Colonial Expulsion, Olympic Gold and Our Return as an Intentioned Project for Healing

by Javier Smith Torres

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The expulsion that different peoples of the world have suffered from their homelands throughout history demonstrates that Puerto Rico is not the only nation to have an important part of its people refuged outside of the national territory. Every case is the result of its particular conditions: war, genocide, slavery, hunger, ideological implements, territorial conquest, programmed displacement, the sustainability of the economic structure, political persecution… or, as is our case, the colonial condition, which has gone through stages of all of the above.

Colonialism, as Dr. Iris Zavala Martínez stated in her presentation to the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization in 2012, has produced “long standing and cumulative historical, social and psychological wounding span[ning] across generations resulting in intergenerational and historical trauma which has been associated to ungrieved losses, to the internalization of feelings of failure, and a lack of one’s own narrative.” Many of these unhealed colonial wounds appear at the intersection with migration or expulsion. Fortunately, the extensive documentation and narration of the experience of the Puerto Rican exile in the United States, and the universal experience of having lived or had family and friends “allá fuera”, has provided us a language that allows us to identify some of these wounds.

For example, there are the wounds associated with the loss of the physical nation: the loss of the connection to our ancestrality, to our family and to the geography of “nuestra tierra”, which has long been fundamental to the Puerto Rican social imaginary. There is also racism, the historical imposition of assimilation, the loss of language, communicative-symbolic differences between sides of el “charco”, the accumulation of conditions that postpone the return, feelings of abandonment and displacement and the need for our experiences and lives to be recognized or validated.

Jasmine Camacho Quinn, recent national hero, gold medalist, and daughter of a Puerto Rican who immigrated as a child to the metropolis, has recently served to visibilize some of these wounds that the colonial expelling of our people has left and that do not only affect those who leave, but also those who stay or make their lives here.

“Rematriation”, or the return to our motherland (which, unfortunately for many who may wish the contrary, continues to exist as a determined geographical location with people who still live, thrive, and create here), is a bet on healing. That has been the experience of some of us who have lived through colonial exile and, fleeing the strangulating cold, seeking to better understand the reality that is lived in our country or attempting to fulfill what we understand to be our duties, have been afforded the opportunity to repair aspects of our psyche and existence in a process of finding ourselves, finding our voice and finding our place in the world through the daily coexistence and struggle within our geographical territory.

On the other hand, individual actions in this project of return will not be enough. From the lives that left under deception and lies to another tropical archipelago at the end of the 19th Century, to the recruitment campaigns that the government and universities facilitate for the educational-military complex of the metropolis in the 21st Century, the planned expulsion that has broken so many communities, families and lives has been intentional and systematic. It will require a response that is equally intentional and systematic.

In the case of Camacho Quinn, a government that truly cared about sports, that truly believed in its people (those in Puerto Rico and those abroad), that sought to do justice or break from coloniality in its different manifestations, and that had a collective project aside from national self-sabotage —of reconstruction, healing, and reparation— might do something more than hypocritically celebrate the victory of a daughter of our people in exile.

¿How long is the list of properties repossessed by one of the principal backers of Puerto Rican olympism? How many families today are moving from house to house or awaiting an eviction notice? We want for our hero and her family what we want for every person and family living in our country: the right to decent housing, the right to live and make our future here… the right to stay and the right to return. Maybe this hypothetical government could accompany her and her family in her process of moving to Puerto Rico, of adapting to our reality, in the process of weeping what was lost in previous generations, and reconnecting. Maybe it could provide her a scholarship for her masters and doctorate degrees in our public university, emulating what we want for all.

In the midst of an invasion of speculators and people whose only nation is the accumulation of wealth, the return of people who with love and pride carry our flag and name to all corners of the globe, the return of their descendants —and the steps towards healing that this might signify—is not something that should be left to the dream of “ojalá, someday”. If we cannot do this minimum for people who today bring us glory, with enormous visibility and great symbolic importance for our people, we will never be able to tend to the needs of the anonymous, who, as the poets once wrote, “revientan en un taller” with the hope to “un largo día volver”, “waiting for the garden of Eden to open up again under a new management.” Nor will we be able to do it for the thousands of families who are, today, only a step away from being expelled from our geographical center.

Photo: by Javier Smith Torres

Javier Smith Torres is a shoemaker in formation and an activist for decolonization from a community-led perspective. He has participated in various patriotic and transformative organizations since his return to Puerto Rico in 2007.

Zavala Martínez, Iris – Intersecciones psicosociales y el trauma colonial de Puerto Rico (2012). Traducción de Olga Sanabria Dávila.

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