David Weingrad

In Puerto Rico, discrimination seems to be cyclical

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The hurricane struck hard and fast, leaving hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans without food and shelter. The damage to the island totaled in the millions of dollars, and more than 3,000 people were killed. Telephone and electrical services were lost.

Though the United States offered support to the devastated island, the resources were too sparse to properly handle the humanitarian crisis. Puerto Ricans felt lost, desperate and alone. A mass exodus from the island ensued.

The year was 1899.

The more you learn about history, the more you realize that it repeats itself.

As a son of a man who descended from European Jews and a woman who was born in Puerto Rico, I have long wondered about my genetic history. So, earlier this year, I submitted my DNA to AncestryDNA for analysis. With my limited knowledge of my family tree, I expected to be surprised, and I was. In addition to my European ancestry, I also have roots in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

My family’s migration history also caught my eye. According to my DNA analysis, some of my family members relocated from Puerto Rico to Hawaii some 100 years ago. I had to do more research.

I learned that there was a large-scale migration of Puerto Ricans to Hawaii at the turn of the 20th century, ignited by a mighty hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico on Aug. 8, 1899. It was a year after Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in accordance with the Treaty of Paris following the Spanish-American War, and nearly two decades before Puerto Ricans gained American citizenship. Hawaii, having become a territory of the U.S. through annexation in 1898, was an attractive option for Puerto Ricans who’d lost everything in the storm.

Hurricane San Ciriaco laid waste to Puerto Rico’s farmland, crippling its economic livelihood — particularly its thriving sugar industry. By October 1901, more than 5,000 Puerto Ricans had made new homes in the Hawaiian Islands, and many began working on sugar plantations.

But the adjustment wasn’t an easy one. Far from it. A group of sugar-producing companies known as the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association wielded considerable political power there, and the owners were Europeans and Americans who, historians tell us, regularly discriminated against ethnic groups who worked the plantations. The transplanted Puerto Ricans were dismally paid, and were often the object of bigotry because of their cultural and religious differences.

One reason I wanted to better understand my ancestry was the current political climate in the U.S., and, particularly, the Trump administration’s hostility toward immigrants and the polarizing conversation it has stirred among Americans.

As a nation of immigrants, we all descend from families who, at some point, were forced to adjust to a new way of life. Most Americans who are alive now are unscathed by the malice of discrimination, but for so many who came before us, it was a different story. And that’s why I found my DNA results particularly enlightening.

Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship in 1917 by the Jones-Shafroth Act, but the legislation initially excluded Puerto Ricans in Hawaii, to the benefit of the sugar planters’ association. Eventually, however, the voices of activist descendants of the original immigrant laborers drowned out those of the HSPA, and today Hawaii recognizes a flourishing Puerto Rican diaspora of more than 30,000 people.

We all know what Puerto Rico is facing today. Six months after Hurricane Maria, tens of thousands there still have no electricity. Economic stagnation over the past decade has led to an exodus of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland, at a rate of approximately 50,000 per year, and the unacceptably slow response to the disaster is expected to add another 200,000 settlers by the end of this year, according to government estimates cited by The Washington Post.

It’s not far-fetched to theorize that America’s failure to properly respond to this crisis is grounded, in part, in discrimination. Puerto Rico’s citizens remain disenfranchised in federal elections — giving lawmakers in Washington less incentive to involve themselves in the problems of the territory and its residents. Recent polling suggests that nearly half of Americans are unaware that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

And our president suggested in a tweet last September that Puerto Rican laziness has played a role in the stalled rebuilding efforts.

In February, Congress approved a two-year budget deal that included $2 billion to restore Puerto Rico’s power grid and $9 billion for housing and urban development projects. It’s a great start, but it falls tens of billions of dollars short of what Puerto Rican officials say they need to rebuild.

What happened more than a century ago is eerily similar to what we are seeing happen today: a natural disaster, followed by an unsatisfactory response by the U.S. and a mass migration, against the backdrop of discrimination. The difference is that, today, we have the chance to fix it before it’s too late.

David Weingrad is a communications manager in the nonprofit sector and the former editor of the East Meadow Herald.