More than sun and rum: The incredible communicative richness of Puerto Rico

Man with Peace for Vieques sign

Peace for Vieques

Cross-posted from the April 2015 edition of the ICA newsletter.

I remember my excitement when I learned that the 2015 ICA conference would be held in Puerto Rico. Not only would I get to see friends and family well before my annual Christmas trip, but also to brag a bit to my colleagues about my country. “Yes, I did in fact grow up here. Why, thank you very much. Yes I am proud. I agree — you must come back.”

I wager many of our colleagues — especially those from places that have been battered recently by historic snowstorms and frigid temperatures — have been consulting travel books and websites for months, giddily planning their all-too-short stays in the Island of Enchantment. And while I definitely plan to brag about our beaches, restaurants, and historic landmarks as if I were personally responsible for them, I also wish to draw attention to other aspects of the island that make it a fascinating — and sometimes frustrating — place to live.

I’ll start from my own research specialty: political communication and activism, especially online. Puerto Rico’s history as a former Spanish colony that now belongs to the United States has yielded a vibrant but sharply divided political culture revolving around the island’s relationship with the US. Should Puerto Rico become the 51st state? Remain a self-governing “commonwealth” subject to Congress’ plenary powers? Should it become a sovereign nation? Or instead become some hybrid of these alternatives? As you can imagine, there are important implications to how we answer these questions, should we ever get around to it.

I grew up hearing passionate discussions about Puerto Rican politics that often involved highly polarizing rhetoric and stark framing of the stakes involved in elections. Statehood partisans were breezily labeled vende-patrias, meaning they were selling out our motherland and culture. Commonwealth supporters were accused of having a “colonized mentality,” or worse, of trying to “bring the republic in through the kitchen,” implying they were closet independence partisans (independentistas). Actual independentistas, meanwhile, were accused of (gasp!) being socialists — some of whom were and still are, in all fairness — or wanting to jeopardize all the economic development achieved under US rule and let Puerto Rico become an impoverished Latin American republic. Most of this passionate and polarizing rhetoric is still employed today.

But Puerto Rican politics aren’t all division and discord; sometimes, broad swaths of the public can overcome ideological and partisan lines to work together for a common purpose. Two highly successful examples come to mind: the 1999-2003 campaign to shut down a US Navy training facility in the island-municipality of Vieques, and the more recent campaign to eliminate accidental deaths and injuries from “celebratory” gun firings during New Year’s Eve.

From the 1940s to May 2003, the Navy maintained an important training facility in Vieques. Discontent over the Navy’s negative impact on Vieques’ environment, quality of life, and economic prospects was mostly confined to residents of “the baby island” (la isla nena) until the 1999 accidental death of a civilian security guard at the Navy facility, caused by wayward bombs during a training exercise, triggered a widespread social movement pushing for the Navy’s withdrawal from Vieques. Activists were able to hold this movement together and expand it into a transnational campaign partly through smart communication strategies. By framing the campaign as one of “peace for Vieques,” and thus not alienating supporters of a close relationship with the US, they attracted and maintained broad public support for their ultimate goal. In a pre-social media era, they also used email lists and websites extensively to share information, coordinate strategies, and publicize their efforts.

The more recent “not one more bullet in the air” (ni una bala más al aire) campaign, which involves the government, media outlets, non-governmental organizations, and broad segments of the public, has been a successful multi-sector response to a symptom of a broader problem for which so far there’s no easy solution: drug trafficking.

Puerto Rico serves as a major drug traffic gateway from Central and South America to the US, but a significant portion of those drugs stay in the island, along with all the related problems: addiction, violence, and illegal firearm ownership, among others. The island has fairly strict gun laws by US standards, but illegal gun ownership is rampant and often tied to the drug trade. Unfortunately, some individuals choose to fire these guns into the air on New Year’s Eve — a practice that has caused numerous injuries, and even some deaths, from errant bullets. In the late 2000s, deaths from these “celebratory” gun firings (including at least one small child) triggered a massive backlash among the public and catalyzed a widespread push to make it socially unacceptable to fire guns into the air. The result: a sharp decline in gun firings, along with equally sharp reductions of injuries and fatalities from errant bullets. Since the campaign’s start, many New Year’s Eves have passed with no deaths and very few injuries-a triumph of effective public health communication and social marketing.

These are just a few examples of Puerto Rico’s communicative richness, and I haven’t even scratched the surface. The endless mutations of “Spanglish” that emerge seemingly every day; the critical role that popular cultural production plays in politics, and vice versa; how Puerto Ricans navigate the interpersonal and group communication issues arising from constant migration to and from the mainland; Puerto Rico’s influence in Hispanic-American media enterprises; and so on. I could go on and on, and if you catch me at the right bar, egged on by some warm sun and rum, I probably will.

Luis Hestres

Leave a Comment/Reply