The islands of the Caribbean represent one of the most diverse regions on earth, with over 25 countries and countless cultures spanning more than 7,000 islands. In the centuries since the European colonization of the Caribbean and the Americas, different island nations have fought for their independence from colonial control following the slave-led Haitian Revolution in 1804, which has acted as a domino effect that is still being felt today.
A number of island nations still remain under territorial control by another country, some of them thousands of miles away from the Caribbean Sea. The United States has maintained Puerto Rico as an extraterritorial colony since the turn of the 21st century, and its current status as a commonwealth guarantees U.S. citizenship and a democratically elected local government to all Puerto Ricans. However, much of its disaster relief funding—which has been vital to the recovery from Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the thousands of earthquakes that struck Puerto Rico earlier this year.
In the summer of 2019, Governor Ricky Roselló and members of his administration were exposed of having exchanged hundreds of misogynistic, homophobic, and violent messages over the course of his time in power. What came next was an incredible display of people-powered activism across the island, as hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans took to the streets to protest the governor and call for his resignation for nearly two weeks.
Grammy-winning singer and songwriter iLe was among these protestors. She—along with prominent Boricua musicians like Ricky Martin, Bad Bunny, and Residente—was at the front lines of many of the demonstrations, calling not just for the Puerto Rican government to do better, but for Puerto Ricans to channel this energy of self-determination into something greater.
iLe rose to fame as part of the successful Latin pop group Calle 13, where she joined her brothers Residente and Visitante as the lovable backup vocalist PG-13. Her debut solo album iLevitable won a Grammy Award in 2017, and her follow-up album Almadura received a nomination this past year. The album’s title is a play on the Spanish word for “armor” (armadura), and its English translation to “hard soul” speaks to the strength and struggle from the last few years of unrest in Puerto Rico that informed much of the album’s creation.
Among other things, iLe is a strong believer in the notion of independence for Puerto Rico that would establish it as a sovereign nation after more than 500 years of remaining under some form of colonial control. She imagines a world where her people will be able to determine their own destiny entirely for themselves rather than be subject to the United States’ power.
Puerto Rico is still recovering from the destruction of Hurricane Maria nearly three years later, and has experienced over 2,000 earthquakes in the last few months. How has the island been dealing in recent days?
Obviously it’s tough to see so many houses and structures that have been completely destroyed and so many families and children who don’t know what their next step is. But at the same time, it’s beautiful to see so much support from everyone here on the island. Not even the government is doing what they’re supposed to do, but all the help that we’ve been getting has been from the people; doctors, nurses, business owners, and a lot of other people are sending everything they need to the communities. So it’s good to see that we are working ourselves together and that we’re not alone.
Does this spirit of everyone coming together resemble the energy of the island-wide protests for Governor Ricky Roselló to resign?
I think we learned most from Hurricane Maria because it was so much destruction and we weren’t receiving the help or the supplies that we were supposed to be receiving, so people aren’t trusting the government anymore to provide assistance directly to the community. [Wanda Vázquez] was the Secretary of Justice and now she’s the Governor, and they’re both a part of the same corrupt thing. The only difference is that she communicates things slightly differently from Roselló to make you believe she’s doing something, but she’s not. And I think because people are more aware of that after what happened with Roselló, they’re starting to notice that she’s part of the same thing. It’s one thing to think about it, and the other thing is to trust more in your instincts and just know that she’s not going to solve anything. And now she has the earthquakes, similar to what happened with Roselló’s bad administration after Hurricane Maria. These are the moments when you actually know they will work or not, and she’s obviously showing us that she’s not doing anything at all. That makes us think everything through a lot more.
The Puerto Rican government isn’t at all to blame; Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, and it relies a lot on the U.S. government to provide funding, especially at times like these. Do these issues prove that the U.S.’s colonial ownership of Puerto Rico does more harm than good?
It’s all part of a system that has never worked. For me, I’ve never believed in that system. The important thing is that more people need to notice that instead of trusting other people who don’t even live here and don’t even know enough about our country to have this control. We’ve been helping each other out, and I think that’s even better; we’ve seen in it in these days after the earthquakes, just reacting and working together and organizing ourselves way better than the government. It’s all about people coming together without expecting any help from anyone else.
A majority of Puerto Ricans, according to polls and referendum votes, favor either remaining a territory of the United States or becoming a state itself. Why do you think most Puerto Ricans prefer this over becoming an independent country?
I think it’s just a misunderstanding on their part. We’ve been taught all our lives in our history to be afraid of the word “independence” and to be afraid of being self-sufficient, and that we’re not capable of doing things on our own. Generation after generation starts to believe that and grow up with that mindset; it’s basically a colonial mindset. So I don’t think it has anything to do with who we are because I think we’re very resilient and very strong people, but it has a lot to do with what [the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments] have told us that we are. We started to believe a lie. We started to believe something that is not true. We underestimate ourselves, and then suddenly our self-esteem is very, very low. But that’s why the moment we’re living in now is so important for us: we’re living in a moment where finally more people are realizing that we are strong enough and that we are more than enough, and we don’t need to depend on anyone else. It’s a very slow process, though, because we became a colony more than 500 years ago, and it’s been a little more than 100 years with the United States. So it’s very difficult to get out of that mindset that you’ve grown up with all your life, but now things are shaking up so heavily and so intensely that we’re acting independently without noticing that we are acting independently. It’s just a matter of trying to find ways to do things without being so conscious of the meaning of the word, because if we say that word “independence,” people get scared. They have another idea in their heads of what being independent means, but right now we’re acting independently because we’re helping each other out without expecting any help from anyone else and we’re restructuring ourselves, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. Everyone that wants to help from the heart and with honesty obviously is more than welcome, but we don’t need to depend on anyone else because we have it all. We have enough, and we need to notice that.
We’ve been taught all our lives in our history to be afraid of the word “independence” and to be afraid of being self-sufficient, and that we’re not capable of doing things on our own.
Why do you think most Puerto Ricans don’t favor being an independent country despite Puerto Ricans having so much pride in who they are?
That’s obviously the ironic part. I think, in part, it has to do with that low self-esteem; we don’t really analyze where that low self-esteem comes from, but we just show our pride because we know we come from a little place and we need to show the world who we are and how we are, but we don’t show that politically. And that’s why this moment is amazing right now, because suddenly that pride is mixing with political and social movements and protests. We don’t have to concentrate so much on terms or anything; the important thing is just to do what you feel you need to do for the better of your country.
How did this all affect the creation of your second album Almadura last year?
I think it was great because at first I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Once you start with your first album, you don’t know what to do next or if you even want to do another album, or you wonder what you’re going to talk about on it. And then suddenly I noticed I was feeling angry with so many things and I was very connected to that energy that I was feeling, so I started to let go and started writing about what bothers me about society, not only as a Puerto Rican but as a human. I started to write from my own perspective, but obviously I wanted it to feel empowering in a way. I wanted to not only talk about bad situations or bad things that we go through, but what we can do to react in some way and do something about it. So that’s what I like about the album: it comes from a very big part of me and it’s something that I needed to let go of in a way, and to keep going at the same time. So I’m glad that it all turned out even better than I’d hoped it would.
I started to let go and started writing about what bothers me about society, not only as a Puerto Rican but as a human.
Does that power mirror the power that Puerto Ricans have felt with the anti-government protests?
As a Puerto Rican, like I said before, we’re not used to protesting massively, but we are totally capable of doing it. What happened with Roselló was a great moment to be alive. It’s something that we’ve never seen before on such a massive scale, so it’s good to feel that we’re at least a little more connected—not only in Puerto Rico but around the world I feel that social media has been so helpful because we know almost immediately what goes on in other countries and we start to feel inspired by their situation and connect their situation with ours. That intercambio [exchange] feels amazing and it motivates you to keep going and to help each other out. For me that’s the main reason to be in this world.