By Sofia Collins | December 1, 2016

“You don’t have to stay in your country if you don’t want to, but to want to stay and not be able to because of not finding a job, that is sad.”  

Gabriela Puig, 30, current Puerto Rican resident

I frequently miss the the taste of coffee, rich with highly nuanced flavor, ranging from nutty to fruity, and the flexible and relaxed social energy due, I think, to the close proximity to the beach island residents share. During my four years studying here at Sarah Lawrence, Puerto Rico has undergone tremendously dramatic economic, political, and social changes that have provoked discussion and reconsiderations about national identity. Given the layered effects of rising unemployment, reduced salaries (especially to those working in governmental agencies) increasing taxes, and generally swelling living costs, many have moved to the United States in search of more fertile economic grounds. It is not the first time that so many Puerto Ricans have been displaced to the United States. A similar shift occurred during the 1950s, when, according to Calzada in La población de Puerto Rico y su trayectoria histórica about 470, 000 residents moved to the mainland United States. This was primarily due to the effects of unemployment created by an economy that quickly transitioned from agriculture to manufacturing. However, this decade’s explosive displacement is unique and continues to beat those emigration numbers. After an inability to pay a $72 billion dollar rent, Puerto Rico declared bankruptcy in the spring of 2016. A few months later, this was followed by the appointment of a federal control board that will indefinitely oversee the financials of the island. In hopes of recovering the debt, this management will implement severe budget cuts in all public sectors.

While economic opportunity runs at a severe loss, the only promising reason to stay as an island resident lies in the enduring beauty of its climate and its captivating geography: the island has plentiful beaches, the coast is approximately less than an hour drive from any point, and the island contains mountain ranges, rivers, and forests. Of course, the poetics of the landscape do not feed your stomach, especially in a country where, according to the Department of Agriculture, 85 % of its food is imported. The debt crisis awakens many debates about the status of the island and general national identity. As the island was formerly a commonwealth and Spanish is titled “Estado Libre Asociado” [Associated Free State], this is a topic that has remained for about five decades passively latent in recent legislative action.

Although it is certainly an issue that provokes rich questions about the faulty line between colonialism and post-colonialism, I do not aim to focus on the question of political status. Rather, I want to convey how the economic and consequently cultural relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico lives as felt by former and current residents. Additionally, trusting people’s abilities to collect information in their daily lives, I am interested in what former and current residents predict about the island’s future development.

I do not see the spreading dominance of multinational corporate presence in the late twentieth century any differently than the historical establishment of sugar manufacturing plants by U.S investors. Arguably, it is little different even from the moco cultural plantations managed by the ruling Spanish until late in the 19th century. In these three broad cases, Puerto Rican labor potential has been geared towards external larger scale business projects that are often alienated from the collective and independent visions of residents themselves in regards to their country. It seems to me that the orthodox model of development embodies different visibilities over time. Similarly, the nature of colonialism does not dissolve away with policy, rather it evolves continuously under new forms of operation.

A current resident of Bayamón, Jessica López, 29, describes the island’s current debt situation through the imagery of a chokehold. Career wise: “I feel overwhelmed by the limitations I have here, politically, economically and socially things are being controlled and not to my favor.” She divides her time between a part-time position selling Nespresso coffee machines in the Macy’s at Plaza las Americas (which happens to be the greatest shopping mall in the Caribbean, boasting many of the most coveted American brand stores) and working as a mentor for a non-profit art education program called Poetry Out Loud. She identifies as a “millennial poster child who survives on part time jobs.” She is not alone. In fact, film director and producer Juan C. Dávila addressed the stress and anxiety faced currently by a large majority of millennial youth employed in the only jobs bountifully available to them: part time and temporary positions by companies such as Walmart and the such, through a documentary titled “The StandBy Generation” (2015). In her spare time, Jessica dedicates energy, without pay, into several small scale groups working towards island- wide sustainable agriculture. One of these organizations is the Organización Boricúa de Agricultura Ecológica, a network of ecologically minded farmers with a focus on promoting community based food production, expansion of agrarian education, and the fostering of the domestic market for local produce in the island. In her network is Dalma Cartagena and Tara Rodriguéz. Dalma is an agrarian educator with 15 years of experience. She runs agricultural science courses for elementary school children in Orocovis. Tara Rodriguéz runs a kitchen, market and community space ironically called El Departamento de la Comida (literally translated as The Department of Food), which works with supporting local producers and marketing these with consumers.

Administration officials have noted the importance of expanding this movement. The current Secretary of Agriculture, Myrna Comes Pagan, intends to focus on the improvement of agricultural production, which, as found in the U.S Census of Agriculture, has been steadily decreasing since World War II. Another current resident, Estefanía Sandoval, 20, a microbiology student at the UPR of Mayagüez, is also a proponent for more sustainable agriculture in the island: “I believe the most important thing is to take advantage of our own resources. Renovate urban spaces in innovative ways that embrace greenery. The knowledge of medicinal plants and all of its uses stems from a long rural life tradition, yet it is being lost by the majorities that live in the metropolitan areas.”

Former resident Marisol Bravo, age 50, is currently serving as a Human Resources for Colgate-Palmolive in New York. She moved four years ago from the town of Trujillo Alto to Stamford, Connecticut due to her promotion. Adapting to culture in the U.S was extremely hard, as was dealing with the distance from close friends and family. She asserts that although emotionally difficult, the change has been for the better: “ I have always had the seed inside of me to explore further what I can do in an international company. The Caribbean and Latin American markets had grown small for me.” Graduating in psychology from the UPR of Rio Piedras in 1988, she began her career in the late 80s- early 90s: “ I knew I wanted a career where I felt I was helping other people.” She first tried elementary education. However: “I did not have the patience to work with small children, so when my father got ill I dedicated to care for him at the hospital where I met my first boss, a manager in a recruitment firm, and became a receptionist.” She explains how her generation met the on going promise of plentiful economic opportunity given the large quantities of multinational corporations investing in the island’s talent. When she graduated, “there was a sense of many opportunities. One could define one’s future under all the opportunities that were flourishing in the island. I think it was for the benefit of the island given that it promoted youth to graduate college and do a career in any of the many multinational companies. At the university, the focus was on preparing you to work for another company, definitely not for yourself. Again I did not see this as problem given that it was the mentality of the time. The mentality then was global, and of course one knew that they had great pay and benefits as well.”

The receptionist position led her to eventually become an employee recruiter for a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant. The island has had 49 FDA-approved pharmaceutical companies established on its grounds. These companies, though many of them are of American origin (such as Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson), classify as multinational and have had a strong hold in the Puerto Rican economy since 1960s.[1] Manufacturing plants in general have comprise 46% of GDP and more than 95% of exports since 1980. According to the Pharmaceutical Executive Editors 2016 report, the pharmaceutical industry in particular composes 61% of the island’s total manufacturing. This is primarily due to the series of benefits that have been afforded: steady educated labor force, low labor costs, a variety of industrial incentives that includes tax exemption policies. The most famous of these tax exemptions is Section 936, which Congress mandated to expire over a ten year grace period 1996-2006. Section 936 of the U.S Internal Revenue Code permitted U.S corporations to repatriate their profits without tax obligation. Additionally, it exempted corporations from having to contribute federal corporate tax under the condition three quarters of the profits are reinvested in Puerto Rico. The efforts allotted to these incentives contrast greatly with the historical abandon of agriculture. This abandon is substantially noted in the early decades of the island as a U.S colony, when the rush for sugar industry workers displaced rural farming families into the coast where many of these U.S owned sugar plants were established.

Like Marisol[2], many residents naturally adapted to the firmly placed orthodox model of development that has ruled the island’s economic growth throughout the 20th century and

which measures economic success by the growth of gross domestic product. Estefanía’s[3] outlook coincides with that of fellow youth residents, especially those studying the life sciences in the specific context of the island’s geographical make-up. She values the importance of Puerto Rico eventually establishing its independence. She feels that “the words that make up Free Associated State contradict themselves. We are in quite a limbo, and if we continue like this, the economy will keep slowing down. The U.S still currently makes money out of us. It is not that we do not produce money, it is that they do not necessarily stay here because we do not own those profits.”

Among the obstacles of the current status is the law of cabotage, which establishes that the merchandise transported among the United States and its territories must go exclusively through the U.S merchant marine. A 2016 study by the Puerto Rican Senate Committee: Civil Rights, Civic Participation and Social Economy is evidence of how this law has impacted the island’s limited economic growth to a sum of 29,052 millions dollars between 1970 and 2012. A former resident Pedro Peña, 30, living in Atlanta Georgia since 2014 comments: “they are expensive for Puerto Rico in general. That was an appalling deal, same as eliminating local agriculture, but obviously since we are part of U.S everything has to go through them.” Peña understands the role of corporate tax incentives as “ desperate measures to make money.” Once again, the example of Puerto Rico’s lack of selective agency in its own future due its relationship to the U.S.

When Marisol worked in Clorox around 2005, she says, “I had clarity that the situation in Puerto Rico was going to get more and more difficult. Working in a multinational company one gets to understand the economical predictions and so that allowed me to foresee how the removal of the 936 Section was going to make, as it was already, pharmaceutical companies leave Puerto Rico, and many people were going to stay without a job. And these people were going to be folks with good academic preparation, and due to tight budgets there was going to be an even tighter competition for those entering companies.” Such opinion is also shared by former resident Ana Rosado[4], who, provoked by criminality rates around her neighborhood and the dwindling economy, moved to Atlanta Georgia in July 2016 at accepting a promotion from the insurance company she serves, Assurance, “they (pharmaceuticals) are leaving a group of professional scientists, that are very specialized with an absence of jobs that has made professional people that contributed to the economic development through the consumption of the house, of the car…”

Despite the increasing numbers of emigration to mainland U.S, some residents are committed to the island’s revival and are compelled to stay. Current resident Gabriela Puig, 35, brand manager of an entrepreneurial culinary group in the island called Cinco Sentidos, seeks to contribute to the local developing industries, especially those of entrepreneurial nature, that lend themselves to the character of the island in consideration of its natural and cultural resources. She sees Cinco Sentidos as an example of such an entrepreneurial network geared towards “creative economy systems” considering “that it purchases from local farms and seeks the consumption of goods that are made here, cold cuts that are produced here, and it supports the union among local chefs that help each other by promoting each other.” Meeting members of the group casually through friends, “ I got into them because they are of the young generation that are doing things in a creative way, A creativity not only in the way of cooking and constructing its menu, but also in how they carry their business that is going intertwined with other industries such as agriculture, production, and now we are opening an agency of communications dedicated to the hospitality businesses, because that is very related to what tourism is, and in general to these industries that are moving ahead despite the crisis that is understood to be in the country.”

Despite the brewing hopes for the island’s situation, many current and former Puerto Rican residents speak of the problem of high living costs. Pedro[5] does share the vision of Puerto Rico’s revival, but financial anxieties, compiled with decreasing working hours, and consequently salary at his Delta Airlines workplace, made him apply for opportunities to transfer abroad. He says, “ Unfortunately, even if one loves one’s country, it does not provide you with a living. But I think that to help one does not have to be there necessarily be there, especially with technology now.” Even extreme optimists like Gabriela[6] admit frustration to the limits they feel, “I have felt stuck many times. Life is very expensive here, it is difficult to save, health system here is also complicated.” In comparing U.S and P.R living costs, Ana adds a detail about her own experience: “In Puerto Rico I would do groceries for 300 dollars and here I am buying more than what I was buying in Puerto Rico and I spend half [as much].” Similarly, Pedro accounts for the benefits of moving, “a position upgrade that took me three years in Puerto Rico, took me three months here. I got a higher position, they started giving me more money, more responsibility. It is something I have noted there that talented people struggle to find a job because a lot of business culture in Puerto Rico revolves around cronyism while here it is through merit and that impulses you to work harder.”

The reception of internationally circulating progressive ideas in the realms of gender, economics, scientific and technological research, also seems to take a while to get to the country. Gabriela stresses what she feels to be communication obstacles: “for example a lot of information that arrives at other places does not get here due to the relationship we have. The internet is wonderful but if one does not know what to seek, one cannot find it. It is easy to feel out of the global loop here given that we are politically isolated.” Personally, I feel like adding that as well as lack of information reception, a lack of information original research, production and local application exists.

Like Jessica[7], Gabriela holds the belief that the crisis nurtures the culture: “here and there I have seen a phrase that is, ‘the children of the crisis’. One needs to reinvent yourself, like necessity is the mother of invention. That means that when you don’t have the commodities, and nothing necessarily established, then you have to get creative, look for ways to produce. Of course we need to find ways to survive, and at the same time, we have dreams and objectives. With the crisis also surges a lot of questioning about identity, and there comes the role of art as tool that mirrors what is happening, so the culture feeds of that, of exposing people’s opinions.” Ana Rosado in addressing the vitality of such movement expresses, “I trust in that some people are going to make a difference but I also believe that those of us outside of the island, in what we call the diaspora, also have role. We have to advocate for our island. Here we have the opportunity of voice and vote for those candidates that could support the needs of our island.” This evidences how former residents remain well connected to the happenings and fate of the island, and furthermore how cultural identity and loyalty does not fade upon moving, but actually strengthens.

Stagnancy can mobilize opportunities for innovation, opportunities to look at the island’s resources, and talent potential under a whole new light. The massive blackout that occurred last September certainly shook perspectives out of everyday normality. This blackout conjures a powerful image. Lack of sight embodied quite literally. Pitch darkness blinded residents’ view of their own habitual surroundings. Estefanía says “Everyone was confused we thought that there might not be light due to the economic problems of the electricity department. I feel that day we all realized that something fundamental needs to change.” Gabriela describes this specific moment in Puerto Rican history as a ‘jamaqueón’ (literally meaning “a great shake”). This ‘jamequeón’ awakens inquiry and readjusts perspectives on values that have long needed questioning and creative reinvention.


[1] According to the Puerto Rico Encyclopedia, Operation Bootstrap, known in Spanish as “ Manos a la obra,” is the industrial development program first launched in 1947 based on external capital and tax exemptions. It was founded on the exemption from the federal taxes that already existed in Puerto Rico under Article 9 of the previous Jones Act.

[2] Former Puerto Rican resident, in Stamford, Connecticut since 2012

[3] Current Puerto Rican resident, in Mayagüez.

[4] Former Puerto Rican resident, in Atlanta Georgia since summer 2016

[5] Former Puerto Rican resident, in Atlanta Georgia since 2014

[6] Current Puerto Rican resident, in San Juan

[7] Current Puerto Rican resident, in Bayamón

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