Last week, as Puerto Ricans on the island were prepping for the arrival of Hurricane Fiona, Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, also known as Bad Bunny, the global reggaetón star who proudly represents Puerto Rico in his art, released the music video for his hit song “El Apagón” (which means “The blackout” in Spanish). With more than 5 million YouTube views and counting, the music video morphs into an in-depth documentary report from freelance journalist Bianca Graulau, who has gained a following on social media for her explainers about Puerto Rico’s colonial dilemma.
Puerto Rico is still a crumbling colony with crumbling institutions that have done nothing to move it forward.
The close to 23-minute video is a raw microcosm of what actual colonialism looks like in 2022 under U.S. rule.
Five years have passed since Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico in the early morning hours of Sept. 20, 2017, and despite growing awareness about the island’s plight and its relationship with the United States, Puerto Rico is still a crumbling colony with crumbling institutions that have done nothing to move it forward.
This realization hit a stark note on Sunday, when a deluge of rain and winds from Category 1 Hurricane Fiona — technically a weaker storm than 2017’s Category 5 Maria — created historic mudslides, flash flooding and an islandwide power outage that left 1.3 million customers without electricity as of Monday morning.
With Fiona’s arrival, social media feeds and news reports out of Puerto Rico were filled with images of destruction not seen since Maria, harkening feelings of hopelessness long part of a colonial reality that continues to widen the inequality gap between the powerful and the powerless. One resident who almost lost his home told local journalist Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco via Twitter on Monday, “We’re tired. We’re exhausted. We’ve spent 40 years living here with the same situation.”
Sadly, this is what Puerto Rico has become: a place with little to no real resilient infrastructure, and a local government that cannot guarantee basic needs like electricity, water or food. The current pro-statehood administration of Democratic Gov. Pedro Pierluisi’s plan to privatize the power grid by contracting a company called Luma has been disastrous, with outages becoming more and more common, even where there are no storms. Ironically, during a Saturday press conference about Fiona, the power went out during Pierluisi’s remarks.
It is no surprise that Fiona exposed what so many Puerto Ricans already knew: that the colony is dying right before our eyes and nothing has really changed.
“Our grid may be functional, but it’s fragile,” Sergio Marxuach, a policy director at the Center for a New Economy told NBC News days before Fiona swept through Puerto Rico. “Five years later, we are still exposed to the same risk.”
It didn’t have to be this way.
Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico are American citizens, as so many fellow Americans like to remind you, but they have never been treated equally, and part of that is directly tied to racist laws that are still part of the United States’ legal code. Just like when Maria hit the island in 2017, the outpouring of concern about helping Puerto Ricans post-Fiona is real, even if it tends to come from a place of seeing Puerto Ricans as poor foreign victims with no agency or voice.
Sadly, this is what Puerto Rico has become: a place with little to no real resilient infrastructure, and a local government that cannot guarantee basic needs like electricity, water or food.
In the video for “El Apagón,” Luma’s ineptitude as well as that of Puerto Rican politicians are front and center. The message is an extension of what Bad Bunny has said and done in the past, delivering the necessary context for anyone who truly wants to be an ally for Puerto Rico. Graulau’s reporting on tax incentives and gentrification get amplified to millions. Hopefully, by shining a light on these issues as well as the unelected fiscal control board that financially rules the colony, the documentary will lead to real interest in searching for real solutions.
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, but it also caused communities to stop being so reliant on failing political institutions and to rely on themselves instead. Examples like Casa Pueblo’s solar energy revolution or the community kitchens of Comedores Sociales have spawned a new hope on the island, one that has always been there but is now given more attention to flourish.
Those are the stories that need to find more traction outside of Puerto Rico in order for it to be transformed. The current political status debate — whether the colony should become a state of the Union or not — has once again gone nowhere, proving yet again that Puerto Rico might be getting more attention from Americans, but it is not experiencing any real action or resolution.
If Americans really care about Puerto Rico more than they do about Queen Elizabeth II (yes, U.S. news media, you have spent way too much time in London compared to San Juan this week), they must begin to look beyond natural disasters and understand the issues that provide concrete answers as to why Puerto Rico is where it is at right now.
While President Joe Biden did indeed declare a state of emergency for Fiona before it hit Puerto Rico (a stark contrast to then-President Donald Trump’s shameful inaction following Maria), billions of dollars earmarked from the federal government in response to the 2017 hurricane season still go unspent. The urgency is not there, and it’s because, in the end, Puerto Rico is not and never will be a real priority for the United States.
As Puerto Ricans this week struggle once again, the spotlight cannot be moved away. If nothing else, Bad Bunny’s tribute highlights that it will take Puerto Ricans to make sure this doesn’t happen, just like it took Puerto Ricans over the years to ensure that they are not ignored. Another hurricane will more than likely strike the island sometime in the future, and unless colonialism is dismantled, the same things will keep happening to Puerto Rico. That is the real tragedy.