top view of plaid field and ocean

Written by: Alison Chopel

So much of history describes the violent separation of people from land. There is the recurring story of people who arrive from outside with money and weapons to force people to change the way they use their land to nourish their own bodies. There is the recurring story of people who arrive from outside and rip the people from the land they steward by killing them all or making life so hard that they flee. There is the recurring story of people who arrive from outside to kidnap people from their homes, and forcibly steal or exploit their labor in a way that is harmful to themselves and their communities.

Each of these  strategies were, and often still are, used to satisfy the desires of some groups, while stomping an essential human need of others: the need to connect to and live from land. The Wellbeing Economy is a set of strategies that guide us to discover ways to support the fundamental needs of all people, rather than the desires of a few at the expense of many. And the Wellbeing Economy (WE) also offers a different kind of story, one that many of us believe wholeheartedly and seek to spread. The Wellbeing Economy story is that there is enough for all of us. The challenge is: how do we relegate to memory the destructive stories of the past and open space for a different story?

The histories of my ancestors are full of these terrifying stories. My parents were both born and raised in California because their ancestors crossed the sea to escape from story #1 (Irish potato famine) and story #2 (the holocaust).  

I was born in Colorado, an ongoing stage for story #2. I learned it in history class, and I learned it from Native friends who told me about how they missed the Ghost Dance, since it was now forbidden and called “of the devil.” My child’s other parent survived story #2, fleeing persecution of Tibetans in China, only to kill himself slowly in a foreign land, drinking away the pain of missing the air, the mountainous horizon, and the spring flower blossoms that were only visible in his home steppes on the roof of the world. When we met, I had also fled my homeland. I also expected to never again breathe the dry Colorado mountain air or look upon the snow capped peaks to find my West. But my story was not history, it was understood as an individual, isolated case–the personal childhood traumas that drove me from Colorado. When I moved to California, where my parents were born, I experienced displacement on a personal level (in a place where gentrification was happening on a collective level), as my child and I were evicted year after year from rental homes by landlords greedy for profits. 

My current partner was born in the southernmost tip of the US, a place that had been called Mexico a few generations prior, to people whose grandparents had suffered story #3. As a Black man from the South, he is a refugee from both personal and collective pain. He’ll never again live in his “homeland” of Texas because of racism and violence. So, we set out to find our new home together. And we landed in a place where all these stories were staged with grotesque cruelty. A place where they were not confined to history (though, in reality, that’s most of the inhabited earth these days). A place where outsider status brought us peace, and alienation. Where we experience the complex mix of acceptance and welcoming, deeply aware that the government that claims to represent us both is actively, and hypocritically, oppressing our neighbors, colleagues, friends. 

Here, in Borinkén, named Puerto Rico by the Spanish conquerors (Rich Port– to give their intentions away), the Taíno people were murdered en masse or made to flee (story #2) and then erased even further by lying history lessons that taught that they left no descendants on the face of the earth. Here, in Borinkén, stolen African people were made to labor in sugar mills, worked so brutally that slavers calculated it was cheaper to kidnap and transport more people across the ocean than to invest in the health of the enslaved bodies to enable them to reproduce (story #3). In my very neighborhood, formerly enslaved people who successfully liberated themselves created a free community with each other and the crabs who had made home among the mangroves for millennia and nourished the peace-seekers while they hid.  

Here, in Borinkén, the next generations of people whose ancestors were the villains and the victims and the bystanders in those stories, people who called themselves Jíbaras and Jíbaros, were made to stop cultivating the earth for their own sustenance and come into factories where their labor could create profit for people who they would never know (story #1). This was called Operation Bootstrap, an industrialization policy that solidified dependence on the abuser/occupier/colonizer. Now, the people of Puerto Rico receive 85-90% of their food from outside, arriving to us after being packed on ships for days, losing a little bit of life with each moment. And for the past decade, austerity measures and laws such as Acts 20/22/60 attract tax evaders who use their ill-gotten capital to displace people whose families have lived here for generations and rob them of access to natural resources. 

As an outsider, who shares some identities with these people, I asked myself, what should I do? What can I do? First, I took stock of those shared identities. I am American, English-speaking, white. I am not, however, an expat. The identity of expat centers the place left behind. Expats stick together, they work to re-create their homeland in a new place, they cling to its virtues, are blind to its exploitations and are forever apart from their new home. My partner and I instead identify as immigrants. We migrated in to this place. We seek to learn its culture, to know its land, to connect to its people, to contribute to it, to respect and protect its ecosystems, while recognizing our relative insignificance.

It’s complicated, but not that much more complicated than the Puerto Rican identity. One of the most iconic images across Puerto Rico is that of the Three Kings. The Three Kings represent the tri-continental ancestral identity (African, American, European) that many Puerto Ricans wear with pride. They claim among their ancestors the murderers and the murdered, the exploiters and the exploited, the abusers and the abused. The truth is, most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, should do the same. But because the myth that skin color can tell me everything I need to know about a person is so pervasive in the States, most of us simplify our ancestral identities into a tidy little lie. 

Second, I reflect on my part in these stories. This requires me to first recognize how they are playing out now–not just in history. I try not to create displacement (my apartment was vacant for years before we bought it, in a neighborhood with high levels of vacancy). I try not to re-create economic inequities (work for less than I did elsewhere, seeking parity, adjust budgets when I can, bringing co-workers’ remuneration up). I resist the temptation to hold onto outsider privileges (relinquished my ability to vote for US president or congressional representatives in favor of voting for local Puerto Rican offices) and adjusted my diet so that I am consuming locally-grown food even when it means less variety.

I also listen to people around me and work to drip my beads of sweat onto the side of the scale that tips toward connection and away from the violent, brutal wrestling people from their homelands. I do this in partnership and relationship with local leaders, humbly following where elsewhere I might have led.

Now, this is hard, and it’s confusing, and I often get a little bit stuck. But here’s what I’m thinking so far:

  • Maybe I can help re-write story #1 as the story of reclaiming the relationship between land, the people who live on it, and how it is cared for and nourished to in turn nourish the bodies of the people who care for it. I support the authors of that story instead of those who want to pave over the island or turn it into wellness retreats for Americans or private playgrounds for visitors. Those authors are the farmers without land or capital, and those who support them, such as Fideicomiso de Tierras Comunitarias para la Agricultura Sostenible (Community Land Trust for Sustainable Agriculture) and Organización Boricuá (archipelago-wide network of agroecological farmers).
  • Maybe I can help rewrite story #2 as the story of strengthening the power of people to stay in their homes and shape their neighborhoods. The authors of that story are people who are rescuing buildings and lots that have been abandoned as worthless in the pursuit of capital and turning them into livable, workable, playable community spaces that meet the needs of people who live around them like Centro para la Reconstrucción del Hábitat. People like my late, great teacher of Plena and Bomba, Tito Matos, who together with his partner and his community rescued an abandoned school and turned it into a celebration of arts, culture, healing and gardening. People like the fierce advocates and community leaders of FURIA (firm, united and resilient with advocacy), and La Liga de Ciudades de Puerto Rico who are taking power by pushing community members into decision-making spaces. Instead of just shaking my head and wagging my finger at outsiders who come in with mountains of capital and wield it like a weapon, maybe I can help direct it toward their community members, the people who have a history of co-creating the communities and cultures that make this place sing, the people who have inherited knowledge from their ancestors of how to cultivate and steward the ancient ecosystems of this beautiful archipelago, so that they are making the decisions about what kinds of businesses and buildings to bolster with resources.
  • Maybe, just maybe, I can help rewrite story #3 as the story of people who collaborate to meet needs as worker-owners, who negotiate their income upon the value of products and services to customers and clients, who share profits only with colleagues and loved ones as they choose, and thus inoculate themselves from exploitation by people far away from them. Maybe there are examples of how to do this, or resources to support such work, like non-extractive capital loan funds for cooperative businesses such as Seed Commons, Our Power Loan Fund, or Ground Cover. Or there are examples right here, like the collective of residents from eight low-income communities in el Caño Martín Peña who now own their land through a trust and recently received $163 million to restore their homeland.

Those old stories, of people who arrive from outside to cause starvation and poverty, evict and displace locals, exploit and wring the lifeblood from people, are exalted in history as momentous, as warnings, and as turning points. I suspect that there are multitudes of stories of people who moved from one place to another and who brought something of value, or simply connected and joined and contributed to their new homes. These stories did not make it into the history books because they did not cause mass suffering, upheaval, or pain. I strive for my story, the story of an immigrant to Puerto Rico, to be one of those stories. That’s why I don’t want to make history.

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