'This Is An Unnatural Disaster': Activist Stephanie Llanes On What You Should Know About Puerto Rico

Photo by Ellie Shechet.
Photo by Ellie Shechet.

DETROIT, MICHIGAN—At this weekend’s Women’s Convention, an event that’s already packed with terrifyingly impressive people, Stephanie Llanes, the Bertha Justice Institute Fellow at the nonprofit legal advocacy organization Center for Constitutional Rights, manages to stand out.


Llanes, an attorney and activist, was the first person in her family to attend college and eventually went to UC Berkeley for law school, where she was the co-president of the Latino Law Students Association, articles editor for the Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy, and a national mock trial champion. As an undergraduate at Emory, where she transferred from community college, she organized a racial justice student coalition called Change @ Emory. If that’s not enough for you, she’s also a former reggaeton artist, and recorded three R&B albums after being signed by Interscope when she was 16 (“when I was a kid, my escape from all this crap that was happening to us was music,” she explained.)

Llanes is moderating a panel on Saturday afternoon called “Out of Sight and Out of Mind: the Status of Women in the US Colony of Puerto Rico,” and on Friday evening she met up with me outside of the press room, where we were both bundled into several layers of sweater and coat to protect ourselves against the Cobo Center’s mysteriously powerful air conditioning system. In Puerto Rico, where the government just admitted to nearly a thousand “natural deaths” post-Maria in addition to the official death toll of 51, a humanitarian disaster is ongoing and the island’s unmet needs are horrific and extensive (and unlikely to be mitigated anytime soon by this administration).

Llanes talked to me about the political and colonial decisions that have exacerbated the crisis as well as the disproportionate impact these decisions have on women, stressing the importance of incorporating this history into progressive movements on the mainland.

“What does Medicare-for-All mean when you have a colony, and the people there aren’t even at the level [of care] that folks here are at?” she asked. “So it’s a moment for us to continue to fight our fights, but be mindful that we have to bring in everyone during those moments, and build with them.”

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for space and clarity.

JEZEBEL: So tell me a little bit about yourself, and how you first got into activism.  


STEPHANIE LLANES: I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and I was raised in a way in which you’re kind of displaced all over the place. So I grew up in PR, I grew up in Florida, Georgia, went to undergrad in Georgia and law school in California, and now I’m in New York. Part of the reason why I was raised in PR and Florida was because even though my parents worked two and three jobs, it still wasn’t enough to make ends meet, so they would send my sister and I to my grandma’s in Puerto Rico so they could get back on their feet. And for a long time I never realized why. When you’re a kid, everything is great, and I was happy to be in PR and see my grandma. But when I got older I realized that it was a pattern with a lot of people, it wasn’t just my family that was going through those kinds of difficult situations. So we ultimately ended up moving to Georgia, and because my dad lost his job and we were homeless and needed to move somewhere; he had family up there.

When I had the opportunity to start community college, I was quickly able to find some articulation of what was happening when I started taking sociology. And it was really then that I started realizing what happens when you live in a colony—and Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States—and what happens when you’re a poor person of color. All of it started to come together. I transferred to Emory University and there I organized with black students and Latinx students around racial justice, and that’s really where my organizing started. And then ever since then, my whole career has been focused on how to improve the lives of marginalized people, and particularly black folks and Latinx folks in Puerto Rico.


So fast forward a little bit, I now live in New York, I work as a movement lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and a lot of my work in conjunction with that has been working with organizers in Puerto Rico as well as New York against Promesa, which is a bill that was passed in 2016 by Congress to deal with the debt that Puerto Rico currently has. If folks do a little bit of research, they realize that the debt never actually benefited the people, it was a debt that wealthy hedge fund managers took over knowing that the government of Puerto Rico would never be able to pay for it, but now they want full payments with crazy interest rates. So there is this $70 billion debt, and Congress decides that the way to deal with it is to appoint this fiscal control board of seven unelected people to govern the entire island of Puerto Rico. And the people of Puerto Rico did not vote for any of these folks, but they have to pay taxes for their governing services. And it’s clear in the bill, and it’s clear from the fiscal control board, that their interest is to pay back the creditors, not to help the people. ,Puerto Rico has massive unemployment and underemployment, which comes from generations and decades of colonized practices and policies on the island that have been instituted by Congress.

So here we are in 2017, post-Maria, and everyone is asking questions about Puerto Rico, and everyone is like oh my gosh, this is awful. And it is, what we’re seeing is nothing short of a severe human rights crisis on the island. I just came back recently, and the land looks like a bomb went off. Mothers are telling me, I have to mash up bananas because I can’t find baby formula in the store... there’s no access to healthy food right now for many people, there’s no electricity on most of the island. [But] people don’t realize that a lot of the issues that are coming up could have been mitigated, had we had healthy infrastructures to deal with a hurricane like this. We had failing school systems before Hurricane Maria hit, we had failing housing infrastructures, our electrical grid was decades-old and needed revamping and investment. When you hit an island that’s already in an economic and humanitarian crisis, it’s going to be massive, the suffering and the violence that comes out of it.


So if this is the first time that you’re asking questions about the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, ask why that is. It’s also about understanding that it’s not just the hurricane, it’s also a factor of political decisions. This is not a natural disaster, this is an unnatural disaster.


Can you talk about some of those policy decisions, aside from those concerning the debt, that have exacerbated this situation?

Back when the U.S. brutally took over Puerto Rico in 1898, a few years later, they were trying to figure out what the relationship is between Puerto Rico and the U.S., because there’s nothing in the Constitution, and under international law it’s illegal to have a colony. So in 1917, they said, we’re going to grant Puerto Ricans citizenship. But what people don’t realize is that we don’t have full citizenship. You can’t vote for the President of the United States, and you have no one in Congress that has voting power for you. So that automatically puts Puerto Ricans at a disadvantage, because you don’t have political power in Congress.


Second, there were a series of laws in the 1950's that allowed corporations and companies to set up shop in Puerto Rico with massive tax breaks. So you’re setting up shop, you’re working, you’re providing employment, so there’s an employment boom, but you’re not putting any money back into the island in taxes, so there’s no infrastructure investment. And when that tax break is up, all these companies packed up and left, leaving thousands and thousands of people unemployed.

When did they leave?

They started leaving in the early 2000's.

And that’s sort of when the economic downturn started, right?

Exactly, all of this is leading to the economic downturn. And the other big one that you hear a lot talked about in the media is the Jones Act, which essentially does not allow international boats to come to Puerto Rico to provide goods. And I think folks don’t understand that at this point, because of a hundred years of colonization by the U.S., not allowing Puerto Rico to have its own infrastructure around its own wealth-generating industries, 80 percent of what people consume and what people buy is imported to Puerto Rico. So the Jones Act says, countries can’t port in Puerto Rico, you must port in a U.S. port—mainly Jacksonville, Florida—and they have to switch boats to an American-owned [vessel], and then that boat can go to Puerto Rico. So what happens is that there is a double, triple tax increase on those goods that Puerto Ricans then have to pay for. So it’s a billion dollar-generating industry for the U.S. on an island that’s already economically [depressed].


So how does gender play into this? What—besides water and electricity, obviously—do women in Puerto Rico need right now? What have they needed in the past?

One of the reasons we decided to have this particular panel be about Puerto Rico, decolonization and also about women is that—you know, the Women’s March has a really important narrative around reproductive rights and the right to choose and all of these things, which is absolutely important. But we can’t talk about these things without thinking about how women and women of color around the world have been impacted. So when we talk about birth control pills, we never really talk about the fact that birth control pills were tested on Puerto Rican women for decades. Many of these women were left sterilized, at one point we had the highest sterilization rate in the world. [The doctors] specifically chose Puerto Rican women because of the narrative that Puerto Rican women and Puerto Ricans generally were less-than and not full human beings. So part of the reason we’re even having the discussion about whether we can have access to birth control pills and take them safely is because of my grandmothers and my great-grandmothers.


So there’s that piece. The other piece is that today, there’s very much a gendered violence as a result of what it means to be a colony. So when we’re thinking about the fact that Puerto Rico has the highest toxicity levels in the country—before Hurricane Maria—and it’s moms having to give toxic water to their kids. That’s a reproductive rights issue. If Puerto Rico was a state, we’d have the highest poverty rates in the country; we’d be twice as poor as Mississippi, which is the poorest state right now. So moms are not able to effectively feed their kids, and there’s also the issue of schools closing; in the past two years, over 180 public schools have been closed as a result of the decision of that fiscal control board.


As a result of the hurricane, there are also issues around health—women can’t access medical centers, there’s been an increase in c-sections since Hurricane Maria and we know that that has implications in terms of recovery rates and all those things.

I think we need to tell the full and complete story of [our country]. The same way we believe men do not own us, the United States does not own Puerto Rico, and we need to start fighting against those narratives.


So what would be an ideal outcome?

That’s a great question, and it’s a very complicated one.

Right, because there are the people who want independence, right, and then the people who want statehood...


Right. And obviously, I don’t speak for all Puerto Ricans—I did not go through Hurricane Maria, and I don’t live there; I do have family there and have been back and forth. But I think that oftentimes that conversation is not really nuanced, so you have a country that’s been taught, for a hundred years, that you wanted citizenship, that you will never be okay if you’re alone, that you will never be okay if you have autonomy and self-determination, you will sink and die. Fear is a very powerful tool. So I think one of the ways we need to begin fighting back against the violent relationship with the United States is just sharing knowledge with people everywhere, about who we really are and what are relationship is with the United States and how it has come to be.

Obviously, for me personally, the long-term outcome is the decolonization of Puerto Rico—understanding that Puerto Rico needs to be in a healthy position to be able to be a contender in the world, to have access to goods, to be able to trade with other countries. So because we’ve been depleted so much for a hundred years, it means that the U.S. is going to have to pay us reparations. Because right now, if they just pick up and leave, we wouldn’t be in a healthy position.


Short-term, and echoing what the people in Puerto Rico are asking for at this moment, is the full cancellation of the debt, and the repealing of the Jones Act. And FEMA needs to figure out ways to extend its deadlines, because all of its applications are online, and there’s no electricity on the island for people to apply.

What you were saying about people in the mainland all of a sudden paying attention to Puerto Rico, and interrogating that, is so important. And I guess if we can take this moment and make it count... 


Exactly. And I think it is a moment. It’s a moment to build coalitions. Like, what does Medicare-for-All mean when you have a colony, and the people there aren’t even at the level [of care] that folks here are at? So it’s a moment for us to continue to fight our fights, but be mindful that we have to bring in everyone during those moments, and build with them.

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.


SuckMyLeft1...part 2. (It’s a Bikini Kill song btw)

I got a clearer view of Puerto Rico and the relationship it has with the United States and it’s heartbreaking.... it seems like we take take take and never give especially in moments like this after Maria. That the women were being used as guinea pigs to test birth control on bc they were viewed as less than... also heartbreaking. I’m so disappointed in how we have dealt with this, people are dying and the president is more concerned about getting standing O’s and tweeting than taking care of his people.