Natural disasters mostly destroy, but they also generate new vocabularies that include an alphabet soup of acronyms and all sorts of technical concepts that we survivors have to quickly learn and assimilate—concepts, for instance, like “resilience.” Although many environmental scientists and planners have defined, studied, and debated the degree of resilience in Puerto Rico for years, the word has swiftly gained great popularity not only within academic circles but also in the narratives of local public officials, the gobbledygook of talking heads, and articles and stories in the press. The term’s widespread use denotes a shared desire to see in our situation a story of a people overcoming terrible, spirit-breaking hardship and reveals a tendency in us to speak with urgency about redemption and rebirth, especially after having survived two hurricanes and only barely, only now, almost a year later, emerging from a period of catastrophic recovery marked by improvisation and colonial disdain.
The word “resilience” has also been adopted almost universally among those who hold power because it allows them to refer to trauma and ongoing, incessant suffering aseptically, without apparent sentimentalism or affectation. With a single word, they can say that we have been battered and beaten but our backs have not been broken and they can tell the rest of the world that we are going to come back, “build back better,” and reverse the terrible effects of a climatological shockwave.
As planners Larry Vale and Thomas Campanella argue in the concluding chapter of their book “The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster,” narratives of resilience are politically necessary because disasters defy the competency and authority of the governments that promise to care for our lives and protect our safety. Conceiving reconstruction as a story of progress and perseverance in the face of adversity helps the state strengthen its legitimacy, especially after a devastating event that destabilizes the political and social infrastructure. The rhetoric of resilience, as the authors remind us, “is never free from politics, self-interest, or contention.” In the weeks and months after a disaster, elected governments—and ours is no exception—make efforts to encourage their citizens not to “quit,” to get back up on their feet, to move forward, move on, so as not to fall into the anguish generated by a lack of basic services and cascading failures.
Likewise, business owners want the world to know that they’re Open for Business, as their signs say loud and clear, and they do all they can to supplant the images of an island in the dark with advertising campaigns that highlight the opportunities that arise out of adversity. But not everybody gets back on their feet, or forges ahead, or Keeps Calm and Carries On. The poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed, those who constantly face and struggle against harshest shocks and stressors, are almost never those who define the official narrative of resilience. Given that situation, many collectives have raised their voices to alert us to the fact that the discourse of “comeback”—“Puerto Rico se levanta” (Puerto Rico is getting on its feet again)—serves mostly those who seek to silence the urgent calls to resist, particularly when tempers are hot and people are ready to take to the streets.
Generally financed by off-island entities who seek to exercise some degree of control and influence, campaigns focused on promoting resilience are also part of the vast catalog of approaches and ideas that circulate in the world, mostly from the Global North to the South, and form part of what theorist Anaya Roy has called “worlding practices of planning”. These practices can be understood as models of “specialized knowledge” that serve to advance solutions that will—supposedly—bring order to chaos, and that paint destroyed landscapes in the colors of hope and uplift. They are usually hawked by powerful global actors such as consulting companies, philanthropic organizations, and other multinational institutions that operate in what geographers Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore call “fast policy worlds.” The actors who circulate in these circuits of global expertise are characterized by their prescriptions of prefabricated ideas and policies and their implementation of experimental solutions in a wide range of local scenarios. Seen from that point of view, the recent turn to “resilience” is part of a long tradition of experimentation in Puerto Rico and on Puerto Ricans.
From the modernization programs that began in the 1940s—which served to test, with state corporations, the idea of exporting excess labor through migration, not to mention sterilization campaigns—to the creation of the Commonwealth (the Estado Libre Asociado, or “Free Associated State,” perhaps the most cynical mistranslation for the purposes of deluding multitudes ever recorded) in the mid-twentieth century and the recent imposition of a Financial Oversight and Management Board under the law whose acronym is (also perhaps cynically) PROMESA, Puerto Rico has served as a social and political laboratory for many global and colonial interests. Far from being truly and broadly fruitful solutions that have helped alleviate our hardships, the grand experiments carried out on the island, most of them advanced during periods of crisis, have done little to lessen poverty or counteract growing inequality and corruption.
But to return to the boom in the use of the word “resilience,” it is clear that in its name there will be attempts to impose and implement prototypes and projects thought up by the idea merchants who sail the global oceans and have recently disembarked on the island. But unlike some of their fiercest critics, I for one do not think that “resilience” is a futile or harmful idea. The long path toward the recovery and reconstruction of the island can be traveled successfully only if our communities and their residents manage to survive and bounce back after a catastrophe. During the past months, we have witnessed innovative action, stemming from a deep solidarity with those affected, by almost countless community groups and collectives who have demonstrated an impressive ability to respond to emergencies, reestablish (or reinvent) certain basic services, and create mutual-support networks, all this to substitute for the government’s inactivity, flailing in the dark, and apparent inability or incompetency. Taking these instructive experiences into account, it appears to me that resilience might help us reflect on our limits and thereby become inspired to question who and where we are, and to mobilize against the asymmetries of power, assert our rights, and even become engaged in necessary acts of resistance.
The original Spanish version of this column was published in El Nuevo Día on July 29, 2018.