Puerto Rico

Caliban’s Island: The Return


Picture of the Castle de San Felipe del Morro in the Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the entrance of the San Juan Bay, 28 April 2011. (Credit: James Willamor)

A Return to the Native Land, as we learn from Aimé Césaire’s great poem, is fraught with perils, fortuitous occurrences, fortunate encounters and profound realizations.[1] The island that I call home is magical, and like Caliban’s island, is full of ghostly sounds and ancient voices: (more…)

Three Magic Kings


“Birth of Jesus with Visiting Magi” by Heinrich Hofmann, circa 1900. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)


You’d wake up in the morning wondering if they were still there but you didn’t want to meet them, afraid of the magic of their passage still infusing the lighted Christmas tree in the living room, down the hall from the doorway of your bedroom.

Christmas toys were small, peremptory tokens that fulfilled a duty since you went to an American school in which instruction took place in English. Both Cuban and US holidays were observed.  They’d told you all about Halloween and Santa Claus coming to your house with gifts on Christmas Eve. We had no problem taking small toys from Santa Claus, but the important ones—bicycles, Lone Ranger costumes and fake Peacemaker revolvers, Tonto action figures, Zorro’s secret hideout (a miniature plastic mountain), were brought by the Three Magic Kings on January 6. (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: The Death of Fidel Castro and the Scarface People


Circus poster showing battle between Buffalo Bill’s congress of rough riders and Cuban insurgents. (Library of Congress)

Sic semper tyrannis! I will not celebrate the death of Fidel Castro. Dictators abound in the world; their deaths should be met with a silent shrug. What joy is there in the tragedy of a people still shattered, a country lost in childhood, and another failure in the centuries-old struggle of Cubans for liberty and equality? Let those who will dance on graves wave flags, honk horns and jump in the streets as a rite of passage.

Rather than spit on a corpse, I choose to recall memories of another Old Man—what he did, and what he meant to us. (more…)

Waiting for Monica

Mónica Puig at the 2014 China Open. (Credit: Tatiana / Wikimedia Commons)

Mónica Puig at the 2014 China Open. (Credit: Tatiana / Wikimedia Commons)

Two weeks ago, after writing a series of posts about Puerto Rico for our Hunt the Devil blog, I sat at the bar of the Caribe Hilton in San Juan nursing a drink and watching the sunset on the beach. At such times, it is easy to understand how the first explorers believed they had found Paradise when they discovered the Caribbean islands.

Suddenly my contemplation was disturbed by a storm of police sirens, fire trucks blaring, PA systems screeching, TV news reporters and a mob of hotel guests rushing towards the entrance of the hotel. To the anxious question what is happening? the bartender answered with Beckettian simplicity: “Monica’s here.”

He was referring to the arrival of Monica Puig, first athlete to ever win a gold medal playing for Puerto Rico, fresh from her victory at the Rio Olympics in the single women’s tennis event. She was staying in the hotel complex to train for the upcoming US Open tournament, and to attend a scheduled parade in her honor. At this point in time my wife Margarita, who is a native born Puerto Rican, left the seat beside me to join the rushing crowd trying to get phone pictures of Monica. (more…)

Puerto Rico: Dance Under the Sun (Epilogue: Dead Time)


The Caribbean side of the island, Rincon, Puerto Rico, 31 December 2007. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The isle is full of noises,

Sound and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not….

                                         And sometime voices

That, if then I had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again. 

Shakespeare, The Tempest

The magic that Shakespeare’s Caliban sensed in his island is known to all Puerto Ricans. In the ancient isle of Boriquén there is not a hill, a small mountain or a hidden cave where the ocean cannot be seen, heard in the distance, or smelt in the evening’s air. It is an island of “subtle, tender, and delicate temperance,” where “the air breathes upon us … most sweetly.” (The Tempest, I.ii.44-49). If you come from the desert to the island, you will find its vegetation so lush and green that your eyes will hurt for days. The same divinity that Walt Whitman found in the North American landscape was a living presence to Julia de Burgos (1916-1953) in her poerm “Río Grande de Loíza”:

Coil around my lips and let me drink from you

to feel you mine for a brief moment,

and hide you from the world

and hide within you

and hear bewildered voices in the mouth of the wind.[1]

The spiritual bastion that is Puerto Rico—much more than its old Spanish fortresses—gives to the people courage in the face of hurricanes: there is always, in the words of the old plena song, “an aroma of coffee and hope for tomorrow.” (more…)

Puerto Rico: Dance Under the Storm (Part III: The Gimmick)


USS Iowa (BB-61) fires a full broadside of her nine 16″/50 and six 5″/38 guns during a target exercise near Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

The “gimmick,” Juan Manuel García Passalacqua (aide to two Puerto Rican governors during the 1960s) wrote in a newspaper column over a decade ago, was as follows:

To produce jobs here so that our population could be kept domesticated to prevent social disorder to protect law and order in the archipelago that was essentially and only a very important naval and military base for the United States. We all ended that in Vieques.[i]

Passalacqua was warning of economic disaster given the impending end of Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code, which gave “mainland United States companies an exemption from Federal taxes on income earned in Puerto Rico, whether it comes from operations or interest on local bank deposits.” In the aftermath of the closing of the naval artillery range in the small contiguous island of Vieques, and of the closing of the impressive Roosevelt Roads naval base, Passalacqua relayed the conclusion of several economic reports from the US mainland: “Tax exemptions to multinational corporations are not needed anymore” (The San Juan Star, July 9, 2006). (more…)

Puerto Rico: Dance Under the Storm (Part II: Borinqueneers)

Painting depiction of the U.S. 65th Infantry Regiment's bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War, by Dominic D'Andrea, 1992. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

Painting depiction of the U.S. 65th Infantry Regiment’s bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War, by Dominic D’Andrea, 1992. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

The illustration pictures the (all Puerto Rican) 65th Infantry Regiment in action. In 2014, President Barack Obama presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the fabled “Borinqueneers” in recognition of their military service in Korea (the word Borinquen derives from the ancient Taíno name for the island).

In The Docile Puerto Rican and Other Essays 1953-1971, René Marqués once argued:

We are docile. If we were not, Puerto Rico would have obtained its national sovereignty in the 19th century…. Puerto Ricans can be antisocial, defiant, non-conformist occasionally and even heroic as individuals in some cases, but we are certainly docile as a people.[1]

History belies such a categorical judgment by one of Puerto Rico’s greatest playwrights. From the first Taíno insurrection by Agueybana el Bravo (the Brave) in 1511; to the repulsion of repeated British and Danish invasions under the Spanish colony; to the slave rebellions of the 19th century; to the legendary insurrection against Spanish rule in 1865 known as the “Grito de Lares”; to the Puerto Rican participation in the Cuban Wars of Independence in 1895; in all conflicts Puerto Ricans have demonstrated the same fighting spirit that animated the Borinqueneers during the Korean War. (more…)

Puerto Rico: Dance Under the Storm (Part 1)


“El Velorio” – ‘The Wake’ – by Puerto Rican impressionist artist Francisco Oller (1893).

Don’t anybody tell me anything bad about Puerto Rico because of its financial difficulties. I will be compelled to break out my voodoo dolls, and with my magic pins dipped in pig’s blood, condemn your life to a miserable Calvary of arthritic pain.

I have had occasion in this blog to write about my native country (Cuba) and about the land I inhabit (the Ancient Kingdom of New Mexico). What I have not done is write extensively about my real country—the place where I grew up and to which my heart—as that of all true Puerto Ricans—always returns. Cuba is a memory and a hope; Arizona is breath of life; Puerto Rico is home.

A stranger never forgets the land that sheltered him when in distress. I arrived to Puerto Rico at the age of seven with my immediate family in 1961. Three years later my father, who was director of installations for ITT Caribbean, was requested by his employers to supervise the installation of 26 telephone plants in South Vietnam for the US Navy. My mother, my sister María Elena and I remained behind on street 24 of the Santa Rosa urbanization in Bayamón. (more…)

John Oliver uses Selma to remind America it has 5 disenfranchised island territories

The Daily Show correspondent John Oliver at Occupy Wall Street on October 16, 2011. (Credit: David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons)

The Daily Show correspondent John Oliver at Occupy Wall Street on October 16, 2011. (Credit: David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons)

“With eyes turned toward Selma and voting rights over the weekend, John Oliver reminded America on Sunday night’s Last Week Tonight that more than four million people live in the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas, they’re U.S. citizens, and they still can’t vote for president.”

Click here to read the remainder of Peter Weber’s piece on TheWeek.com.

The Cuban Thing (Part 1 of 2)

The flag of Cuba.

The flag of Cuba.

Because I was born in Cuba, many friends, colleagues and acquaintances—oh, so very carefully!—have asked me about my views on the recent normalization of diplomatic relations with, in JFK’s words, “that imprisoned island.” Normally I don’t like to talk about Cuba (although I have written extensively about it) unless the listener is willing to hear the rest of the story. Most people do not have the time (unless they are good friends) or the inclination to sit through it.

I have no patience with inquirers whose only interest in Cuba is cigars, hotels, and baseball players. Conversations between Cubans about Cuba usually degenerate into an exchange of impassioned monologues, which end up in loud shouting matches that break up gatherings in lasting clouds of bitterness.

Above all, I quickly grow to detest non-Cubans who have visited the island in tourist junkets or for academic conferences, and who insist on telling me all they learned about my native country during their short stay, to bring me up to date. (more…)