By Jude Casimir
It’s been a couple of months since Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept past Puerto Rico and devastated the island. And while a lot of us mainlanders are angry and shocked at the response from the government, Puerto Ricans themselves aren’t. Puerto Ricans have always been deeply aware of their history and where they stand within the context of Americanness, and the issues on the island now have only made them more aware.
A few weeks ago, I sat down and spoke to Francisco Vivoni, a sociology professor at Worcester State who hails from Puerto Rico, about the devastation and the wildly different reactions from the government and the unsurprised, frustrated people who’ve been forced to take matters into their own hands. We also discussed the role Puerto Rican identity — and identity in general — play in all of this.
Please describe briefly where you were born and how you got here.
I was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico and I lived on the island for most of my childhood and part of my adult life. Like most Puerto Ricans, I have experienced the back and forth from the island to sort of the mainland. During my childhood, between the ages of four and eight, I lived in the state of Pennsylvania, so part of my identity is of as one that sort of moves back and forth, right? As many Puerto Ricans. When it came time to look beyond an undergraduate degree—I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras—it took me a while, but I was finally able to apply and get accepted to a graduate program in Illinois that basically opened the past 15 or so years of my life living in the United States.
You have a broad scope within sociology, ranging from urban sociology to environmental sociology. Can you describe a specific part of your work?
Of course! So when it became time to write a dissertation as part of the PhD program, I really took to heart C. Wright Mills’ definition of sociology as being able to connect biography and history. Right, so the sociological imagination is to connect personal troubles with social issues. So I had to do a lot of reflection on what my interests lie within the field and what I could contribute to it, and up to that point, a lot of my focus was on Puerto Rican identity, nationalism, cultural nationalism, and at that moment I had to take seriously this issue of identities as fluid and ever-changing. And that really grounded on these narratives, these modern narratives, on the nation-state. And so I drew from my childhood and my interest in skateboarding. And I began to read up on it and I realized that there’s a whole emerging scholarship within postmodern sport, within alternative sports, focusing on these subcultural experiences within cities. And so I went on a journey, right, I lived—for most of my time in Illinois, I lived in a small college town known as Urbana Champaign, which is about 2 1/2 hours south of Chicago, and so part of my dissertation research took me to the city of Chicago.
I moved there, lived about 2 years doing research, participant research, ethnography, interviews with skateboarders, about the emergence of new skateboarding spaces along the lake front in Chicago, and the new urban development that was going on in Grant Part. So one of the findings was that skateparks and skateboarders fit well into what cities and officials in the cities were trying to brand—or create a new identity for Chicago as a city of leisure, a city that plays, a city that’s welcoming to youth and youth subcultures.
So the findings argue that even though skateparks are meaningful spaces of joy and pleasure where kids actually have a place, they also constitute places of enclosure, of exclusion. So once cities build skateparks, they have legitimate reasons to exclude kids from the rest of the city. So I connect that to ways in which skateparks have happened later in Puerto Rico and the role of skateboard subculture within this fluid identity of being Puerto Rican. This is ongoing research. I continue to be interested in the formation of skate spaces in the city of Worcester and the intersections of, say, race, class, gender, sexuality in these spaces.
What made you wanna be a sociologist in the first place?
That’s a great question. A lot of us find sociology accidentally. A lot of us don’t declare sociology first time around. We in a way sort of feel what Weber called the “disenchantment of the world,” and we feel that our current majors or current areas of focus don’t fulfill us, so we stumble across sociology.
In my case, I was fortunate enough, during my undergraduate degree, to be in a program called Journal Studies—that was my major, it’s similar to what we have here as liberal studies. I was able to put together my own program, and it just so happened that the professors at the University of PR at that time that were publishing interesting scholarship that I found compelling were within the social sciences, and a lot of them were housed within the discipline of sociology.
But from early on, I really embraced the interdisciplinary perspective on research and scholarship. We know that these disciplinary boundaries are policed on one hand but are also socially constructed, and we have to push against them.
So that was during my undergrad years, and as you continue to pursue more years of education, systemically you’re kind of pushed to focus and to really specialize, and what I did was, when I went to graduate school, I did apply to many interdisciplinary graduate programs—American studies, cultural studies, and the one that I ended up going to was a program in sociology, but with a focus and major in transnational studies, so that’s what sort of drew me into this program. So sociology in a way, as a house for misfits, as a house for those of us who don’t fit in anywhere else. And I’ve found that that here in Worcester State sort of has some resonance, right. We don’t get a lot of students coming in straight out of high school—we get a lot of transfers, and even within—and I would argue that that’s a strength, ‘cause we have a strong student body, strong sociology majors that really are aware about the problems within the university and then beyond.
What were some of your initial thoughts to the hurricane besides probably, “Oh my God, my family!”?
Right. So initially it’s devastation, right—and there was sufficient warning so it’s not like other “natural disasters” where you didn’t see it coming—and immediate worry how the island and its residents are prepared to take on such devastation. And 20+ days in, we’re now seeing how ill-prepared the people were, how ill-prepared the government was, how ill-prepared the relationship between PR and the US is in order to do as much possible to save lives, to afford a public health crisis, to afford to a humanitarian crisis on the island. So initially shock, right, initially worry for family members, friends, others living on the island, and now it’s outrage. We’re outraged—from the diaspora, we’re looking almost helpless. We don’t know how to help, there are many people on the ground helping, and yet we know that a lot of this could be prevented, that these are problems that have solutions if the conditions were in place.
You mentioned the incredibly slow response to relief efforts. There must be a lot of frustrated feelings there.
Incredibly frustrated, saddened—our hearts are heavy, and at the same time, we saw this coming. The colonial status of PR puts it and its people in a position of oppressed—in a position of deep disadvantage. 40% of the island’s population lives below the federal poverty line. Official numbers of unemployment range around 12% of the population. The conditions on the island have worsened in the past decade due to an economic recession that has no end. $73 billion in public debt. There’s a long history to that going back to 1898 and when PR first became a US colony, and authors like Juan Gonzales have described the conditions in PR as uber-colonialism, colonialism on steroids. He describes PR as the most lucrative colony that the US has ever seen, all of its history. So that relationship, that unequal relationship of oppressor and oppressed, is really at the root of the devastation we see on the ground. So this is a natural disaster as we all know that it is human-made, and so it’s heartbreaking, it’s devastating. I mean, people are suffering, people are dying as the mayor of San Juan Carmen Yulin has been very boisterous about the inequalities going on on the ground.
What are your thoughts on what has been done, like the presidential visit, the tweets, the very meaningful dedication of the golf trophy?
It’s laughable, right? It’s in a way surprising, but on the other hand, it’s predictable. What would you expect of this administration? You cannot expect empathy, compassion coming from this administration—support, any type of moral guidance from this office, so it’s more of the same. It’s very troubling. And we’ll see, we’ll see if this is an opportunity to put additional pressure on relieving the debt and exhuming PR from paying this debt and of addressing the colonial status of the island. But there’s not much hope. It seems like it’s a hopeless, dire situation.
But there are people helping on the ground right now, and there are people donating. How do you feel about that?
I feel encouraged. On the ground, on the island, there are groups of youth who are often vilified, demonized, who are, on the ground, known as the Machete Brigades and they’re just clearing up streets on their own because the response from FEMA, from the federal government is so slow. So they’re taking matters into their own hands, and they’re clearing streets, helping their neighbors as young people. We have chefs getting together Chefs for PR, creating these massive meals to be able to hand out to thousands and thousands of hungry people. So there are pockets of resistance, if you will, to the ineptitude of both the local government and the federal government.
Likewise, I am energized by the response of people in the diaspora like myself, people in the United States who have mobilized to contact their elected officials to make sure that these issues are dealt with in congress and in other public forums. In the city of Worcester, we have a strong representation of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos, and I participated recently in an effort to gain resources and water, and it was just beautiful to be there in the Main-South community and to just have this outpouring of support. And it just collected so many resources from electric generators, water, food, toiletries—just all these necessities that maybe some of us could take for granted. And we kind of just take these things for granted. It takes an event like this for us to realize that the necessities of our fellow brothers and sisters. Yeah, so in that sense it is catalyst for activism, for change, for consciousness-raising.
Do you think the response would be different if PR was an officially recognized state?
That’s interesting. I don’t know. The flip side to that question is—for me, it’s great that we all are concerned for our fellow American citizens on the island—3.5 million American citizens that in fact are second-class citizens. And the flip question would be what if we weren’t? Would they not deserve our compassion, our love, our resources? I don’t know! If it were a 51st state, maybe the resources would be similar to those garnered for Texas and Florida, maybe, maybe not. Maybe this excuse that geography plays a huge role, that since it’s an island, it’s a different scenario—but I do entertain that: What if they weren’t American citizens? Do they not then deserve our support? So these are just open questions.
Do you think PR will ever reach statehood? Do you want it to?
For me, that is something that should be left up to the people living on the island, to decide their destiny. My inclination is that people on the island will rise up against the regime that exists now, will rise up against legislation that has them in a financial crisis, will aspire for sovereignty, self-governance, will aspire to be able to strengthen links with other Caribbean nation-states and other nation-states of the world, instead of relying exclusively on the United States. So my vision is that there can be strength with the creation of a sovereign nation, but again, from afar, I’m speaking from the US, so in a way, it’s up to the people living there to rise up, to demand this from themselves and from the government.
W.E.B. Du Bois famously talked about double consciousness, this notion that if you’re black in America, or really any marginalized person, you can only ever see yourself through the eyes of others. Can you relate to this at all?
Of course, of course. I think Du Bois is instrumental in understanding identity politics in the United States, whether it be the strong movement to take a knee, which is, I think, an illustration of double consciousness, or the Curious Case of Puerto Rico, as Juan Gonzales says. Puerto Ricans who are US citizens but do not have full citizenship rights—Puerto Ricans do not vote for president of the United States, Puerto Ricans, in many cases, aren’t—the rest of the United States is not aware of Puerto Ricans as US citizens. So this notion of double consciousness, how can you be Puerto Rican and American at the same time, is very relevant, and it’s kind of part of the debate around Puerto Rican identity on the island and the debate about Puerto Rican identity for those of us living in the United States. So there’s a lot of scholarship, there’s a lot of debate, a lot of discussion around otherness, of being a stranger, and the idea is that Puerto Ricans can strengthen ties of solidarity with other sectors of the population within the United States that are also excluded, and ideally kind of have a united front against, for example, white supremacy.
I can relate to that because I’m Haitian, but I never feel Haitian-American. It’s always Haitian or American.
Yeah, and for Puerto Ricans, those of us who have lived for a while in the US, we go back to the island and we’re not Puerto Rican enough—we may not be in-tune with all the ways in which the language has changed in the time we’ve been away, our Spanish may not be as fast as others—and then we come to the US and we’re not American enough. And so this in-between identity is for me a source of agency and power. It’s also sort of we are targets. We are targets for discrimination, for hate, but in a sense, we can build this identity as a strength, as a way to challenge those who actually affirm essentialist notions of identity, that somehow where you are born determines who you are. And in the age of globalization, in the age of increased mobility, these notions of identity are ever-changing, if they ever were tied to a place are now really deterritorialized. And we need to make our voices heard about how we can be Americans and Puerto Ricans or Americans and Haitians. I mean, this is the complexities of social life that are often made invisible, made simple, homogenized by social policy this exclusionary and racist.