A leading scholar of Caribbean anthropology, Yarimar Bonilla cemented her role as a public voice on climate change and hemispheric politics after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, in 2017. Bonilla’s ongoing research on the social landscape of trauma and disaster recovery earned her an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, in 2018. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, the Washington Post, and Jacobin, and she is a frequent guest on Democracy Now! and National Public Radio. Currently, she is a professor of Africana, Puerto Rican, and Latino studies at Hunter College and in the PhD program in anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Ryan Cecil Jobson—an anthropologist whose research explores questions of energy, extractivism, and postcolonial sovereignty in the Caribbean—spoke with Bonilla about her intellectual biography, the existential threat of climate change, and the political horizon of decolonization.
Ryan Cecil Jobson (RCJ): Your latest book, Aftershocks of Disaster (coedited with Marisol LeBrón), collects a series of essays on Puerto Rico, reflecting on the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. How did Maria personally unfold for you?
Yarimar Bonilla (YB): That month, September 2017, I had just returned to New York after over a year of fieldwork on the economic and political crisis in Puerto Rico. I was starting a fellowship that gave me a year to write. I had my outline; I had a plan; and I was ready to go. Then, immediately after I arrived, came Hurricane Irma, which was scary but not so bad. But then immediately after Irma came Maria, and it was beyond anything we could have possibly imagined.
Being in New York and so far away from my family, I felt the impotence that everyone in the diaspora experienced at the time. I decided to channel all that frustration into writing about my family’s experiences, our communication struggles, and the exasperation we in the diaspora felt as we stared at our TV screens and watched everything unfold.
That time was very distressing, not only because of the unprecedented nature of Maria’s destruction, but also because it felt like a repeat of what we saw in New Orleans after Katrina and in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. It was surreal for me as a scholar—knowing how these disaster and post-disaster processes disproportionately impact racialized and colonial populations—to watch this all play out again, this time in my own community.
So, I focused most of my energy on public scholarship and on the production of Aftershocks, which is not a traditional academic volume but an anthology of writings by not just scholars but also journalists, activists, and artists.
RCJ: In the collection, you and your coeditor, Marisol LeBrón, deploy the metaphor of the “aftershock” to highlight the pre-Maria landscape of state failure and social abandonment. This language proved especially insightful when a series of earthquakes struck the island beginning in late December 2019. What inspired your turn to the register of seismic shocks—prior to this series of earthquakes—to describe the political present in Puerto Rico, specifically?
YB: I keep stressing that the title is not a product of my clairvoyance, but of just being a good Caribbeanist. I was very influenced by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. At the time, I was a new faculty member at the University of Virginia, and I organized a lot of events with grad students there about the earthquake’s consequences and broader issues related to what I’ve now come to understand as the coloniality of disaster.
The Haitian earthquake was thus the intellectual foundation for my thinking on disasters in general. Theorizing from that experience, I’ve now come to think that the concept of aftershocks can be used to think about any disaster context. No disaster is a single event, they all carry aftershocks: those repetitive blows that are felt when state agencies fail, when disaster capitalism rolls in, when communities are displaced and trauma is compounded.
As I read more about earthquakes, I was struck by the fact that it is only in hindsight that seismologists are able to determine what is a mainshock and what is an aftershock. In Puerto Rico’s case, some might say that the main event was Hurricane Maria, but most of the casualties were not a result of the storm itself but of the infrastructural aftershocks that followed (for instance, the fact that most of the island was without electricity for nearly a year.) At the same time, those infrastructural failures were the product of earlier, colonial histories and economic shocks.
The current earthquake “swarm” in Puerto Rico pushes us to expand this framework even further. In an earthquake swarm, there is no sense of a “main event” with smaller precursors and successors. Instead, you have a jumble of seismic events of disordered magnitudes, depths, epicenters, and consequences.
I’ve thus started to think that what Puerto Rico and many of its neighbors are experiencing might best be understood as a “disaster swarm,” with hurricanes, earthquakes, debt crisis, migratory crisis, imperial violence, austerity governance, and other forms of structural and systemic violence all acting as a disordered jumble upon a collective body that cannot distinguish a main event or a discrete set of impacts.
I find that a seismological lexicon is useful for thinking about the temporality of disasters in general: the political and social contexts that shape them, the difficulty of determining when they begin and end, and how they operate as compounded crises rather than singular events.
RCJ: At the time of the storm, your fieldwork on the statehood movement was already underway. How did Maria intervene in both the political milieu in Puerto Rico and the statehood movement specifically? And how did it alter the stakes of the projects you were working on?
YB: Maria had a strong impact, ripping the veil off Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the United States—particularly for those living outside of the island, but even to some living there. But that unveiling process had been underway since 2016, with the declaration of the debt crisis, the determination that Puerto Ricans could not declare bankruptcy, and a series of Supreme Court rulings that made it patently clear that the island’s commonwealth status did not offer any measure of sovereignty.
These events had started to peel away the facade of Puerto Rico as a decolonized place. People of my generation and older were taught that in the 1950s we had been decolonized through the creation of the Commonwealth, or Estado Libre Asociado. Although there were those who questioned this notion, and there had always been an anti-colonial movement, the promise of prosperity and the escape valve created by migration had long cloaked the enduring relationships of colonialism.
People talk about how Maria ripped leaves off trees and, metaphorically, off Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the US. The storm made our vulnerability and our unequal relationship to the United States undeniable. Everyone now has to reckon with that relationship.
This really changed the stakes of my scholarship, because suddenly Puerto Rico entered US national dialogue in a different way. Normally, a huge silence surrounds US territories and US imperialism. Even the Wikipedia entry for US imperialism silences the contemporary colonies, focusing instead on US foreign policy in Latin America, the Middle East, et cetera.
The fact that the US is a contemporary empire is rarely discussed. Hurricane Maria created an opening for that conversation. Suddenly people realized, “Oh, I don’t know what the relationship is between the US and Puerto Rico. I don’t know why Puerto Ricans are treated this way.” It was really important for me to take advantage of that opening, in order to have conversations that don’t normally take place in mainstream US media.
RCJ: Do you find that Maria also unveiled the relationship between the commonwealth government and the Puerto Rican populace? We’ve seen a number of popular uprisings in Puerto Rico since the storm. First, there was the uprising that led to the governor’s resignation. More recently, we’ve seen protests surrounding the hoarding of relief supplies. How did the storm unveil that relationship?
YB: For a long time, Puerto Ricans were told we had the best of both worlds, or that we were doing the best we could, given our relationship to the United States. Although corruption scandals had always cast a shadow, there was a sense that the island’s politicians, for the most part, had the public good at heart.
Maria, and the scandals that followed, revealed the callousness of local politicians, the extent of their corruption, and how they placed their personal and financial interests above the public good.
That revelation first came from having to witness the US government’s lack of response to the storm. For centuries, Puerto Ricans were told that hurricanes were one of the reasons why we should be part of the United States, so that we could have access to FEMA assistance. That assertion was always held over us as a kind of threat. If we became independent, how would we, as a small nation, deal with something like a hurricane?
In Maria’s aftermath, we were able to see how Puerto Rico’s relationship to the US did not make a big difference in our outcomes, vis-à-vis those of Dominica, Barbuda, and other neighbors who had to deal with the same storm. This, combined with the fact that our local politicians were not stepping up to the task, generated a moment of reckoning. It has led to a reconceptualization of the very nature of politics.
RCJ: What sort of reconceptualization?
YB: In Puerto Rico, people are reinventing democratic procedures. Rather than waiting for an impeachment hearing that they don’t trust to satisfy popular demands (as we have seen in the US), they forced the governor to resign—in an unprecedented, historical move. And the protests continued.
Hurricane Maria ushered in a great deal of trauma and suffering, but it also allowed us to reassess the very nature of the political: it led us to question what we expect from our politicians and to reimagine the mechanisms for bringing about political change.
RCJ: Much of the popular commentary on the botched relief efforts or Trump’s neglect of Puerto Rico after Maria, has centered on this insistent declaration that Puerto Rico is part of the United States and that Puerto Ricans, by extension, are US citizens. Do you find statements to this effect to be useful politically or for your intellectual project as a scholar?
YB: No, I feel like those statements occlude more than they reveal, because when people say, “Oh, these are US citizens,” the implication is that they should be treated otherwise because of that designation. But the fact is that Puerto Ricans are actually second-class colonial citizens, and their citizenship is working just as intended. The limits placed on their citizenship are (as they say in the tech industry) not a bug, but a feature.
Puerto Rico was strategically placed on a separate track, as an incorporated territory that was barred from becoming a state. The category of the unincorporated territory was created precisely to bar access to the full rights and guarantees of US citizenship. I repeatedly say that when allies feel the need to assert that Puerto Ricans are US citizens, they should instead ask themselves if what really needs to be asserted is that the US is an empire. When folks feel understandably upset over how Puerto Ricans are treated, they should ask themselves: “Why does the US have territories? Why is the US an empire, and how does it continue to benefit from that reality?”
RCJ: You refer to Puerto Rico as an example of postcolonial failure. This might appear curious to folks who understand Puerto Rico to remain under colonial rule (to be “foreign to the United States in a domestic sense,” as pronounced by Justice Henry Brown in the Supreme Court’s Downes v. Bidwell decision, in 1901). So, why do you insist on framing the political present in Puerto Rico as a postcolonial failure?
YB: Across the independent Caribbean, there have been nonstop military and economic interventions that have led to the same kind of challenges and grievances as those experienced by Puerto Ricans. These challenges include an unpayable debt and a large diaspora in forced exile, which keeps growing because of the inability to make a livelihood back home.
These are some of the challenges faced across the Caribbean region as a whole. So, when we think about solutions to the impasse in Puerto Rico, we shouldn’t just offer up failed decolonization formulas. Instead, we need to completely reimagine what decolonization can look like.
In other words, we need to decolonize decolonization. We must create new decolonial visions that can address the common challenges faced by postcolonial societies, because clearly the formulas that exist today—be they constrained independence, some form of annexation, or remaining in an intermediate limbo—have only served to reproduce the inequalities of empire across and beyond the Caribbean. And again, that’s not a bug—the modernist project of decolonization has not failed, it is working as intended.
RCJ: I really like the phrase that you used, “to decolonize decolonization.” It clearly speaks to the disenchantment with so-called “flag independence,” or nominal political independence, elsewhere in the Caribbean. It strikes me that your longstanding engagement with the non-sovereign Caribbean—the territories and dependencies that have not been granted formal political independence—has been part of an effort to unsettle the exceptionalism that’s applied to particular geographies like Puerto Rico, or Guadeloupe, or Martinique. How do those particular spaces help us understand how to decolonize decolonization?
YB: In my book on labor activism in Guadeloupe, Non-Sovereign Futures, I use the term “non-sovereign” to push back against the European model of sovereignty. In using that term, I’m not suggesting that residents of the nonindependent Caribbean want to continue in a relationship of constrained sovereignty, but rather that there is a desire to think about sovereignty otherwise. I argue that we need to “unsettle sovereignty” and think beyond the imperial mode of sovereignty, where sovereignty emerges as the right to conquer, settle, and create imperial nation-states premised on inequality and exclusion.
RCJ: What would that look like?
YB: That’s the problem: we don’t know! And we won’t know until we’ve created it. But to start, we need to think about the alternatives that have emerged from the Caribbean and elsewhere—be they models of federation, such as the West Indies Federation, or different forms of entanglement that bring into question the supremacy of the modernist nation-state. I like to say that we need to think both beyond and below the nation-state; that is, we need to rethink our entanglements on a broad scale but also focus on smaller units of community governance.
Nowadays in Puerto Rico, you see a lot of people working at the community or municipality level, creating smaller sites of community care that thread together into a larger whole. This demonstrates that perhaps the nation-state is not necessarily the best container for thinking about economic and social organization.
We repeatedly see this in disaster contexts. When the federal response lags, state and city governments, as well as community organizations, step in to fill the gaps. These smaller units should not have to scramble in times of emergency but should be reinforced broadly and given the resources and ability to act swiftly—rather than being forced into coerced forms of resilience.
RCJ: The general strike of 2009 in Guadeloupe features quite prominently in Non-Sovereign Futures. I was wondering how that experience shaped your efforts to think sovereignty otherwise? Did that reorient your expectations of what a condition of non-sovereignty looks like or the political possibilities that might emerge from a condition of non-sovereignty?
YB: My dissertation was originally focused around questions of historicity and the ways in which contemporary labor activists theorize the neoliberal present through the epistemologies of slavery. That’s still very much in the book, but when the 2009 strike occurred, I had the chance to return to Guadeloupe and was really taken by the sudden creation of new concepts and new vocabularies, which my informants described as the “transcripts of the future.”
In a place where there was such a thirst for an alternative political model, where, as in Puerto Rico, only failed formulas were offered, it was revolutionary to have the chance to dream and envision something new. I was galvanized by the protestors’ ability to create new concepts, such as lyannaj, which serves as a model for an alliance or federation distinct from the nation-state, and pwofitasyon, which combines both neoliberal and postcolonial concerns.
The 2009 strike really helped me rethink political possibilities in the Caribbean, even as the book ends with a discussion of the disappointments that are inherent to moments like these. In Puerto Rico, we’re now dealing with similar feelings of disappointment after the high of the 2019 summer movement. These kinds of mass protests transform our horizons of hopes and expectations, but at the same time they lead to great disappointment when they fail to achieve everything that they have suddenly made reasonable to desire. However, it’s important to not lose sight of how significant it is to shift our goalposts, expand our expectations, and allow ourselves to entertain new hopes and dreams.
RCJ: Let’s return to the question of Puerto Rico and climate change, and the Caribbean broadly. In your first book, you describe a non-sovereign future as an effort to break free from the epistemic binds of political modernity. What do you see as the role of non-sovereign politics—political forms, as you say, both beyond and below the nation-state—in a moment that’s defined by planetary threats of anthropogenic climate change?
YB: In recent years, there has been a rising consciousness as to how global capitalism has led to the current climate crisis, but it’s important to stress that this is grounded in racial-colonial logics. The ability to claim jurisdiction and conquer territory based on ideas of civilizational hierarchy laid the groundwork for environmental destruction.
Rethinking sovereignty is thus key not only for decolonizing decolonization, but also for decolonizing our relationship to the environment—by moving beyond settler (and masculinist) logics of conquest. Although decolonization and climate change might seem like disconnected issues, they both require us to think beyond the conceptual limits of the imperial nation-state. In both instances we need to move from a logic of borders to a logic of entanglement. We thus need to think more carefully about the relationship between notions of civilizational hierarchy and of human superiority over the more-than-human world, interrogate how these logics have operated in tandem, and explore how they can be tackled in unison.
RCJ: Non-Sovereign Futures reads as quite prophetic today because of how the book refuses the fiction that sovereignty actually affords order, security, and modernity. That’s especially pressing in this moment of climate disaster, in which we actually see elite bureaucrats in the region doubling down on the normative aspiration that sovereignty can be a means of mitigating climate change and securing populations against the imminent existential threat of disaster.
YB: Yes, but at the same time we have to be very attentive to how the climate change era might be used to further undermine Caribbean sovereignty. I’m thinking of what some have described as the NGO-industrial complex, philanthropic colonialism, venture philanthropy, et cetera.
For example, in Barbuda we’re seeing attempts to revert collective land rights. More broadly, we’re seeing attempts to create purportedly resilient island-nations in ways that benefit greenwashed US corporations.
RCJ: It’s also fascinating that, in the case of Barbuda, the threat to sovereignty is being carried out both by multinational developers, particularly in the tourist industry, and by the Antigua and Barbuda prime minister himself. There are several actors that pose imminent threats to popular sovereignty in the Caribbean, including postcolonial governments themselves.
YB: Right. You have the threat to national sovereignty, but you also have the threat to the sovereignty of the people. You see this clearly in Barbuda, where Barbudans are saying, “We want collective land ownership,” and the government is saying, “No. You shouldn’t want that.” Instead, the government wants to impose a private property regime and expand the tourism industry, which they figure is what’s necessary for Antigua and Barbuda to thrive economically. What they should be doing is thinking more critically about tourism as a false promise that has never brought true prosperity to Caribbean people.
Overall, we have to be really attentive to how increasing calls for resilience and sustainability in the era of climate change can backfire. Resilience—as an ability to sustain shocks and bounce back to a previous state of affairs—might not be what we most want to cultivate at this moment. Instead of seeking resilience and trying to make our current way of life sustainable, we should perhaps be yielding to the earth’s demands and letting the climate crisis transform our entanglements—not just to the environment, but also to each other.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
Featured image: Yarimar Bonilla. Photograph courtesy of Yarimar Bonilla