Puerto Rico's Future Should Protect Puerto Rico's Women

Gender-based violence is often rooted in the island's enduring colonialist legacy.

Puerto Rico's Future Should Protect Puerto Rico's Women

Puerto Rico is not the oldest colony of the world, as some people believe. As a territory neither independent nor state, we do not have a voice in Congress. This tension feeds a lack of clarity as well as an illusion of self governance that obscures the political reality. We lose our national identity, economic roadmap and political dignity.

In the face of material challenges, dignity may seem like an abstract idea. But in its absence, these challenges affect daily life in a variety of ways. Our infrastructure is a mess. Our politicians are selling land in pieces to try and fix an economy that has been weakened by years of neglect and bad federal and local policies. We have a long history of gender violence, which is among the worst in the world. Puerto Rico's colonial legacy is often the cause of violence.

In April, American legislators renewed an effort to allow Puerto Ricans to vote on the status of the island. The results of this plebiscite would be binding, unlike those from the previous six. If we were given another chance to choose our future, whether it be statehood, independence, or a commonwealth version, whatever we chose must lay the foundation for a narrative of national significance that will rescue our history and make a relationship with political dignity possible. First, we should choose ourselves, and then if we so choose, we can choose the United States.

Our patriarchal culture tells Puerto Ricans that they are the leaders of their families, and must decide their own fates. This macho mindset also shames men who don't go to war against American Imperialism. The United States may not consider itself to be a colonizer but it has created a narrative which willfully ignores the history of our resistance and strategic negotiations and does not acknowledge the contributions made by men and women in terms of blood and wealth.

Colonization is often the cause of increased violence against women. Frances Negron Muntaner is a Columbia University professor who studied colonial subjection and its harms in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico. She explained that violence was a pattern against women who identified as feminine or were perceived to be so. She told me that men feel a need to exert control over these women and to cause them pain. Emilia Quinones Otal, a scholar who has studied the link extensively outside of Puerto Rico's case, is one such scholar. She wrote that in her study, which focused on regions where the United States intervened following the Monroe Doctrine, and the Cold War she examined, "we can observe the dynamic of gender violence linked to imperialist invaders."

Guyana is one such example. According to a report from United Nations Women in 2019, more than half of women in Guyana have experienced violence by intimate partners. Guyana has the second-highest suicide rate in the world, largely due to gender-based violence. Scholars have made a link between the high rate of violence in Guyana, the colonial past and the patriarchal structures which were created during slavery and still exist today.

I grew in Carolina, which is a small town about 15 minutes away from San Juan. Years ago, I thought that the women of my family were the most sexist. I could never understand why women would stay with men who beat their wives for refusing to ask permission to leave home or for any other 'disobedience'. I believed that in order to survive, women needed to be small and meek. Even that wasn't good enough. My grandmother, my aunt, and my mother eventually left the men who abused and bloodied their bodies, and we became a woman-only family.

I did not fare any better. In 1990, I had two children and was working for a local television station as an evening news producer. I was terrified of men, both those in my immediate family and in general. I started leaving a broomstick at the front door. When I came home from work, I would unlock the door and slowly open it, using the broomstick as a weapon to search every room. After a year of living in constant fear, I decided to apply for a position at CNN. I moved my family to Atlanta, with my two daughters aged 1 and 4, at the time.

Although not all Puerto Rican men are violent or abusive, I was still afraid. In the year that I left, more than 12,600 women had reported domestic violence. The vast majority of these attacks took place in their own homes. At the time, there were 3.6 million residents on the island. In Puerto Rico, between 1995 and 1996 13 percent of women reported being physically abused by a family member or intimate partner. Since then, the situation has only gotten worse.

Domestic violence survivors were more vulnerable than ever after Hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated the island, causing it to be in a state emergency, without power or communications. In Puerto Rico, 51 women were killed in 2018. According to the Office of the Women's Procurator of the Government, 23 of these women were murdered by partners. However, this number is likely much higher due to the lack of infrastructure on the island and the inaccuracy of official statistics.

The pandemic exacerbated the crisis. The frequency and severity of violence against women in 2021 forced the island government to declare an emergency. This required a committee that would provide education, support, and rescue regarding gender violence. It also included a mobile application through which victims could request help. These efforts, even if they worked perfectly, would probably not be enough to put out the fire given how long this issue has been going on.

The solution for Puerto Rico lies in our status. What we decide next time must be permanent, and negotiated. Permanent so that we can answer forever the question as to what we are: a state, permanent partner or independent country; and negotiated with the United States in order to get the laws and resources needed to rebuild what has been lost due to the plundering of Spain and misguided United States decisions.

Outsiders hold the wrong but pervasive belief that Puerto Ricans never resisted or fought for their nation -- that they accumulate debt and don't earn their keep. This is also how some Puerto Rican males see themselves. Negotiating and deciding on a permanent status can help reduce the feelings of self-hatred that lead to violence against women. This will serve as a foundation for the safety of every citizen, regardless of their gender.

Let our future, whatever it may be, make us whole. Let's empower a sustainable system of government for all, one that creates a healthier concept of masculinity. We must get away from the imperialistic masculinity that kills and beats people when they are reminded what they don't want: to be a victim, weak or helpless.

Anjanette Delgado, a writer and journalist. She is the editor of "Home in Florida: Latinx writers and the literature of uprootedness".