By Hector Luis Alamo
The history of the Puerto Rican people is marked by struggle. Since Colón landed on the island in 1493 and placed its people under the yoke of the Spanish crown, Puerto Ricans have yet to know true freedom. Yet they’ve dreamed of little else.
Now part of the American Empire, Puerto Ricans still struggle to secure whatever bit of freedom they can borrow, while they discuss (sometimes argue over) the options for moving forward and seeing their community not only survive, but thrive.
One such conversation took place on July 21, 2013 as part of a video podcast for La Respuesta. Moderated by Xavier Luis Burgos, editor of the magazine, and hosted by Libby I. Juliá-Vázquez, Logan Square writer and organizer, the afternoon brought together young Puerto Ricans from different walks of life to share their thoughts and experiences on the principal issues facing the Puerto Rican community on the island and stateside. I was honored to be part of that group, and since I don’t want to spoil the video for those who’ve yet to see it, I’ll only share a few afterthoughts with you, who by visiting this site has already proven to be my fellow traveler.
I’m no scholar, not like the brilliant people I was fortunate enough to sit with recently, but I do know certain things to be true. I know there’s never been an independent Puerto Rican nation, or at least a Puerto Rico endowed with the right to self-determination; the right of all peoples. I know that the Puerto Rican people of the Caribbean and those of Chicago both suffer from the lash of poverty, disenfranchisement, unemployment, racism, under-education, lack of health care and a lack of other opportunities. Whether here or there, Puerto Ricans are a colonized people — separated, subjugated and starved.
Potential strategies abound. Many options fall along the lines of building a school, clinic or factory, as though these new things would foster a new community. But a community isn’t merely defined by its buildings. In fact, its buildings are the least of what make it a community. That’s like putting the cart before the horse, in hopes that a better cart will make you go faster. But to go faster, you need to make the horse run.
And so, if we want the Puerto Rican community to progress, we have to make the people want to run. This means promoting a spirit of ownership and dignity that will oblige the community into dictating its own uplift from within, instead of waiting to be lifted (or pushed further down) from the outside.
What I’m describing is the education of our people, not just in schools or in their homes, but everywhere they are. And education not just in science, technology, engineering and math, but a spiritual learning of life.
We must be the guardians of our environments, institutions, families and friends. We must be at the service of others as part of ourselves. The young must be able to look to the old for guidance, and the old must be ready to teach. As a 20-something myself, I’m in the unique position to be both teacher and student, and it’s important for the youth of my generation to see themselves as such.
La Respuesta is just one example of the initiative I’d like to see all Puerto Ricans consign themselves to. The Puerto Rican Cultural Center is another example, and ASPIRA, another. It’s the initiative to better understand the worlds Puerto Ricans inhabit and better connect with those worlds. To succeed, every member of the community must be made a partner and stakeholder — teachers and parents, police officers and business owners, drug dealers and artists, gang members and priests. No group can be marginalized, and no corner can go ignored. The injustices in our community have been afflicted systematically, so it will require a system wide effort to overcome them.
While buildings might not make our community what it is, the streets surely do. That’s why it’s important that socially conscious Boricua are a visible presence in our neighborhoods, literally. I’m talking about organizing the kinds of events and activities you see in neighborhoods that aren’t threatened with annihilation — concerts, parades, street fairs, rallies, marches, kids’ shows, picnics, festivals and all the rest. Of course, some of this is already happening in Humboldt Park and Logan Square, which is encouraging to see. We just need more of it, more regularly.
Admittedly, my recommendations seem overly simplistic, but that’s because our choice is a simple one. The outside world has cut us off, isolated us, in an attempt to see us suffocate, destroy ourselves, or merely fade away. Either we can give in to their plot, becoming bitter and hopeless, or we can hang together and become a society unto ourselves. While some might question our community’s ability to withstand opposition from diverse levels of government, what, I ask, can City Hall, Springfield or D.C. do in the face of a self-empowered people? Were they able to silence the Harlem Renaissance? Were they able to suppress protesting farm workers and turn back the Chicana/o Movement? Were they able to continue treating women and blacks as second-class citizens, and will they be able to continue treating DREAMers and members of the LGBT* community the same way now?
No, they won’t, just as they won’t be able to shoo us from our spaces so long as we take full ownership of ourselves and our community. They can push us, but they cannot move us. They can scare us, but they cannot make us retreat. They can shutter our schools, but they cannot make us ignorant. They can police us and imprison us, but they cannot criminalize us. They can Americanize us, but they cannot make us less Puerto Rican. They can make us poor and starved, but they cannot keep us from being rich and full in spirit.
The question facing the Puerto Rican people in the 21st century is whether or not they will endure another 100 years like the last 100. The answer lies somewhere between our soul and our surroundings. It lies in the will of the people to see, to reject complacency, to demand change, and to be that change.
The history of the Puerto Rican people is one of struggle, and it’s time this generation renews the fight.