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Thursday, October 4, 2012

October 4, 2012: Up in the Air, Part Four

[Just to prove that American Studies inspirations can and do come from everywhere, this week I’m going to feature five topics that I was prompted to think about by the US Airways Magazine on my flight down to Philly. Please share your responses to any of these topics, or other American Studies topics you’ve recently been inspired to think about!]
On the pristine and threatened island that reflects some of the worst and the best of contemporary American identity.
Elsewhere in this issue of the magazine there’s a travel-guide style piece for trips to “America’s 51st state,” Puerto Rico. Much of the article focuses on San Juan, the island’s capital and largest city; it’s also the site of November’s American Studies Association conference, the first which I’ll be attending in many years (as a particularly grueling part of my Encyclopedia of American Studies editorial board duties). But while I could dedicate this post to my travel plans, I thought that perhaps a second inspiration, one provided by the first site detailed in the article—the small neighboring island of Vieques—might be of broader interest to readers and fellow American Studiers. (Although if you’re going to be at ASA, let me know here or at and we can have an AmericanStudier meet-up!)
The Vieques section of the article begins with a pretty egregious sentence: “It could be said that bombs saved Vieques.” I get the author’s point—the U.S. military’s multi-decade use of much of the island for live-fire training exercises means that it has been significantly less touristed than much of the rest of the Caribbean—but it not only rings utterly false to what bombs do to any place where they fall, but also elides the very controversial history surrounding that military practice. For one thing, as detailed at that link above, the military also used Vieques as a dumping site for various dangerous and toxic wastes and chemicals; such abuses have been far more destructive to the affected parts of the island than even the worst tourists could ever have been. For another, the military continued its live-fire exercises for many years after they began to receive extended and vocal pushback and resistance, demands from both Puerto Ricans and other concerned Americans that these practices cease. At their broadest level, these histories and abuses parallel much of the worst of how the U.S. government and military has engaged with the Caribbean and the Western Hemisphere over the 20th century.
Yet the island can also be connected to some of the most ideal aspects of contemporary American community and identity. For example, those protests eventually but importantly succeeded—in 2003 the military changed its policies and stopped using Vieques for those different but equally damaging purposes, one of the 21st century’s clearest victories to date for social and political activism. Moreover, that section of the island was converted into a National Wildlife Refuge, a wonderful way to keep it from being immediately overrun by those aforementioned tourists and to honor the conservationist legacy of one of America’s most famous visitors to Puerto Rico, Teddy Roosevelt. And finally, I would argue that remembering America’s complex relationship to Vieques would force us to engage with the island’s history as part of America, both legally (as of course all of Puerto Rico has been for more than a century) and thematically (as, I have argued in this space, all of the Caribbean can be seen as intimately interconnected with the United States, and vice versa). All good reasons to visit Vieques, and not just for the pristine beaches!
Finally air-inspired post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Perspectives on Vieques, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, or related places and themes?
10/4 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Frederic Remington, the talented artist and illustrator who is worth remembering as much for his connections to American legends and myths as for his own impressive career; and Buster Keaton, the pioneering comedian and filmmaker whose most famous work likewise engages directly with questions of American history and mythology.

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