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China in Puerto Rico

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Bombardment of San Juan, Porto (sic) Rico LCCN2001695573.jpg
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At the Diplomat, I have two short pieces inspired by my recent visit to Puerto Rico for the 2020 Southern Political Science Association conference. The first concerns how Chinese immigrants made their way to Puerto Rico in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As with much of the rest of the Americas, Chinese immigration in the latter half of the 19th century had an impact in the Caribbean. Chinese migration to the Americas came in response to the various economic and political crises that afflicted the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century, particularly the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion. Some 300,000 Chinese emigrated to the United States, with hundreds of thousands of others finding their way to other parts of the Americas. Historian Jose Lee Borges has extensively studied and written about Chinese immigration into Puerto Rico, a nation whose idiosyncratic history necessarily resulted in a unique experience for immigrants from China.

The second focuses on the impact that Chinese immigrants had upon the island:

Puerto Rican society adapted. Access to Wikipedia was sparse in the 19th century, and as such writers in Puerto Rico attempted to detail for readers the conditions of the Qing Empire in China, with various reports regarding its size and population. Confucian religious rituals were of great interest and occasional alarm to Puerto Rican readers. As elsewhere, Chinese migrants were associated with ancient wisdom and command of mystical arts, but also with heretical practices. Perhaps unsurprisingly, entrepreneurs took advantage of the situation to advertise based on special Chinese mystical knowledge of the latest in footwear and the best places to find fabrics and tools.

This is the third trip to PR I’ve taken in the last ten years, two of them fr conferences. This last was the first post-Maria trip, and it was clear that the hurricane and the aftermath had left behind psychological marks. The earthquake (the biggest of which hit the day before I arrived) knocked out power and brought memories of the hurricane to the fore. I had planned to make it to Guanica and Ponce, but the damage in that area made the trip impractical.

While I was in PR, a friend of mine (Dr. Shawn Williams, Associate Professor of Political Science at Campbellsville University) made the following observation:

I have always wanted to go to Puerto Rico, largely because I was curious to see what it would be like to travel to another country while not leaving the United States. The thing that struck me the most was the realization most Americans would feel more comfortable visiting San Juan, PR than visiting Somerset, KY. And that is true even considering the differences in language. I am going to have to spend some time reflecting on what it really means to be “in America”.

This got me thinking thoughts that were not particularly geared to connections between PR and East Asia (the area of coverage of the Diplomat: APAC), and rather about the relationship between the US and Puerto Rico, and between the disparate parts of the US. It feels to me that Shawn is right, and that by and large urban Americans will tend to find themselves more comfortable in a place like San Juan than a place like Somerset (population 12000), even if the former includes some complicating elements. It also seems that the converse is broadly true; Puerto Rico is overwhelmingly urban with some 94% of the population living in cities, which would make it the 3rd or 4th most urban state in the US, and Puerto Ricans who migrate stateside tend to remain in urban areas, to an extent greater (from the sparse data I can find, anyway) than migrants from, say, Mexico or Central America. “Urban,” in the United States and its territories, refers to a cluster of social and economic relationships that can vary quite a bit across localities but that share familiar, intelligible logics for their inhabitants. You may not know where are you, but you nevertheless have a sense of where you fit in. Somerset is not quite alien, but the dynamics of visiting small towns (not suburbs or exurbs), while negotiable, still have a degree of background discomfort and trepidation for an urban dweller.

But it does not seem to me that the rural-rural story would be true; I think that rural Americans visiting the rural areas of Puerto Rico would find it as, or more, alien than visiting either San Juan or urban areas in the US. Language difficulties become more acute in rural areas; the nature of the agricultural or extraction economy is different in consequential ways; the very feel of the relationship with nature is radically different (giant iguanas are freaky, man).

This makes me further wonder how much of a special case Puerto Rico represents in these terms. Rural parts of Puerto Rico are indeed special in important ways; the language and landscape are at extremes compared to the continental United States. But I wonder, for all of the political uniformity that rural American has achieved (near complete domination by the Republican Party), whether rural people from one part of the United States are more apt to feel alienated even in other rural parts of the US, to a degree greater than, say, an Angeleno visiting New York or even a New Yorker visiting Somerset. The answer to that question, I think, has significant implications for thinking about how rural areas in the United States have reacted to migration from without and from increasing urbanization within. It may also help us think more productively about the politics of the “homogenized suburb” that purports to offer the same near-urban experience to everyone, regardless of where in the US they live.



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