Opinion | Puerto Rico’s Future Should Protect Puerto Rico’s Women

Not everyone in Puerto Rico agrees we are the oldest colony in the world. But as a territory that is neither independent nor a state — we have no voice in Congress — the tension feeds lack of clarity and an illusion of self-governance that obscures our political reality. It robs us of a defined national identity, an economic road map and political dignity.

Dignity may sound like an abstract concept in the face of the material challenges the island continues to face, but in its absence these challenges color daily life in myriad ways. Our infrastructure is in shambles. Our politicians are selling off the land piecemeal in a doomed effort to buttress an economy broken by decades of neglect and misguided federal and local policies. Perhaps most urgently, we have a history of gender-based violence that ranks among the highest in the world. Puerto Rico’s enduring colonialist legacy is often at the root of this violence.

In April, American lawmakers reignited an effort to give Puerto Ricans a vote on the island’s status. This time, unlike the last six plebiscites, the results would be binding. If we are once again given the opportunity to decide our future — be it statehood, independence or a version of the commonwealth — whatever we choose must lay the groundwork for a national narrative that rescues our history and makes a relationship of political dignity possible, first with ourselves and then, if we choose, with the United States.

Our patriarchal culture too often tells Puerto Rican men that they must be the bosses of their families and deciders of their destinies. ‌That macho mentality also shames men for not going to war against American imperialism. Though the United States may not fancy itself a colonizer, it has crafted a narrative that willfully ignores our history of resistance and strategic negotiation, and which doesn’t acknowledge how these men (not to mention women) have earned the relationship with their very real contributions of blood and riches.

Colonization puts in place the systems and structures often at the root of heightened violence against women. Frances Negrón Muntaner, a professor at Columbia University, who has studied the harms of colonial subjection in the Caribbean and in Puerto Rico specifically, explained that there is a pattern of violence against those who identify as, or are perceived to be, feminine. “There seems to be a need for men to assert control and exact pain from these subjects,” she told me. That link is amply documented well beyond the case of Puerto Rico by scholars like Emilia Quiñones-Otal. In her investigation, which examined regions where the United States intervened after the Monroe Doctrine and the Cold War, she wrote, “we can observe the dynamics of gender violence that are linked to imperialist invasions.”

One such example is Guyana, where, according to a 2019 report by United Nations Women, more than half of all women have experienced intimate partner violence. Gender-based violence contributes greatly to suicide rates, which is the second highest in the world in Guyana. Scholars have drawn a connection between the country’s rate of violence, its colonial roots and the patriarchal power structures that were established during slavery and are alive to this day.

I grew up in Carolina, a town 15 minutes from San Juan. For years I thought the women in my family had the worst taste in men. I never understood why they stayed with men who beat them for not asking permission to leave the house or otherwise “disobeying,” or for any attitude that appeared to challenge their all-encompassing supremacy. I thought that to survive, we women had to make ourselves small, meek. But even that wasn’t enough. My grandmother, aunt and mother would eventually leave the men who beat and bloodied them, and ours became a family of women without men.

I didn’t fare much better. By 1990, I was a single mother of two, working as a producer of the evening news for a local station. I lived in fear of the men in my life and men in general. I took to leaving a broomstick by the front door; when I’d come home after work, I’d unlock and slowly open the door, using it as a makeshift weapon, scouring every room for an intruder. The following year, tired of living in fear, I applied for a job at CNN. I packed up my life and moved to Atlanta with my daughters, who at the time were 1 and 4 years old.

Not every Puerto Rican man is abusive or violent, but I had good reason to be afraid. The year I left, nearly 12,600 women reported being victims of domestic violence, and the vast majority were attacked in their homes. (There were some 3.6 million people living on the island at the time.) Between 1995 and 1996, 13 percent of women in Puerto Rico reported that they had been physically assaulted by an intimate partner or family member. Things have only grown more dire since.

In the wake of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which devastated the island and sent it into a state of emergency with no power or telecommunications, domestic violence survivors found themselves more vulnerable than ever. In 2018, 51 women were murdered in Puerto Rico. According to the government’s Office of the Women’s Procurator, 23 of them were murdered by their partners, though it’s likely that figure is much higher, given the breakdown of the island’s infrastructure and the unreliability of statistics from official sources.

The pandemic further compounded the crisis. By 2021, the frequency and the ferocity of violence against women forced the island’s government to declare a state of emergency that called for a committee to provide education, support and rescue around gender violence, along with a mobile app with which victims could request emergency help. Even if these efforts worked perfectly, they probably would not be able to fully extinguish this fire, given how long it has been raging.

For Puerto Rico, the solution rests with our status. Whatever we choose the next time we vote must be permanent and negotiated: permanent so we forever answer the question of what we are (a state, a permanent partner or an independent country), and thoughtfully negotiated with the United States to provide the laws and financial resources we’ll need to redevelop what was lost through the plunder of Spain and the misguided decisions of the United States.

There is a pervasive but wrong belief held by outsiders that Puerto Ricans have never resisted, or fought for their country — that they rack up debt and do not earn their keep — and this is how some Puerto Rican men see themselves, too. Deciding on and negotiating a permanent status will help to lessen the self-hate that leads to gender violence. It will be a starting point for ensuring the safety of all citizens, regardless of gender.

Whatever our political future holds, let it make us whole. Let it empower a system of government that is sustainable for everyone, and that constructs a healthier notion of maleness. We must move away from the rotted masculinity born of imperialism, which kills and beats when it is reminded of what it doesn’t want to be: a victim, weak, helpless, feminized.

Anjanette Delgado is a writer and a journalist. She is the editor of “Home in Florida: Latinx Writers and the Literature of Uprootedness.”

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