Over the years, while writing about AIDS politics in my monthly column for A & U Magazine, I've often covered public-health uproars in Puerto Rico. Few non-Hispanic Americans give a moment's thought to Puerto Rico, unless they happen to disembark in San Juan for a nice day of tourism during a Caribbean cruise. They think of Puerto Rico as "that quaint little Spanish-speaking country that is somehow attached to the U.S." Before 9/11, most Americans ignored Puerto Rican protests over U.S. military use of Vieques as a bombing range, even though the U.S. government's harsh treatment of protesters (including U.S. Congresspeople who were arrested) signaled a pre-9/11 trend towards denial of civil liberties.
Puerto Ricans have reacted to Yanqui indifference and condescension by feeling ambivalent about their relationship to the U.S. In their 1998 election relating to Puerto Rico's status, a high voter turnout sent the message: a majority of Boricua voters reject the idea of statehood with the U.S., preferring to remain a commonwealth.
In my opinion, Puerto Rico's political corruption and breakdown of health services, as described to me by activist Jose Colon and other Boricua friends of mine, is a direct reflection of -- and extension of -- the corruption and breakdown of services in the United States itself.
I believe that things have gotten so far out of hand in the commonwealth only because scandals there do not get the withering mainstream media scrutiny that they eventually get here on the mainland. For example, in 1998, during the first of the big AIDS corruption scandals, the FBI made a wave of arrests at the San Juan AIDS Institute. Eventually 12 people went to prison for embezzling millions of dollars in Ryan White monies. Yet it had taken several years of complaints to Congress by Colon and his activist group, before Washington D.C. paid any attention to these crimes, which hurt the lives and health of thousands of Puerto Ricans. And the trials, when they finally happened, were not spotlighted by major media on the mainland.
As Guillermo Chacon, vice president of the Latino Commission on AIDS, told USA Today: "One of the most difficult things is getting the mainland to recognize Puerto Rico as being part of the country."
The most recent AIDS scandal: in the city of Juana Díaz, some school authorities are clueless about the Civil Rights Act and the Disabilities Act, which apply in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities, including HIV+ children. Schoolgirl Digna Santiago Cruz and her three siblings were kept from enrolling in public school because all four are HIV positive. School superintendent Algarín said that the kids "were too infected with HIV" to go to school.
Eighteen-year-old Digna turned out to be a tiger whose tail you don't want to pull. With support from her family and local activists, she publicly demanded to be enrolled. Two of the four children are now in school, but they are reportedly still being discriminated against. Jose Colon tells me that one of the younger girls was ordered by the teacher to sit outside the classroom. According to the San Juan Star, Education secretary Rafael Aragunde has launched an investigation and expressed outrage over what happened.
Jose Colon asks: "Why is this happening again in Puerto Rico when the Congress of the United States passed the Ryan White Care Act to honor a student from Kokomo, Indiana who, just as Digna is doing now, fought his way into the classroom?"
Good question. And this incident shouldn't be written off as "just another Puerto Rican boondoggle." Battles over whether HIV+ children can attend school are still being fought on the U.S. mainland. After two decades of education on this issue, the prevalence of ignorance and superstition about HIV is still appalling. Example: Only recently, in Putnam City, OK, did local school authorities decide to allow HIV+ students to attend public schools. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that 37 percent of those polled still believe that HIV can be transmitted by kissing. Thirty two percent of college students polled have at least one misconception about AIDS.
Anyone who wants to help the Cruz children in their legal fight can send donations to their mother, Mrs. Delia Cruz, at: HC-Box 5, PO Box 5394, Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico 00795.
Copyright (c) 2007 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.