“The only way they can get me out of here is dead,” Víctor Cruz told me. A long-time resident of Barrio Vietnam, located on the coast of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Víctor has withstood multiple floods, hurricanes, and eviction attempts. Over the course of the years, the constant displacement of people and illegal expropriation attempts by the government have threatened the entire community. These conflicts and often violent confrontations with the authorities led the residents to name it “Barrio Vietnam”—directly referencing the Vietnam War—as the neighborhood was in the throes of a particularly intense period of eviction fights with the state.
The story of Víctor Cruz and many other residents of Barrio Vietnam, is similar to that of a large part of the Puerto Rican population during the mid-20th century, when mostly rural subsistence-farming families were thrusted into urban life as a result of an intense process of industrialization heralded by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín. These populations were incentivized to move into 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 many Puerto Rican workers and their 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 from agriculture for the first time in its history. Yet, this newfound interest and support from the US Federal government in bolstering the local economy should also be understood within the political context of the island and the region. Having violently crippled the Puerto Rican Pro-Independence movement, which enjoyed the support of rural communities in the island, these economic policies were also a strategy to shift the popular imagination away from colonial emancipation towards the capitalist aspirations of the “American Dream.” The result of this economic and political ideology, however, was the irreversible decimation of the local agricultural economy and massive internal displacement.2
Waterfront communities like Barrio Vietnam were targeted as blight, and caught in the crosshairs of eviction as the government, in conjunction with local and international developers, sought to take possession of the lands they occupied and made habitable over the years.
Community self-organization and grassroots leadership has been crucial to combat corporate interest and contest the legal attacks on property ownership in Vietnam where many residents lack property titles despite living on the land for over 50 years.
However, not all the residents of the community have been able to resist the eerily familiar government promise of relocation. Víctor’s home is located next to two waterfront lots where his neighbors had lived for decades. During a particularly intense period of eviction attempts to clear Barrio 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 Víctor 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.
- César J. Ayala and Rafael Bernabe, Puerto Rico in the American Century: A History since 1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007, 315.
- 80 percent of the food consumed on the island is currently imported despite being able to grow food year round. As sugar cane industry collapsed in the early 1970’s the tax breaks that spurred industry also began to be phased out leaving the workers unemployed as companies closed their factories in Puerto Rico. In the following years, many poor and working class communities began to increasingly rely on the government subsidies that were meant as a transitional remedy after they lost their jobs in factories.