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Why Puerto Rico has such deep support for the Palestinian cause

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

As Israel continues its bombardment of Gaza more than three months after Hamas October 7 terrorist attack, sympathy for Palestinians is growing worldwide. One place where the Palestinian cause has long had a well of support is in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. That's because of their shared colonial histories, as NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Puerto Ricans have been marching against Israel's bombardment of Gaza almost every week since it started. At a recent protest in the capital, San Juan, Ariana Gonzalez-Pelaez (ph) said that, as a Puerto Rican, she feels deep kinship with Palestinians.

ARIANA GONZALEZ-PELAEZ: Our similarities are very striking. And I feel very called to be here today.

FLORIDO: Puerto Rico is a United States territory, but Gonzalez is among the many Puerto Ricans who consider her home in the Caribbean a colony controlled by the U.S. - much, she says, like the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank are controlled by Israel.

GONZALEZ-PELAEZ: I guess in terms of the violence that's going on, it is not comparable at all. But it is a result of imperialism. So as Puerto Ricans who have suffered the consequences of colonialism, we should and should always be standing with other colonized nations around the world, including Gaza and Palestine right now.

FLORIDO: The U.S. military invaded and took control of Puerto Rico, then a Spanish colony, in 1898. To this day, it has only limited self-government. Though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, many say they're second-class citizens and have long fought for greater self-determination. Yarimar Bonilla, a Princeton political anthropologist from Puerto Rico, says that is key to understanding their sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

YARIMAR BONILLA: They see a resonance with a population that is struggling to find sovereignty, struggling against an empire that doesn't recognize itself as such.

FLORIDO: In the mid-20th century, the U.S.-appointed colonial government violently suppressed nationalist movements and outlawed even speaking of independence from the U.S.

BONILLA: There was a literal gag law that didn't allow people to fly the Puerto Rican flag. It's a lot of parallelisms with the Palestinians, whose flags were also banned and had to turn to other symbols like watermelons as, like, symbols of a people and of a national desire.

FLORIDO: Like in much of the world, opinion over the Israel-Palestine conflict is split in Puerto Rico. There have been a few demonstrations on the island supporting Israel.

BONILLA: There's definitely a diversity of opinions as there is everywhere, but there is a particular historical context that creates a kind of openness to understand and learn more about the Palestinian struggle and to imagine it as something that resonates with our own history.

FLORIDO: On a recent morning, I met Natalia Ibrahim Abufarah Davila (ph) in front of a large new mural on the side of an abandoned building in San Juan.

NATALIA IBRAHIM ABUFARAH DAVILA: It's a mural that says (non-English language spoken), which in translation is, from the ruins, thousands of seeds are going to be born, and Puerto Rico and Palestine will become free.

FLORIDO: Ibrahim Abufarah's mother is Puerto Rican. Her father is Palestinian. She's one of many activists who, since October 7, has been organizing public forums to educate Puerto Ricans, she says, about all they have in common with Palestinians. She's been focusing a lot on a big and growing concern in Puerto Rico - displacement. Hundreds of thousands of people have left Puerto Rico in recent years, pushed by the territory's economic crisis, to migrate to the States.

IBRAHIM ABUFARAH: The mass exodus of Puerto Ricans, it's overwhelming. And you see the abandonment in the communities. You see also the dispossession of land, the resources.

FLORIDO: Many people feel the problem's been made worse by a congressionally appointed financial control board that has slashed public budgets, and by a growing wave of wealthy transplants who've been lured by the promise of tax breaks and have been buying up property. What the government calls necessary policies to revive the economy, Ibrahim Abufarah and other critics have been calling government-aided settler colonialism - outsiders being ushered in and poor Puerto Ricans being forced out.

IBRAHIM ABUFARAH: It's working really, really fast. And it feels very violent.

FLORIDO: She acknowledges it is not the same as the displacement by Israeli bombs that Palestinians are facing right now. But one way that Puerto Ricans have been able to relate is that they, like Palestinians, are struggling to stay on their land.

IBRAHIM ABUFARAH: (Non-English language spoken).

FLORIDO: Ibrahim Abufarah often links to those struggles when she speaks at protests. At this one, she was surrounded by people waving the flags of both Puerto Rico and Palestine.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.