Like Praying: Puerto Rico on a Map

Screenshot-Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical single “Almost Like Praying” (Credit: Gabriele Diana)

“Although the plantation tradition has been relegated to the dustbin of history by some social theorists, it continues to survive among those still dominated by the economic and political dynasties of the South which preserved and reproduced themselves through diversification and through numerous new mobilizations.”
Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta, 1998

“This is an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.”
Donald Trump, Speech to the National Association of Manufacturers, September 29, 2017


The latest hit by Lin-Manuel Miranda begins with the following lines: “Say it loud and there’s music playing/Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.” There isn’t a DiasporaRican I know who isn’t familiar with the song Miranda is sampling. “María,” Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s ballad composed for the Broadway play West Side Story in 1956 was played often in many of our households. Remaking the tragic romance between Romeo and Juliet for mid-20th century audiences, West Side Story is the story of María Nuñez, a young Puerto Rican woman recently arrived in New York from la isla; Tony Wyzek, a white, ambiguously ethnic, ex-gang member; and the poor but striving, racially and ethnically divided New York they lived in.

Between neighborhood dances, work at dress shops and corner stores, knife fights, and police harassment, the characters in the play–barely adults, more than children–struggle to live and love. They dream of new worlds filled with abundance and beauty. “María,” Tony’s ballad for his love and soulmate, is an anthem for a world that didn’t exist yet, where their love could be free to thrive. In the 1961 remake of the play for the for the big screen, actor Jimmy Bryant crooned, “María, María, María, María/All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word.”

The Shark girls extol the virtues of “America” in Portland Center Stage’s production of West Side Story (Credit: Owen Carey)

Miranda’s “Almost like Praying” is the anthem for fundraising efforts he and other Puerto Rican and (Afrx)Latinx celebrities have organized. Each time the song is played on Spotify or purchased on iTunes, funds from the purchase will go to the Hispanic Federation’s Hurricane Relief Fund. Miranda’s video for the track included Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar playing María’s best friend, and a slate of musical icons including Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Luis Fonsí and Gloria Estefan. “Almost like Praying” literally maps the cities and towns of Puerto Rico. Over three minutes, the song runs down, name by name, every part of the island, including the caves of Camuy, the hot springs at Coamo, the islands of Vieques and Culebra. The Grito de Lares, the September 1868 anti-colonial and anti-slavery revolt by Puerto Rican residents against Spain, is the only historic or political event to enter the lyrics, captured by actress Gina Rodriguez, in a delicious fast-paced flow.

María is the name of the Hurricane that hit the island of Puerto Rico on September 20th. Miranda knew what he was doing when he picked this song to remake:

“I was very aware even as it was happening that this was the worst hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in a hundred years, and I knew that “Maria” would forever have a different connotation on the island as a result of that. And that’s my favorite song from West Side Story. So I began thinking about that song and the lyrics and a way to flip it into something positive.”

The aftermath of the hurricane has been devastating, marked by the collapse of infrastructure on the island, and a lethargic at best and outright hostile at worst response from the federal government. On a visit to Puerto Rico thirteen days after the storm, Donald Trump threw paper towels at a crowd of reporters and relief workers. On October 12th, sixty nine Republicans refused to authorize an aid package for rebuilding, a package that would have offered support to those displaced by wildfires in California as well. The same day, Donald Trump had threatened to withdraw the current meager level of aid from the island, noting in a tweet, “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

As those in Puerto Rico struggle to find resources and clear debris, and those on the mainland struggle to get word about their family or evacuate loved ones, Trump has attacked critics, the media, the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, and, it almost seems, the island itself. Nine days after the storm, Cruz’s outrage at the federal government’s response boiled over: “When you’re drinking from a creek, it’s not a good news story. When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story. When you have to pull people down from buildings—I’m sorry, that really upsets me and frustrates me.” On the same day, Trump issued a response to the crisis in remarks to the National Association of Manufacturers:

“Both governors, I have to tell you, of Puerto Rico and of the Virgin Islands have been extremely good. They are working so hard. But there’s nothing left. It’s been wiped out. The houses are largely flattened. The roads are washed away. There is no electricity; the plants are gone. They’re gone. It’s not like, let’s send a crew in to fix them. You have to build brand-new electric. Sewage systems wiped out. Never been anything like this.”

As of October 13th, 91% of the island remained without electricity and 37% had no water. The current status of the island can be found here. This percentage broke down to 2.9 million without power, which is the equivalent of the state of Mississippi going dark. Likewise, if the state of New Hampshire dried up or its water sources all became  contaminated–that is what the 37% (1.3 million) without drinking water would look like. The level of failure and the unnaturalness of this disaster have inspired comparisons with 2005’s Hurricane Katrina which devastated the Gulf Coast in seemingly similar ways. The call for comparison is laudable, almost like praying for relief from the vestiges of empire and the plantation which, in both New Orleans and Puerto Rico, structured the terms of disaster. But there is no prayer that can undo 1492 and there is no comparison that can capture the concentric circles of disaster that have engulfed Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Barbuda, St. Martin, Cuba…and across time and space Texas, Florida, and New Orleans too.

So the work continues. Mapping is an impulse and a desire for place-making and being seen. Within days of the storm hitting the island, Alex Gil, digital humanist at Columbia University and co-editor with Kaiama Glover of sx:archipelagos, sent out a call for digital humanists to lend their skills to relief efforts by mapping relief and need on the island. Using the hashtag #prmapathon, Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins University, Stonybrook and others are coordinating with their efforts. This effort is unprecedented, as Dale Kunce, an official with the Red Cross and of Puerto Rican descent, described it: “All of these areas [of the island] are getting completely mapped for maybe the first time ever.” It is worth noting that, in addition to #PRmapathon, activist journalists like Rosa Clemente have also traveled to Puerto Rico to document from the ground where the need is and what mainstream media initially would not share–and they are using the hashtag #PROnTheMap to do so.

The power grid of Puerto Rico before and immediately Hurricane Maria. (Credit: NOAA)

In the wake of María, any attempt to put Puerto Rico on the map of the nation’s hearts, minds, and imagination is almost like praying–for our dead and dying to be worth the media’s attention or for our homeland to recover without becoming a memory of what it was (#PRSeLevanta). And yet, even in our prayers, blackness resides in the space between the brackets, in the null value, as I’ve described elsewhere. McKittrick’s “land of no one” in her 2013 Small Axe essay “Plantation Futures” prophecies the “it’s been wiped out” in Trump’s assurance to the National Association of Manufacturers that rebuilding will occur. But blackness remains in the elders, grandmothers and tías who refused to evacuate their homes, who themselves are deep Black, blue Black, brown Black. Certainly darker than anyone featured in Miranda’s video or on his song. And that isn’t to condemn either or the impulse to raise funds, the desire to help and the network of wealthy friends and donors that have rallied to Puerto Rico’s aid. It is to point out what is missing and to witness, as Yomaira Figueroa calls us to do in her forthcoming book Decolonizing Diasporas: Radical Mappings of Afro-Atlantica Literature (Northwestern). It is to acknowledge that we do not know how to grapple with the colonial, the imperial, and the chattel slave in our own history, in our politics. We do not know how to practice our politics, because we don’t know or admit what we are fighting.

#PRmapathon and #PRontheMap offer us something different from “Almost Like Praying,” something more than counting and closer to accounting for the destroyed space and hurt places on the island. What thrilling ways will each account for areas of the island we never knew, as well as past unities (Kamau Braithwaite’s “submarine roots”), legacies we have buried or turned away from?

Could we sing another world into being if we knew the right words–new worlds, new stories and new ways to document, respond, and repel the plantation impulse? Naming the towns, the cities, to find our kin, to say a prayer, finds us naming colonial landmarks and finds us naming the homes of our families. Reading alongside Katherine McKittrick (who herself is reading alongside Sylvia Wynter’s “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation” published in Savacou in 1971) what if the thing that unites us is that null value, that space between, the land that isn’t plotted on the map, the land enslaved women, children, and men fought slaveowners for (the subsistence plot and the maroon colony)? What if challenging the plantation tradition Woods described became the baseline for recovery, restitution, reparations, and rebuilding? Perhaps our “Americanness” is what unites DiasporaRicans, what justifies our outrage. Many from la isla to the diaspora have pointed out the lack of support the government is providing its “citizens,” albeit they have done so with Trickster duplicity to shame the government into action since no one knows better than Puerto Ricans at home and abroad what it means to pretend to be a false citizen while a subject of empire. That strategy aside, what if it was our Caribbeanness, our non-whiteness, our African descent, our maroon African-indigenous solidarity, and our anti-slavery and anti-colonial fervor that united us? What possibilities do we pray emerge in the wake of that kind of bond?

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Jessica Marie Johnson

Jessica Marie Johnson is an Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include women, gender, and sexuality in the African diaspora; histories of slavery and the slave trade; and digital history and new media and has appeared in Slavery & Abolition and Meridians: Feminism, Race and Transnationalism. Follow her on Twitter @jmjafrx.