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Vieques, Puerto Rico: DC’s Cousin to the South

October 13, 2017
Vieques - Saturday at the Beach

Vieques – Saturday at the Beach

In Vieques, the horses were everywhere. They stood alongside the road and in it. They posed in grassy fields and chilled on overgrown paths to the beach. I was told the animals were a mix of wild ones and those owned by someone. For the most part, I couldn’t tell which was which. Just because a horse might be standing behind a fence and eyeing me meant nothing — I had gone past lots of open gates. The only Vieques horses I was sure were domesticated were the saddle-free animals that kids galloped down the street. It was quite a sight.

Vieques Horse on Beach Path

Don’t mind me. Just hanging out here.

The Vieques life seemed like a pretty good one for a horse. At least, it was in August 2017 before the hurricanes, which I imagine killed most of them. So much has changed since I visited. But for a week in August 2017, I was on vacation in Vieques, and I felt at home. What I mean is I felt at home if home also had beautiful oceanside beaches where the extended family goes on the weekend to stand in waist-deep water goofing around and drinking beer — think: Hains Point before Maryland absconded with The Awakening sculpture. (No, I will not let that go.)

In Vieques, which is eight miles from Puerto Rico’s big island, I stayed at the amazing Hacienda Tamarindo and explored the surroundings by Jeep and on foot. I soon realized that despite being in the Caribbean, Vieques is more like Washington D.C. than any place I have ever visited. The parallels might not be obvious, but consider the following:

 

The horses of Vieques and the squirrels of D.C fill the same psychological niche. Both are everywhere, and visitors love them. Horses fill the ground with processed-grass surprises just like squirrels decorate D.C. with the innards of trash bags. Yet we all still love the local wildlife. And possibly fear them.

Vieques Dinner at Hortas BBQ

Vieques Dinner at Hortas BBQ

Tourists with vehicles get the same advice in D.C. as in Vieques: don’t leave valuables in your car. In D.C., we point out the gutter glitter of broken window glass. In Vieques, they take it a step further and tell you not to bother locking your vehicle at all. A locked car door is just a giveaway that you have something inside worth stealing. The Jeep rental staff said there was no way someone would steal a vehicle on Vieques. A car can’t be driven off the island without the ferry driver knowing it was stolen.

Some people might worry about visiting Vieques. Me? I felt at home. The idea of doing an effective end-run around criminals warmed the cockles of my city heart.

But the similarities weren’t all equestrian ordure and parking with the windows rolled down. In D.C. and in Vieques, we both love our big old trees. Southwest D.C. has a 200-year-old Japanese elm tree (zelkova serrata) we like to make a big deal out of. Or at least, I am guaranteed to go on and on about it and demand visitors acknowledge the tree’s awesomeness. An arborist saved the zelkova in the 1950s when Southwest was leveled ahead of “urban renewal.” Vieques has a 300-year old Ceiba (ceiba pentandra) and a surrounding park that’s gotten a large dose of local love and attention, too. During vacation, the gigantic Ceiba was a must-see for me.

Vieques Cieba Tree

Vieques Cieba Tree, August 2017

So, very quickly, Vieques felt familiar. But I didn’t understand exactly why until a few days into the trip when I went to the island’s Fort Count Mirasol. The fort contained a local museum and an art gallery with pieces born of the same creativity I’ve seen on display at the Blind Whino’s gallery in Southwest D.C.

 

Though I was intrigued by the art above, it was the rest of the museum that finally helped me understand why I felt so at home on the island. I saw not only art pieces but also numerous displays about the 50+ years of bomb testing the U.S. Navy conducted on  Vieques. I learned how the Viequenses were forced off their farms and how the they were fighting to right the wrong of Navy-led environmental pollution on the island.

 

I connected what I saw in the museum to what I’d been told by people around the island. I’d heard complaints about the harms of the Jones Act. People had expressed reluctance to grow their own food. Islanders were saddened and disturbed by the  inaccessibility of so much of Vieques. Even the kindness of the people took on a new dimension. The Viequenses might have been fundamentally nice people, but they needed my tourist dollars. Everything had clicked into place.

The people of Vieques have no representation in Congress. Just like Washington, D.C.

Vieques Stop Affecting Our World

Protest Sign On a Vieques Pier

Because of the lack of representation, the National government does things to Vieques that otherwise would not be permitted. On the flip side, the National government fails to do things for Vieques that the National government should be doing. The continued lack of representation means that when the courts say only Congress can help the Viequenses, that effectively means no one with a Congressional vote can be counted on to put Vieques (or Puerto Rico) first. National-level laws and regulations designed solely for Puerto Rico and Vieques will not be crafted in consultation with its people. This happens all the time in D.C., like when politicians representing rural states mess with D.C.’s gun laws or when our mayor has to fight with the Congress to be allowed to spend local money raised from D.C. taxpayers in order to keep the city running when the National government shuts down. Suffice it to say I suddenly understood why I felt such a kinship with Vieques.

This brings me to Vieques post-Hurricane Maria. Here’s what the Ceiba tree looked like in September 2017. It’s a fitting summary for what happened on the rest of the island and quite a contrast to the picture above from August 2017.

Ceiba Tree, Photo by Elliot Anderson via thelily.com

Ceiba Tree, September 2017, Photo Copyright Elliot Anderson via TheLily.com*

The Ceiba tree that stood for 300 years will probably recover. The people who live on  Vieques may not. They weren’t treated well in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes. For the first two post-hurricane weeks, private, crowd-funded assistance was more important to people’s survival than the National government, which was largely absent. I donated to ViequesLove to help get assistance moving to the island that grew close to my heart so quickly. As of mid-October 2017, that GoFundMe was still taking in money and providing assistance.

After the Federal government shutdown debacle in 2013, I became a firm supporter of D.C. statehood. Now, I think Puerto Rico should be a state, too. The U.S. flag would look great with 52 stars. The people of D.C. and their spiritual cousins in Puerto Rico should get voting representation in Congress. The world would be a better place for it.

*Elliott Anderson’s photo of the Ceiba tree can be found via an article on TheLily.com here and as a related image here.

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