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Reflections on Frank Bonilla’s Paradigm for Puerto Rican/Latino Migration, Post-Maria Disaster Capitalism, and Social Justice Agendas

by Susanne Jonas, University of California, Santa Cruz


After devastating Puerto Rico, last Fall’s Hurricane Maria—one of the world’s major events of 2017-2018—left in its wake an instance of “disaster capitalism,”* that sparked a massive new surge in migration from the Puerto Rican island to the U.S. mainland. Over 135,000 have migrated/sought refuge in the U.S. during the six months since that hurricane. Neither disaster capitalism nor migration is new to Puerto Rico with these recent events; both have been virtually structural characteristics of the island’s colonial history since 1898. The ramifications for the Puerto Rican mainland diaspora include unprecedented growth of Puerto Rican communities throughout the U.S., but with insufficient jobs and greater social justice deficits in those communities. 

No one has better captured the paradoxes of Puerto Rico’s binational plight and the accompanying migration paradigm than Nuyorican sociologist Frank Bonilla, founding director of the CUNY/Hunter College Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, known as “Centro.” In a 1992 speech (“Circuits and Cycles”), he told his audience, “My intention is to bring you to reflect on human dimensions of this process [of migration] that rarely enter into public and especially mass media treatments of migration issues, but deeply mark the experience of those who live it, and notably life in those US communities to which our people have gravitated.” 

Bonilla’s career in defining and analyzing Puerto Rican (and more generally Latino) migration is as relevant to social justice agendas today as when he and his Centro colleagues began studying it in the 1970s, publishing Labor Migration Under Capitalism some 40 years ago (1979). This 2018 moment of post-hurricane crisis is an appropriate time to remember and appreciate that path-breaking lifetime intellectual project, because of its importance as a foundational work, and because of its broad current relevance. We are right now at the apex of actual migrations/forced population displacements from venues throughout Latin America and other continents afflicted by wars, climate events, and other disasters. 

In LMC and subsequent writings, Bonilla and his colleagues demonstrated the links between Puerto Rico’s colonial history since 1898 and systemic migration. He also highlighted the social justice question of how such migration creates new disadvantaged communities on the mainland. Probing far deeper than statistics and descriptive details of the migration stream, he was mainly concerned about socio-economic inequity and the quality of life in U.S. migrant communities. 

The key contradiction for Puerto Rican migrants has been insufficient numbers of decent jobs, hence unemployment, on both the island and the mainland. Even since the 1940s beginnings of “Operation Bootstrap,” the official foreign investment-based industrialization scheme for island Puerto Rico—in reality, a scheme for low-wage labor industrialization, -- the promise of decent jobs on the island had not been fulfilled for most Puerto Ricans. Instead, “idleness” prevailed, as “Bootstrap” caused more rather than less unemployment. As poverty and joblessness increased in Puerto Rico, well over half of the population ended up depending on federal food stamps. Of those who migrated to the mainland, many ended up in communities plagued by under-employment/unemployment.

Bonilla saw the oft-hidden linkages between communities in different venues (Puerto Rico and New York, island/mainland), more recently emphasized in the “transnationalism” literature. He recognized the “restless” and “disadvantaged” nature of the Puerto Ricans’ situations on the island, living at subsistence levels, as well as the tremendous hardships and disadvantages facing them when they migrate or are forcibly displaced to the U.S.  In an unforgettable phrase, he called them “unwanted wanderers.” 

Bonilla and his colleagues also extended their pioneering work on Puerto Rican migrants into a paradigm for studying migration circuits and cycles, and the real-life social situations of almost all low-wage Latino migrant communities in the U.S., including Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean—with the exception of the politically and economically privileged from Cuban and South American. Toward this goal, during the 1980s, Centro joined forces with several other Latino Studies centers to form the Inter-University Program for Latino Research, IUPLR. Working in this consortium under Bonilla’s leadership, they broadened from the Puerto Rico focus to more broadly pan-Latino, and their research, publications, and rights advocacy became hemispheric in scope. 

This organizational expansion facilitated comparative research, which showed among other things that Puerto Rican communities have remained since the 1980s-90s among the poorest and most disadvantaged on the mainland, compared with other Latino migrant communities. They had the lowest rate of participation in the US workforce, the lowest earnings, the highest proportions of unemployment and families living in poverty – all this, despite Puerto Ricans having a measure of (second-class) US citizenship that protected them from deportation. [essay in Mel/Mel].

Returning to the present, is this likely to be the situation of the newest arrivals, the refugees from post-Maria disaster capitalism? The hurricane followed a prior decade of economic stagnation and predatory behavior by mainland-based institutions toward the island, e.g., forcing repayment of the debt. Bonilla’s students from decades ago, who now run Centro and carry forward his legacy, are studying the possible outcomes of Maria (Melendez/Hinojosa, “Estimates of Post-Hurricane Maria Exodus from Puerto Rico”), using projections by the Climate Impact Lab. Puerto Rico could lose almost half a million residents by 2019, as a consequence of systemic un/under-employment, and now also of the special conditions post-Maria, such as massive infrastructure damage. Overall, they project a possible secular, gradual depopulation phenomenon in Puerto Rico and estimate that between 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Rican residents will leave the island annually in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. As they put it, “From 2017 to 2019, we estimate that Puerto Rico may lose up to 470,335 residents or 14% of the population. In other words, Puerto Rico will lose the same population in a span of a couple of years after Hurricane Maria as the island lost during [the] prior decade of economic stagnation.” Like Centro’s other work, this study confirms that the paradigm of the late 1970s is still useful in the 21st century.

That same framework also remains relevant today for other low-wage Latinos and their communities, the product of other forced displacements and flights from disasters of other kinds. One stark example that is also very prominent today is Central American unaccompanied children and families (mothers with children) who have been seeking asylum in the U.S. at the US-Mexico border. In this case, their flight is from unprecedented post-war social violence and insecurity (from drug cartels, gangs, and organized crime rings), as well as domestic abuse against women, ingrained poverty, unemployment, and weak state institutions. In short, the paradigm is not only key to Puerto Rican migration but also strikingly relevant for understanding the dynamics and consequences of low-wage Latino migration from many different 21st century situations. 

As Bonilla wrote in a 1990 essay [in Mel/Mel], “Latinos are emerging as a living link between the socio-economic crisis in the United States and in their home countries. In both locales, they confront massive shortfalls in the capacity of market and State to provide employment and adequate income.” 

Yet, despite the constant mobility/displacement, restlessness, and other disadvantages, Bonilla was always exploring how Puerto Rican and Latino migrants might contribute to progressive social change. He spent the last years of his career developing the thesis that “Puerto Ricans and other Latinos will help change the Americas – by changing the U.S. from the inside.” This is certainly the basis for ongoing collective reflection and discussion in these troubled times, as we complete almost two decades of the 21st century.

* “disaster capitalism” – predatory/violent shock tactics used to take advantage of a major disaster to implement neoliberal policies that the population would be less likely to accept under normal circumstances; see Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine.

A former student of Frank Bonilla, Susanne Jonas taught Latin American & Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for 24 years and received a Distinguished Teaching Award. Her writing specialization is Guatemala/Central America and migration from that region. Her most recent book (co-authored with Nestor Rodriguez) is Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions (Univ. of Texas Press, 2015).

© Susanne Jonas. Published by permission in Centro Voices 24 April 2018.