Colonial Education Leaves Puerto Rican Children Behind

Colonial Education Leaves Puerto Rican Children Behind

A bas-relief mural in Aguadilla, PR, depicts Columbus' first contact with the Taíno people. Photo by: Iris Kirsch.
A bas-relief mural in Aguadilla, PR, depicts Columbus' first contact with the Taíno people. Photo by: Iris Kirsch.

This winter, I had the great fortune to travel to Puerto Rico. A beautiful, diverse island, Puerto Rico has a long colonial history and a long history of resistance. Both of these traditions are still alive today, and Puerto Rico is a fascinating place to study the effects of neoliberalism. As a country with strong, though externally imposed, ties to the US, it is important for education activists in the states to understand the developing education crisis in Puerto Rico.

First, a crash course in the island’s colonial history: By 1493, Columbus’ bloodthirsty troops had landed and began to kill and displace the island’s original Taíno population.

For the next 400 years, Puerto Rico maintained a colonial relationship with Spain, although the specifics of that arrangement changed several times. When, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the US decided it wanted territory in the Caribbean, they engaged with Spain in the Spanish-American War. As a result of the war, Puerto Rico became a territory of the US.

Initially, Puerto Rico was under martial law. Within the first few years, however, a system was developed which paid some lip service to sovereignty, in that it allowed Puerto Ricans to elect some officials and delegates. Despite heavy influence from the US to vote for US citizenship, the locally elected Puerto Rican Delegates voted unanimously for independence in 1914.

In a strong show of control, the United States Congress not only ignored the vote for independence, they forced citizenship on the Puerto Rican people. Although this decision has a fascinating history, many scholars believe this move was made largely so that Puerto Ricans could be drafted into the US military.

Since then, Puerto Rican people have had the ability to move between the United States and Puerto Rico without passports, and without being subjected to the intense scrutiny of customs. Decades of massive expropriation of Puerto Rican land ensured that a constant stream of unemployed, landless people would be all but forced to come stateside to find work, further draining the island of population and resources. In fact, as of the last few years, more Puerto Ricans live stateside than in Puerto Rico. Although many factories and plantations were built on the island, many have closed down, leading Puerto Rico to be dubbed “The Detroit of The Caribbean”.

As austerity measures loom on their horizon, Indyreader wanted to know what was being done to ensure a brighter future for the millions of Puertorriqueña and Puertorriqueño youth living on the island and stateside.

Iris Kirsch

Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.