April 5, 2002

First Person

Beaches and Bombs — An American Daughter Embraces Puerto Rico

By Melanie Feliciano

When U.S. Navy planes resumed dropping nonexplosive bombs this week on the firing range in Vieques, I felt compelled for the first time to protest on behalf of my Puerto Rican hermanos y hermanas. Having written for Latino-focused media in the past, I wasn’t completely ignorant of the struggles between the people of Vieques and the U.S. Navy.

But I never cared.

Even when two 500-pound bombs fired off-target from a Marine jet killed a Puerto Rican civilian guard working on the range in April 1999, I was unmoved from my cozy sofa in California, eating rice and beans and watching Ricky Martin prance around on TV. It may as well have been Afghanistan or Israel or some other faraway place. Why should I care about something that was going on more than 3,000 miles away? My Puerto Rican surname wasn’t a good enough reason.

Such was my attitude when I hopped on a plane a month after 9-11. I chanced flying the emptier but friendlier skies between San Francisco and Puerto Rico because I refused to let a bunch of terrorists bust up my vacation plans. Initially, my ambition was selfish, but the trip taught me the true multi-layered complexity of terrorism, and changed my ambivalent feelings about the island of my cultural roots.

My father and mother were born in Puerto Rico, in Guayanilla and San Sebastian, respectively. Each town is small compared to the Big Apple, where they moved with their families when they were kids. That makes me a Nuyorican.

Like many Nuyoricans, I never felt particularly connected to the island. Every summer I would visit my grandparents’ farm in Fajardo, a small town that overlooks the rainforest, El Yunque. But those visits never moved me to love the island of my parents and grandparents, or to write poetry about my long-lost “isla del encanto,” like the tragic poet and playwright Miguel Pinero, who felt he had been robbed of his tropical birthright when his parents moved him to New York for “una vida mejor,” a better life.

“Better than what?” I used to ask. In between lounging on beaches and sipping from coconuts during my two-week excursion in October, I happened to take a ferry to Vieques. That’s when I understood why so many Ricans leave the island for New York. They get no respect.

Since 1941, the Navy has used two-thirds of Vieques as its personal training range. Planes drop bombs, ships hurl shells at the shore and Marines practice amphibious landings. According to those who want the Navy out, the rate of cancer in Vieques is 25 percent higher than in Puerto Rico. The drinking water is contaminated. There is a higher incidence of lupus, asthma, scleroderma, telarquia, kidney and heart disease and child mortality. Unemployment runs high and educated kids take off for college and rarely return.

Until an alternative location becomes available, the Navy’s claim to national security may prevent Bush from keeping his promise to move the Navy out by May 2003. Earlier this year, other locations were used for live-bomb exercises, including Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and Pinecastle range in Florida.

I heard various opinions about the Navy from the people of Vieques during my visit.

“Most Viequenses are not anti-Navy,” said Richard Fitz, a retired New Yorker who runs a hostel on the island. “The Navy just offered to staff our hospital, and our idiot mayor refused.

“Meanwhile,” he added, “the boat to Fajardo is filled with the elderly and children having to go for X-rays because our hospital does not have the equipment or the personnel to run it. That is a typical political injustice that we endure here. I believe that the forces behind getting rid of the Navy are big developers who can’t wait to rape our island.”

But many others — including a taxi driver who stopped at his daughter’s school to give her lunch money before taking me to the beach — said that the Navy is not only contaminating their children’s futures, but also preventing 10,000 Vie-quenses from earning the living they need to raise their families. Military control of much of the best land slows the development of agriculture or tourism, they say. Fishermen claim Navy exercises have damaged marine environments.

“Vieques Libre” signs were everywhere on the island, but I didn’t see any protesters picketing along Navy boundaries. The protest movement, which had gained worldwide attention in 1999, has lost vigor and support since Sept. 11, probably because the Navy ceased training and refocused its immediate attention on New York and Washington, D.C. I happened to visit during Vieques’ mini pax romana. Picturing it now as a bombing zone disturbs me as much as the images of the planes crashing into the World

Trade Center.

I saw an island that seemed too pristine for the kind of terror people said it was experiencing. The water was a fresh, turquoise blue. The sand slipped like powdered sugar through my fingers, the trees... (insert hackneyed description of tropical island here). But it is not pristine or untouched. Just because I couldn’t see the poisons doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Just because I couldn’t see the bombs falling Monday doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

And just because I’m 3,000 miles away no longer means I don’t care.

Feliciano (melanie@youthoutlook.org) is associate editor and webmaster for Youth Outlook (YO!), a magazine by and about Bay Area youth published by Pacific News Service.

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