The Puerto Rican people have lived under the specter of colonial rule since Columbus landed on the island back in 1493. Since then, native Puerto Ricans have had little say in their fate, and both the Spanish and American governments have denied them sovereignty. To this day, Puerto Rico remains a territory of the United States, and its citizens have no representation in the federal government. Without a voting representative in Congress, they are American citizens who lack political representation and the right to vote during presidential elections.
Hurricane Maria's damage and devastation began a new controversial chapter in Puerto Rico's history. The island faced a harsh reality after the hurricane caused island-wide blackouts, making life difficult for many residents, while US government assistance has remained limited. President Trump has said that the storm killed no more than "six to 18" people, though Puerto Rican officials estimated the death toll to be around 3,000. According to Edwin Meléndez and Jennifer Hinojosa of Hunter College's Center for Puerto Rican Studies, more than 100,000 to 213,000 residents could flee the island each year until 2019.
Puerto Rican history is full of tragedy, not unlike Hawaii and other outlying regions. Illegal experimentation, forced sterilization, and the suppression of Puerto Rican culture have occurred throughout the island's post-Columbus history. As more Puerto Ricans become disillusioned with the island's future, a look into Puerto Rico's past may shine a light on the island's current hardships.
Before the advent of the birth control pill, one of the few effective ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies was sterilization, a permanent procedure that leaves a woman incapable of conceiving. Government-sanctioned eugenics programs have historically implemented the procedure, and the US government advocated sterilization specifically in Puerto Rico from the 1930s until the 1970s. This resulted in the complete sterilization of approximately one-third of Puerto Rico's female population - the highest rate of sterilization anywhere in the world at the time.
Many of the women were reportedly unaware that the procedure was permanent. American health department officials advocated for sterilization in rural population centers in Puerto Rico, but they allegedly provided little education on the subject. Subsequent studies showed that roughly 25% of women who had undergone sterilization later regretted the decision, and though the program was technically voluntary, many women felt coerced into the procedure, believing they could not obtain a decent job otherwise.
Since Spain ceded the island to US control in 1898, the United States has sought to transform the Puerto Rican economy, hoping to move it away from farming and more toward manufacturing. US officials in the '30s blamed the island's high poverty rate on overpopulation and aimed to solve that problem through the free eugenics program. Puerto Rican filmmaker Ana María García later tackled this subject in her powerful documentary, La Operación.
Some people view the birth control pill as a symbol of progressive feminism that has helped put reproductive choice into the hands of women everywhere. The pill's history is dark, though - researchers treated the first human test subjects more like guinea pigs than human beings. The first human trials occurred in the 1950s, when birth control was an extremely controversial topic in the United States.
To skirt the contemporary laws banning birth control, obstetrician-gynecologist John Rock and biologist Gregory Pincus decided to conduct the first human tests of their drug, Enovid, in Puerto Rico. They found their test subjects just outside San Juan in a newly constructed public housing complex whose female residents were mostly undereducated and living in extreme poverty. The researchers told the women they would receive a pill that could prevent pregnancy, but did not tell them the drug was still in its experimental stage and could cause dangerous side effects.
Around 17% of the women reported adverse side effects after taking the drug, and three women reportedly died during testing. Dismissing reports of severe side effects - even after a hospital staff member noted the adverse reactions in an official report - Pincus and Rock deemed their experiments a success.
When Columbus traveled to the Caribbean, one of the first indigenous groups he encountered was the Taíno people. The Taíno once existed throughout the region, with the island Hispaniola alone bolstering a population of approximately 3 million people. But within 50 years of European contact, approximately 85% of all Taíno throughout the Caribbean had died.
In his writings, Columbus noted the Taíno people were exceedingly generous and peaceful, describing them as "well-built" and thus "they should be good servants." He ultimately took advantage of the Taíno and forced many into slavery. Others died from exposure to European diseases such as smallpox and measles.
With European contact came the complete disruption of Taíno life. In addition to disease, famine also became pervasive. With so many farmers either dead or enslaved, crop harvests began to fail. Many Taíno people chose death over a life in servitude. Spanish explorers started taking Taíno women as wives, and at one point, roughly 40% of Spanish men in the Caribbean were married to Taíno women.
For years, scholars believed the Taíno had vanished completely. Only in the last century were scientists able to identify certain genetic markers indicating the Taíno people did not fully disappear. Many people of Caribbean descent still have traces of Taíno in their genetic makeup, and a growing trend of Taíno pride has spread through the region.
Many minority groups served in WWII, but most had to enter units segregated by race. Many reported racist behavior from the white soldiers serving alongside them. People of color often held lowly positions, and some even became involuntary test subjects, exposed to chemical weapons under the guise of patriotic service. Researchers experimented on Puerto Rican, African American, and Japanese American soldiers to determine if their race affected how they tolerated mustard gas exposure in comparison to white people, the study's control group.
One Puerto Rican veteran, Juan López Negrón, spoke to NPR about his experience during the San José Project. On one occasion, López Negrón recalled running through the jungle as military planes unleashed a payload of mustard gas directly overhead. He suffered chemical burns and a three-week fever as a result, as did every other subject of the experiment. "It took all the skin off your hands. Your hands just rotted," the veteran said.
Even 70 years later, López Negrón reported having rashes where he had suffered his worst burns. The soldiers who participated in these experiments received no additional compensation, and many had to swear to total secrecy about the testing or risk being discharged and tried in a military court. They also couldn't talk to medical professionals about the injuries, so some veterans could not receive proper treatment for their lifelong ailments.
An inscribed commendation plaque in their honor reads, "These men participated beyond the call of duty by subjecting themselves to pain, discomfort, and possible permanent injury for the advancement of research in [the] protection of our armed forces."