The World

Empire State of Mind

It’s time for America to have a conversation about its overseas territories.

An older man stands in front of his destroyed home.
Jose Santiago poses in front of the remains of his destroyed home on Dec. 19 in Utuado, Puerto Rico. Mario Tama/Getty Images

It’s been six months since Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in September, and recovery is very much an ongoing process. Power remains spotty in Puerto Rico; the U.S. Virgin Islands are without a fully functioning hospital. Media attention has waned, though surely it will rise for a host of half-year check-ins, a fleeting spike of attention to go with the other stories that have popped in and out of the national spotlight: the still-uncounted lives lost, the resourceful citizens rebuilding local infrastructure, the spat between President Donald Trump and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, the curious case of Whitefish Energy.

These are all important, all deserving of far more attention than they received. And yet, six months on, it’s increasingly clear that we also need to peer beneath the clamor and hum of these news items and look at more elemental details. We need to grapple with the fact that those of us in the states, including our national leaders, still know almost nothing of substance about the U.S. territories. The issue occasionally crept to the fore in the days immediately following the storm, like when a poll found that nearly half of all Americans didn’t know that Puerto Ricans were American citizens, or when Trump referred to U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp as that territory’s “president.” But for the most part, it has remained subtext.

As I’ve read articles and listened to politicians and pundits argue, I’ve thought of my own travels and friends in the territories, and wondered: How many people in the states, including those with the loudest voices in these discussions, could name a single city in Puerto Rico other than San Juan? Do they know the differences between, say, Loíza and Caguas and Barranquitas? Can they list one cultural tradition of St. Thomas or a major industry, other than tourism, of St. Croix? Do they realize that Puerto Rico has poverty, yes, but also charming small towns and high-rise banking headquarters and James Beard Award–nominated restaurants and the United States’ highest concentration of Walgreens and Walmarts? Do the words jíbaro, Borinquen, lechón, or coquí mean anything to those without roots on the island? Do they know that Puerto Rico is officially a commonwealth, not a territory, and understand the differences between the two? Can they list even a few bullet points of the Insular Cases, the overtly racist set of Supreme Court rulings that provide the legal basis for American colonialism? Do they know the history of the mid-20th-century Great Migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland United States, and its cultural and political impact?

These aren’t esoteric pieces of trivia, or at least they shouldn’t be. If you can find Iowa on the map and rattle off a few facts about the state (corn, caucuses, Field of Dreams, a really big state fair), you should be able to do the same for Puerto Rico, which has a larger population. That’s especially important for leaders in Washington, given that the territories have no full-fledged congressional representation of their own, and given that a certain baseline level of knowledge is a prerequisite for sound policymaking.

This is nothing new. The five territories enter the national consciousness almost exclusively in times of adversity. Hurricanes, economic woes, North Korea’s threats to Guam; the new but already notorious casino in the Northern Mariana Islands, Tropical Storm Gita, which knocked out power and closed schools in American Samoa in early February: all worthy of coverage, but hardly the full picture. It’s the view through a kaleidoscope, composed of truths but distorted and incomplete. Absent greater context and understanding (everyday life, history, deep-rooted problems), the territories become stock images of dysfunctional exotic lands or hard-luck case studies for mainland pundits to bemoan within the framework of stateside partisan battles—in November, a Washington Post analysis found that “The mainstream media didn’t care about Puerto Rico until it became a Trump story,” and even before that, the story of the commonwealth’s debt crisis was often framed as yet another party-line Washington squabble. As I learned during the research for my book The Not-Quite States of America, the most reliable source for everyday news about these regions of America were public radio’s foreign affairs program, The World, and, for the Pacific territories, Radio New Zealand. Even in academia, there’s scant attention to the territories, barely a mention in standard U.S. history or political science textbooks.

Crucially, the way we talk about the territories—and the fact that we rarely talk about them—goes hand in hand with their colonial status. This, after all, is the very core of colonialism: treating people not as equal members of society but as abstractions, policies to be debated, problems to be solved. This isn’t unique to the territories (ask residents of Flint, Michigan, or Ferguson, Missouri, or the Navajo Nation if they think their stories are well-told), but it’s amplified in these islands; their residents are held not just in low regard but as entirely inscrutable, “foreign in a domestic sense,” as the Supreme Court put it in one of the Insular Cases.

And just as colonialism thrives on the erasure of individual stories, it also endures by masking its size, obscuring the reach of its talons. Too often, even the most nuanced discussions of Puerto Rico—like the recent hourlong special on NPR’s On the Media—fail to acknowledge the broader story of American Empire. In my own travels to the five territories, I’ve been struck not only by the bounty of their distinct cultures but by the consistency of their concerns—what can appear to be isolated matters are often the result of systemic, historic problems, part and parcel of the story of American colonialism, and need to be understood and addressed as such. Compartmentalization makes it too easy to see issues like economic turmoil, lack of voting rights, governmental mismanagement, or disaffection with being part of the USA at all as purely local matters. But the U.S. Virgin Islands were also hit hard by the hurricanes and have higher debt per capita than Puerto Rico. The Northern Mariana Islands have long struggled to find their economic footing. Guam has a growing (if still small) independence movement. And while some Puerto Ricans don’t want to be American citizens, most American Samoans truly aren’t American citizens.

The easiest way to expand and improve the conversations about the territories is simply to include them in existing discussions. We talk at length about the USA’s role in the world and American imperialism, yet even the sharpest critiques typically fail to mention the territories, which were the historic starting point for American nation-building overseas and remain America’s front lines in the Caribbean and, more importantly today, the Pacific. We talk about the legacy of British colonialism and the need to “decolonize the curriculum” of schools and colleges, all while focusing on the colonialism of other nations, not our own. We talk about the rights of detainees at Guantánamo without reckoning with fact that it’s effectively a U.S. territory, claimed from the Spanish at the same time as Guam and Puerto Rico, and that decisions made about its legal status directly apply to the everyday residents of the territories.

The territories should have a place, too, in any ongoing discussion of the nation’s complex cultural identity and who can claim to be a so-called real American. Nowhere is this question more discussed than in the territories, with their complicated relationships to mainland United States and their lives that blend familiar Americana with their own distinct traditions and cultures.

Go to Guam, where you’ll find the world’s largest Kmart, its façade imprinted with silhouettes of lattes, two-piece stone columns that formed the basis of ancient Chamorro structures. Just across Marine Corps Drive is Meskla Dos, one of the island’s many purveyors of Guamanian barbecue, which draws from the territory’s Chamorro, Japanese, and American roots. Here is the American polyglot ideal, on a plate, in a landscape, imbued in a local culture, alongside an Air Force base that embodies American empire and imperialism near and far and is a major catalyst for the island’s burgeoning independence movement.

And this, finally, is the most important reason to learn more about the U.S. territories: not out of a burdensome, eat-your-vegetables duty but because they’re as interesting and important and worthy of celebration as anywhere else in the USA. Do you have an hour or two to learn the history of Puerto Rican folk music and its interconnected African, Spanish, and Taíno roots? Would you like to see a slideshow of American Samoa’s stunning natural beauty, all jagged, jungly mountains and quiet coves, and hear how environmental and cultural stewardship work hand in hand in the territory? Pull up a chair, these are good stories, if only people in the states took a moment to pay attention. News outlets have spent the past year examining the middle America of the Midwest and Appalachia, and there’s a cottage industry of similarly focused books like Hillbilly Elegy or the forthcoming Voices From the Rust Belt. But there’s no such broad interest in the contours of present-day life in the U.S. territories, no sustained effort to give territory residents a platform to share their joys and sorrows and make their voices heard and show off their complexity and humanity.

It’s time to change that, to keep the territory residents in the spotlight, to listen to them and get to know their lives beyond headlines.

Congress needs to do its part to help the territories, starting with providing more funding for hurricane relief and listening to territory residents more. The Supreme Court should overturn the Insular Cases. And stateside Americans need to engage in the soft activism of increased awareness. Find the territories on a map. Learn their histories and how they fit into the USA’s own path to economic and military power. Read their newspapers (there are many online) and their literature: the poetry of Chamorro writer Craig Santos Perez, the graphic novel La Borinqueña, novels like Land of Love and Drowning (set in the U.S. Virgin Islands), politically charged histories like The War Against All Puerto Ricans. (Hollywood, take note: As you talk about representation on screen, consider these and other stories from the territories.) Above all, never forget that the United States is more than 50 states, that our nation is an empire.

As the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands rebuild on the ground, those of us in the states need to put in the effort to rebuild our own understanding and appreciation of the territories islands and their nearly 4 million residents. It’s only when we understand the depths of their shading and complexity that we can appreciate them on their own terms and realize what’s truly at stake when disaster does strike.