“The only way they can get me out of here is dead,” Victor Cruz told me. He has lived in Barrio Vietnam in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, and has withstood multiple floods, hurricanes and eviction attempts for over half a century. Over the years the displacement of people and illegal expropriation attempts by the government threatened the entire community. These constant conflicts and often violent confrontations with authorities led the residents to nickname it Barrio Vietnam after the war happening as the neighborhood was in the throws of particularly intense eviction fights.
The story of Victor Cruz is similar to that of a large part of the Puerto Rican Population in the mid-20th century. Mostly rural subsistence farming families were thrusted into urban life by an intense process of industrialization in the 40’s and 50’s heralded by Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín. These populations were incentivized to move into both town centers across the island to work for American manufacturing industries that enjoyed government tax exemptions. Faced with a lack of adequate housing upon arrival, this newly minted worker built slums often on reclaimed, landfilled mangroves or flood prone areas.
Communities such as Barrio Vietnam are crucial to understand the post-war landscape in the Island and the experience of the Puerto Rican worker and its colonial subjection. It is often cited that this period of industrialization, heralded as the “Puerto Rican economic miracle”(1), lifted Puerto Ricans out of poverty and shifted the island’s economic dependence off agriculture for the first time in its history. This newfound interest and support from the U.S. Federal government in bolstering the Puerto Rican economy should also be understood within the political context of the region and the island. Having violently crippled the Pro-Independence movement on the island which largely enjoyed support in rural communities, this economic policies was also strategy to shift the popular imagination away from colonialism and towards one of capitalist aspirations; the American Dream.
The result of this economic and ideology however was the irreversible decimation of the local agricultural economy and a mass of internally displaced persons. Eighty percent of the food consumed on the island is currently imported despite being able to grow food year round. (2) As the the last sugar cane refineries closed in 1972 the tax breaks that spurred industry also began to be phased out leaving the workers out of work as companies took closed their factories in Puerto Rico.
In the years since many of these poor working class communities began to increasingly rely solely on government subsidies that were meant as a transitional remedy after they lost their jobs in factories. Communities like Vietnam were targeted as blight, and caught in the crosshairs of eviction. The government, in conjunction with local and international developers, saw these lands they occupied and made habitable over the years as desirable, especially waterfront communities like Vietnam.
Community organization has been crucial to combat corporate interest and often forceful evictions. It is this grassroots leadership that has combated the legal attacks on property ownership in Vietnam where many residents do not have property titles despite living on the land for the over 50 years.
However, not all the residents of these communities have been able to resist the eerily familiar government promise of relocation. Victor Cruz’s home is next to two waterfront lots where his neighbors lived for decades. During a particularly intense period of eviction attempts to clear Vietnam for waterfront luxury development, residents were offered property titles for a brand new home a couple of miles inland near Vietnam. Both his neighbors took the offer and relocated to housing and apartment complexes that are now plagued by mold due to poor construction.
As Victor told me, these neighbors come almost every day before going to work to see the sunrise on the Bay of San Juan where they once lived.