Our Man in Colonia

by Russell Cobb


The quandary began at check-in. The lady at the ticket counter was convinced Puerto Rico was a different country and I would go through customs on arrival. “I think it’s part of the United States,” I said. More gate agents gathered ‘round; the discussion would only end with a call to air-line headquarters. “You’re right,” the agent finally said. “It is part of the U.S. How ‘bout that.”

I landed in Puerto Rico a few days after the island had voted on what might be the most confusing referendum in electoral history. The vote amounted to an existential crisis. Puerto Ricans were asked a two-part question: One, were they content with their current relationship to the United States as a “Free Associated State”? Two, if they weren’t, what would they prefer: statehood, independence, or sovereign free associated state status? The only definitive result was that Puerto Ricans clearly indicated they wanted a change. But what kind of change? That question was as murky as ever.

Many media outlets, on the lookout for the all-important “take-away,” ended up propagating the myth that Puerto Rico had voted for statehood. On the first question, NO beat YES by 8 percent. But many of the 46 percent who had voted YES found it irrelevant to vote on the next question, in which statehood garnered 61 percent of the vote, gaining a plurality, but not necessarily a majority, among all voters. In other words, the only take-away was that Puerto Ricans were still divided about their future as America’s oldest outright colony—a place that belongs to the United States but has no true political representation in Washington.

“La fucking colonia,” my new friend Angel repeatedly called it. Angel, like many—if not most—artsy, intellectual types, favored independence, an option one might refer to as the Don Quixote position, as it routinely polls under 10 percent. I met Angel at a Peruvian restaurant in the pleasantly seedy barrio of Santurce. I wound up there by chance and despite the recommendations of the hotel concierge, whose dinner recommendations included a place called BUNS, as well as the Applebee’s a little further down the road. Angel, as it turned out, was not only a waiter but also a minor Puerto Rican rock star, playing the triangle and other sundry percussion instruments with a band that had once been voted Best Rock en Español at South by Southwest.

I told Angel I was mainly in Puerto Rico for an academic conference, but I wanted to know more about the bizarre referendum. “Americans think we’re a cute little curiosity, but they never see much beyond the tourist zone. This is a different country and we’ll never speak English.” Many of his most strident pronouncements, were, however, made in English, or at least Spanglish, which tested the limits of my bilingualism.

After several guarapos (a Puerto Rican sugar-cane juice fermented to taste like rum but cut, in this case, with fresh fruit), he suggested a personal tour of the real San Juan the following day. It started in Old San Juan, a place that had been gussied up for tourists over the past ten years, ever since a Republican governor pushed out the drug dealers, prostitutes, and wayward youth. “All the action just moved down the hill,” Angel said, pointing to a neighborhood called La Perla. “You’re safe with me in La Perla, but don’t go by yourself.”

After a ten-minute walk from Puerto Rico’s most iconic national landmark, the colonial fort of El Morro, we were in a dank tunnel next to a cemetery. This had been one of the best drug bazaars in the world. “Pills, coke, ecstasy, whatever,” Angel said. “You could get it all right here.” Then Donald Trump and the Republican governor—Luis Fortuño—got interested in developing the blighted coastline in La Perla and federal agents swept down to clean the place out. Although we talked mostly in Spanish, the conversation was punctuated with references in English to “fucking Donald Trump.”

La Perla is a warren of tightly packed houses, one built on top of the other, with informal businesses spilling out onto alleyways, and foul-smelling water runoffs. It is nothing out of the ordinary within the context of the developing world. I’d seen virtually identical scenes in Brazilian favelas, Mexico City slums, and Thai villages. But this was, technically speaking, the United States of America.

We stopped at a “bar.” The locale was someone’s kitchen with a long wooden plank jutting out into the street where people stood around drinking 75-cent cans of Medalla Light beer. The only food available was a massive jar of dill pickles sitting on the wooden plank with some toothpicks beside the jar. We stared out at the Caribbean. The shoreline below was littered with mattresses, broken bottles, and car parts, but the buildings were decorated with layers of graffiti, some of it pedestrian but some of it masterful. Some streets had colorful papier-mâché banners hung across the streets. The monotonous beat of reggaetón was everywhere. Still, it seemed like a pretty mellow place, despite the entreaties of a reviewer on Yelp.com: “The police do not go in to La Perla. 911 does not work there. If you call 911 for La Perla, the police will tell you to leave the area. Leave your purse, wallet, and good jewelry back at the hotel.”

Why didn’t the government come in and provide some basic services? I asked Angel. People preferred it this way, Angel said, because when the government did come in, it was to raid the neighborhood and evict people who don’t have a formal title to their small plot of land. During the summer of 2011, the DEA had entered La Perla and arrested 70 people on drugs and weapons charges. Since then, many of the homemade buildings have started to crumble.

Of course, La Perla residents would like more basic services, he said, but they resented the ulterior motives of outsiders, who have always had an eye on this beautiful strip of coast just a few feet away from the tourist center of Puerto Rico. They were particularly wary of nosy gringos like Oscar Lewis, the famous—infamous in these parts—anthropologist who invented the term “culture of poverty” after studying a family in La Perla. Lewis published an academic study that became a crossover National Book Award winner in 1967 called La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty. The family and, by extension, the whole barrio, felt betrayed: this seemingly harmless academic gained a family’s trust only to argue that their entire value system—and not just the cold reality of having no money—was to blame for their problems.

Angel and I never got to the subject of Oscar Lewis, though. I was too enthralled by his description of life in La Perla. According to Angel, the community leader was a well-known drug dealer whose role in the neighborhood was something like that of a benevolent dictator. His people kept violence to a minimum while also keeping an eye on everything and everyone coming in or out of the barrio. Cameras, he said, were everywhere. People were watching our every move, even if it seemed like no one noticed us. So it amounted to a question of autonomy over development. The community had recently stared down fucking Donald Trump and won, putting plans to turn La Perla into a beachfront neighborhood on hold for the time being.

Although Angel seemed at ease in La Perla, he wanted to get out by sunset, and so, with the sky turning a majestic pink, we wandered up an alleyway, only to find our exit from the barrio blocked by a row of houses. There are, I learned later, only three ways in and out of La Perla, all of them monitored by the minions of the drug dealers who reportedly control the neighborhood. We had wandered into a dead end and, for the first time, Angel seemed worried. He told me to keep quiet, as my gringo accent would surely attract attention. Much to our relief, a man pointed us to a makeshift set of stairs that led directly to Old San Juan. Minutes later, we were in a dive bar in the heart of the tourist center, drinking the same Medalla Light beer, only this time with a $3 mark-up. Old San Juan, as Angel saw it, was on the verge of becoming some sort of Disneyland for American tourists. Its seedy soul was had been scrubbed clean by an administration that openly favored statehood.

One of the great ironies of the debate about the island’s status was that the conservatives in favor of statehood also referred to the island’s status as that of la colonia. If there’s one thing people can agree on here, it’s that America is an empire. But being part of an empire had its benefits. A couple of days into the trip, I was cut off on my rental bicycle by a gleaming new SUV, struggling to make its way through the rough streets of Santurce. The bumper sticker was an American flag with a question in Spanish: “¿Dónde estaríamos sin ella?” Where would we be without her, the sticker asked of the American flag.

Probably just another corrupt, dirt-poor banana republic with a few five-star resorts, I’m sure the driver would have answered. Instead, Puerto Rico was a relatively rich, stable place that, in a certain light, looked just like Florida. Puerto Ricans could travel freely in the United States and had citizenship—just no political representation. This was the argument for statehood, I suppose. But if Puerto Rico were a state, it would make Mississippi look like Switzerland. It would be one of the poorest, most corrupt, and crime-ridden places in the United States.

And then there was the main sticking point—language, and the cultural ramifications of having a state where 95 percent of the population speaks Spanish as a first language. Catholic conservatives and nationalist left-wingers shared a reticence about becoming part of a country that experiences spasms of anti-Hispanic sentiment every so often. No one in Puerto Rico wants to give up their right to speak Spanish as an official language—a requirement some Republicans in Congress have said would be a precondition to statehood.

Later that night, Angel took me back to Santurce, where we drank vodka and grapefruit juice at a bar scarcely big enough for a pool table. A framed picture of the Statue of Liberty with a Puerto Rican flag pasted on her forehead overlooked the scene. Here, everyone spoke Spanish to me, which was a surprise, since most people took one look at me and started in English.

This was what I was looking for, I told Angel: the authentic corner bar where the intrepid traveler can sit back and take in the sights and sounds of the “real” Puerto Rico. That’s when I discovered that all the men at the bar were from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico’s main source for cheap labor. There seemed to be a perverse logic in the movement of workers in the Caribbean: Haitians went to the Dominican Republic for work, Dominicans came to Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans went to the U.S. Meanwhile, Americans went just about anywhere in the Caribbean for vacation. Living in the shadow of an empire also had its drawbacks.

By this time, I was sauced and ready to head home. No, Angel said, I had to come back to his apartment, where he lived with his ex-boyfriend and fellow musician, a guy with a massive tattoo on the side his head. Pepe was, however, a gentle, sweet man who had his mid-century modern apartment decked out in Louis XIV kitsch. We all listened to boleros and trio music—stylish, sophisticated musical styles from the 1950s—and shifted back into our discussion of la colonia and fucking Donald Trump. Politics was the national sport of Puerto Rico, Pepe said. Even though they both hated the subject, it was the inevitable topic of discussion. Neither of them were militant nationalists, but the consensus seemed to be: the less Americanization on their beautiful island, the better.

The next day, I met Vince and Sophia, two upstate New Yorkers on their honeymoon at a place touting itself as Puerto Rico’s only craft beer pub. They were killing time before the Buffalo Bills game started. Neither of them knew much about Puerto Rico or had ever been there before the honeymoon. I mentioned that I was writing an article about the referendum. What referendum, they wanted to know? I explained that Puerto Rico was still trying to work out what it was—a territory, a state, or an independent nation. So, what was it now? “It’s a Free Associated State,” I said. “Around here, they just call it la fucking colonia.”

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 3. Feb. 1, 2013.