and children. None ever returned to live among the yellow flamboyán trees and probably never will. But we should shed no more tears. Although the island is of a far spatial and temporal distance, it is an undeniable spiritual center of our existence. Our beloved Zion. However, we have not only extended the boundaries of an ethno-cultural nation located on the island, but in some ways, constructed a parallel national experience. It is too difficult for those, like Don Marcos, who never left, to fully and deeply connect with the poetry of Pedro Pietri, or the prose of Nicholasa Mohr, or some of the plays of Jose Rivera. We are diaspora people with our own distinctiveness. More importantly, we inhabit lands that we call our own.
A little over a month ago, I asked a close friend to explore with me the Puerto Rican communities of Williamsburg and Bushwick, Brooklyn, places, like El Barrio in Manhattan, where her own grandparents migrated to. As we traveled through locations with street-signs marking “Avenue of Puerto Rico” and “Borinquen Place” we soon realized that the eroding murals depicting urban jibaros and palm trees spoke to a Golden Age long dislodged from reality. With the exception of a few cars blasting reggaetón and rows of housing projects that reflect our state-sponsored ghettoization, this side of Brooklyn was visibly absent of a once bustling Puerto Rican enclave. Although the street was teeming with young, white “hipsters” visiting storefront art galleries, it was as if we were metaphysically stranded in a desert. The life we were seeking did not exist but in our memories, so nothing around us stimulated our senses. We longed for a place we could call home.
Mari and I both have homes, though, and in historic Puerto Rican communities too; the South Bronx and Humboldt Park, respectively. Just as my family could travel outside of their small town and experience the landscape of their nation, the possibility also exists in the diaspora. Similar to the Black, Chicana/o, and Native American experiences, while we have settled in clusters in diverse and disparate areas throughout the U.S., we have an opportunity to witness our communities and to share our histories and struggles. This is how we develop(ed) a collective identity and potentially find a forum from which we seek solutions to our ills. Moreover, such a dynamic expands the “va y ven” paradigm that conceptualizes a multi-linear route between U.S. cities and towns towards and from the island. I propose to you that there simultaneously exist, especially in settlement and occupation patterns, a movement between the diaspora enclaves. Unfortunately, not so much in terms of dialogue and community-building efforts.
Many times we speak of “our people” as some amorphous tangled body living in the air. Though we are not all inhabiting rigid geographic areas, there are numerous locations, such as in Newark, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Chicago, where we have constructed community for generations; where our artistic and political expressions have blossomed. The areas, oftentimes left to us in disarray, have also been loci of a decolonization process, because in them we have exhibited what was denied to us on the island, denied from Don Marcos: self-determination. But colonialism stalks us wherever we lay our feet, this time in the form of gentrification that rips away the freedom for self-definition and self-reliance. We must begin then to imagine ourselves as conducting a distinct national experience rooted, like my great-grandfather’s hands, in land. Subsequently, we will realize our immense responsibility to each other in composing a country-wide challenge to the most alarming and destructive force facing us today. In other words, displacement in Graham Avenue in Bushwick should be just as important to Clark Avenue in Cleveland or Park Street in Hartford, because they all inhabit a vast Boricuascape. Without such a vision and action-plan, our descendants too may lament over a burden that should have been kept from them long ago.
A version of this essay first appeared on Gozamos