Editor’s Note: Ed Morales (@SpanglishKid) is a journalist and lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He’s the author of the book “Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico.” The views expressed are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“Puerto Rico is [expletive] great!,” exclaims Bad Bunny in “El Apagón (The Blackout),” a song from his best-selling album, “Un Verano Sin Ti.” His edgy exuberance and irresistible rhythmic brilliance are evident, but the boasting has a protective function, one that coaxes Puerto Ricans to persevere through bad times and puts the island’s longstanding problems in the spotlight.
Last Friday, Bad Bunny released a new video for the song just as his native island was being menaced by the threat of Category 1 Hurricane Fiona, which arrived on Sunday morning, causing a general blackout, interrupting running water service for over 700,000 people and leaving dozens of inches of rain in some areas.
The video uses the constant electrical blackouts that have plagued the island as a metaphor for the decline of the quality of life in Puerto Rico, a problem many activists feel results from governmental policies of privatization, austerity budgeting, which underfunds public agencies and institutions, and incentivizing those seeking tax avoidance to set up shop on the island without contributing to the tax base. It was an edgy expression of pride, and it also featured a roughly 17-minute report from Puerto Rican independent journalist Bianca Graulau on the anti-gentrification and environmental activism in Puerto Rico.
Fiona hit almost five years to the day of 2017’s deadly and devastating Category 4 Hurricane Maria. That storm caused massive structural damage and left many residents without power or water for up to a year. Now, while power has already been restored in some parts of San Juan and the metropolitan area, the mayor of Lajas, in the hard-hit southwestern sector of the island, has estimated that it will take up to three months to restore power for residents in that town.
The recovery from Hurricane Maria, former President Donald Trump administration’s sluggish response, the earthquakes in the southern part in 2020, the economic woes from its 2015 bankruptcy, continuing governmental scandals and the fiscal austerity required by the congressionally-mandated Fiscal Oversight and Management Board have painted a bleak future for Puerto Rico’s youth. Members of all generations have been migrating to the US at record numbers, as the island has lost nearly 12% of its population in the last 10 years.
And Bad Bunny doesn’t shy away from these harsh realities. He, whose songs are performed entirely in Spanish, has skyrocketed to almost unimaginable stardom, ranking number 1 on Bloomberg’s Pop Star Power Rankings for most of 2022. On Tuesday, it was revealed Bad Bunny earned the most nominations for this year’s Latin Grammy Awards, with 10 nominations, including album of the year. His music combines various Afro-Caribbean music genres (most notably reggaetón and Latin trap) with a performative flair that favors an open expression of alternative sexuality. He often cross-dresses in his videos, and recent concerts show him featuring openly queer dancers joining him center-stage.
Yet, in an almost unprecedented way, Bad Bunny has used a platform based on an aesthetic of idyllic sun, fun, graphic sexual lyrics and sensual dance to become one of Puerto Rico’s loudest political voices. His commitment to activism, something also demonstrated by his continual outspokenness during his concert tour this summer against LUMA, a US-Canada-based consortium that took over the transmission and distribution of Puerto Rico’s electrical energy in 2021, started with an appearance at 2019 protests against former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and continues to intensify.
“We have a government that messes up our lives,” he declared at a late-July concert in San Juan. “LUMA, go to hell! It’s our country, and we’re the ones that have to take control. I believe in this generation, and I want to stay and live here in Puerto Rico with you!”
Early on in the video of “El Apagón,” independent journalist Bianca Graulau appears, explaining that although LUMA promised its service would be better than the government-run Electrical Authority, power blackouts last longer and residents have had to bear seven consecutive price increases on their bills while LUMA executives earn large sums of money. Puerto Ricans are fed up, asserts the video, and in fact there was a series of demonstrations held in late August demanding the canceling of the LUMA contract that appeared to have a similar energy to the ones in 2019.
“El Apagón” is a song that switches abruptly from a Puerto Rican bomba-like rhythm to electronic house music, as Bad Bunny declaims his pride in being both Puerto Rican and “Latino,” collaging images of Puerto Rican nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos, reggaetón rapper Tego Calderón, salsa singer Ismael Rivera and former NBA star J.J. Barea. But he leaves the video’s center stage after an extended interlude of a dancing bacchanal filmed in an abandoned railroad tunnel in western Puerto Rico, and Graulau returns for the uninterrupted 17-minute addendum.
Graulau interviewed various people who are being forced out of their homes in the neighborhood of Puerta de Tierra on the outskirts of the colonial city of Old San Juan because of real estate speculation. This land rush is partially inspired by Laws 20 and 22, which allow wealthy US citizens from one of the 50 states to reside in Puerto Rico and avoid taxes on things such as stocks, cryptocurrency and real estate.
This has led to investors turning apartments into posh housing complexes or pricey vacation rentals and the displacement of decades-long residents. Graulau also travels to the wealthy enclave of Dorado, just west of San Juan, to show how difficult it is for locals to arrive at a beachfront controlled by wealthy property owners, violating a local long-standing law that guarantees public access to all beaches.
The stories Graulau presents in her report, titled “Aquí vive gente (People live here),” are not often portrayed in the mainstream media in the US – her interview with Rafael “Tatito” Hernández, Speaker of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, in particular, implied he was an apologist for a strategy to attract Law 22 transplants. She documented that Law 22 recipients donated a combined $240,000 to the campaigns of Hernández; José Luis Dalmau, head Puerto Rico’s Senate; and Pedro Pierluisi, the governor.
Hernández tweeted Saturday morning the clip of his interview with Graulau and said, “One bad bunny telling other bad bunnies that their ears are long. Just for the record, Bad Bunny and his successful team receive the same contributory benefits from the government of P FKN R that they criticize from Laws 20/22.” Pierluisi declined to be interviewed for the video and both he and Dalmau have not commented on the matter.
By using one of investigative journalism’s most effective strategies – following the money –Graulau makes it clear why Americans should take a hard look at the relationship between the US and Puerto Rico. The problem of pay-for-play politics is one that comes up in most election campaigns and political reform movements, and the situation in Puerto Rico is no different.
In fact, it’s worse, because of the island’s colonial status, which inhibits its ability to develop a self-sustaining economy. That status is ultimately behind its $72 billion bankruptcy, which created the need for the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board in 2016 in the first place.
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Puerto Rico has a legion of problems, and with this latest setback, its recovery from the ravages of two hurricanes in five years and the fallout from the debt crisis is even uncertain. What is certain is that Puerto Ricans have an intensely strong national pride, an energy that Bad Bunny has tapped into, in part allowing him to become a universal pop figure despite stubbornly sticking to the particularities of Puerto Rican slang and the island’s troubles, hopes and dreams.
Through artists like Bad Bunny, Puerto Ricans know how creatively powerful they are, that they deserve to live their lives without constant electrical blackouts and that they want to stop being displaced and used as a tax haven and real estate playground for the ultra-rich.
“I don’t want to leave here” is the closing lyrics of “El Apagón.” “Let them go.”