Recently, the enormously popular music artist, Bad Bunny, released an 18-minute video for the song “El Apagón” (The Power Outage) that includes a short documentary, called “Aquí Vive Gente” (People Live Here) with filmmaker Bianca Graulau. The title for the song El Apagón, refers to the rolling blackouts that Puerto Rico has suffered since hurricane Maria. But the documentary that accompanies it tells of the current state of life for people in their home of Puerto Rico. The film is much more than a proud celebration of the island’s vibrant culture; it is also a powerful snapshot of life for ordinary working-class people in Puerto Rico and the challenges they confront.
Since the conclusion of the Spanish-American war in 1898, Puerto Rico has been a de-facto colony of the United States. Puerto Rico has a population with an average household income less than $1,800 per month. In recent years, the island has been rocked by hurricanes such as Irma, Maria and now Fiona, a crippling debt, and privatization of public resources, but also rocked by popular mass movements against corruption that ousted the Governor, Ricky Rosselló. Footage of these movements fill the documentary.
Aquí Vive Gente tells part of the story of colonial domination by showing how those with money from the mainland United States and elsewhere are flooding into the island in large numbers, displacing many native Puerto Ricans. People comment that they are made to feel as “foreigners in their own land.” Over the past decades, real estate investment firms have bought up housing properties extremely cheaply and jacked up the prices. In addition, the government has torn down much of the public housing that once existed for low-income people. Large numbers of evictions have led to a constant displacement of working-class Puerto Ricans to accommodate the exploding tourist economy as well as people relocating from the mainland United States.
In addition, current tax law gives incentives to wealthy people from the mainland U.S. to move to Puerto Rico and establish residence as a part of the infamous Act 22 (The Individual Investors Act). This act attracts new residents to Puerto Rico by providing a total exemption from Puerto Rico income taxes for those that make money from trading stocks and cryptocurrencies, owning properties, and more. Many of these wealthy residents end up owning the newly-built luxury hotels, condos and Airbnbs that are totally out of reach for ordinary Puerto Ricans, 43% of whom live under the federal poverty line. This gentrification has meant that housing prices overall have shot up rapidly over the past several years. The wealthy newcomers are regarded as colonizers by many. Unsurprisingly, there is a racial dimension to this entire process, with the darker skinned Puerto Ricans being displaced by the wealthy whiter population coming from the mainland – leading to the popular slogan – “Gringo, Go Home!”
In other words, the politicians are making it more and more impossible for working-class people from the island to survive by taking away resources from them, while bending over backwards to entice and accommodate the wealthy newcomers from the mainland United States.
Also unsurprisingly, when hurricanes such as Maria and Fiona devastate the island, the wealthy foreigners get out of harm’s way before any of the damage begins, while the working-class population is forced to weather the storm and subsequent collapse of infrastructure and power outages with whatever meager resources that they have.
To add insult to injury, the beautiful beaches, which have historically always been open to all of the public, are now often privatized, enclosed by extravagant housing developments. In one example shown in the documentary, the struggles against gentrification and ecological destruction came together in a militant and successful movement to prevent the construction of a swimming pool for the wealthy right next to the beach, which would have destroyed a native turtle habitat.
The problems depicted in the documentary aren’t caused simply by individuals who might want to visit Puerto Rico for an occasional vacation. They are much deeper than that. They are the consequence of international capitalism and colonialism, which create deep inequalities across the world and turn places like Puerto Rico into playgrounds for the rich, consuming the culture and beautiful environment with little to no regard for the people. Ultimately, the sharing and mixing of peoples’ cultures is a beautiful part of life. Why couldn’t we live in a world where this takes place without being poisoned by relationships of exploitation?
In the meantime, regarding Puerto Rico and similar places around the world, in spite of all of the forces of displacement and erasure, the people featured in Bad Bunny and Bianca Graulau’s film remind us that real people live here and they will not be silent. Aquí Vive Gente. Break the Silence.
Check it out!