It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in San Juan. My wife and I had just stuffed our faces at the Condado Beach Club and decided to dip our feet in the ocean. We were having a great time in Puerto Rico, but we needed weed.
As soon as we stepped down into the sand we caught a whiff of that familiar stench. We scanned to our right and saw a brown kid and pale white lady standing by a concrete wall on the edge of the beach. She was probably in her forties and wore jean shorts and a t-shirt. We figured the kid for a dealer or at least someone who was holding, so we approached and asked if he had any.
“Naw,” he said all shifty-eyed and pointing at the lady tiptoeing away across the sand.
“Hey, you got any weed?” I called out to the lady.
She was visiting from New Jersey and offered to go get more from her stash at the hotel pool which was 50 yards down the beach and up a flight of stairs. We stood there talking to the kid with thick curly hair who kept looking away, his eyes darting around and barely smiling. It might’ve been me making him nervous. He was about twenty years old and probably thought I was a narc by how familiar I was being with him. I’m like that with most people if they seem cool.
The lady came back with a couple nugs in a little clear baggy and some rolling papers. She was skinny and looked like a regular at her local bar.
“Here, you can have these,” she said.
“No, we don’t need that much,” we said, trying to be polite and not empty her out.
“No,” she said, “really, you can have it cuz I’m leaving tomorrow morning anyway and can’t take it with me, so what am I gonna do with it?”
“Wow, thanks so much. You’re a real lifesaver,” I said.
“You just made our weekend, you have no idea,” said my wife.
“We’re here on our 10th anniversary,” I told Jersey.
“Really? Congratulations! Wow, that’s beautiful.”
“How much do we owe you?”
“No, nothing. Consider it an anniversary gift.”
“Nooo. We gotta give you something,” my wife said.
“No, no,” the lady insisted. “Happy anniversary.”
I thanked her and walked away. We were maybe 15 or 20 yards down the beach when my wife said, “You should’ve given her something.”
“She said it was a gift.”
“I know, but still,” she said. “Got any cash on you?”
I opened my wallet. “Just a ten and some twenties.”
“Pues dale un veinte,” she said.
I sighed and started trudging back through the sand to where the lady and the kid were still chatting.
“Here you go,” I told her with a twenty in my hand out in front of me.
“No, it’s fine,” she was saying as I slipped the bill into her hand.
I share this story because normally I would’ve insisted that the lady from Jersey take my money the first time around, but something about being a Puerto Rican in Puerto Rico made me want to take her up on her gift offer and not pay her.
I know it had something to do with my wife and I having toured El Morro that morning. My wife, a native of Juárez, admitted to leaving with a greater appreciation and respect for Puerto Rican nationhood after being inside the fortress and learning about the failed attempts to take the capital, and thus the island itself, by the British, then the Dutch, and then the British again—in total there have been seven “Battle(s) of San Juan.” I think she thought, like a lot of people seem to think, even fellow Latinos, that since Puerto Rico has been a colony for so long, Boricuas must be pushovers, hardly ever lifting a finger to protect their homeland and culture.
El Morro was built by the Spanish, who wanted to protect one of its many colonial possessions in the Americas—for ships sailing from the East, Puerto Rico stands at the doorway to the Caribbean and the continent beyond. So really you could say that El Morro isn’t so much a symbol of Puerto Rican defiance but of Spain’s former imperial might. Still, while the Spanish may have paid for it, it was the Puerto Ricans who actually built it—with the help of African slaves—and it was Puerto Ricans who defended it.
I was just telling my wife how the Americans once used this beautiful place to practice their golf swings, chipping away at its facade with every stroke, when we spotted a white American family, a husband and wife with their little girl. The doughy mom kept calling El Morro a “castle,” which I can let slide. It’s technically a fortress, but OK, not everyone can grasp the distinction, much less a five-year-old. But then the mom pointed to the lighthouse above the fort and asked her kid, “Do you think that’s where the princess lived?”
That bugged me on a number of levels, mostly as a Puerto Rican, but also as a student of history and a lover of education. Because if you’re going to take your kid to a place like El Morro, you should teach them the history of the place. Tell them that it’s a fortress, not a “castle,” and explain how it was used. That should lead you to say a little about Puerto Rico’s history, if you know any—and if you don’t know any of the history, just read it off one of the many displays posted all over El Morro.
You might think that history and explanations would bore a kid, but you’d be surprised by how curious they can be. They’re like sponges, as everyone says, so they’ll soak up anything you dip them in, even history.
At the very least, you should teach your five-year-old what a lighthouse is. They can handle it.
And as a Puerto Rican, well, you can imagine what it felt like hearing El Morro, arguably my ancestral homeland’s most revered historic site, described by some bloated American housewife as a “castle” where a “princess” might’ve lived. The frivolousness of it, as if Puerto Rico were a land of dragons and fairies and magic beans. The lady either couldn’t be bothered with knowing the history of Puerto Rico, at the very least what El Morro is, or didn’t think it important enough to teach it to her kid. She was only there for a good time.
I bring all this up because Monday, July 25th, happens to be Constitution Day in Puerto Rico. On that day, in 1952, Luis Muñoz Marín, the first democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico, proclaimed the ratification of the constitution, thus giving birth to the so-called “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.” That “Commonwealth” business is just a ruse meant to convince the world, even the people of Puerto Rico themselves, that the United States doesn’t own colonies anymore, since owning colonies quickly became passé and ugly at the start of the Cold War. America wanted to play up its image as the “land of the free” in contrast to the Soviet Union’s “Iron Curtain,” so the Americans called their Puerto Rico a “Commonwealth” just as the Soviets had called their Ukraine a “Republic.”
Word games are a central feature of politics. “Political language,” wrote Georgie, “is designed to make lies sound truthful.” And making lies sound truthful is key to gaining power and keeping it.
For Puerto Ricans who know the truth, though, the 25th of July is remembered as “Occupation Day,” since July 25th also happens to be the day that Gen. Miles and the U.S. Marines landed at Guánica in 1898, right when the Cubans and Puerto Ricans had Spain on the ropes and were winding up for an uppercut. I call it “Invasion Day” since it’s more vivid and to the point.
Whenever I talk about the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico, statehooders and supporters of the colonial status quo are quick to say, “But the Puerto Ricans welcomed the U.S. in 1898.” That’s true. But the Wampanoags welcomed the Pilgrims in 1620. And the Tlaxcalans, wanting to bury their mortal enemies, the Aztecs, quickly joined up with Cortés, who landed in Mexico with a few thousand men, tops, and would’ve had no chance against Montezuma’s massive army on his own.
And in case you haven’t noticed, things ended badly for the Wampanoags, the Tlaxcalans, the Aztecs, and every tribe that met the invaders, whether they welcomed them or not.
I can think of a few tribes that didn’t welcome the people who ultimately conquered them. The Powhatans in Virginia and Seminoles in Florida. The Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay. The Comanche in Texas and the Apache in the Southwest…
The Taínos in Puerto Rico may have welcomed the conquistadors initially, out of formality. But it wasn’t long before they had one of the Spaniards face-down in a river.
Thing is, no matter how fierce a people’s resistance may be, it only takes a few sellouts to doom the whole nation. In America they’re known as traitors, but in Puerto Rico the word is vendepatria, which roughly means “someone who sells away their homeland.” A more accurate English term may be quisling, after Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian who the Nazis put in charge of Norway after they invaded in 1940. Still, the English equivalents are no match for the poetry of the word vendepatria. But any Puerto Rican looking to mix things up a bit might try barbosa, muñoz marín, or even penepé, which more or less implies a vendepatria already.
As we speak, the PNP, which is where penepé comes from, has its hopes set on a status bill working its way toward a quick death on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill would grant the voters of Puerto Rico a binding resolution to Puerto Rico’s century-old status question by way of a plebiscite with three options—statehood, free association, or independence—which would then force the U.S. Congress to carry out the expressed will of the Puerto Rican people.
Like I said, the bill has almost no chance of passing the House, much less the Senate, either in the current Congress or any Congress in the foreseeable future. But because statehood has won a majority of votes in such plebiscites for decades, the statehooders like the idea of having the results of one be binding on the U.S. Congress, the supreme authority in Puerto Rico. They’re looking to force the U.S. government to grant statehood to Puerto Rico, seemingly unaware that the U.S. government hasn’t been forced to do anything since it left Vietnam with its tail between its legs.
The United States isn’t going to make Puerto Rico a state, equal to the other 50, for the same reason that El Morro was used as a golf course and that mom talked of princesses—because the Americans don’t care about Puerto Rico, its history, or the people who live there—they only want to use the islands for a good time. The powers that be haven’t cared about the Puerto Ricans of the Bronx or Humboldt Park for generations, viewing them more as a menace than an asset, so what makes anyone think they’re going to start treating the Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico like full-blooded Americans?
Thinking about it now, I shouldn’t have given that lady from Jersey that twenty.
Featured image: One of the famous lookout towers of Castillo San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (R9 Studios FL (Thanks to all the fans!!!)/CC BY 2.0)