Prof. Rosa Ficek ’03, anthropology, University of Puerto Rico at Cayey, connected Puerto Rico’s situation following Hurricane Maria to an underlying “neo-liberal” structure that links Puerto Rico to the United States in a lecture on Monday.
Ficek began her lecture by asking the audience a simple question: “Everything was destroyed. … [so we wondered,] what was taking so long?”
She argued that the federal government responded with more flexibility to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina than to Hurricane Maria because bureaucrats were much more empathetic to the plight of the mainlanders than to that of the Puerto Ricans.
“Bureaucrats often bend the rules when they are aware of the broader context and feel empathy towards those who need emergency help,” Ficek said. “[Yet,] the socially constructed difference between those in the government and those in [Puerto Rico] was too large to make that leap towards temporary institutional change.”
This empathy gap displayed in federal relief efforts is another reminder of the subtle racism Puerto Ricans face on a daily basis, according to Ficek.
“The embodied experience of surviving Maria reconstitutes Puerto Ricans as racialized colonial subjects,” she said.
When Puerto Ricans decried the ineffective federal response, U.S. officials attributed the slow relief effort to “irrational, improperly political Puerto Rican officials” who do not understand proper bureaucratic procedures.
Lacking proper federal support, Puerto Ricans turned to each other to survive the disaster, according to Ficek.
“People mobilized family and community networks, along with material objects, … [creating] improvised infrastructures that compensated, however inadequately, for what was gone,” Ficek said.
In conclusion, Ficek argued that the situation in Puerto Rico reflects the colonial power relations between Puerto Rico and the United States.
“[Conceptualizing the government’s response] as a productive assertion of colonial power … [allows us to understand] how projects of neo-liberal governance racialize bodies and devalue lives,” Ficek said.