Nearly four months after Hurricane Maria obliterated the entire electrical grid, destroyed or damaged 472,000 homes, and killed at least sixty-four people in Puerto Rico, half of households remain in the dark, 250,000 people have left, and the estimated death toll has soared above 1,000. The darkness, however, has clarified what over a century of legal euphemisms have tried to obscure: that living as non-voting American citizens on an unincorporated territory that “belongs to, but is not part of” the United States not only spells disaster. It can also spell death.
While Puerto Ricans have met this realization with a mixture of outrage, resignation, and indifference, some Americans have responded with a historically rare gesture: rhetorical incorporation. As the hurricane approached, mainstream media outlets started to describe Puerto Ricans as “3.4 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico.” After the storm devastated the island and the federal government failed to fully assist, journalists and other public figures started to drop the distinction altogether. Perhaps echoing governor Ricardo Rosselló’s mournful address to “my fellow Americans” on the eve of Maria’s landfall, they started to simply call Puerto Ricans “Americans” and, even more unexpectedly, “our fellow Americans.”
One of the first outlets to do so was the Weather Channel, whose anchors and reporters, especially Paul Goodloe, repeatedly mentioned that Puerto Ricans were Americans. CBS correspondent David Begnaud, who emerged as the most compelling and dedicated journalist of the post-Maria predicament, routinely did the same. Reporting about island conditions on October 5, for example, he stressed with exasperation: “these are Americans sitting in line, sleeping in their cars, desperately trying to get fuel.”
MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow was at times still more emphatic. Discussing the infamous “spa day” story where a U.S. doctor quit after seeing medical personnel turn a hospital triage into a manicure station, Maddow remarked in an alarmed tone: “You have people starting to die, Americans starting to die, in Puerto Rico because of treatable bacterial infections . . . This storm is no longer killing Americans—the federal government’s response to the storm is now killing Americans.”
For U.S. journalists, this was a way to keep people watching and maintain pressure on the federal government to step up support. Yet it often went further. In the New York Times, two writers made the case that what Puerto Ricans were called was a question not just of semantics but also of survival. Commenting on a Morning Consult poll about U.S. perceptions of Puerto Ricans shortly after the hurricane struck, they noted that Americans in general—including Trump supporters—were more comfortable with the idea of providing aid to Puerto Ricans if aware that they were U.S. citizens. The finding was reported as both a conclusion and a plea: “Our sympathies for other people depend in part on whether we see them as fellow members of our tribe. Without more coverage, it may be easy to forget that the people suffering are our fellow Americans.”
Nor were journalists alone in adopting this strategy: corporate America also got in on the act. Perhaps the most striking example was a public service announcement by the megastore Walmart, which began running on primetime television on October 9. Called “United,” the PSA was not Walmart’s first on a hurricane-related theme. The company had released another one a month earlier to raise funds for victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas. The 30-second Texas spot began with a photograph of Houston partly underwater and ended with a written message: “To the Lone Star State, you are not alone.” According to adland.com, this message helped to raise over $25 million.
The Puerto Rico version was of similar length and style, suggesting that in the eyes of Walmart, the island was equal to any state. It opened with images of the hurricane’s impact under an instrumental arrangement of Ben King’s classic “Stand By Me.” While the lyrics are not part of the PSA, the song was likely chosen to allude to the destruction of the power grid and ensuing darkness: “When the night has come/And the land is dark/And the moon is the only light we’ll see/No, I won’t be afraid/Oh, I won’t be afraid/Just as long as you stand, stand by me.” In the English rendition, the PSA’s male voiceover, heard during most of the spot’s duration, declares: “To our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico, we may be separated by an ocean, but we are united.”
Politicians eventually joined in too. In an October 16 address to the legislature after a visit to Puerto Rico, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson repeated the phrases “our fellow Americans” or “fellow citizens” six times, ending with: “Our fellow Americans are dying, and they desperately need our help. . . . I’m here to urge this Congress and the administration that we have to act.” While Puerto Ricans used it less often, New York Congress member José Serrano similarly pressed his House colleagues the following week: “[The people of Puerto Rico] are our fellow Americans; they’ve served in our wars, they do pay taxes, and they should be treated equally.”
The rhetorical explosion of “our fellow Americans” raises the question of why the sudden adoption of this phrase, and why now. Part of the answer lies in the shifting meaning of the term “American,” as a product of constant struggles over who can claim full national belonging and access the benefits of U.S. citizenship. This is evident in Puerto Rico’s case. Although rarely invoked until the aftermath of Maria, the phrase has been applied to island residents for over a century to emphasize political inequality and injustice. A 1900 Washington Times article offers a succinct, and still current, example: “the crime against our suffering fellow-Americans in Puerto Rico, and against the Constitution of the United States, is complete.”
Another clue lies in the idiom’s relationship to presidential rhetoric. It emerged from “my fellow-citizens,” in use since the republic’s early period and employed by the nation’s first president, George Washington. The present turn of phrase was taken up in the twentieth century by various presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1933 was the first to employ it in an inaugural speech. Yet the expression’s contemporary resonance can perhaps best be credited to Lyndon B. Johnson, who included it in opening every State of the Union and other key speeches on divisive subjects in which American lives were at stake. Among these were Johnson’s last two addresses to the nation: “Good evening, my fellow Americans,” he began, before announcing that he would first limit, then halt bombing in Vietnam, and not seek reelection.
The phrase’s association with presidential addresses and their effect of rhetorically constituting the “American people” in times of crisis partly explains its surge after Maria. The repetition aims to affirm that given the failure of both the president and Congress to act, Americans themselves have the power to incorporate Puerto Rico as part of the national body politic and dictate that Puerto Ricans are deserving of care as U.S. citizens. To the extent that President Trump has explicitly claimed the category of “American” for whites, “our fellow Americans” also seeks to refuse the president’s racist rhetoric by taking over presidential speech. The phrase, then, is a declaration of democratic inclusion—the chosen version is, after all, “our” and not “my” fellow Americans—and a form of protest against the nation’s head of government.
This strategy has had some tangible effects. Brigades of nurses, pilots, cooks, celebrities and even The Simpsons’ cartoon bartender Moe have sent money and supplies to Puerto Rico or donated their time. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that a month after Maria hit, 62 percent of Americans agreed that Puerto Ricans were not getting the help they needed. More notably still, according to a Fox News poll, the percentage of Americans who support admitting Puerto Rico as a state of the union jumped, from 30 percent in 2007 to 41 percent in the month after Maria. If the numbers are reliable, this is a remarkable outcome, as it is now widely known that the island is experiencing a massive debt crisis hinging on $120 billion in bond and pension obligations, that it will require additional billions to recover, and that nearly half the population lives below the poverty line.
At the same time, the embrace of “our fellow Americans” is more vexed than it appears. A good example is Walmart’s PSA. While the company may have intended to raise money for relief, many Puerto Ricans saw the ad as hypocritical PR given Walmart’s impact on the island. The reason is simple: Walmart is Puerto Rico’s largest private employer and its highest-grossing retailer, with upwards of $2.75 billion in annual revenue and more stores per square mile than anywhere else on earth. Accordingly, in the last two decades, Walmart has destroyed the vast majority of local competition, including independent pharmacies, and has been a factor in over 800 small business bankruptcies. Its near monopoly of the market has likewise driven up unemployment: for every new job that Walmart creates, the economy loses an average of 2.3. Equally significant, the types of jobs that Walmart has generated are mostly part-time, minimum-wage ones, without benefits or the right to organize.
This rhetorical gesture also overlooks that while recognition as Americans may translate into greater attention, the strategy is problematic for what it exacts and omits. Philosopher Nelson Maldonado Torres was among those to object to the “American” appeal by pointing out that Puerto Ricans should “receive help because they are people, not because they are [American] citizens”; citizenship status alone has never guaranteed rights for racialized people, who are not seen as fully human to begin with. Eduardo Bhatia, former president of the Senate of Puerto Rico, argued that while it was legally accurate to say that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, calling them Americans was another matter. From this perspective, “our fellow Americans” erases Puerto Rican national identity and their long history of struggles against U.S. colonialism.
Yet under the current circumstances, the most revealing limitation of the attempt to rhetorically make Americans out of Puerto Ricans is its failure to end the suffering on the ground—highlighting that Puerto Rico’s colonial subjection is thoroughly systemic. Usual responses to disasters in the United States, such as expanding the food stamp program for families in need, were not followed because unlike in the fifty states, there is a cap to the amount of funds the island can receive, even in times of emergency. For still disputed reasons, the mutual aid typically provided by states when catastrophe hits also did not kick in. States like New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts were quick to send personnel, equipment, and other assistance to Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria but not to Puerto Rico. To further clarify the island’s low status, four weeks after the hurricane, no less than sixty-nine House Republicans voted against additional aid for Puerto Rico, and the approved package was ultimately offered in the form of loans, although state agencies were granted direct relief in the same bills.
In other words, the appeal of “our fellow Americans,” particularly in the absence of political mobilization, is no match against a racist, colonial logic designed to keep resources away from “minorities” deemed to be undeserving. Trump underlined this when he defended his administration’s negligent response by invoking old stereotypes of Puerto Ricans as lazy, responsible for their own financial woes, and unreasonable in their expectations of the U.S. government. In contrast to his September 1 speech on Texas after Harvey, when he stated, “We will support you today, tomorrow and the day after. . . . We help our fellow Americans every single time,” Trump’s October 12 tweet to Puerto Ricans claimed that: “We can’t keep FEMA, the Military & First Responders . . . in P.R. Forever.” Not surprisingly, this assertion is inconsistent with FEMA’s record; the agency sometimes stays engaged in disaster areas for more than a decade after a storm. In fiscal year 2017 alone, FEMA was slated to provide $440 million in relief to Gulf Coast states for damages resulting from 2005 hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, and $1.4 billion to New York and New Jersey for Sandy.
Moreover, while press coverage to date has done much to shift some attitudes, the quantity and quality of journalistic interest itself often replicates existing power dynamics. While reporting about Puerto Rico spiked after Maria, compared to prior coverage on the debt crisis, it has been considerably less than that of hurricane damage in Texas and Florida. The equally devastated U.S. Virgin Islands—where three-quarters of the population is black—received nearly no coverage at all. Attention to Puerto Rico only picked up after Trump visited the island and has faded since. In addition, whereas media on the mainland United States focuses on the needs of residents and the hurricane’s impact on families, Puerto Rico’s is largely related to partisan politics, debt, taxes, and the death toll, underscoring that media interest is often a proxy for anti-Trump or anti-Republican sentiment rather than an actual commitment to resolving urgent problems or ending U.S. colonialism.
But even if the federal government were handling Puerto Rico’s crisis like one in any other U.S. state, the island would not be spared another, harsher American response: disaster capitalism. Well-connected companies receive no bid multimillion-dollar contracts to rebuild at an exorbitant cost; recovery gives way to land grabs, privatization, and more debt. Repeating what happened after Katrina to majority-black New Orleans, whose citizens had a full Congressional representation, the interests of most Puerto Ricans are being sold out with impunity. Yet, as befits colonial governance, a provision of the Republican tax bill passed by Congress in December takes this profiteering to new heights. Though the final bill didn’t include a threatened 20 percent excise tax on goods imported to the mainland—which could have cut as much as one-third of the local government’s revenues—a separate 12.5 percent tax on income from intellectual property could gut Puerto Rican pharmaceutical manufacturing, one of the largest and best-paid sectors of the island’s economy.
Ultimately, in this unnatural disaster made by the intersection of climate change, modern colonialism, and Trumpism, it is not hard to see why an appeal to “our fellow Americans” has not saved Puerto Ricans. For too many, including those who currently control the nation’s resources, the phrase still fundamentally refers to privileged whites. The irony is that the longer the U.S. government deliberately fails in Puerto Rico, the more fleeing Puerto Ricans will technically turn into Americans anyway.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner is a filmmaker, writer, curator, scholar and professor at Columbia University, where she is the founding director of the Media and Idea Lab and founding curator of the Latino Arts and Activism Archive at Columbia’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her latest book is the edited collection Sovereign Acts: Contesting Colonialism Across Indigenous Nations and Latinx America (2017).