Colonialism is still prevalent
por Andrea Pérez-Maikkula
As July comes to an end, I reflect on what it means to be Puerto Rican living in the United States, raising two sons, and working as a DEI practitioner at the intersection of higher education and public health.
The first summer after I moved to Minnesota, my husband and I drove to Canada to enjoy a long weekend off. When we were crossing back into the United States, the border patrol agent asked what we were doing in Canada. I mentioned that we were on vacation. To which they responded:
“Who comes to Canada to celebrate the 4th of July?”
And, as they were handing over our passports, I said without hesitation:
“I don’t celebrate my colonizer’s independence,” and we drove away.
My comment reflected a feeling I’ve always had, but hadn’t had the need to verbalize it — or justify it — until that moment. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and, because of the Jones Act of 1917, I’m a born-U.S. citizen. I grew up acutely aware of the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Colonialism was a topic of conversation that my family never shied away from. However, I also grew up learning terms such as U.S. territory and U.S. commonwealth to describe Puerto Rico, which were nothing more than a way to placate the violent subjugation of Puerto Ricans and our history.
As a diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioner, I’ve noticed an increase in conversations about decolonization: decolonizing higher education, decolonizing curricula, decolonizing global health, decolonizing the police, decolonizing Indigenous land, decolonizing healthcare, and decolonizing your bookshelf, to name a few.
When we discuss structural racism, we understand it to mean that “racism [is] intentionally built into the systems that organize our society.” It is also not feasible to eradicate racism at individual and institutional levels if overarching racist structures remain in place. So when it comes to decolonizing all of these systems mentioned above, I think to myself: the call is coming from inside the house! How can we expect to dismantle these colonial systems when the United States, as an overarching structure, remains a colonial power?
Living in the United States is like walking around with an inferiority complex sign hanging around my neck. Recently, SCOTUS upheld a decision to deny certain Social Security benefits to U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico, which reinforces unequal treatment of U.S. citizens (i.e.Puerto Ricans). It’s demoralizing to know that my citizenship comes with an asterisk. So when holidays come up that celebrate being American, I am reminded that I am not included in that definition.
Scholars agree that colonialism is a social determinant of health. The impacts of colonialism affect Puerto Rico’s healthcare system and its infrastructure, and the lack of self-determination purposefully alters the well-being of its people with inequitable policy-making. On September 20, 2017, Hurricane María, a Category 5 hurricane, devastated Puerto Rico. It left thousands of people dead in its wake, as well as over $90 billion in damages.
The public health response to the disaster was abysmal, and the only way the federal government could get away with it was because of racism and colonialism. Researchers and political scientists compared the U.S. federal disaster response in Hurricane Harvey (Texas) and Hurricane Irma (Florida) with Hurricane Maria (Puerto Rico). They found that “racial bias and perceptions of differential citizenship all may have affected the appropriation and delivery of resources and funding to affected areas in each hurricane.” Puerto Ricans have always been treated as second class citizens, and this time wasn’t the exception.
My internalized antiracism work has led me to understand that two things can be true at the same time. I’m slowly reconciling the trauma that accompanies being born and raised in a colony, while building a life with my husband and kids in the country that continues to oppress my people and culture. My hope is that reconciliation turns into healing and justice so that my sons grow up learning accurate history and continue on a path towards decolonization.
As I reflect on this year’s 4th of July, plagued by the carnage of multiple mass shootings, the overturn of Roe v. Wade, stripping the EPA's regulatory power, and the murder of yet another unarmed Black man at the hands of the police, whose independence are we celebrating?
Boricua aunque naciera en la luna,