In September 2017 Hurricane Maria, a storm with winds that reached 175 mph, hit the island territory of Puerto Rico. High winds, flooding, and a both delayed and inadequate response destroyed much of the island and left an estimated 4,645 people dead, a number that is more than 70 times the government’s official count. While Maria created new problems for Puerto Rican citizens, it also served to highlight existing, systemic ones.
As an unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Rico operates in a kind of political and cultural limbo; the island and its citizens live with neither the advantages that come with being a U.S. state or that of being an independent nation.
Puerto Ricans are subject to U.S. Federal law and are considered American citizens, but they have no representation in the U.S. Congress, are unable to vote in presidential elections, and do not have full protection under the U.S. Constitution. This lack of representation has widespread effects, perhaps most notably in what many assert was a slow and inefficient response to Hurricane Maria and, more recently, Hurricane Fiona.
This limbo–a struggle between independence and statehood–is seen and felt throughout the island. A growing disparity between wealth and poverty is visible in San Juan where luxury brand stores and multi-million dollar beachfront homes collide with homelessness and those unable to find adequate employment. A short drive from the capital city one can see thousands of homes that still do not have a roof, years after Hurricane Maria initially tore them from their frames.
But in this state of somewhere in between, with an imminent change in formal status unlikely, islanders visibly embrace a different kind of independence, one born of a fiercely preserved, proud and authentic Caribbean way of life and living.