The Race of Disaster: Black Communities and the Crisis in Puerto Rico
In this post, looking at the lives of Afro-Puerto Rican coastal foragers, I problematize the “disaster capitalism” orthodoxy, to probe deeper by asking: when was capitalism not a disaster? And, to suggest that the answer(s) to this question might have something to do with who is doing the asking and from what vantage point.
To explore this, I use ethnographic, historical and auto-ethnographic detail—and offer a Black counter-voicing—to hegemonic narratives about the debt crisis and disaster capitalism in Puerto Rico. I use ethnographic data about coastal Afro-Puerto Ricans collected over the last fifteen years. 1 Findings suggest that the fishers, crabbers, and foragers, who make-up what García-Quijano, Poggie and others call “coastal resource foragers,” have built strategies to navigate and resist local and global crises. This article challenges the notion that all Puerto Ricans organize their lives to follow the existing capitalist logic of accumulating material wealth and climbing the socio-economic ladder.
When Hurricane María made landfall in Puerto Rico in September 2017, it found a society long in the throes of a socio-political and economic crisis. In fact, economic downturns and recession coupled with waves of mass migration have been characteristic of the Puerto Rican experience since the early decades of American occupation. Predatory and vulture capitalists have circled and preyed on the colony since the second half of the twentieth century though the façade of political and economic stability began to officially unravel in the 1990s. Currently, philantrocapitalists interested in the island’s recovery dot the post-hurricane landscape.
Recent narratives have focused on the inability of the local and federal state to ameliorate the worsening social and economic conditions of island residents. While these powerful actors are central to concerns about Puerto Rico’s future, the fixation on the “top” and “center” socio-political spheres, in my view, run the danger of glossing over the myriad ways in which social sectors on the “bottom” or at the “margins” have been navigating the multiple economic, social, and political crises that have historically plagued them. With these assertions I am not suggesting that those who live on the margins of society are somehow exempt from suffering and hardship; rather I reveal how these individuals exercise their agency by crafting life affirming strategies that resist long-term oppressive systems, such as the racial capitalism with which Caribbean people have long grappled.
In July 2011, reflecting on how the 2008 economic recession affected him, a fisher and land crabber from the Salinas coast explained: “I feel like…the economic crisis has made us more equal. We do not depend on large companies but on the sea and our communities…Those office workers in San Juan do not know how to survive the crisis, but we do …our insurance is the coast!”
During summer of 2016, when I asked how the national debt-crisis was affecting them, foragers answered:
“here we remain in the same situation as before because we were already poor.”
“here in the south, we have always lived in crisis.”
“now everyone else is learning to live the way we poor people have long lived.”
The men and women answered calmly because in their view the crisis is an economic equalizer in a society plagued with staggering inequalities. Previous research with foragers suggests that—accustomed to living on the margins of the capitalist system—their moral values and ideals of what it means to be successful in leading a good life is incongruent with middle and upper class values. Findings revealed that they are highly dependent on the natural environment, mainly the coast and mangroves, as a source of food, livelihood and enjoyment, but fundamental to this dependence are also tight-knit social relationships, with kin and community. The people surveyed prioritized “spending time with family and friends,” “having a good relationship with my community,” and “doing work to help my community,” over “the ability make a lot of money.”
In December 2017, January 2018, and summer 2018, I interviewed folks recovering from the recent hurricanes. Juan, a 68-year old Afro-Puerto Rican man from Palo Seco, a seaside community in Toa Baja threatened by sea-level rise, told me:
Here we live better than a rich person because we are not worried about debt. Here we are used (acostumbrados) to struggle (luchar). I live very close to nature because nature gives life. I feed my animals I have chickens, horses, and pigs. Sometimes I go fishing for cocolias (blue crabs), jueyes (land crabs), or whatever I find. I also hunt and cook green iguana, it is good, healthy meat and it is cleaner than chickens. Iguanas only eat vegetation so they are very healthy and they are plentiful. I never go hungry.2
These testimonies resonate with my own life experiences. From the vantage point of my Afro-Puerto Rican family, capitalism has long been a disaster. I am an Afro-descended woman born to a socio-economically disadvantaged family of landless sugar cane agricultural workers. Some of my ancestors were brought from Africa and enslaved to toil in the Caribbean sugar plantations that helped build capitalism. Our family history is marked by what it means to be a dispossessed person of African descent in the Americas. Forced migration, displacement, and natal alienation, are core features of this unjust system that still perpetuates race-based privileges and inequalities.
For my ancestors the capitalist impetus was disastrous from the moment their bodies were conceptualized as racialized chattel and their right to freedom lost. In Puerto Rico our family was intimately connected to agro-industrial sugar cultivation and production in the fields of the southeast. My great grandparents, and their children’s lives were forcefully regulated according to the agricultural seasons. Upon abolition and subsequent insertion in seasonal agricultural wage-labor, the months of harvest meant they toiled from sun up to sun down in the fields year after year. But, the arrival of the dead season meant lack of income with which to buy food or afford even the basics for survival. Rather than starve, they learned to engage in several subsistence activities, such as cultivating small food gardens, animal husbandry, foraging for food in the forests and/or mangroves, fishing, and sharing food, goods, and exchanging favors with family and neighbors. In the margins, they found freedom in their proximity to nature and to each other, creating and living by alternative logics from those that conceptualized them only as “workers.”
This Afro-Caribbean way of life is resonant with Kelley’s remarks about Twelve Million Black Voices: Unlike the “lords of the land,” slavery’s descendants never had the option of creating a culture based on property ownership, accumulation ,and exploitation. Instead, Black families were held together “by love, sympathy, pity, and the goading knowledge that we must work together to make a crop.” “Our scale of values differs from that of the world from which we have been excluded,” he continues.
By mid-twentieth century, with the sugar agro-industry on a downward spiral, my mother’s generation was forced to join the waves of out-bound migrants, first to the island’s urban centers, and later, boarding airplanes to search for jobs in northern stateside cities. My childhood was spent migrating between Puerto Rico—Arroyo and San Juan—and the continental U.S., where we lived in many places including the Bronx, Spanish Harlem, San Angelo, Boston, and Hartford. We had become habituated to the “ordinariness of crisis,” spinning in the wheel of a “cruel optimism” always hoping that life in the next place would be better than in the last.
Like her ancestors, my mother makes a living stateside by trading favors with neighbors and piecing together work. Sometimes she works as a cook in Puerto Rican restaurants, other times she takes care of neighborhood babies and toddlers, she sells limbers (A frozen icy made from fruits like coconut, pineapple, and cherry, as well as sometimes dairy) in the summer and pasteles in the winter, and she forages for cans and bottles to recycle for “gas money,” as she calls it. In the summer, she fishes as much and as often as she can and visits her friend’s gardens where they exchange food and gossip. My mother has never been afraid of hard work but has always been afraid of not having the freedom to move, to be her own boss, and to make her own decisions. Perhaps, the stories about her enslaved ancestors and the cruelty her family suffered at the whims of racist landowners, has left such a strong body memory that in her life she prizes independence almost above all else.
The “shock doctrine” is a useful concept that illuminates the workings of “disaster capitalism,” in which immediately after a climatic hazard strikes, governments, in collusion with private entities, move with blinding speed to privatize public services (i.e. schools, utilities), as well as “the commons” (i.e. coastal areas, national parks) in the name of an efficient recovery. Certainly, the ongoing “recovery” in Puerto Rico is an example to be added to a growing list of such cases. And yet, the notion of savage, mercenary, and cruel capitalists descending upon a disaster zone to prey on shocked denizens, when applied liberally across the geographic spectrum runs the risk of obscuring the ways in which for Indigenous and Black communities in the Global South these people and forces arrived with Columbus. In other words, for Indigenous and Black communities in the Global South, the last 500-years have been a protracted disaster, one in which they have been at the mercy of cruel capitalism all along.
- These research studies looking at the relationship between coastal resources and well-being throughout the Puerto Rican coast have been led by the ecological anthropologist Carlos García-Quijano, whose groundbreaking ethnographic work has been crucial to understanding the cultural lifeways of coastal resource foragers on the island. I have collaborated with García-Quijano and colleagues in some of these projects and have focused on understanding how race, Blackness, and the practices of a specifically Black-Puerto Rican culture are at the core of what it means to be a coastal resource forager. ↩
- These quotes come from interviews during research funded through an NSF EAGER Rapid Response Research project “The Political and Moral Economies of Recovery from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.” ↩