Giovanni Roberto
Image via courtesy of Giovanni Roberto

People are tired of having the government of Puerto Rico lying to them. This phrase may move us into action: Only the people can save themselves!

“Only the people can save themselves” it’s a phrase that’s difficult to fathom. Millions of dollars are lost every year to corrupt schemes and in contracts awarded to friends and donors of the parties in power. And while they ask us for patience—to obey the law, to wait—our brothers die, leave the land in search of a better life, or go to bed hungry every day. They take our resources and force us to believe our duty is to save ourselves or die. 

Our people stayed home, faced with COVID-19 — for two months with a discipline worthy of the best armies. Our party-loving, hangout-loving, full-of-life people imposed on themselves a quarantine to avoid — as was repeatedly said on TV — that the health system would collapse. We believed, maybe one more time, maybe for the last time, that it was the best thing we could do. “Better not get sick so you don’t get left in there to die,” I heard someone say. “If you die they won’t even add you to the death count,” I heard someone else say. 

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We have lost faith in the government and sometimes we assume an ‘every person for themselves’ attitude that is often quite complex. There is no escape for the individual. Where in the United States would you move to when the economic depression is worldwide? What profession will you study to get out of poverty if you run into a lawyer standing in line to get a free meal? Who do you count to reconstruct the country you love, the community you grew up in, the world you’re leaving to your kids?

Perhaps that’s the toughest question: Who do we count on? Then “only the people can save themselves” takes another meaning: there’s an entire group of people, a transatlantic nation that is facing themselves more and more each time. Federal and local governments have left us to our own devices, and luckily we have found ourselves. 

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It’s just that faced with what seems to be the debacle of the world as we know it, a deep catharsis is bubbling under the surface: people are trusting small organizations more, like the one I direct, Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico. Suddenly, black people, like me, with a history of organizing protests and conflictive strikes, are as respected and admired as any white person in the establishment. Or even more, who knows. 

The keys to our collective future, without a doubt, lie in our recent past. We were a farming nation until just the other day. We know how to enjoy life, laugh, and dance like no one. Although we’re small in size, we’ve invented rhythms that have made the whole world dance. We want to be happy! We can make the world just a little bit happier!

The coordinates to arrive at that happiness, however, are found in the present. They have to do with our capacity to overcome adversity time and again, and create projects, new institutions, and ways of organizing the collective power of the people. After all, if the people are saved by the people, there will be a need to create a government for the people — so we don’t have to be saving ourselves all the time, and can be happy and live a dignified life for once and for all. 

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