Text Copyright © 1998 Maricel Jiménez Peña. All rights reserved.
On July 25 1998, the governor of Puerto Rico, Dr. Pedro Rosselló, announced to his people that he would hold a plebiscite to determine the status of the island in relation to the United States of America. Libertad Cercada looked at the face of the governor behind the T. V. screen. “He looks smaller than usual. Maybe they forgot his little stool,” she thought jokingly. She remembered the previous referendums and wondered why government officials spent so much money on votes meant to change the status quo when nothing in Puerto Rico had changed in over fifty years. “What makes them think things will be different now?” Libertad asked out loud. Little did she know at that time that the fate of her country would rest entirely in her own hands.
On July 25th 1898, the United States of America invaded Puerto Rico during the Hispano American War. They entered the island through Guánica and San Juan. Exactly one hundred years later, the fate of a people that had been forcefully determined by outsiders for five hundred years was now left in the hands of those same people who struggled to define themselves. Parties were planned; big concerts and camps. Groups became clearly distinguishable. Some gathered at Guánica to protest one hundred years of colonialism. Others met at Ponce to commemorate the ELA anniversary signed that same day of 1952. The rest reunited at El Morro to celebrate a century of living under the eagle’s wings.
Libertad sat watching Cultura Profética play their last reggae song. The smell of a burned, polyester, American flag lingered in the air. Shows of patriotism were bountiful. Each time the word “freedom” was uttered the crowd would raise their left fists in protest. Each time they lowered their hands the magic of their faith dissipated and they were faced with the knowledge that theirs was an unrealistic goal. Not enough people believed in their cause.
That night, the tide rose unexpectedly.
By the beginning of September the rules of the game had been set. The road forked into five choices. Every street corner became a political center where heated debates took place. Inside Wilson’s bar at Bosque street in Mayaguez sat a group of college students. Roberto Infante held tightly to Libertad’s hand while she ordered two Heinekens. Beside them, Laura and Javier were talking about Puerto Rico’s favorite subject.
“We have to vote for our freedom,” said Laura. “Every other option is clearly an insult to this country.”
“I don’t know,” said Javier. “I like #2. Free association sounds pretty good to me. We’re free, but not alone.”
“Oh! Please!” interrupted Libertad. “That one’s the worst. We get to do whatever we want and the States get to pay for it. It’s an insult to them because it assumes them stupid and to us because it underestimates our capacity to make it on our own. Javi, where’s your sense of pride?”
“It has nothing to do with pride,” Javier replied. “It has to do with reality. They’ll never give us our freedom and they’ll never make us a state. Either we stay the way we are now and vote for #1 or we get a bit more liberty with free association.”
“Javi’s got a point,” said Roberto. “They won’t free us or annex us, but frankly I don’t think they’ll give us free association either. Maybe the best choice is #5: None of the above.”
“Are you kidding?” Laura asked indignantly. “That choice is devoid of any meaning. Instead of defining ourselves we’d be crucifying the island. #5 is just another way of saying: ‘You choose for us.”‘
“Laura’s right. The only real choice is Freedom,” said Libertad. “Independence is the only way of assuring we get a say in our future. It is the only way to remain as a people.”
Wilson had been listening to their conversation from behind the bar and added: “It’s also the only way to make sure we fight our own wars and nobody else’s.” Everybody assented with their heads. At least that was one point in which all were in agreement. Wilson had been in the Vietnam war; an American war where many Puerto Ricans died without really knowing why. It seemed unfair to all of them to fight for a country that wouldn’t fight for them.
* * *
The Cercada family sat at their breakfast table in Río Piedras. A statehood commercial came on the television. Only the Puerto Rican flag was present. People spoke of the benefits of permanent annexation. The governor appeared assuring his people that their language, culture and flag would not be lost. A distant laughter was heard.
Mrs. Cercada frowned. “He’s lying,” she said, “but it doesn’t matter because we’re better off as the fifty-first.”
Mr. Cercada remained silent. He wasn’t certain which was the best option. He took a large sip of his coffee and looked at Libertad who began to speak.
“I don’t want to give up my flag,” she said. “It would be like renouncing my identity.”
“Of course not,” replied her mother. “Puerto Ricans in the states don’t forget their culture.”
“But their children do,” Libertad said angrily. “They forget their language, their music, dances, and customs. They become typical ‘gringos’ who speak Spanish with an American accent.”
Soon after the statehood commercial came one of the PPD, one of the leading political parties. “Puerto Rico should be respected,” said the voice from the speakers. “Vote x 5.” It remained the same everyday until the election; one commercial after the other, each promoting one of the five choices. Slowly the people began to secretly choose an option.
At midnight on September 20th 1998 Libertad walked the crowded San Sebastián street of Old San Juan. By the “plaza” a circle of people were gathered around the ghosts of Juan Emeterio Betances and Pedro Albizu Campos. They spoke about the need for independence; urging the spectators to vote for freedom. There was no other way to retain our sense of selves.
“We will condemn ourselves to extinction,” said Albizu. “Only freedom will ensure the continuation of our people.”
Libertad watched as the crowd began to spread. Only she and a limited number of young people stayed to listen. The others walked away laughing and commenting on the naiveté of the past. The next morning, those who lived by the beach found the sea at their doorstep. It wasn’t flooded from rain. The night had been clear and bright. It was as if the ocean had swallowed up the sand, reaching the streets of the coastline.
On the news there was a hurricane warning. A category 5 storm named Georges was headed straight for the island. Those who had seen the ghosts the night before thought this was part of their prophecy. The island went into panic. School and work were suspended. Supermarkets emptied out. People prepared their homes for the worst. On the night of September 21st 1998 Georges’ eye entered Puerto Rico through Humacao. One hundred miles per hour winds were felt all over. Rivers flooded. The whole island was left without electricity. Only a selected few had running water. It was chaos. Politics were suspended for two weeks, but soon after Rosselló announced that the plebiscite was still taking place. The people were in uproar. Millions of dollars needed to get the island back on its feet and he insisted on spending it on a vote that could definitely be postponed. The propaganda became stronger and more frequent.
Libertad looked at the poles in the newspaper. Statehood was ahead; only around 3% for independence. The words of Albizu echoed in her head: “We will condemn ourselves to extinction.” An incredible sense of fear took over her and she felt her heartbeat raising fast. Sweat began to trickle down her forehead, wetting her hair and face. Roberto sat beside her talking about his great-grandfather who lived in New York and did not notice her state of anxiety. He said that the old man was starting to forget about Puerto Rico. When Roberto asked him to recount some of his old stories the man could hardly remember any of them. Libertad suddenly felt faint. Perhaps she got up from the chair a little too fast. Roberto rushed to help her.
“Are you ok?” he asked.
“Yeah. I guess I need to eat something,” Libertad said looking at Roberto with a puzzled face. For some reason he looked shorter. She stood beside him with her back straight. Yes, indeed. He was at least one inch shorter. Lately everyone seemed smaller. She thought quietly that she should measure herself when she got home. Maybe she was growing.
The next morning Libertad measured herself. She was one whole inch shorter than usual. That would make Roberto two inches shorter. She wondered why everyone appeared to be shrinking. Walking out to the kitchen she heard the T. V. was on. On the news were images of the coasts of PR. All around the tides had risen twenty to fifty feet inland. Some of the once beautiful beaches had become dangerous cliffs that rose two hundred feet above the sea level. Many beach houses had disappeared consumed by the water. What Georges had left behind was now being swallowed by the ocean. Libertad realized that it wasn’t only the Puerto Ricans shrinking, but Puerto Rico itself. She turned off the T. V. and called Roberto. He was on the other line talking to his cousin from New York. When he returned her call he explained to her that the thirteen year old who had visited during the summer had phoned him asking hundreds of questions about the trip.
“I had to describe to him every single place I had taken him and even then, he still couldn’t remember,” said Roberto amazed. “When I asked him about the pictures, he said he couldn’t find them anywhere.”
“Huh,” Libertad said distracted. “Did you know we were shrinking?”
Roberto laughed. “You always come up with the weirdest stuff,” he said, “but now that you mention it I had noticed something. Maybe we’re trying to make ourselves fit. Puerto Rico is getting smaller, you know?”
Libertad remained pensive.
“Oh! Did you hear? One hundred people have been reported missing!” Roberto said casually.
“What?” Libertad’s eyes bulged out of her face and practically touched Roberto’s nose, then quickly bounced back into place.
“Its true. Didn’t you see it in the news? They’re speculating that they drowned with the growing ocean. There’s probably even more.”
Libertad felt the rising heartbeat and the sticky sweat in the palm of her hands. She wondered if her friends from Mayaguez were ok.
* * *
Two weeks before the election the caravans for propaganda became overwhelming.
Sunday, November 29th 1998 there was a statehood caravan. Millions of people drove in their cars holding both flags up in the air. They honked their horns and blocked traffic; played loud music and had a lot of fun. As they travelled along the highway around the island, huge chunks of earth suddenly caved into themselves leaving deep craters in their place. As the caravan progressed the craters became bigger and deeper until they turned into watery graves. Many canyons formed along the island.
The election committee decided to move the voting centers to the highest points in the middle of the “Cordillera Central” because the sea had increased it’s speed of consummation threefold. Already Culebra, Vieques, Luquillo, Fajardo, Ceiba„ Naguabo, Humacao, Yabucoa and Maunabo had been erased in the east side. Isabela, Aguadilla, Aguada, Rincón, Añasco, Mayagüez and Cabo Rojo had sunken in the west. What was left of Ponce were merely a couple of boulders and several remaining coastal districts were quickly being swallowed. Five hundred thousand people had disappeared. At each sunrise a new measure of the island was taken and reports of those missing were submitted. As the plebiscite approached, the numbers increased.
On December 6th 1998 a PPD caravan hit the streets. Once again, millions of people drove in their cars holding both flags up in the air. They honked their horns and blocked traffic; played loud music, and had a lot of fun.
“Vote x 5,” they yelled.
The earth chose to implode again. The pavement turned into water right from underneath the cars. Yet nobody lost their vitality. The few who survived made it around what was left of the island (approx. 65 x 25 square miles). There were only two million, seven hundred and twenty eight thousand, twelve people left. The rate of disappearance was up to two hundred thousand a day.
Libertad Cercada took what she could save from the overwhelming waters and escaped to Toro Negro with Roberto. Her parents had been consumed by the sea. They headed to the forest with a tent, a radio, and a car full of food. That night they lay for hours underneath the stars.
“What are you gonna vote for?” she asked Roberto.
“I’m not gonna vote,” he said. “I forgot to get my electors card and now it’s too late. Besides, I wouldn’t know what to vote for. We need the U. S. now more than ever. Where else are we gonna get the money to survive? We really can’t sustain ourselves this size.”
“Well, I’m gonna vote,” Libertad said emphatically. “I just don’t know what for. I agree with you, we need them, but I just can’t bear the thought of not being our own country. I wish we could be independent by ourselves,” and as she said this she noticed her clothes felt unusually loose. Beside her was the bundle of a sleeping bag. Not even one hair of Roberto’s body peaked out of it. She crept into the bag, curled up beside him, and fell asleep.
The day before the election Libertad Cercada and Roberto Infante woke up measuring more or less three feet. They heard on the radio that the only districts left were Villalba, Barranquitas, Orocovis, Jayuya, Utuado and Adjuntas. Three hundred and fifty thousand, less than four-feet-tall people were left on the island. By now those who had the chance would climb a boat or plane and leave. Thousands fled to neighboring islands and the States. Puerto Rico was slowly sinking into oblivion. From a small tower at the top of the Toro Negro peak the couple could see every coast. They decided to camp out near the voting center to avoid the occasional caving in craters.
Sunday, December 13th 1998 Puerto Rico awoke to a bright, sunny day. The earth collapsed and people ran from the edges in fright; desperate to get to the voting center. Libertad saw the edge not twenty feet from her. She shook Roberto to wake him up. They rushed to the small school where ballots were to be collected. No one had been able to vote. Libertad reached into her purse, retrieved her elector’s card and held it out to the lady at the door with a trembling hand. The lady punched a hole in it, handed her the ballot and directed her down a long corridor. Libertad looked out the window. She could see the salty abyss steadily approaching. She quickened her pace. Inside one of the classrooms she found cardboard cubicles with dark curtains for doors. She stepped inside one of them and sat down. Five options lay before her, but only one to choose. Her heart banged against her ribcage. Large drops of sweat collected on her brow. She could feel the earth shaking beneath her, shrinking more and more with every undefined breath. Barely able to stay still she read each definition. She remembered what Roberto had said: “We can’t sustain ourselves this size.” She looked at the ground. She was sitting on top of the only, long cylindrical piece of Puerto Rico left. Around her was the deep, blue sea. How could she ever make it on her own? Libertad Cercada raised the yellow #2 pencil with her right hand. The earth suddenly stopped shaking and only silence remained. Each breath she took sounded like thunder. She slowly lowered the tip to the ballot and marked an “x” under option #3 (statehood). Simultaneously, the huge boulder collapsed beneath her and disappeared into the water. No trace of Puerto Rico was left.
Text Copyright © 1998 Maricel Jiménez Peña. All rights reserved.
NOTE: This story won 3rd place on a Short Fiction English Competition in the UPR-Mayagüez in 1998. I finished it before the actual elections took place. The final choice of the Puerto Rican people was #5 – None of the above. That was on December 1998. To this day, the colonial status of PR remains unresolved.