2021 Reflections on Puerto Rico

Written by Awilda Rodriguez, Enid Rosario Ramos, and Heather Shotton (ASHE 2021 Local and Community Engagement Committee)

This year we are traveling to San Juan, Puerto Rico, a site that has and continues to be contested for what is now over five centuries. As the longest existing colony in the world, Puerto Rico was colonized by the Spanish in 1493. The set of islands (an archipelago that includes what is currently known as Puerto Rico, Vieques, Culebra, and other uninhabited islands), was called “Boriken” by its Indigenous Taíno inhabitants, meaning “land of the great lords.” Through disease and the violence of enslavement, the population of Taínos dramatically decreased shortly after the arrival of the Spanish, although there are accounts that many fled to the mountainous interior of the island. In order to advance their colonial project, the Spanish brought the first enslaved African people to work the mines and later sugar cane fields. In addition to Europeans, the influence of both the Taíno and West African cultures can be seen in the food, language, and music in present-day Puerto Rico.
In 1898, US forces landed on the southern coast of Puerto Rico in Guánica and claimed the former Spanish colony as their spoils in the Spanish-American War for its strategic position in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States, rooted in colony and empire, would remain contested as policymakers grappled with the legal status of an unincorporated territory that was “belonging to…but not part of the United States”[i]  and that was “foreign to the United States in a domestic sense.”[ii] At the same time, a nationalist movement fought for Puerto Rico’s independence as a continuation of the struggle from autonomy from Spain. Puerto Ricans would receive U.S. citizenship in 1917, with the intention that Puerto Rico serve as the democratic example in the Caribbean. However, the President of the United States appointed its governor until 1948. 
The higher education system in Puerto Rico was set up to mirror that of the U.S. In 2018-19, about 236,000 students were enrolled across 137 institutions—greater than 12 states.[iii] As U.S. citizens, students are entitled to Title IV funding, including Pell. With comparatively low tuition and fees ($3,620 at University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras in 2019-20), Pell grants were able to fully cover tuition at the flagship institution. In addition to having a sizeable higher education system, many of the four-year institutions are top producers of Latinx STEM degrees in the U.S.[iv]
The issues of sovereignty and status are far from resolved, however. In 2014 and under the weight of onerous decades-old fiscal policies, Puerto Rico’s governor announced its $72 billion debt was “not payable.”[v] To address the fiscal insolvency of Puerto Rico, in 2016, the United States Congress imposed a fiscal oversight board, the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico (aka La Junta), that holds authority over Puerto Rico’s budget and financial decisions. The creation of this unelected board has amplified and made painfully visible Puerto Rico’s colonial status. Indeed, Puerto Rico’s higher education system is the only in the United States that is under US Congressional rule. 
The U.S. government’s underwhelming and irresponsible response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and earthquakes in 2019 have further underscored Puerto Rican’s limited citizenship and status within a U.S. context. As recent as 2019, the United Nations’ special commission on decolonization would note “with concern the way in which political insubordination impedes Puerto Rico’s ability to tackle its serious economic and social problems…”[vi] These conditions have led to mass migrations to mainland US and challenges for the higher education system. Postsecondary enrollments decreased 24% in the last five years, while tuition, under the draconian measures imposed by the US fiscal board, have increased by 87% for public four-year colleges.[vii] These changes to access and affordability have been met with staunch protestations from college students and faculty.
As the ASHE community prepares to travel to Puerto Rico, it is important to acknowledge the tenuous and contested relationship that Puerto Rico has with the United States. We do this in the spirit of this year’s theme, as we (re)consider borders—what they signify and who they are meant to include (or exclude). Likewise, we recognize that as visitors we must always be mindful of our relationships, connection, and responsibility to place. This requires us to engage with its history, honor its people, and to be in right relation with land, water, and creation.  We embrace the opportunity and responsibilities of learning with and  being in community with the people from Puerto Rico. 

[i] Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 287 (1901)
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] IPEDS 12-month enrollment 2018-19, all sectors, Title-IV Eligible institutions
[iv] https://www.edexcelencia.org/media/488
[v] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/29/business/dealbook/puerto-ricos-governor-says-islands-debts-are-not-payable.html?_r=0
[vi] https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/gacol3337.doc.htm
[vii] Enrollment: Comparison of 2018-19 and 2013-12 enrollment, all sectors, Title IV-eligible institutions; Tuition: unadjusted comparison of 2019-20 and 2014-13 in-state average tuition for full-time undergraduates, PR public 4-year colleges