Earlier this year, my Nuyorican hermano, Rich Rivera of the South Bronx sat on a panel at the Thriving Frequency Conference and spoke to our primarily black brothers and sisters. He touched on the tension that comes with being brown and marginalized but not African American. “We’re with you in the struggle for justice, but we still don’t fit in,” he said. “Our experience is distinctively different but severely similar. What is the place of the Puerto Rican in this conversation?”
With a revolutionary tenor in his voice, he closed his statements with the infamous mantra of the Young Lords: “Palante… siempre Palante.”
Rich’s words brought an unexpected tension to the room but surfaced important questions: What are we as a gospel movement going to do about the plight of the Puerto Rican? How will we respond to the island’s needs now that she has been ravaged by Hurricane Maria?
It has been three months since Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico but this conversation among those in our gospel movement is just getting started. In order to truly engage it, we should take heed from the scriptures and be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). We must realize the story of Puerto Rico is a complex story of colonialism, two times over.
Origin of an Island
In 1493, Spaniards showed up on la Isla Borinqueña and were welcomed by Taíno Indians. Immediately, the Spaniards declared they discovered a new land and began their takeover, killing thousands and ravaging lands. Shortly thereafter, the Spanish began to ship African slaves to the island and by the end of the following century, Taínos were wiped out. Meanwhile, African slaves were stripped of their status and families and joined other slaves who spoke different languages. This was done in part so the slaves would not mobilize a resistance. Puerto Rico was used by Spain as a launching pad for their bloody conquest of Latin America that continued over the next few centuries.
In 1898, the United States invaded Puerto Rico with the goal of dismantling Spanish colonialism. When the war was over, Puerto Ricans expected freedom or at least a better standard of living than they previously had. However, they were instead subjected to even more forms of racism, cultural marginalization, and colonial exploitation—this time under a new master.
Since 1898, Puerto Rico has been a “commonwealth” of the United States. However, as the slow government response to Hurricane Maria makes clear, the name is only a fancy way of saying that the island remains a colony.
Our nation is originally a Taíno nation conquered and eradicated by the Spanish, mixed and oppressed with Africans, and then dominated by Anglos. That’s our history and the starting point of understanding the current Puerto Rican struggle. Knowing this history appropriately calls for anyone thinking about engaging the issues of Puerto Rico today to approach not as experts, but students. It also calls for us to understand that being a commonwealth of the United States does not mean being part of the United States.
Representation Amid Mass Migration
Puerto Rico has its own history, complexities, sins, and gospel opportunities. These aspects aren’t often understood because we as a people don’t have much representation. Although “commonwealth” suggests we share in the common strength and opportunities of the United States, Puerto Rico has zero voting representatives in Congress and those on the island are not entitled to vote for the President. Because the Church tends to fall behind the social advancements of our world, Puerto Rico also does not have much representation in the American church world.
Most cannot name even three Puerto Rican theologians or gospel-centered preachers or missional practitioners. Why is this the case?
The lack of Puerto Rican gospel representation is a real concern that will continue to grow as the United States witnesses a mass migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland. Since Hurricane Maria, more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in Central and South Florida alone. Already so many of our major cities are home to Puerto Rican families.
With so many Puerto Ricans living in our country and more to come, we must ask ourselves why they are not more represented in most church circles or platforms. How much time have we spent engaging Puerto Ricans? What spaces have we created for Puerto Ricans to live as authentic Christians? How do we better value their voices?
My prayer is that the gospel will drive us downward in humility and move us forward in love, concern, and charity in this moment of Puerto Rican setback. Hurricane Maria has ignited a mass exodus to the United States. Our children will be in class with more Puerto Rican children and our neighborhoods will be flooded with more Puerto Rican families. This presents the church with a newfound opportunity to evangelize, disciple, develop, and mobilize Puerto Ricans in a way they have not been able to do in the past.
The DNA of Puerto Rico and her children make for an amazing gospel example of redemption and hope. Let’s remember the incarnation of a brown Jesus who came to us by way of a small and seemingly insignificant home: Bethlehem. This should inspire us to think deeply about the small and vulnerable island of Puerto Rico and the responsibility we have as the Body to aid it during its time of need.