Rosa Alicia Clemente is a community organizer, independent journalist, and hip-hop activist. She spoke with us on the urgency of aid to Puerto Rico and what rebuilding differently looks like.
Laura Flanders:You're just back. You got back literally this morning as we're speaking. What's on the top of your mind that people need to understand about what's going on there?
Rosa Clemente:That every day people are dying from lack of water, and sometimes the movements and organizations and progressive, well-meaning folks want to talk about the next step, but there is no next step. Water is truly life, and the adage given to us by our indigenous brothers and sisters has never felt so intensely immediate in Puerto Rico right now.
Laura Flanders:We're talking four weeks? After--
Rosa Clemente:Four weeks as of today.
Laura Flanders:So here's the reality check part. You and I talked before you went, and I said, "If we go, we want to talk about rebuilding different."
Laura Flanders:You can't rebuild different if people are hungry and thirsty.
Laura Flanders:And don't have the basics. So you're a rebuild different person.
Laura Flanders:You're an independista going back long time. What do you make of the situation? How do we move forward and not just be begging for crumbs, the same old crumbs, probably from the same old people, who have their sights set on taking over the island?
Rosa Clemente:Yeah, I don't think we could even think about that right at the moment in Puerto Rico. I mean, everyone we talk to said, "Forget about all you United States people talking about cancel the debt, the Jones Act, where Puerto Rico's going to be in a week." The everyday, normal life of a Puerto Rican now exists of always standing on lines for everything. You don't get more than $200 on an ATM. The unemployment rate's going to hit 80 percent. 80 percent of people will not have jobs. There are no jobs.
Laura Flanders:Although there could be obviously.
Rosa Clemente:People are now, before Irma, without paychecks. Remember, people were without electricity before Irma. All the electricians we spoke to said, "There's no way this grid is built in six months." People might be without power for a year. Schools will probably shut down for a year. Colleges are not reopening. Unless movements are ready to get on the ground right now and deal with the immediate, there is no future for Puerto Rico. Not saying that Puerto Ricans don't want a future, but again you don't have water, power. People line up at the airport to text message. There's no form of communication on that island.
Laura Flanders:So how are people responding? You did talk to grassroots groups who were the first responders.
Laura Flanders:And who are responding in a way that the privatizers aren't. Talk about the works of some of the groups that you studied.
Rosa Clemente:Doing for self, everybody, one thing Puerto Ricans said is that they haven't felt a sense of community like this in a very, very long time. So from the young people, if they're not in school, they're in the streets with machetes, cutting down trees. From the comedidas, which are the food kitchens that are now becoming political education hubs. I mean, I was impressed is not the word. I was overwhelmed with this anger and sadness but then, we're doing everything on our own, for people who for a long time said that Puerto Ricans, or they have the feeling that my Puerto Ricans can't function without the US government, the US government doesn't exist in Puerto Rico except to occupy and privatize. So they are doing it, whether it's stringing up light from one power source, whether it's one generating a car in a whole community, using that, whether it's finding where FEMA's at and demanding boxes of food, they're doing it. We went to Luisa, which is the African-descended part of the island. So they've already been sort of marginalized, but to see the amount of, many Haitians and Dominicans that have migrated to Puerto Rico, people say they were the first one within 12 hours, bringing back the carts with a little bit of fruit left, dividing it, making counts of houses like how many kids are there, how do we divide this food. So I think the people in Puerto Rico who can continue to be the organizers and the voice that shows the empowerment of the people of Puerto Rico are very clear this is complete self-determination. But what I don't want to happen is that as we uplift self-determination, we get into this discussion, especially around Puerto Ricans, about how resilient people are.
Rosa Clemente:People shouldn't have to be resilient to 1,000 levels to have water, and I think that messaging is almost dangerous because part of what's happened in Puerto Rico too is already people are becoming accustomed to something that should not be normal. So you'll hear especially a lot of older Puerto Ricans say, "Well, what are we going to do? It is what it is. That's the new life." No, that shouldn't be the new life.
Laura Flanders:What should we all do next? What should we do?
Rosa Clemente:I think people need to go on delegations that are led by Puerto Ricans here and the United States with connections to Puerto Ricans on the ground and literally get to work. People have to go down there with the mind of I'm following the leadership, and at this present moment, it's not just witnessing and writing, but get to work. Then for those who do the public policy, the research, yes, go down there, but don't be exploitative of the conditions of the people. I think that's possible if people keep hearing the message and the work that we're putting out with PR on the map. I'm going back down there at the end of November. I mean, on a very personal level, I won't be finishing my dissertation this year, and it was a hard decision to come to because I should be graduating in May, and I said, "I can't." That's it. The minute I'm done with my string of gigs in November, I'm taking all that money and I'm posting in Puerto Rico for six to seven weeks. It's my people. It's my island. I can't have Puerto Rico not, I can't have my daughter, Alicia, not have a Puerto Rico to go to. When I left yesterday, I wanted to go in the ocean, and we can't go in the ocean because of all the potential chemicals. Imagine you've been going there all your life to the island, your homeland, and there's signs saying do not go in the water. It was devastating, yeah. [Emotional] So we have to make sure that what people mostly do is understand that for a long time, for over 119 years, Hurricane America has extracted from our people. They want to extract the people. They want a Puerto Rico without Puerto Ricans for a playground, and a lot more people are going to die if people here don't use every means necessary to front and center Puerto Rico on a daily basis.