Read the Primer Episodio, here.
By: Norma Iris Lafé*
Two words describe the Barrio communities where we settled, in comparison to the suburban El Cerrito California we left behind—slow…Barrio Pozuelo…and slower…Barrio Mosquito.
On the first leg of our journey back, we settled into the slower Barrio Mosquito quiet life, M’hija stayed close to home—friendless—watching las telenovelas with abuelita, quickly learning Spanish. While I was about to lose my overactive inquisitive mind, bored to distraction, confined to a claustrophobic bedroom no bigger than the smallest walk-in closet of the better-to-do, a tight squeeze for a full-size bed, let alone two full size women crawling over each other to get to the door.
I couldn’t get into the groove of Barrio life in the boonies of the rural South. At the time, I didn’t drive nor did I own a car to venture out of Mosquito to see the island sights; braved it as far as the local negocio, or pub, behind our house to socialize with family and get acquainted with los vecinos, my new neighbors. La Gibarita is a favorite watering hole for motorists travelling between the twin towns of Salinas and Guayama looking for a private spot, off the main drag, la Carretera 3, to have la fría. And, talk politics.
Talking politics is a rather risky business for the uninformed, I was quick to observe of the animated sound-offs around the bar. A newcomer, I listened for the most part, until I got up to speed with the rest of the island population.
The political pendulum had swung right when I returned, from the looks of it, some island leaders were lining up for El Pueblo’s “firing squad.”
“Esos penepés son todos unos pillos. Hay que botarlos pa’l carajo.” Those PNP partisans are a bunch of thieves. “What’s this? My ears perked up, I squirmed in my chair, consciously holding back the urge to join the conversation.
“We need to get them the hell out of office” clamored the patrons in our outdoors patio circle and everyone else who trickled into el negocio for the Boricua siesta of la fría. “Se roban hasta los clavos de la cruz!! They would steal the nails off the Cross! They cracked (cracking me up, too).
The hottest topic on the island was the political corruption scandal of the progresistas in office at the time; massive malfeasance of funds, federal earmarks for education programs and AIDS services, to the tune of millions of dollars were brought to light from the Pandora´s Box cracked opened by isla journalists in 1999. One by one, cabinet members and pro-statehood partisans were falling off like flies from their high positions upholding the public trust. Despite some welcome education and health reforms during their 8 years, I later read about, I’d walked into the tail-end of the administration. Good or bad for El Pueblo, they’d earned a bad rap among voters, and made a very poor first impression for this “progressive” new islander.
I sat removed from the line of fire, quietly sipping on my cerveza, slumming it in el arrabal perplexed. The only sign of “progress” (since my last 1980’s visit) was the greater number of dwellings. A haphazard array of squatter’s houses saturating every inch of vacant land the poor could stake their claim to, to build a roof over their heads, a flood-prone zone even FEMA would eventually find unsuitable for disaster reconstruction aid.
And here we were—in 1999.
Whose progress are they talking about? I silently wondered, so little island news had reached me those 20 years in the Golden State. The verdict seemed virtually unanimous across all party lines; nobody could argue. The pesquisa dragnet of corrupt officials was like a tidal wave washing the entrenched corrosive elements of government to the surface, in full view of islanders. Voters were reeling from the shock and ripe for a radical change in leadership.
And Me? Me quedé boca abierta—speechless—I´d stepped into the Twilight Zone: Free-for-All Third World Government, Step Right up. In my virgin eyes, a former non-profit manager, Puerto Rico was the picture of one mammoth non-profit agency sustained by US federal allocations and grants serving the dire needs of islanders. Sadly, it was administered by a corrupt board of directors (so to speak). State operations were running top-heavy in payroll and administrative salaries (40% or so of the budget)—a no-no. For lack of job opportunities in a private sector mostly deaf and dumb to the words “local hiring and corporate social responsibility,” under our commonwealth status the government had quickly become the island’s top employer!
Puerto Rico boasted no auditing controls at the time, either. No centralized managerial oversight to speak of, keeping government honest. Whose bright idea was that? I questioned. To leave the candy jar wide open for the five-finger pickup of the greedy unscrupulous island leader. A thought flashed across my mind. What if Puerto Rico was being set up to fail by the very hand that feeds us? Ensuing in a mistrust of leaders (and between leaders) we’ve not been able to recover from since. All politicians finagle public funds, it is assumed, during their turn at bat, the difference being which party gets away with more.
Every federal grant under the sun is at our disposal. Where I came from, government funds are not only dispensed for the public good, they are subject to the scrutiny of audits to ensure the money’s well-spent and met objectives—every single penny accounted for. Should you propose to rebuild infrastructure, invigorate depressed communities, reform and renovate decaying schools, boost business and employment, solve crisis-level social diseases like drugs and crime, towards improving the overall quality of life for islanders, that you do just that. Or you will be CUT OFF in the next funding cycle; billions of dollars are sent our way year in and year out. I inwardly criticized the egregious oversight on the part of the US.Guzzled my last Medalla Light and hopscotched my way home energized. Retracing my sandaled foot steps on drier dirt road over the obstacle sludge course. Although the primitive outhouses were a thing of the past, my barrio was still stuck in the stone ages of antiquated plumbing and drainage systems. I dodged the mud puddles across the flimsy bridge over the stagnant waters of la zanja manmade canal, evidence that the truckload of relleno gravel and brea pavement used to mitigate the mosquito-denizen environs (a health hazard) had still to be poured by el Municipio. My curiosity about Isla government and politics was piqued. How does one get things done around here? No matter my lack of connections, if all else fails, my English language and American savvy may one day be an asset to estadistas public servants. I manifested then and there.
“Mami, qué está pasando en Puerto Rico con tanta corrupción política.” What’s going on in Puerto Rico with so much political corruption? I asked my island-born mother about the news scandal, disgusted by the Watergate-like revelations streaming on her living room TV, dumping malicious dirt all over my pure Boricua pride. I scowled at the unknown faces in their “penal chic”–neon orange jump suits, manacled hand-cuff bracelets, their ankles bound to the jangle of anaconda iron chains, snaking across the courtroom floor, dragging their burden of guilt. “YOU DON’T DO THAT TO YOUR OWN PEOPLE! WE STATESIDE BORICUAS LOOK OUT FOR OUR OWN. I admonished the set, then silently petitioned peace for the mothers disgraced by their errant children on national TV.
How did I not know so much had changed? This is not the Puerto Rico I knew, or foresaw. Something came over me; I whirled around scanning the room for my luggage again—Frantic. I’m going back. I need to hop the next plane out of here I uttered to no one. If I didn’t know better, surely, my ATA flight took the wrong turn over the Atlantic Ocean and plopped me into the Bermuda Triangle, never to surface, never to be found, never to be free again.
“Siempre ha sido así,” that’s nothing new, Mami casually blurts from her bedroom, stretched out en la cama chillin’ to her favorite 3-hour variety show Sábado Gigante con Don Francisco on Univisión TV. She was so contented being back at home, I knew I could never part from her again—Dios sabe lo que hace.
That’s the island way of politics as usual, was all she had to say. I would not be so nonchalant.
*Norma Iris Lafé is a “Boricua Freedom Writer,” an emerging writer of the Afro-Latino genre, shares the personal vignettes of a Diasporican (Nuyorican returnee) on the island, bringing readers insider news and the view from 21st Century “colonial” Puerto Rico. A Writer’s Well Literary Competition winner (2012), contributor to herkind.org “Global Woman,” “Mujeres Talk” and former writer KCBS News Radio Editorial/ Public Affairs (SF), she’s a Bronx HS of Science alumna, holds a BA in Black and Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College (NYC). Currently editing her back-to-roots memoirs, social commentary excerpts are available for your blog.