Colonial Vaccine Mandate on Puerto Rico Students

September: Month of so many liberation struggle commemorations in Puerto Rico and our Diaspora. In such dialogues however, I am seeing little to no mention of the vaccine mandate on students ages 12 and above, imposed in late July, just three weeks before the start of classes. Nothing about the double standard of folks resisting masks in the states, while Puerto Rican children must vaccinate to attend school. Nothing about this mandate being imposed before Pfizer was approved by the FDA. When it was a few weeks later, it was approved for ages 16 and up, but Puerto Rican children 12 to 15 were already forced to vaccinate in order to attend school. Nothing around the double standard of mandates on adolescents in Puerto Rico with the puppet governor continuously putting us at risk, opening up to tourists with lax protocols (for them). I see little mention of the stringent rules (imposed masks, imposed vaccines, and the earlier curfews, quarantine, fines, arrests even) to keep us “safe” from COVID, while continually denying medical services, medical coverage to our people and allowing visitors to do whatever they want here.

I cannot say I’ve seen all because as the mother of a twelve-year old affected by this mandate, I have had to prioritize other things over social media in the past month. In my occasional social media peeks though, I have only seen two such references coming from, not surprisingly, Vieques (gracias Dara y Monica). Vieques, who must wait years for the building of a new hospital. Vieques who has lost lives, children, while hospital-less. Vieques still hospital-less during a pandemic.

Though I know countless people that have emerged well from COVID, I have also lost loved ones to COVID, and have loved ones suffering the effects of long-term COVID. We also live with two children, and my mother, an elder, lives downstairs from us. For all these reasons we have quarantined, have not traveled, mask up everywhere and the few visitors that we have accepted into our home have mostly been hosted outside on the balcón or in el patio. Still, I was not ready to vaccinate my twelve-year-old….

Wait, they just approved it for that age group. So, what’s the difference between an 11-year-old and a 12-year-old body? Why does a few months make you eligible? My child shot up in the last year, taller than me. What about his friends that haven’t yet, that only reach his chest? Why do they all get the same dose as my big ass, abundant adult body, over twice their weight? Is this safe?

I tried to buy myself time. Time to, I don’t know, let him grow more, let me research more, feel more certain. See, if I were to have a side effect, that’s different at 46. But how does a twelve-year old navigate this for however long (since we have no clue about long-term effects) especially with children denied the body sovereignty to decide for themselves. To subject him to something he was not given authority to consent to or approve of regarding his own body, we must be certain. Gotta get it right. Then, if we give him the authority to decide and he chooses not to vaccinate, he cannot attend school, something he has been eagerly anticipating for eighteen months.

How do I let my child decide for himself when my own grown self is still researching, needing to be certain where uncertainties abound? We are uninsured in this colonial system. What if there are side effects and we can’t get the help we need? Shit, what if we get COVID and can’t get the help we need while uninsured? How do I with two children navigate these two realities: being forced to vaccinate one before we are ready, yet nervous sending my youngest to school unvaccinated? Neither option generated confidence in me, but there is a beauty to options, and a despair in debating options that don’t exist because they are being decided for you, either by your parents, or the government.

Maybe we could homeschool with the pile of schoolbooks we had already bought, but could we take that on? How would their dad and I work? How much time, activities, and funds had we already lost for all being home the past eighteen months? Having rematriated with little family close by, could our children afford another year without a school community?

Still, I wanted more time, to research more, speak with more people, get more answers, do this confidently and not feel forced and tied to a deadline. It is not about being pro or anti vax but believing wholeheartedly in the right for all to choose when ready. I tried to get an affidavit. He wasn’t eligible. No medical conditions, thankfully. Only other option was to get a signature from a pastor of a church opposed to the vaccine, but the church had to be registered with the government of Puerto Rico. We are raising our children spiritual but religion-less and would be penalized for this. The Catholic Church put out a statement saying they had nothing to do with it. Other groups exist, but as established communities, we couldn’t just float in. We would be left to our own devices. The colonial government confiscated our free will. We were left choiceless.

They day we arrived to vaccinate, I called down a million spirits to protect all the little bodies undergoing this process, whether by will or by force. But we arrived to a closing office. An impending storm canceled and closed everything. That of course left me conversing with the million spirits like, did y’all cancel this? Should we not be vaccinated? That storm and others thankfully blew past us, but unfortunately wreaked havoc elsewhere. LUMA blew out our lights anyway, repeatedly, because colonialism works in cohorts with climate change. The same colonizers and corporations that seek to control people, places, and bodies, aim at controlling nature, or destroying it.

There is another way this colonial government works. Puerto Rico with 7pm then 9 and 11pm curfews, masks mandates everywhere, quarantine, was doing ok…till Pierluisi came. Opened us up for Spring Break. Opened everything up for summer tourism when schools let out in the states and folks come piling into Puerto Rico. Essentially, he opened Puerto Rico to more contamination just in time for the mass return to school after eighteen months. Most of us didn’t even know if there would be a physical return. Or how’s about the schools still damaged from the pre-pandemic earthquake swarm? Especially after the colonial closure of five-hundred public schools pre and post hurricanes.

Our new school however assured us there would be some form of in-person schooling. Sacrificing for years to get our children into this school we could barely afford, we did the do, invested more than we should in matrícula, textbooks, supplies and uniforms. Then the mandate was announced…seen? In other words, if a family really was against the vaccine, would they have the freedom to throw away all those funds, books, uniforms? Not to mention that a real COVID protocol was not stipulated to parents until days before classes started via a virtual open house. A mandate is a mandate is a mandate. Mandates are not announced with anticipation. They aren’t meant to be convenient, nor to ease you in comfortably. They arrive when least expected and when you are least able to resist. This mandate was an assault on my lower three chakras, on top of our collective tempest/ seismic/ blackouts/ pandemic PTSD. Lived the month of August on the edge of my seat, barking and growling at anyone who came close to me and my babies.

Though our little neighbor starting Kindergarten was too young to vaccinate, her mother got a call the night before school started to inform them that in-person school was canceled due to infection rates in our community. She already had her uniforms and bookbag. She was already prepared and excited for this new milestone and was crushed the night before. We straddle the fine line of needing to get back to work, our children back to community, to socializing (the backbone of their learning), while simultaneously fearing for their health. While storm threats, austerity, and the fleeting state of electricity simultaneously leaves us anxious, vulnerable, down on immunity. Puerto Rico deals with inflated, disproportionate numbers of illnesses, cancer to diabetes, to hypertension and heart disease. We are told we must vaccinate to stay safe. But we weren’t worth saving when this puppet governor opened us up for tourism. And when the last puppet governor tried to close our airports and docks, she was reminded that Puerto Rico as a colony, has no jurisdiction over such things. We are US federal property. We are also a colonial anomaly, challenging mainstream media hype—high vaccine rates, universal mask mandates, yet ranking high in infection rates. WTF?!

We want to keep safe during this pandemic but the hypocritical practices of the colonial government imposing one thing for our supposed well-being while simultaneously denying us other basic needs must not ever be overlooked. Colonialism has long been waged on our bodies and on the environment. Like LUMA and the implications of studying and getting a good night’s rest before school when you’ve spent consecutive days and nights without light, without a fan to sleep cool amidst incessant Sahara dust heat. Sustained Saharan dust clouds assert the increasing heat of this Earth but help us dodge storms that somehow make it up to the empire, striking floods in unsuspecting places, asserting that climate-change does exist, alerting those who aid in it.

Across the colony and the empire, vaccination is sold as the only solution, even when stress-inducing fear tactics, escalating racial violence, climate change and continued assaults on reproductive rights have the power to suppress our immunity. Very little emphasis is placed on wellness, on building and maintaining the strength and health of our minds and bodies. To add another complicated layer, this vaccine is not received gently by all bodies. We have all been told of the potential impact of a second dose. I’ve heard of effects ranging from a day to a week. But as many demand that all be vaccinated, even shaming those who do not, please make room in your hearts for the vaccinated who are battling through continued adverse effects. Who feel alone and silenced with little medical and emotional support as we tried to protect ourselves and our families from COVID, but ended up with other symptoms. As doctors and society preach that such symptoms are chump change compared to COVID, so we are told to shut up and suck it up. Nothing is black and white. Between “vaccinate or die,” who advocates for wellness, for the right to a dignified life? 

Let’s offer broad, loving compassion for the diversity of experiences across this planet. I recognize that for however deep my rage against such a fast mandate on children, there are children in other parts desperately needing such a vaccine being hoarded by the first world. Still, I must question the colony of the first world and why we are the only ones mandated to vaccinate all school children (above 12 for now). Why hasn’t the first world, who hoards these vaccines, administered them to all their children first? Why is Puerto Rico the only place to mandate this age group? Why is Europe not imposing vaccines on 12 to 15 year olds? The UK has recommended not vaccinating twelve to fifteen year olds. In Sweden this age group is only eligible under special conditions. Are our children in Puerto Rico the colonial control group again? Bodies pricked, probed, and studied to see what happens? When it is approved for children below 12, will the colonial government order us to go out the next day and vaccinate them?

The past weeks since the announcement of this mandate have taken every inch of my brain, every cell in my body, every molecule of spirit vapor to navigate. Shit today, here, and everywhere, comes down to survival when compassion runs thin across humanity. I went silent. Stayed off social media for all the shaming shoved at folks asking questions. For the shaming of those not vaccinating. For the shaming of those vaccinating. The world has gone fucking crazy. So, waving “my freak flag high,” I must surface to raise these questions. I must surface to state that when considering colonialism in Puerto Rico, on reservations, in Palestine, in Afghanistan, and in Texas, we must go beyond politics to get at the root of the mechanisms in place—mechanisms aimed at the body, spirit and psyche—that bring about a daily paralysis, a speechlessness and powerlessness that seem insurmountable. They aren’t, but seems like it be’s that way sometimes.

Brooklyn-born and raised, Yasmín Hernández rematriated to her ancestral homeland of Borikén in 2014.  For almost three decades, her practice as an artist, writer, activist has been centered on these islands, our suppressed histories, our healing, and liberation. She shares her art at  yasminhernandezart.com and chronicles the journey home at rematriatingboriken.com .

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