Omar Z. Robles
Omar Z. Robles ©2018. Courtesy of the artist.

The Emptying Island: Puerto Rican Expulsion in Post-Maria Time

While the Puerto Rican population decreased during Operation Bootstrap, an “empty island” period would show much larger migrations… Is it possible that the island could actually be emptied?
–Alfredo López, 1987
So they leave us without water, without food, without medicine, without economic development… what they are doing is de facto a concerted effort to empty Puerto Rico.[1]
–Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, 2017

Even before Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, one of the most frequently mentioned signs of a generalized crisis was the steady decline of the island’s population. Since 2015, reports that 122 Puerto Ricans were leaving every day and that over 177,000 had already left in the preceding four years led observers to increasingly describe Puerto Rico as “la isla que se vacía” (“the emptying island”) (Sin Comillas 2015; Figueroa Rodríguez 2017). A New York Times headline minced no words: “Todos se van” (“Everyone is Leaving”) (Healy and Ferré-Sarduní 2017). Immediately after Maria, as an estimated 2,000 people departed daily, (New York Times Ed. Board 2017), Business Insider was equally totalizing; it called the exodus a “death spiral” (da Costa 2017).

Four months later, accounts that over 300,000 people had left Puerto Rico and that the flow may reach 470,000 by 2019, triggered a wave of other panics beyond the island (Brinkman 2018). In Florida, the arrival of Puerto Ricans—considered the largest influx in its history—prompted the governor to request that the state be declared a disaster area. Although Puerto Ricans are US citizens, several journalists began to call the flow “the Puerto Rican Mariel,” referring to the 1980 boatlift that brought 125,000 people from the Cuban port of Mariel to south Florida in only six months (Padillo 2017). In New York, some community activists expressed apprehension that this migration would lead to “the end” of Puerto Ricans, first removing them from the island and later culturally “assimilating” them to the United States (Falcón 2017).

A year after Maria, debates continue regarding how many are leaving and permanently staying stateside. Reports using various methods, such as FEMA aid applications, issuing of licenses, and matriculation of students, suggest that the number of people settling outside of Puerto Rico may be between 120,000 and 200,000, though some studies suggest that more than half of them may have returned to the island (Center for Puerto Rican Studies 2018; Sutter and Hernández 2018; Echenique and Melgar 2018). Regardless, there is no doubt that this migration has shaped and will continue to affect Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in known and unknown ways for decades to come. Not only is the current population projected to decline to 3.2 million by 2020, the same level as 1980; its composition will also be different, with a larger proportion of younger and middle-income residents leaving the island (Figueroa Rodríguez 2017; Liley and Sesin 2011).

At the same time, the trope of the “emptying island” is politically and conceptually perilous in at least two core respects: One, the term conceives Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans as isolated and vulnerable rather than as powerfully linked to other spaces, systems, and societies (not always islands) in a powerful “archipelagic” or networked political formation (Martínez-San Miguel 2017, 2018). Two, the “emptying” frame represents this geopolitical juncture as historically exceptional. Yet, the “emptying island” is not simply a recent calamity.[2] The phrase is a trope, threat, and colonial-capitalist practice of expulsion that is foundational, recurrent, and coterminous with the island’s three distinct forms of colonial-capitalist modernity (plantation, industrial, and neoliberal) from the fifteenth century to the present. Emptying is likewise a haunting memory for Puerto Rican collective identification throughout the last two centuries. To identify as a Puerto Rican is to continuously fear—and defy—disappearing.

Given this, rethinking emptying as a persistent but shifting form of colonial-capitalist governance is a vital step toward enacting a transformative political terrain in post-Maria time. It is also critical to interrogate the conceptual vocabulary of “population” that has been so central to colonial governance, and consider how groups form and maintain community networks across multiple borders, including in times of catastrophe. In this way, I propose to build on literary scholar Alexandra Perisic’s (2017) observation that catastrophes—a term derived from the “Greek katastrephein, meaning to ‘overturn’”—can be understood not as a “disaster” but as a moment of “overturning” in which collective reflection and action are still possible (118). A catastrophic reading of the “emptying island” then, does not assume that debt or hurricane-induced mobility will lead to a fatal end. Rather, it suggests that in the current context of rapid neoliberal restructuring and refusal to this process, the so-called “emptying island” may offer one way to imagine and enact alternatives to colonial-capitalist modernity.

Unsettling Emptiness

A possible starting point to consider how emptying is constitutive of Puerto Rico’s colonial modernities is to map the ways this logic has stood at the heart of Spanish and American colonialisms as they turned the island into a “sacrifice zone for empire-building” (de Onís 2018) and capitalist accumulation. In both cases, the scales, modes, and goals of the various emptying logics have differed over time and these differences are significant and signifying: for instance, the first group to be removed were the native Taínos, not the creolized Puerto Ricans. Yet, a brief survey of this recurrence suggests that colonial emptying, rather than “normal” population growth, has been the most common experience in Puerto Rico over the last 525 years, with complex consequences.

The first modern iteration begins with the European desire to impose permanent settlements on the island after Christopher Columbus claimed it for Spain in 1493. This process is in stark contrast with Taíno forms of habitation that included frequent mobility. As anthropologist Hilda Lloréns observed, the Taínos “island hopped as a matter of living in the region,” constituting themselves as a “populations in transit” (Lloréns 2018). But based on the notions that indigenous peoples were inferior and that their sociopolitical organization was deficient, Europeans proclaimed that native land was available for their own settlement through two main discourses: the terra nullius doctrine—a declaration that the land was “unclaimed” or “belonging to no one”—and vacuum domicilium (“empty dwelling”), the assertion that because indigenous land was not “enclosed” and native individuals had no “title” to land, it was vacant (Springborg 2015; Kumpulanian 2016).

In tandem with land appropriation, Spanish colonizers enslaved indigenous peoples to perform punishing labor, including precious metal extraction, a process that lead to famine, overwork, suicide, war, and migration. Consequently, in less than 100 years, Taínos went from a community of thousands, perhaps millions, and a status as members of a distinct polity and society, to less than a hundred subjects of the Spanish crown (de las Casas [1552] 1992). By 1570, cosmographer López de Velasco declared that there was only one indigenous village left in Puerto Rico, composed of non-natives to the island (Lucena Salmoral 1982, 501–502; Bacci 2008, 243). This outcome led anthropologist Geoffrey Conrad to state that the Taínos “were the first people in the path of the hurricane” (quoted in Osgood 2011) of globalization in the New World.

The Taíno genocide represents Puerto Rico’s most extreme case of modern emptying to date. But given the lack of investment by Spain in the island, retaining European settlers in the early decades of the colony was nearly impossible. In 1529, with the slogan Dios nos lleve al Perú (God take us to Peru), settlers in Puerto Rico started leaving in such large numbers that the Spanish Governor Francisco Manuel de Lando feared the island would lose most of its white population. Consequently, in 1531, he ordered Puerto Rico’s first census, which recorded “387 Spanish, 1,148 Indians and 1,523 black slaves” ( Five years later, as out-migration persisted, the governor threatened fleeing settlers with summary death by hanging (Pierce Flores 2010, 38). Into the seventeenth century, narratives such as Infortunios de Alonso Ramírez by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora ([1690] 2011) continued to detail the poverty and hunger suffered by many of Puerto Rico’s inhabitants and their wish to abandon the island.

It is not until the late eighteenth century—nearly three hundred years after the Spanish invasion—that Puerto Rico began to experience a “steep growth” in population (Curtis and Scarano 2011, 200). This increase largely stemmed from the Bourbon Reforms (particularly between 1779 and 1802), which sought to integrate Puerto Rico’s economy into European markets and improve the island’s capacity for defense after the British successfully took the port of Havana in 1762. Over the course of the early nineteenth century, Crown land incentives offered to European Catholic immigrants through the 1815 Real Cédula de Gracias, the importation of a greater number of enslaved Africans, and a rise in fertility, coupled with relative low mortality rates, further contributed to the increase of residents. Underscoring the process’s coloniality, however, this gain was not only linked to colonial-capitalist interests but also implicated in the emptying of other world regions, including West Africa (Bowman 2002).

Since the 1898 US invasion of Puerto Rico, rhetorical, legal, and political forms of emptying have also been central. This prompted political scientist Edgardo Meléndez to observe that, “Migration is a crucial factor in understanding the Puerto Rican experience under US rule” (2017). Even before the United States occupied Puerto Rico in 1898, the American desire for an empty island was present in the military imagination, as strategists wished for a vacant isle, so they could train and test without negotiating with local civilians. A symptom of the colonial desire for emptiness and the reality of an undesirable people was to make a clear distinction between what was wanted—the islands—and what was not wanted: the people. This was crystallized in the title of the popular multivolume turn-of-the-century books on the United States’ new empire, Our Islands and Their Peoples (de Olivares 1899).

Ironically, if the Spanish period was largely focused on repopulating an emptied island, for most of the twentieth century the United States’ modernizing project was concerned with what the state saw as a problem of “overpopulation.”[3] From the start, political figures such as Charles Herbert Allen, Puerto Rico’s first appointed civilian governor, declared that the root cause of the island’s poverty was “plenty of laborers and poor people” and few “men with capital” (Camacho Souza 1984, 159; Cabán 2018). American academics actively supported and rationalized these ideas and introduced most of the terms that still frame the discussion today, if in reverse: “Puerto Rico presented a classic example of the densely settled, underdeveloped tropical area,” wrote Harvard-trained sociologist Kingsley Davis (1951, 626). “Rural and poor, without resources but with a large and fast-growing population, it had all the earmarks of the hopelessness we still ascribe to such areas” (1951, 625).

Fittingly, during the first decades of US rule, various plans were hatched to address the “overpopulation problem.” In 1899, the year that also saw the devastation of Hurricane San Ciriaco, over 5,000 Puerto Ricans were recruited as contract laborers and “shipped” to Hawai’i and other destinations to work in plantations and farms (Camacho Souza 2018). By 1933, the island’s new governor, Robert Gore, suggested mass migration to Florida as a way to relieve the “population problem” and stimulate local development (quoted in Duany and Silver 2010). As Puerto Rican dissatisfaction with colonial governance and exploitation grew, the political fear of “too many” poor did as well. This contributed to the passing of eugenics-inspired laws, which were supported by colonial governor Blanton Winship despite the objections of the Catholic Church and some local public figures. Among these were several 1937 pieces of legislation, including Law 116, which created a Eugenics Commission; Law 133, which decriminalized the promotion of birth control; and Law 136, which sanctioned sterilization as a way to “stem Puerto Rico’s endemic poverty” (MisGuided Thoughts 2011).

In the postwar period, calls for out-migration persisted. In 1945, a report by the House Committee on Insular Affairs recommended the expulsion of one million Puerto Ricans—half of the population—so there would be an “increase in the island’s living standards, unemployment would end, and the United States taxpayers would be relieved” (quoted in Meléndez 2017, 46). These appeals finally came to full fruition when colonial administrators were not the only ones who saw removal as a “solution.” In the 1940s, the modernizing Puerto Rican elites themselves more widely expressed support for population control and expulsion policies in order to assert their political authority and more quickly achieve industrialization, an outcome viewed as fundamental to building a “civilized” and prosperous society. In the succinct words of writer Salvador Tió (1949, 20), gobernar es despoblar (“to govern is to depopulate”).

The King of the Road
The King of the Road, Víctor Vásquez ©2017. Courtesy of the artist

By 1947, the rising Popular Democratic Party (PPD) under senate president Luis Muñoz Marín launched the US-authorized Operation Bootstrap to implement this vision. A policy with both national and global dimensions, it sought to turn Puerto Rico into a showcase of US-led development in the context of the Cold War and quickly shift colonial-capitalist extraction from monoculture to manufacturing by offering American companies financial incentives to settle in Puerto Rico. The process, as sociologist César Ayala (1996) has documented, required two major expulsions: first, an expulsion from the countryside to urban areas, as growing numbers of factories opened in towns and cities and as the sugar cane and other industries started to collapse (61–90), and second, an expulsion from the island’s cities to the continental United States, as the expansion of manufacturing did not generate sufficient employment to absorb the “surplus” labor created by the incorporation of machinery and the decline in agricultural employment (60–61).

To efficiently export hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to serve as cheap labor, the island’s government founded or interconnected a range of physical, legal, and institutional infrastructures. These included a new airport in the metropolitan area, commercial air carriers willing to operate in Puerto Rico at an accessible cost and various offices created by Puerto Rico’s Migration Law, such as the Bureau of Employment and Migration, the Migration Office in New York, and other elements (Meléndez 2017). During this period, the state likewise supported mass sterilization and birth control testing on women without their consent, including the 1955 trials leading to the oral contraceptive known as “the pill”. These combined policies resulted in the exodus of 500,000 people between 1946 and 1964—over a million by 1981—a decline in births and the sterilization of one third of women of reproductive age (Cabán 2018; Lugo-Ortiz 1999, 208–226).

Ironically, neither out-migration nor greater capitalist production on the island reduced unemployment or destitution; rather it further modernized poverty and underscored that it was not “excess” population but colonial-capitalist relations that generated economic inequality. Many migrants similarly went on to live in cities with not only a higher population density than that of the island, but also with processes of racial-colonial expulsion of their own (Lorrin 2015). In the 1960s and 1970s, Puerto Ricans in New York, for instance, again faced “relocation” policies that removed poor communities outside of gentrifying sectors in Manhattan to other boroughs, primarily Brooklyn and the Bronx. As political scientist and community activist Angel López has written, New York Puerto Ricans experienced “second-class citizenship, the politics of neglect, conquest, displacement, vulnerability to vulture-developers, weak democratic representation, and lack of transparency” (López 2017; Lorrin 2015).

The expulsion of the Puerto Rican poor as “excess population” to the United States did not, however, address the military’s dream of an empty island, which obeyed a different logic. Since 1901, the military had been displacing residents in the island municipality of Culebra to conduct exercises in violation of the 1898 Treaty of Paris (negotiated with Spain), in which the two countries agreed that prior land titles would be respected. Starting in 1941, the military conducted expropriations in the larger island municipality of Vieques to make room for munitions depot and a firing range. Ultimately the military expropriated two thirds of Vieques, including most of the land used for sugar cane production, one of the island’s main industries. In the next few years, after land was seized and construction jobs ended, 3,000 viequenses migrated to the St. Croix and other islands in the region (Baruffi 2002; McCaffrey 2002).

Nearly two decades later, as the United States entered the Cold War, the Department of Defense again rekindled its desire for an empty island. In 1958, the military drew plans to “expel and relocate” all 11,000 residents of Vieques and Culebra, with the goal of completely militarizing the two islands. The plan was popularly known as “Plan Drácula,” even by the committee of notables that Governor Muñoz Marín created, which included future governor Roberto Sánchez Vilella, then resident commissioner Antonio Fernós Isern, and industrialist Heriberto Alonso (Vélez Rodríguez 2002). The relocation proposal was considered to be worthy of Count Dracula’s name because it not only called for the expulsion of all living people but demanded the removal of the bones and coffinsfrom the cemetery so that former residents would have no reason to return, not even to pray or place flowers on the graves of their dead (Malavet 2007, 149).

The plan’s extremeness, combined with Congressional delays and the emergence of a tense but relatively settled Cold War arrangement between the Soviet Union and the United States, doomed the initiative.[4] Yet, Dracula’s logic continued to shape life in Vieques. The Navy forced the people of Vieques between the two military areas, limiting their mobility and freedom, and continued the bombing practices that had detrimental effects on bodies and communities. By 1999, after a naval accident killed viequense security guard David Sanes Rodríguez and ignited a mass movement to evict the military from Vieques, the island had the highest cancer rates in Puerto Rico (Vieques and the future of the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility hearings 1999). The degraded quality of life imposed by the Navy contributed to both the declining health of Vieques’ residents and a stagnant population, which did not appreciably grow for decades, remaining at less than 9,000 people from the 1970s to 2017 (Comisión Estatal de Elecciones 2000).

At the same time, under US rule, the considerable forces of military presence, Operation Bootstrap, and massive hurricanes did not usher in an absolute population decline. On the contrary, with greater access to education, sanitation, and healthcare, the per capita income doubled, and the population appreciably increased. By 2000, Puerto Rico had nearly 4 million inhabitants, up from 1.8 million in 1940, and was the fourth-largest population center in the Caribbean. The new millennium, however, upended this trend. For the first time since the eighteenth century, Puerto Rico experienced a drop-in population. In the 2000 to 2010 period, the number of residents decreased from 3.8 to 3.7 million (a 2.6% drop). By 2013, it had dipped again to 3.6 million due to both a reduction in the number of births, which fell to 1.4 per woman, and out-migration (Stone 2017). Given the island’s history, this development should not have been entirely surprising. Not only has emptying been a constant of US colonial governance, but during the 1980s, several observers anticipated the current juncture as island unemployment exceeded 40%, and Congress reduced federal programs and promoted policies such as the Caribbean Basin Initiative to provide more favorable trade and tariff conditions to other economies in the region. As New York-based journalist Alfredo López (1987, 125) prophetically put it, “Puerto Rico is rapidly approaching the stage when its residents are superfluous to US interests.” Remarkably, what direct attempts at expulsion did not achieve in one hundred years, the “soft” tactics of neoliberal colonial-capitalism would achieve in ten: the “emptying island.”

Insula Debitum: Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans?

While the deeper roots of the present migratory wave are in the world capitalist crisis of the early 1970s, which resulted in a new model of accumulation (Muñiz Varela, 2013), its immediate trigger on the island was the ten-year phase-out (1996–2006) of Section 936 of the US Internal Revenue Code. Passed in 1976, the measure was designed to guarantee high profit margins by extending tax breaks to American corporations that operated in Puerto Rico. But in 1996, Congress abolished the tax exemptions to fund an increase of the minimum wage stateside inducing a wave of plant closings, the loss of over 100,000 jobs, and a deeper recession in Puerto Rico than the one experienced in the United States (Matthews 2017, 4–13). In response, all island administrations turned to another tax option to fund government operations and corrupt contracting: selling “triple-exempt” bonds issued by Puerto Rico’s main public utilities and municipalities that are not subject to local, state, and federal taxes and are largely held by US financial investment firms and so-called “vulture” hedge funds (Cintrón Arbasetti 2015).

After pursuing the above strategy for nearly a decade, the government’s debt reached $72 billion. In 2015, this outcome prompted then Governor Alejandro García Padilla to declare, in an unprecedented public address, that the debt was “unpayable” (Economist 2015; Cotto-Quijano 2018). Although some assumed that García Padilla’s declaration would elicit sympathy from the federal government, it instead alarmed political and finance capital interests, as it implied that Puerto Rico would not service its public debt, a possibility that had already been foreclosed by federal legislation in 1984 and Puerto Rico’s own 1952 constitution, which states that the island cannot declare bankruptcy, and requires it “to service its debt above all else” (Cintrón Arbasetti et al. 2017). As a result, on June 30, 2016—one day before the island failed to make a bond payment—Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). This federal law appointed a seven-member fiscal control board composed of individuals with deep ties to the banking and investment world—including some involved in producing the debt crisis—and granted them broad powers over Puerto Rico’s elected government to assure that creditors will be paid (Guadalupe 2016).

PROMESA’s mandate, however, is not only to ensure payment or even weed out corruption. Rather, the Junta, as the fiscal control board is locally known, aims at more profound change: to discipline Puerto Ricans into austerity; transform the modes of extraction in favor of specific capital interests (particularly finance); and accelerate what feminist theorist Silvia Federici has called “the temporal structure of accumulation,” where the aim is “to cash in immediately” from all core practices of social reproduction (Federici and Vishmidt 2013). “The goal,” as journalist Vann Newkirk II (2018) has written, “is essentially to starve off the informal economy and massive public sector that have developed over time in Puerto Rico and replace them with a robust formal tourism industry and private developers, all buoyed by an influx of credit from mainland investors.”

In other words, if Operation Bootstrap emptied the island in order to impose the rhythms of industrial capitalism, expand the island’s consumer market for US goods, and efficiently expel “surplus” labor, then PROMESA marks a transition to a new iteration of colonial-capitalism. In this scenario, what is desired is all that finance capital can devour, namely housing, public spaces, and indebted subjects consuming privatized services. Although population expulsion is not a stated objective of the governing board, the Junta’s policies knowingly fuel migration by imposing drastic cuts in essential human services such as education, health, and pensions. Once again at a vacuum domicilium juncture, the insula debitum expels people to facilitate forms of accumulation that do not require a large number of laborers, or even highly educated professionals. In the words of New York–based activist Rosa Clemente, “They want to extract the people. They want a Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans” (Laura Flanders Show 2017).

If neoliberal population expulsion was well underway when Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, the speed of emptying picked up afterwards as many federal government (in)actions further propelled the exodus. These included the slow pace of federal deliberation regarding emergency funds and infrastructure, which made it difficult to access medical care, among other services: the unprecedented FEMA air and boat lifts that removed people without housing from Puerto Rico to the United States; and the Junta’s rejection of a $100 million emergency fund to support municipalities outside of the capital (Associated Press 2018). In this way, the process imposed specific spatial relations and temporal rhythms that made Puerto Rican “recovery” nearly impossible and made migration a necessity, while buying time for financial capitalist speculation and restructuring. As Nayda Dávila, a sixty-nine-year-old retired judicial employee, asserted when asked about why she migrated, “At my age, how much longer do I have left? . . . And this island won’t recover for much, much longer” (Healy and Ferré-Sadurní 2017).

The emptying out of the island that followed Maria then shared the same goals as PROMESA: avoid expenditures and create opportunities for capitalist extraction. President Trump made this complicity clear when, two weeks after Hurricane Maria, he stated the federal government had “gone all out” and that continuing to support Puerto Rico is “not only dangerous, it’s expensive” (Zoll 2017). Over the course of a year, the state spent six billion dollars in hurricane relief, four billion less than it spent in New Orleans (Swan 2018). Unlike Texas after Hurricane Harvey, the White House also demanded that Puerto Rico accept an “experimental funding system” through which the island would have to shoulder “any cost overruns” (Vinik 2018). Underscoring the intricate relationship between capital and state in the process of neoliberal colonial-capitalist extraction, the state propelled disaster capitalism, awarding 90% of federal contracts in critical areas such as energy to US companies that often were not qualified but charged exorbitant rates for inferior work (Center for a New Economy 2018).

Significantly, it is important to note, that one of the reasons for the state’s efficiency was its use of already existing “emptying infrastructures” that shifted the burden from the government to residents. These infrastructures include territorial US citizenship (1917), which does not provide basic citizenship rights but allows for the free movement of people from the island to the United States; safe and relatively affordable commercial air transportation (1940s); and the physical, organizational, and emotional resources of millions of Puerto Ricans already living in the United States, particularly in regions with sizeable Puerto Rican communities. The ways that US Puerto Rican bodily and community infrastructure has been fundamental to sustain this migration is consistent with other migratory experience. As scholars William Vélez and Giovani Burgos (2010) have written, “initial settlement in an ethnic enclave can lower some of the costs associated with migration by softening the ‘culture shock’ of living in a strange country with different normative practices, decreases discriminatory encounters with whites, and gives them access and information on jobs, housing, and services” (180).

Yet, the emptying island, is not only about removing bodies from the island. It is also closely linked to a second process that often occurs first: separating people from their homes. According to a 2018 Center for Puerto Rican Studies report, one out of five homes in Puerto Rico is currently empty, mostly in the capital of San Juan, and thousands have been foreclosed (El nuevo día 2018). This is consistent with prior studies that suggest that, as of 2015, “nine families lose their homes every day due to foreclosure” and the number of homeless people increased by 35% during this period (Román 2018, 37). In the words of political ecologist Gustavo García López (2017), “One of the outcomes of this [crisis] has been an emptying of prime, centrally located urban land. This, in turn, has created ‘opportunities’ for a third type of finance-driven predatory operation: shell (ghost) companies investing in real estate for ‘luxury developments.’”

Los dormidos
Los dormidos, ADÁL © 2018. Courtesy of the artist

If before the hurricane, numerous housing units had been abandoned due to the owner’s inability to pay or sell, Maria destroyed thousands of poorly made houses, particularly in urban areas, which further “cleared the land,” accelerating land and property dispossession (Levin et al. 2018). Importantly, the removal of people from their homes not only impoverishes; it also “nomadizes.” Although most US industries have not overtly organized to recruit Puerto Rican labor, nomadization has resulted in some migrants being actively sought out to work in undesirable low-wage employment in the United States, including turkey processing plants, at a time when the state has stepped up its anti-immigrant discourse and undocumented workers are declining (Harlan 2018). This recalls Federici and Vishmidt’s (2013) observation that, “The attack on the house is not only a product of financial speculation…it is an attempt to create a workforce that is more mobile.”

Not surprisingly, expulsion and emptying are also associated to a spike in the settlement of American whites, particularly entrepreneurs, property owners, and other “men with capital,” a development that previously occurred on a smaller scale in Vieques after the Navy left and is playing out in Barbuda, another island hard hit by a 2017 hurricane and out migration (Barbados Today 2017), where capital is exerting pressure to privatize communally held land (Falola 2018). As of 2012, about 500 millionaires had reportedly moved to Puerto Rico, after the local legislature passed substantial incentive packages that included no capital gains or dividends taxes and only a 4% tax on businesses (BBC News 2015). Even the hurricane’s aftermath has not dampened this enthusiasm: On January 13, 2018, the New York Times reported that young cryptocurrency millionaires are increasingly “moving to Puerto Rico to get around paying taxes” (Bowles 2018).

American settlement and renewed investor interest in Puerto Rico has led some political sectors to view the crisis as an opportunity to advocate for the island’s full incorporation to the United States as a state. To this group, incorporation appears viable in part because the growth of white settlers in US territories has been a key factor in the granting of statehood to other territories in the past. Historically, there have been at least two conditions for the incorporation of territories as states of the union: that the territory appears as sufficiently valuable to the nation and that it achieves a local white majority or, at least, white hegemony. This was the case of several territories with majority-Mexican populations such as New Mexico and Arizona, and also the case with Hawai’i and Alaska. Yet, this is a misreading of the current political juncture.

Even if Americans continued to relocate to the island in large numbers, it is unlikely that settlers would mobilize to make insula debitum a state of the union. On the one hand, the available tax breaks—or the “absolutely mind-blowing tax benefits to people who move to Puerto Rico from the mainland” ( 2015), in the words of one enthusiastic promoter—would disappear. On the other hand, Puerto Rico’s governing elites have already accepted neoliberalism as their core ideology, with minimal if any resistance (Atiles-Osoria 2017). An example is the island’s governor Ricardo Rosselló, who favors privatization of fundamental services and has already begun the process of selling the island’s energy utility company (Aronoff 2018). The irony is that full representation in Congress and citizen participation in presidential elections would offer Puerto Ricans more avenues of participation, however compromised. But, ultimately, what the “millionaires” seek is profit, not parity.

In sum, as a trope and logic, the emptying island provides a rationale to justify and render neoliberal colonial-capitalist policies as “natural.” If the land is said to be empty, imagining and carrying out its occupation, repurposing, or even abandoning is easier. In the words of British crypto millionaire Stephen Morris, “It’s only when everything’s been swept away that you can make a case for rebuilding from the ground up” (Bowles 2018). Accordingly, Puerto Rico’s government and neoliberal elites are actively supporting the notion of emptiness with a trope of their own, “the blank slate” or “blank canvas.” Deployed to attract investors with their presumably innovative ideas, this trope inherently suggests that there is “nothing there,” thus promoting a luxury economy geared at settlers, and erasing resident visions and aspirations for the future.

Yet, in defiance of these emptying tropes, many Puerto Ricans are enacting diverse scenarios of “refusal,” to use anthropologist Audra Simpson’s term (2014), which are not hinged to traditional or party politics. Unlike some of the praxis theorized by Simpson in her work on Mohawk polities, Puerto Rican refusals often implode notions of territory, nationality, and sovereignty as groups and communities politically identify in multiple ways and mobilize heterogeneous resources. These refusals, however, do partake in a key aspect of Simpson’s (2014, 2) formulation: the refusal “to let go of” group knowledge and imaginings, even if these may not only be diverse and translocal but also internally contested.

Refusing Gestures

A fundamental form of refusal in the debt crisis era can be described as “staying in place.” Not surprisingly, this mode was evoked by a 2016 hashtag that went viral: #YoNoMeQuito, meaning, “I will not give up” (Carrero 2017). Coined by entrepreneur Carlos López-Lay, president of the largest transportation distribution company on the island, it originated as a self-help message for employees to “keep moving forward despite the island’s recent challenges” (Carrero 2017). While some scholars have reasonably criticized the hashtag’s message as individualistic and conservative (Lloréns, 2018), when acted on by environmental, agricultural, feminist, and other kinds of community activism, this stance has constituted an indigenizing “placemaking” practice that literally uses people’s bodies, stories, and community ties to push back colonial-capitalist land speculation, state intervention or abandonment, and destruction of the environment. Or, in the succinct words of San Juan resident Iván López, “Here I was born . . . and here I will die” (Hennesy-Fiske and Lee 2017).

These politics are evident in the work of place-based organizations such as Proyecto ENLACE and G-8 in the Caño Martín Peña, Aquí Vive Gente in Puerta de Tierra, and the Black Panther–inspired Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico, among many others. It is also present in the numerous public murals produced by individuals and artist collectives; the agro-ecological movement’s use of traditional Puerto Rican farming knowledge; and in what urbanist Marina Moscoso Arabía calls a “third wave” of land and property occupations across the island, including, most recently, the mountain town of Lares. There, a group of seven displaced families occupied a school that had been abandoned for three years without permission from state authorities. The new residents, combining several placemaking practices, turned the school into a housing complex capable of “growing food, raising animals, creating a catering business, building a coffee shop, and creating art they can sell” (Graulau 2018).

In their strategies and values, these practices evoke the notion of “place against empire,” theorized by Dene scholar Glen Coulthard (2010, 80) in the context of indigenous political praxis. For Coulthard, what is distinctive about indigenous decolonial politics is the emphasis on place as a way to think about reciprocal relationships between peoples, nations, and the environment. In Coulthard’s words, “it is a profound misunderstanding to think of land or place as simply some material object of profound importance to Indigenous cultures (although it is this too); instead it ought to be understood as a field of ‘relationships of things to each other.’ Place is a way of knowing, experiencing, and relating with the world – and these ways of knowing often guide forms of resistance to power relations that threaten to erase or destroy our senses of place.” They are likewise similar to sociologist Saskia Sassen’s (2017) notion of estamos presentes (“we are present”), a gesture of defiance to combat the emptying of the finance-controlled city, which is common in debt crisis contexts (see also Chang 2017).

It is significant, however, that the refusal to “quit” on Puerto Rico gave immediate rise to a counterrefusal: #YoSiMeQuito, which affirmed the right of Puerto Ricans to quitarse by migrating. In the face of criticism, López-Lay emphasized that quitarse does not mean migration but rather lack of commitment to Puerto Rico. Yet the new hashtag was partly responding to the widely perceived implication that those who move are undermining the national community. As journalist Rick Rojas (2017) reported, “Many who are leaving are professionals, students and other young people who would be essential to recovery…It has stirred questions about their bonds with the island and what responsibility they bear to help it heal. It has also spurred resentment among the people left behind with some viewing the departures with envy or even as a betrayal.”

By leaving, however, many Puerto Ricans—like those of prior decades—are both suffering colonial-capitalist expulsion and refusing in a different way. Labeled “climate refugees,” “energy refugees” or “debt refugees” by some activists and journalists (Aronoff 2018), much of present Puerto Rican mobility can be understood as a refusal to live as a captive in the “debt colony” to use Jerome Roos’s [2018] term. In leaving, migrants may even make the debt unpayable to the extent that Puerto Rico’s government loses its capacity to generate sufficient revenue through taxation. As psychoanalyst Alfredo Carrasquillo succinctly put it, “People protest here by emigrating” (quoted in Gladstone and Casanova-Burguess 2017).

Groundscapes displaced 3
Groundscapes displaced 3. Sarabel Santos ©2017-2018

In this way, the current migration—tellingly called fuga poblacional [population flight] by some economists—recalls that of enslaved Africans, who through the nineteenth century viewed mobility as a practice of freedom. Although black fugitive experience could be dislocating and violent as it often included family separation, sexual aggression, and illegal status, it likewise produced what could be termed fugitive cosmopolitanisms, knowledge, and networks that created opportunities for challenging these very oppressive conditions. Knowledge and opposition are then generated not only by staying in place but also by fleeing to other places. In the long Puerto Rican twentieth-century, these practices have become an integral part of a broad political repertoire that continues to generate and articulate centrifugal and centripetal, nationalist and cosmopolitan, and diasporic and indigenizing political imaginings across multiple spaces, temporalities, and vocabularies (Clifford 1994).

At the same time, it is important to underscore that whereas the refusal of #YoSiMeQuito is often equated with diasporic politics, this is not inherent in the process of migration. As literary critic Brent Hayes Edwards has argued, diaspora is not a given but a practice (Hayes-Edwards 2003) that requires collective identities based on relative permanence in one location and identification a homeland in another to be continuously remembered, reimagined, and acted upon. The idea that 5.5 million people presently constitute “the Puerto Rican diaspora” likewise obscures the fact that not all US Puerto Ricans are practicing diaspora politics, or at least not in the same way or at the same time. In writer Miguel Guadalupe’s words, “While many (including myself), have a sense of belonging to Puerto Rico and see it as an ancestral home, a majority (including myself) have been reticent to take up politics on its behalf. This may be because politics on the island is often framed within the ‘status’ debate—statehood vs. status quo vs. independence—a discussion many of the diaspora are wary of joining” (Guadalupe 2017).

In other words, despite its frequent invocation, there is no single or homogenous diáspora puertorriqueña (Quintero 2017). Since the late nineteenth century, there have been at least six different scaled movements of people between the island and the United States, which are also internally differentiated along class, race, gender, sexuality, and other axes of difference. In addition to the post-Maria exodus (2017–present), these include political exiles and skilled workers during the last decade of the Spanish regime (1890s), early-twentieth-century skilled and unskilled workers after the US invasion (1900s–1930s), the government-sponsored mass migration of “surplus” workers (1940–1965), return migration due to US recession (1970s), and multiclass migration during the first debt crisis era (1990s–2017).

Yet, working through this complexity, thousands of Puerto Ricans who identify (and are viewed) as members of the diaspora have effectively “acted in concert,” to use Hannah Arendt’s phrase (1958, 244), to support those on the island. Repurposing the same colonial-capitalist infrastructure used for labor expulsion, they have engaged in what Angel López (2018) has referred to as “infrastructure disobedience.” In this process, they have activated another modality of refusal that has not become a hashtag but is fundamental to all diaspora politics: yo no me olvido (“I will not forget”). This mode motivates narratives, affects, and practices of memory that link Puerto Ricans of different generations and experiences residing in multiple locations. A succinct articulation of this refusal was written on a sign held by scholar Ivette Guzmán-Zavala in a 2018 Philadelphia demonstration to protest federal neglect: “Puerto Rico: Will not forgive. Will not forget” (Guzman Zavala’s Facebook page).

This politics of affective memory has been evident in numerous and diverse actions, most visibly after Maria. Faced with “a flood of images showing unprecedented devastation and suffering,” (Lloréns 2018, 19), including the partial or total damage of over 450,000 dwellings, diasporic Puerto Ricans arrived with blue tarps and other supplies to the island ahead of the federal government (Robles 2018). A network of over 5,000 physicians, researchers and public health professionals also organized “an unprecedented medical airlift through social media and text messaging” (Rafael Guerrero Preston 2018) and they were on the ground six days after the hurricane and remained the main source of supplies for three weeks before federal personnel arrived. US Puerto Ricans similarly mobilized to support the island’s agricultural recovery by sending funds and bringing “electrical generators, hundreds of pounds of seeds, solar equipment, machinery, tools and a significant amount of essential items” (Alvarez Febles 2018).

To combat the blackout of government information regarding the death toll and contracting, independent diaspora journalist organizations such as the New York–based “PR on the Map” moved to Puerto Rico as mainstream coverage waned (Negrón-Muntaner, 2018). In the United States, Puerto Ricans likewise kept the light on from afar, organizing demonstrations across the country, including in California, New York, and Washington, DC. Their demands encompassed debt abolition, repeal of the Jones Act and PROMESA, and just recovery (Unity March for Puerto Rico 2017; 11–19, 17). Some Puerto Rican political and entertainment figures also leveraged their visibility to raise funds and awareness: Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony hosted “Somos Live,” a televised concert that generated over 35 million dollars (Guadalupe 2017), and Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda, helped raise 22 million dollars through the Hispanic Federation, wrote op-eds, established a foundation, and launched the single “Almost Like Praying” on October 6, 2017 (Guadalupe 2017, 3; Villafañe 2017). US Puerto Ricans in Congress spoke to the press, pressured the federal government, and joined protests on the island and stateside (Caro González 2018).

The diaspora’s mobilization and impact has produced an unprecedented context for reimagining Puerto Rican political power. From above, this is evident in that the island’s main daily El Nuevo Día now runs frequent news items about Puerto Ricans living in the United States, including “Desde la diáspora” (“From the diaspora”), a column written by US Puerto Ricans. The government of Ricardo Rosselló also launched a voter registration initiative in Orlando, Florida, called Poder Puerto Rico, which seeks to organizar la diáspora (“organize the diaspora”) so it can provide the island with mollero político (“political muscle”) in US politics (Marcial Ocasio 2018). From below, island practices of autogestión (“radical self-management”) increasingly imagine diaspora members as part of the local community. A compelling example is Humacao’s various self-governance initiatives in el Barrio Mariana after hurricane Maria. Commenting on the rehabilitation of an abandoned school, community leader Christine Nieves of Proyecto Apoyo Mutuo states that the space will be one where “those volunteers coming from outside of Puerto Rico can join those people who live here in Mariana to generate sustainable solutions”[5] (El Nuevo Día 2018).

At the same time, it is undeniable that in Florida and elsewhere, archipelagic autogestión and political mobilization face formidable and complex challenges. In addition to the workings of colonial-capitalism, weak public institutions, corporate media, debt crisis, and structural violence, coordinated actions have been few, limiting the ability or organizations and communities to overturn hegemonic political logics and leverage their power. The movement’s cimarrón tactic of ignoring the state may likewise contribute to depletion as the burden of rebuilding and solving community problems falls on residents themselves, most of whom have limited resources.

Yet the combined refusals of “yo no me quito,” “yo sí me quito,” and “yo no me olvido,” are reconfiguring Puerto Rican politics in critical ways. If colonial-capitalist politics continues to see “populations” as objects of capital and state and bodies to be administered, extracted from, and expelled; in contrast, indigenizing, fugitive, and diaspora practices affirm the right of both rootedness and mobility according to individual and community needs. As Perisic argues for solidarity networks in the context of the European debt crisis, these modalities also offer “an alternative model of doing politics, organizing the economy, living collectively, and responding to a crisis” (Perisic 2017). In this regard, although many are urging the government to come up with a plan to repoblar la isla (“repopulate the island”) (Padilla 2017) and put a stop to the flight of professionals, loss of taxpayers, and depression of housing prices, this emerging politics is disrupting the dominant frameworks by asking the more fundamental questions of “Too many people for what?,” “How do people want to live?,” and “How should communities organize themselves to live that life?”

In addition, these refusals are enacting horizontal political participation based on the knowledge that neither nation-state status nor formal citizenship within a nation-state is a guarantee for food security, water, energy, creativity, and education.[6] Accordingly, they have the potential to bring into being other forms of communal existence, including a translocal municipalismo that actualizes a politics based on citizenship, not as a right granted by the state or tied to property ownership, but as a practice based on “residence and participation” (Shea Baird 2017). As journalist Natalia Muñoz Paraliticci, a speaker at an 2017 debt relief protest in Oakland, stated, “power is in people, and the in the small radius that you have around you. It’s not a matter of being a national hero, a national heroine. It’s about being a local, municipal collaborator” (Bay Area Rallies for Puerto Rico 2017).[7]

In this way, an understanding of the current juncture as a “catastrophe” or a turning point may resignify the “emptying island” as an opportunity to enact an end to colonial-capitalist modernity through different forms of governance, non-growth approaches to resource production, and new forms of habitation. Rather than emphasize the imperial ways of valorizing islands as sites of economic, cultural or political extraction, the Puerto Rican archipelago (like the Caribbean and other zones more broadly) can be valued as “self-sufficient and autonomous spaces where rich social and collective experiences occur” (Martínez-San Miguel 2018).[8] While capital becomes increasingly ghostly, bodies, links, and memories remain active and present. In this nexus, different forms of acting on what is valued can be imagined, practiced, and shared.

Coda: Puerto Ricans Without Puerto Rico?

The complexity of the contemporary juncture, however, forces the question of not only “emptying” but also of “disappearance.” In addition to the possibility that some Puerto Ricans will migrate and disidentify as ethnonationals and adopt other identities, the emptying island similarly conjures the notion of the “disappearing island,” which may be the ultimate legacy of Western colonial-capitalism in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the world. As climate change advances, by 2050, 200 million people worldwide are expected to become climate refugees, and islands that have contributed little to global warming will disproportionately bear the burden (New York Times 2018; Rytz 2018). Anticipated scenarios of how rising waters will impact the Caribbean show that Puerto Rico as well as much (or all) of the Caribbean archipelago may be “liquefied.”

Thinking from the history of emptying, the possibility of disappearance of that which currently exists in ways that we can and cannot imagine injects an entirely different level of urgency to contemporary politics, conceptual practices, and collective narratives. In an era of mass expulsion and submerged islands, will groups of people who desire to be linked be able to act politically through movement, imagination, and memory rather than through state formation, national borders, and fixed settlements? Will being a “native foreigner” become the norm as more people spend time in different locations, making them both natives and foreigners everywhere? (García Canclini 2017). How will Puerto Ricans “stay afloat,”—whether in San Juan, Kissimmee, or the Bronx, or across greatly transformed and novel waterland-scapes?

One path is technocratic. Island communities such as French Polynesia are already serving as experimental sites for the creation of new landmass made possible by sea-steading technologies (Seasteading Institute 2018). The Republic of Kiribati has also explored this possibility with the Japanese engineering company Shimizu at a cost of $450 billion (Rytz 2018). As capital and its metaphors advance, some of these new “floating cities” are being imagined as “start-up” countries, which would allow residents to “redesign society and government” from scratch by settling unclaimed international water (Gelles 2017).

New technologies will inevitably form part of any Caribbean future. Yet technocratic solutions are unlikely to free communities from the political limitations and capitalist entanglements that produced them or answer the question of “Where do the spirits go?” (Rytz 2018). It is then more promising to envision and enact long-term political practices that no longer conceive of emptying islands but rather archipelagos of possibility where memories and futures already reside. This opening recalls artist Jean Michel Basquiat’s rarely discussed text, 50 Cent Piece (1983).[9] In this demanding work, Basquiat examines the pitfalls and paradoxes of sovereignty in the Caribbean in three island contexts—Haiti, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. To call attention to the limitations of both colonial and nationalist sovereignty, Basquiat links and crosses out various terms including the names of iconic national figures Marcus Garvey, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Luis Muñoz Rivera. Equally relevant, through explicit references to the US invasion of Haiti, Operation Bootstrap, and Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement, Basquiat denotes the “collective memory of an ongoing history of violence,” which points to the devastating impact of a specific sovereign power in the Caribbean: The United States (quoted in Negrón-Muntaner and Ramírez 2017, 358).

50 cent, however, is relatively rare in Basquiat’s corpus, in that he envisions that Caribbean people will (regardless of empires or national elites) stay afloat by making use of their own spiritual and creative devices. This view is implied through repetition of the phrases “300 CUBITS LONG” and “THE ARK.” These phrases refer to the dimensions of Noah’s Ark but also evoke images of Agwe (the slave ship and the vodou spirit of water), who possesses a boat and receives offerings in small vessels made of bark and other materials. In relating all three terms, Basquiat references the various means that blacks in the Americas have devised to protect what is cherished in the Caribbean and escape the many “floods” that afflict it, including enslavement, invasion, dictatorship, and ecological threats. Basquiat thus suggests that in facing catastrophe, particularly as a systemic and not an episodic feature of Caribbean, life will depend on the shifting ability to both stand in place and float away, still in defiance of the emptying island.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, and scholar. She is the author of Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture (winner, 2004 CHOICE Award) and The Latino Media Gap, and has edited several books, including Puerto Rican Jam: Rethinking Nationalism and Colonialism; None of the Above: Puerto Ricans in the Global Era, and Sovereign Acts: Contesting Colonialism Across Indigenous Nations and Latinx America. Negrón-Muntaner's films include Brincando el charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican, and War in Guam. She is also a founding board member and past chair of NALIP (National Association of Latino Independent Producers), and a founding curator of Columbia University's Latino Arts and Activism Archive. In 2005, she was named as 1 of "100 Most Influential Hispanics" by Hispanic Business magazine. In 2008, the United Nations' Rapid Response Media Mechanism recognized her as a “global expert." She received Columbia University's “Most Distinguished Faulty Award” (2012). In 2017, she received an inaugural OZY Educator Award.


My many thanks go to Catalina Arango Correa, Arcadio Díaz Quiñones, Marcial Godoy, Michael Koch, Kim Leiken, Hilda Lloréns, Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, Leonard Rosenbaum, and Katerina González Seligmann for their conceptual comments, editorial suggestions and support.

                     [1] Original Spanish: “Así que, si nos dejan sin agua, sin comida, sin medicinas, sin desarrollo económico… lo que están haciendo es de facto un esfuerzo concertado para vaciar a Puerto Rico”.

                     [2] This trope is also used to describe population loss in Cuba. See Ignacio Isla, “La isla que se vacía (o de cómo Cuba puede perder la mitad de su población).” El Confidencial, December 17, 2015,

                     [3] As Luis Alberto Avileshas observed, the “overpopulation” trope has also been applied to other parts of the Caribbean such as Barbados, see “El velorio de la sobrepoblación,” 80grados, January 28, 2018,

                     [4] The US Navy, however, eventually found an island to empty, the U.K territory of Diego Garcia.

                     [5] Original Spanish: se pueden unir los voluntarios que vienen de fuera de Puerto Rico con la gente que está aquí en Mariana, y para generar soluciones sustentables"

                     [6] These modalities also recall indigenous community projects such as the Museo Migrante in Chiapas, Mexico, which articulates attachment to place and migrants through four similar principles: “estamos aquí, estamos allá, ya regresamos, and seguimos estando.” For more information, see

                     [7] Original Spanish: “el poder está en la gente, y en el pequeño espacio que tu tengas a tu radio. No es ser un héroe nacional, una heroína nacional. Se trata de ser un colaborador local, municipal.”

                     [8] Original Spanish: “espacios autosuficientes autónomos en donde ocurren experiencias sociales y colectivas muy ricas.”

                     [9] For a more extended reading see, Negrón-Muntaner and Ramírez (2017, 336–372).

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