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Let them eat Paper Towels, or, Puerto Rico: Cry the Beloved Country

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

“We were waist dig in the big muddy.
The big fool says to push on.” — Pete Seeger

“How fragile we are.” — Willie Colon, covering Sting

For Anyta Soto-Canino

In his Puerto Rico fly-by Wednesday, to a people 93 percent of whom were still without electricity more than two weeks after the storm hit, and 50 percent of whom were without water, and where the mayor of whose capital city had just pleaded, “We’re dying,” Donald Trump threw paper towels.

To neighboring countries who might have offered more appropriate solace, Trump has essentially said Fuck you, and Fuck Puerto Rico, by refusing to lift the Jones Act, a hundred-year old law which gives American corporations an exception to the RICO Act, in other words exclusive access to the Puerto Rican market, which translates as more expensive groceries, prohibiting foreign ships, even from neighboring countries and even during natural catastrophes, access to the island.

The alleged president of the United States is treating Puerto Rico — whose people are American citizens — like he’d treat (which is not to say this is right) a Third World Banana Republic which exists solely for the benefit and profits of Chiquita Banana.

If you’ve spent any time in New York, you know that Gotham denizens of Puerto Rican origin, much as they, rightly, prize their Island identity — and notwithstanding their embarrassing portrayal by Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins in “West-Side Story,” which forced Nathalie Wood to pass by darkening her skin — are as integral to its fabric as Crown Heights African-Americans, Bensonhurst Italians, Greenpoint Polish, and Williamsburg Jews. (Puerto Ricans actually have as much claim to the Brooklyn shtetl as Hasidics.)

Whenever I’ve lived in New York, I’ve spent as much time searching for and savoring the Puerto Rican delicacy of Mofongo (Plaintains and Pork principally) as the Jewish savory Kischka (chicken fat and… chicken fat).

During one of the first times I visited New York, as a high school junior participating in a national State Department-sponsored delegation to Israel, one of my best friends was a young man of Puerto Rican origin from Coney Island named Julio… whose accent was above all that of a quintessential New Yorker. (Me and Julio, down by the schoolyard.)

In other words, these aren’t just Americans, these are Donald Trump’s people.

When I DJ’d the marriage of a choreographer friend of Jewish extraction, it was at the Clemente Soto Velez Center, a former synagogue in the Lower East Side (where my people first settled in America) named after, as it happens, the grandfather of a classmate from Princeton, Anyta Soto-Canino, who was a famous Puerto Rican rebel poet.

Anyta has dubbed the cactus-infused deck of her flat in the putatively Jewish town of Highland Park, New Jersey, outside of New Brunswick, the beach, la Playa, so that a reminder of her native state, of where she came from, is always accessible.

And now these American citizens are being treated like dirt, like residents of a plantation. A plantation where we military tested an area, Viacas, to the point where we had to make it a Superfund toxic clean-up site (a nomination normally reserved for New Jersey territories that I thought went out with Brendan Byrne), and now are ready to toss into the sea.

We thought it hit bottom with Katrina.

We were wrong.

If this isn’t grounds for impeachment, I don’t know what is.