Puerto Rico, My Heart's Devotion The haphazard response to Hurricane Maria has underscored the tricky, in-between space that Puerto Ricans occupy. They're U.S. citizens — although nearly half of the country doesn't know that. But those who live in Puerto Rico don't enjoy many of the same privileges as citizens on the mainland. In this week's episode, Shereen travels to one of the most Puerto Rican enclaves in the country to explore the fraught relationship Puerto Ricans have with their American-ness.
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Puerto Rico, My Heart's Devotion

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Puerto Rico, My Heart's Devotion


RICARDO ROSSELLO: I want to make a clear point over here. Puerto Ricans are proud U.S. citizens.


That's Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello, pleading with the U.S. government to help its fellow Americans after Hurricane Maria tore through and tore up Puerto Rico.


And the wild thing, Shereen, is that a poll just came out last week - it was in The New York Times - and it said that nearly half - half - of all Americans don't know that Puerto Ricans are also U.S. citizens.

MERAJI: For some reason, that actually doesn't surprise me. I don't...

DEMBY: It doesn't?

MERAJI: ...Feel like I learned that in school. I mean, I feel like I knew that because I was Puerto Rican.

DEMBY: 'Cause you're Puerto Rican, right.

MERAJI: But I don't think that I was ever taught that. So for other people who were not taught that - were you taught that?

DEMBY: We were. But it was sort of confusing. Right? It was like - Puerto Rico isn't a state. It's a territory. And these people are citizens. But that doesn't clear anything up really.

MERAJI: Well, here's a little bit of American history that I don't remember getting and I don't think is going to clear up all of that other (laughter)...

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: ...Confusion. But it is that on March 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens when he signed something called the Jones-Shafroth Act into law. And I'm not even sure if I'm pronouncing the Shafroth part right because I've only seen it written because most people just call it the Jones Act.

DEMBY: And that means that Puerto Ricans have been American citizens for a hundred years.

MERAJI: One hundred years.

DEMBY: You are listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And this week, we felt it was the perfect time to revisit a story, Shereen, that you reported way back on the hundredth anniversary of the Jones Act.

MERAJI: Right. The story you're about to hear is about this unbelievably fraught relationship Puerto Ricans have with their U.S. citizenship and with their American identity. But before we get to that, Gene, I want you to hear this tape that our NPR colleague Camila Domonoske got. She was just in Puerto Rico reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and she was asking people all over the island if they've gotten help from the U.S. government. And let's just listen to 13-year-old Javier Janos from Guamo, Puerto Rico.

JAVIER JANOS: Up to now, no - no help. I'm not surprised, though. It's Puerto Rico. That's the only thing I can say. It's Puerto Rico (laughter).

MERAJI: That is such a cynical answer from a 13-year-old.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: Right? To me, he sounds like he's totally resigned to the fact that Puerto Ricans will never be treated like other U.S. citizens. And Puerto Ricans are definitely talking about how the slow rollout of aid from the federal government and this lack of attention by the U.S. media has something to do with their - our - second-class citizen status.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: You know, if you live in Puerto Rico, you can fight in American wars. You can be in the military. But you can't vote for an American president. And if you're a Puerto Rican here in the United States, well, you've got racism to contend with.

DEMBY: Right. The U.S. is sending aid to the island. FEMA is there. We know there's all sorts of damaged infrastructure and all sorts of disorganization that is to blame for relief not getting to where it needs to go. But that's not - that's not the whole story.

MERAJI: No. There's something more going on here.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: And when the Puerto Rican governor has to make the point on national television that his people are proud U.S. citizens...

DEMBY: Exactly.

MERAJI: ...Who should be treated like the ones who live in Texas or Florida and if they're not...


ROSSELLO: You will see thousands if not millions of Puerto Ricans flocking to the United States, which will cause a demographic, severe problem in Puerto Rico as well as in the United States. So let's take action. My call is clear. We need more help.

MERAJI: Puerto Ricans have been leaving the island by the tens of thousands over the past decade, escaping a different disaster, an economic one. Puerto Rico is $73 billion in debt.

DEMBY: Today there are more Puerto Ricans on the mainland than there are on the island of Puerto Rico. And that exodus might get worse as the island - which was already struggling, as you said - tries to put itself back together after this storm.

MERAJI: One of the places that Puerto Ricans might go is Holyoke, Mass.

DEMBY: Which is where you visited.

MERAJI: It is. It's already home to one of the largest concentrations of Puerto Ricans, per capita, on the U.S. mainland. I visited Holyoke in the dead of winter. And Myriam Quinones is one of the Puerto Ricans I met while I was there. She told me she grew up very, very poor on the island. And in 1989, she left. She was a teen mom, and she wanted to give her daughter a better life. And fresh off the plane from Puerto Rico, here's what she remembers about that first drive into this land of opportunity.

MYRIAM QUINONES: The closer we got to the city, the more buildings and factories and closed buildings and run-down buildings, and I was in shock. That was not what I was expecting.

DEMBY: What was she expecting, Shereen?

MERAJI: I think she was expecting a bustling town with lots of industry. And what she saw instead was a New England mill town where so many of the mills were closed down and abandoned. But she stayed. She took a factory job making plastic packaging for tools. She got her college degree. And today she runs the multicultural academic services program at Holyoke Community College.


MERAJI: She raised two daughters in Holyoke and lives there with her wife in a beautiful row house that they own.

You're talking about having more opportunities here in the States, how your quality of life is better here. Even though you go back to Puerto Rico, you can't quite picture the same - having the same life there. And since this is about the Jones Act, do you think the Jones Act and American citizenship benefited you?

QUINONES: I don't know. I really don't know where would it be of Puerto Rico if we weren't citizens. It's really tough to picture. But it's a bittersweet thought.

MERAJI: Do you feel American?

QUINONES: Man, you're hitting hard.


QUINONES: Oh, I plead the Fifth (laughter). Oh, man. Sometimes. Sometimes.

DEMBY: After the break, we'll hear more from Puerto Ricans in Holyoke who talk more about what sometimes means.

MERAJI: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. And we're turning to Puerto Rican identity in western Massachusetts, of all places.

NELSON ROMAN: So welcome to Holyoke.

MERAJI: Thank you.

ROMAN: I'm so happy you're here.

MERAJI: I'm so happy to be here.

ROMAN: Oh, my God. I'm, like, nervous, excited but happy. My boricua-ness (ph), you know?

MERAJI: I'll feel right at home.

ROMAN: Yes. OK, but...

MERAJI: Nelson Roman is the first person I meet up with in Holyoke. Picture a really hyper, really huggable Puerto Rican teddy bear. As soon as I arrive, he's driving me through south Holyoke in his beat-up Nissan, Uber sticker on the front windshield, Santeria beads hanging from his rearview mirror.

ROMAN: I'm only one or two ceremonies away from full Santero. My life is so busy, so I don't have the time.

MERAJI: I'm surprised he had any time for me. Nelson has three jobs - Uber driver; a volunteer coordinator at a soup kitchen; and the job most germane to this story, Holyoke City Council member, a job that keeps his phone ringing constantly.

ROMAN: Look at that. Look at that.


ROMAN: Oh, sorry - compromiso.

MERAJI: No, esta bien.

ROMAN: It's one of the fire victims. I've got to answer.


ROMAN: Hold on a second. Aida (ph), (speaking Spanish).

AIDA: (Speaking Spanish).

ROMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: Nelson's 29, and he reps Ward 2 in Holyoke. His constituency is nearly all Puerto Rican, and the median income is around $14,000 a year. This is his first term in office. And he loves to say he's got nothing to hide, and that's how he ran his campaign and won. He told everyone he was gay, HIV-positive, formerly homeless and a proud Puerto Rican - not necessarily in that order.

Right now Nelson Roman's on the phone with one of his constituents, a victim of an apartment fire hoping to find temporary housing.

AIDA: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: She's worried she's going to end up on the streets. And as they're talking and we're driving, I'm looking out the passenger side window onto piles of snow and giant redbrick factory buildings that are empty. And I can't imagine sleeping on the streets here in the freezing cold. This neighborhood is like the exact opposite of Puerto Rico. But to the effervescently positive Nelson...

ROMAN: To me, it's the center of the universe because of the Puerto Rican diaspora. I'm devastated we're going to lose that No. 1 title to Florida.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Very soon - in the 2020 census.

ROMAN: Oh, my God - you don't even know. I want - if I can do an ad campaign - Boricuas, come to Holyoke - I would. But we're losing it. Look, we have so many beautiful domino clubs and associations here in Holyoke. It's beautiful.

MERAJI: And who was that baseball player on the side of that...

ROMAN: Roberto Clemente - como no. My God...

MERAJI: Of course. Por supuesto...

As we're driving around, Nelson points to all the things he loves about this place - things that, to him, represent the resilience of Puerto Ricans who came looking for opportunity but found low-wage work, segregated schools and discrimination. He points to the beautiful domino clubs where old guys talk smack in Spanglish while smacking down dominoes. He drives me down a beautiful block with dilapidated brick row houses painted in tropical colors. And he stops the car in front of a faded but beautiful mural painted by Puerto Rican kids years ago.

ROMAN: This mural to the right is the arcoiris mural. They painted this mural - that Puerto Rican flag that's to the left, it's super long. It used to be a Puerto Rican and U.S. flag. The Puerto Rican flag started, and it blended into the U.S. flag. The then-mayor at the time came down and made this a campaign political issue and made a huge stink and got the news to say that the Puerto Ricans were trying to dominate the U.S. And so the kids were heartbroken. They just painted over the U.S. flag. It's now a hundred percent the Puerto Rican flag.

But think about that narrative, you know, and the Jones Act. So you come here to the U.S. You think you're a U.S. citizen. You have kids who are now in the neighborhoods, who are here trying to integrate, trying to become part of the community and culture and you're being shot down, saying you're trying to overtake the U.S. or dominate. Like, how are you as a kid growing up supposed to feel?

MERAJI: Un-American is the first word that comes to my mind - domestic yet foreign, from neither here nor there but forced to choose sides.

SOFIA RIVERA NEGRON: My name is Sofia Rivera. I am originally from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. I'm currently a junior at Mount Holyoke College.

MERAJI: Mount Holyoke College is in a tree-lined suburb right next to Holyoke. It's a women's college, one of the Seven Sisters, founded decades before Puerto Ricans got American citizenship. And I'm here in a grand old room in a grand old building with cathedral ceilings talking to Sofia. She totally fits the part of that East Coast university student with her fly winter boots, clear hipster glasses and a sensible yet stylish bob. I have to admit, this scene is in stark contrast to my tour through Holyoke with Nelson. And Nelson and Sofia are different in so many ways. Sofia grew up in Puerto Rico and went to private school there. Nelson grew up in the States, was homeless in Holyoke and has only been to the island five times. But they're both here in western Massachusetts, thanks in part to the Jones Act.

First, what do you know about the Jones Act?

RIVERA: What don't I know? It's what gave Puerto Ricans citizenship.

MERAJI: I don't know. What are your feelings about that as a Puerto Rican who grew up in Puerto Rico - which is very different than my experience as a Puerto Rican who grew up in the United States?

RIVERA: Being American was always there, but it wasn't the first thing you thought about yourself. And more - now as a student here in the United States, kind of experiencing more of that American identity - you know, back in Puerto Rico, I'm white, you know. And I have this white privilege. And I think a lot of people back home, they don't know how Puerto Ricans are treated here and how we are seen and how we're not going to be treated the same way as we are back home.

MERAJI: And you've seen that here...


MERAJI: ...Being here. I mean, tell me - like, give me some examples of where it's been, like, really eye-opening for you.

RIVERA: You know, in the street, I've had people - I've been calling my mom, and I talked to her in Spanish of course. And people ask me that coded word, where are you from? And I say, oh, I'm from Puerto Rico. And, like, the changing of the visage of people and their perceptions of me afterward - it makes me feel really bad. Like, it makes feel less. And coming here and being racialized and being put as a person of color but never having the experience of living as a person of color firsthand and being raised as a person of color and being marginalized. It's hard having to take your own prejudices and recognize that you had a privilege and now you don't.

MERAJI: Sofia's girding herself for a life in the States as a person of color because she can't imagine herself surviving the economic crisis in Puerto Rico.

RIVERA: If I go back home to work, my minimum wage will be 4.25 an hour. We're fighting for 15? I'm fighting for $7. You know, neither of the two places are easy to live. Just because it's an island, it's not paradise. And just because they're living the statehood, the American dream, doesn't mean it's actually a dream. A foot in both worlds makes me much more empathetic of both narratives.

MERAJI: I made my way back to the city center to talk to another person who gets both narratives.

It is freezing here, and I am headed to City Hall, where I'm going to talk to Marcos Marrero who does economic development here.

Marcos grew up in Puerto Rico, lived there through undergrad. And now he's here with his wife and baby boy making a life in Holyoke.


MERAJI: Hi. I'm Shereen. Am I allowed to shake your hand?

MARRERO: (Laughter) Well, I get louts of fist bumps so you don't get...

MERAJI: Pounds.


MERAJI: Marcos blamed his kid for the cough. I blamed the snow because, honestly, Puerto Ricans are not supposed to be living in the snow.

Anyway, Marcos has been pushing some redevelopment projects that have some folks on edge. They're nervous that redevelopment is going to lead to gentrification in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods, neighborhoods like the one Holyoke City Council Member Nelson Roman represents.

MARRERO: So my stance has been I don't see the evidence of gentrification as of yet. Is it a threat? Absolutely. And it's something that we have to be mindful of as we craft policy going forward.

MERAJI: He says he wants to make Holyoke a place that's also attractive to middle-class Puerto Ricans like himself so they are not going to feel the need to move to the other side of the tofu curtain. Yeah, you heard that right, the tofu curtain. It's the metaphorical wall that separates the white liberal college towns from the browner and poorer cities like Holyoke and Springfield.

And as if on cue, the very polished and professorial Marrero brings our conversation about displacement and gentrification right back to the Jones Act and the conundrum it created for Puerto Ricans.

MARRERO: Ultimately, whether we're talking about Puerto Ricans in the States or Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico, we need a place to call home. What belongs to us? I mean, that's at the core of all this. Right? We emanate from an island. We call it our home, but it's not ours. It is the property of the United States. We have citizenship based on the Jones Act, which allows us the freedom to migrate to the United States without barriers. Right? We can legally work here. Yet so many of us come here and what we've seen throughout history is that we've been excluded, marginalized, oppressed. And even when we do create those communities for all its flaws, whether it's, you know, low income, whether there's blight - whatever the condition may be - then when they're improved and revitalized, then the threat is of being pushed out and excluded and marginalized again.

So the question remains - what is our home? Where do we belong?

MERAJI: Where do we belong - in the States or on the island? On which side of the tofu curtain even, the side where you can get arroz con habichuelas and pernil every day of the week or the side where crispy pork skin is rarely on a restaurant menu?

I left Holyoke to visit someone who lives on the other side of the tofu curtain. She's from a very prominent family back in Puerto Rico. And when I called her to set up the interview, over the phone she jokingly referred to herself as a wise Latina. And at this point in my journey, I'm seriously craving a wise Latina's perspective.

NATALIA MUNOZ: My name is Natalia Munoz, and I'm a multimedia journalist, bilingual and bicultural. I am also the granddaughter of Puerto Rico's first elected governor, Luis Munoz Marin.

MERAJI: What are you doing in this part of the world?

MUNOZ: I am part of the diaspora. I'm here because there is no work in my homeland. I would love to be back in Puerto Rico. And I'm not talking about weather. You know, it snows here. I'm not one of those people who says, oh, it's so cold. You know, in the mountains of Puerto Rico, it can get cold also. It's not weather. It's culture. I miss being in my language, in my food, in my weather, in my political mess, in my educational mess. I am - I feel that I'm in somebody else's mess. I've been dragged into.

MERAJI: Do you consider yourself American?

MUNOZ: No, I've never considered myself American. I am an American citizen. I am Puerto Rican, and I have American citizenship. I have tremendous privilege of having that document over someone who has crossed the desert from wherever they came in Mexico or Latin America or Central America. And I treasure it. But it's a very complicated feeling.

I am a descendant of people who were conquered - not once but twice. First by the Spaniards - we were under their rule for about 400 years - and then under the Americans after the 1898 Spanish-American War. And sometimes, I'm an angry Puerto Rican. And sometimes I am a grateful Puerto Rican. It's a very difficult relationship that I have with the United States because nobody asked us. They didn't ask us, when the Jones Act was being written, do you guys in Puerto Rico - do you want to be American citizens because, you know, we're just offering it? And it's like, no. So... being in the diaspora, it's a painful experience. That's, I think, the bottom line. This is a lifelong painful experience. It's a heartbreaking experience that we live with every single day, so far and yet so close to home.

Que paso?


MUNOZ: What happened?

MERAJI: I just - this is - (laughter) sorry. There's something about this story that's really upsetting to me.

MUNOZ: (Unintelligible) Got some issues somewhere.

MERAJI: No, no. This is not what a - journalists are supposed to do, by the way.

MUNOZ: Oh, yes, it is.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

MUNOZ: It totally is.

Most of us don't even talk about it. We've learned to live with it.

MERAJI: (Sobbing).

DEMBY: We all are going to need a song to give us a little bit of life after all that and all the news out of Puerto Rico right now. Right?

MERAJI: Oh, yeah. And I've got just the thing. It's actually from Nelson Roman. He was the Holyoke city councilor. And it's from...


ROMAN: "Hamilton," "Hamilton," "Hamilton" - full soundtrack playing. That's what I play all day every day. It's what works for me.

MERAJI: Play me your favorite song.

ROMAN: Oh, my God. You just have to ask, and that's it.


LESLIE ODOM JR: (Singing) Love doesn't discriminate against the sinners and the saints. And it takes and it takes and it takes. And we keep loving anyway. We rise, and we fall...

ROMAN: (Singing) Love doesn't discriminate against the sinners and the saints. And it takes and it takes and it takes. And he keeps loving anyway. We rise, and we fall.

Oh, goosebumps. I love this song.


ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST OF "HAMILTON": (Singing) And if there's a reason I'm still alive...

DEMBY: And in case you don't already know - this is my song - you're listening to "Wait For It." It's from the "Hamilton" soundtrack.


ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST OF "HAMILTON": (Singing) I'm willing to wait for it. Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it.

ODOM JR: (Singing) I am the one thing in life I can control.

ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST OF "HAMILTON": (Singing) Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it.

ODOM JR: (Singing) I am inimitable. I am an original.

ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST OF "HAMILTON": (Singing) Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it.

MERAJI: And a quick update from Holyoke - at a recent press conference, the mayor of Holyoke said he's preparing for an influx of Puerto Ricans fleeing the humanitarian crisis on the island. He said, quote, "we welcome more Puerto Ricans to Holyoke with open arms. They are American citizens just like anyone else in the 50 states. And it's important that our federal government know that to be the truth."


ODOM JR: (Singing) Is relentless - he wastes no time.

ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST OF "HAMILTON": (Singing) Time, time, time.

ODOM JR: (Singing) What is it like in his shoes?

DEMBY: And that's our show. And speaking of shows, we are doing our first live CODE SWITCH episode this week in LA at the Skirball Center. You can go to nprpresents.org for tickets and information. And please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed.

MERAJI: Maria Paz Gutierrez produced this episode, and it was edited by Neda Ulaby. We had original music by Ramtin Arablouei.

DEMBY: And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Steve Drummond, Sami Yenigun, Walter Ray Watson, Leah Donnella, Karen Grigsby Bates, Adrian Florido and Kat Chow. Our intern is Nana Boateng.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby.


DEMBY: (Singing) And I'm willing to...

ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST OF "HAMILTON": (Singing) And I'm willing to...

DEMBY: Be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.


ODOM JR: (Singing) Wait for it.

ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST OF "HAMILTON": (Singing) Wait for it. Wait for it.

ODOM JR: (Singing) Wait for it.

ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST OF "HAMILTON": (Singing) Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, wait for it.

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