They say there are two kinds of pain: the kind that hurts you, and the kind that changes you. Pain is part of life. We feel pain when we live, when we love, when we struggle, and when we grow. We feel pain in ourselves, our friends and families. Pain breeds mistrust. We feel pain as a nation and a people. Pain exposes problems. Pain exposes toxic people. Pain motivates you to succeed. Pain builds better habits. Puerto Ricans have a long history of pain. What we do not realize is, pain brings enlightenment. Boricua—pain brings empowerment—and that’s why we will do better.
Five Hundred Painful Years of Oppression
Columbus first set foot on “Borínquen” in 1493, beginning the first 400 years of Spanish colonial rule. With his first visit marked the beginning of a painful end for the indigenous Taíno natives who lived in Puerto Rico at the time. Taínos’ friendly attitudes towards the Spaniards ended when their help setting up their colony soon turned to enslavement. Taínos fought for their livelihoods to no avail, genocide and war would end their existence as Taínos as a distinct people on Borínquen and open the doors for the painful rise of a colonial Puerto Rico.
When the Spaniards realized that they drove the indigenous population of Puerto Rico to extinction, they came up with another idea—enslaving Africans to make up the work quota. They were bought from a foreign land for a bargain and brought to a new land in bondage for the white man’s benefit. Puerto Rico’s Spaniard overlords were mostly men, and they often raped the African slaves like the Taínos before them—showing them the painful reality of colonial patriarchy and its totalitarian dominance on the lives of women in the Isle of Enchantment. Spanish rule would bring the creation of a distinct society, multiple invasions by foreign powers, and destruction by hurricanes. Revolts for independence were attempted, but either failed like Betances’ Grito de Lares or were abandoned like Bolivar’s canceled invasion of Puerto Rico. All to use the pain of conquest to bring the empowerment of independence. All because we wanted to do better.
Pain in Conquest
When it seemed like we were on the cusp of independence from a dying empire, the Spanish-American War broke out and Puerto Rico was invaded. Some fought, and they lost. Some welcomed the Americans as liberators, like how the American colonists viewed the French in the American Revolution. They thought that America was here to bring them the independence they so longed for. They thought America was here to help us be better, but Puerto Rico went from one empire to another.
There was no path to independence for Boricuas, only a new chapter of American colonialism. Soon we had appointed governors like Winship who governed Puerto Rican people with totalitarian rule with racially superiority as their ulterior motive. When America conquered Puerto Rico, they made it an “unincorporated organized territory.” That basically means Puerto Rico is owned by the United States but not part of it.
Americans saw Puerto Rico as a territory in a middle ground in its racial makeup. Not white enough to become “incorporated” on the fast track to statehood, but just white enough to hold on to it. Still, we were nothing more than a “mongrel” race to members of our own government. Even though we were made citizens in 1917 we were still seen as foreigners in a distant land. Governors like Winship routinely denied Puerto Ricans who spoke out against his denial of due process, suppression of peoples First Amendment rights to speak out against a government that in theory, respects and upholds human rights, but, takes advantage that they do not exist. There was a time when possession of the Puerto Rican flag could land you in jail. They hoped the pain of arrest for empowering acts like waiving a flag would be enough to subdue empowering feelings. They feared us for wanting better.
Pain Motivates Proactive Action
Puerto Rico had gone nearly 50 years with no one having a choice of staying as a colony, becoming a state, or declaring independence when Pedro Albizu Campos arose on the scene. He led a passionate and fervent struggle for independence that ended with two towns bombed. Pedro Albizu Campos imprisoned and tortured. And lastly, a movement on life support. America, with the help of our first governor, created Operation Bootstrap to bring Puerto Rico from the poorhouse of the Caribbean to an economy that rivals some states.
Pain in Exodus to a New Land
With the hope of a better life, lure of new jobs and a better standard of living, thousands of Puerto Ricans moved to northern American cities like Boston and New York. Many Puerto Ricans did find a somewhat better life in America but were not treated like the Americans that they were. They enrolled their kids in segregated schools previously reserved for Black people because, to them, we were the same thing. We were herded into tenements where people were crowded ten to a room. The parents marveled at having electricity and running water, but their children knew they were cast aside as lesser people, enrolled in lesser schools, in preparation for mediocre lives. The Young Lords rose out of this painful existence like a phoenix out of the ashes to combat marginalization. They had some success but soon failed like many other civil rights groups of their time for using pain to bring empowerment, for wanting to do better for the community.
Pain in Sexism and Poverty Culture
Puerto Ricans consistently have lower overall incomes than the national average. Puerto Ricans have lower incomes when compared to Latino groups. Years of poverty, racism, and colonialism have made Puerto Ricans a marginalized group. With many of our people dealing with the daily struggle to survive, without knowing a better way to escape their problems. Women have it especially hard. It started during the days that Taíno and African slaves were routinely raped to satisfy slave masters inhibitions and boredom. It continued during the 50’s and 60’s when Puerto Rican women in the Northeast were surgically sterilized without their consent as government sanctioned population control. This does not ignore Puerto Rican women dealing with male “machismo” when they come home to their husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers. The same people demand women’s strength to fight their struggles without giving their strength to fight for women’s struggles. Worst of all, Puerto Rican women are expected to give men loyalty, without the expectation that they will get it back.
La Junta and María
Fast forward to the 21st Century, Puerto Rico deals with the agony of having a Fiscal Board approve all financial decisions. A major embarrassment no matter your political perspective. Then comes María, leaving the island in an 11-month blackout, killing 3,000 people, and forcing tens of thousands more to leave their homes for America. Now Boricuas feel the pain of being incoming refugees, having to start from the bottom like immigrants—in their own country. Trump failed Puerto Rico when he complained that we want “everything done for them” when people needed food and water. Further adding insult to injury, President Trump mentioned that Puerto Rico will never be a state if his critics hold public office. The government of Puerto Rico failed to do better when their response to the hurricane followed Trump’s comically bad leadership and repeated Trump’s ultra-low number of people dead from the storm—64. Local governments failed when they neglected to clear storm drains after the storm, keeping the streets flooded. This is the painful truth of the Puerto Rican experience. Pain is written in Puerto Rico’s past and present, but it does not have to be in its future.
The saying goes, money is power, knowledge is power, and there is power in people. If you combine these three things, you will get an awesome combination that cannot be stopped. Puerto Ricans have a total purchasing power of $134 billion. That is comparable to states like Nebraska, Arkansas, and Iowa. That’s money we can put to good use making our voices heard! Puerto Ricans living in the United States together possess $97 billion in purchasing power. In Florida alone, we hold $18 billion!
Economic power is the power to produce and trade what you produce. Economic power involves bettering your livelihood, your standard of living. Economic power gives you more power in your daily life; more freedom to make the choices you want to make. Economic power is just as important as voting. Unlike voting, which you do once every couple of months, economic empowerment is an around-the-clock thing that brings broader benefits. Economic power, along with voting, ensures that politicians will not stray away from catering to our needs or they will not get much-needed campaign donations, campaign volunteers, or help from political action committees.
Economic power is important to solve our problems. Twenty-two percent of us in the United States live in poverty, 42% of Boricuas in Puerto Rico are too. Our average income is $18,000 in America, compared to $34,000 for Whites and $19,000 for Blacks. Only 17% of us Stateside have graduated college, while 34% of Whites and 14% of Latinos have bachelor’s degrees in total. If we put that $134 billion to work, these problems will disappear.
We can create programs that get us out of poverty and into a better life. We can demand assistance in getting jobs that pay incomes matching the national average. And we can create programs from the K-12 schools to ensure that we stay in school, do well in school, go to college and graduate! You can start by voting in every election after thoroughly vetting the candidate’s platforms on Puerto Rican empowerment. Donate money to candidates and causes that come from our communities or have our best interests at heart. Volunteer by knocking door to door, making phone calls, or raising money to get out the Boricua vote! Work hard at your current job, get a promotion or go to school to learn another profession. Better yet, start your own business and be your own boss. Do whatever you have to do to be better.
We are not the only ones doing it. Cubans in Florida have done it ever since they came to South Florida to flee oppression from Castro’s Cuba. They settled in, started businesses, took advantage of everything America had to offer and began running their own politicians like Senator Rubio to represent them and make the impossible happen, to take a slice of the political pie and become a power group. And it all started when thousands of Cubans came to America with only the clothes on their backs. Blacks have a purchasing power of $1 trillion, as well as all Latinos, including us. We have done it before. When the Young Lords marched to the United Nations building in New York to protest Puerto Rico’s status. When Luís Muñoz Marín helped create Operation Bootstrap to give the Puerto Rican a better livelihood. When Pedro Albizu Campos lead a movement for self-determination. Because they knew, that pain can be a weapon—if we so choose.
Not Bound to the Destiny We are Used to Receiving
Boricuas have been through a lot. We are a people who have lasting emotional scars from centuries of injustice. Even though we have survived through the struggles that make us, we, as humans, look at ourselves through the eyes of the people that hate us. Too often, we laugh comically at the failings we see as common in our community. Whether it be showing up late, being irresponsible, or just not caring. We dismiss the possibility that we can make it on our own, without being dependent on America. We view our neighborhoods as ghetto. Too often, we choose not to help empower our own people. We fail to get involved, we fail to vote. As if we are ashamed by our struggle. As if we are afraid our pain will motivate our empowerment. As if we are afraid to do better.
We are a marginalized people. The fiscal crisis and Hurricane María are en-route to keep us that way. If Pedro Albizu were alive today, he would tell us that we need to believe in ourselves as a proud people who have power beyond their wildest dreams. Like an athlete after a long workout, we need to realize that the growing pains from marginalization to empowerment is like pain is to weakness: pain is weakness leaving the body. Pain builds good habits. The pain of poverty inspires us to get an education as a route to prosperity. The embarrassment of a Trump-like natural disaster response or poor local response is our motivation to vote for people that care about us and our well-being. The dire situation of looking at another possible century of marginalization is our call to rebuild Puerto Rico, a better Puerto Rico, where we are free and prosperous.
Success is Psychological
We must believe in our success for our pain to bring our empowerment. We must believe, as a people, that we can overcome the obstacles of empowerment. If we do not believe this, despite the countless obstacles we struggled through, and quietly succeeded over, then no one will do it for us. Pain makes people shut out the good for what is “safe.” Pain breeds mistrust. Pain makes you expect less than your worth. Empowerment is the enlightenment to want better and strive for better for yourself. Empowerment comes from within: it is enlightenment of the soul. The solution to our empowerment is ourselves—if we do not believe that—we cannot expect to find it anywhere else.
We must embrace the fact that we are not bound to the destiny we are used to receiving. We can do better, we will do better! It is a revolution of the mind, of the conscience, of the soul. We need to teach our children this so this new revolution of the mind, body, and soul for it to last. For it is the mind of a child that the revolution begins. Luís Muñoz Marín would tell us that if we cannot see the solutions in ourselves, we will not find it anywhere else. Jose Celso Barbosa would have wondered why we do not believe in ourselves until he saw how pain has beaten us down over the course of 500 years. Pedro Albizu Campos would tell us to open our mouths for the death, the mute, for the rights of all. To endure patiently with beautiful patience when setbacks occur. That pain brings anger and agony, but it also brings inspiration for self-improvement. That we will do better—because pain brings empowerment.