A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Resilience, Recovery, and Refusal: The (Un)tellable Narratives of post-María Puerto Rico

Christina Boyles (author), Michigan State University

Kyle Fields (interviewer and video editor), Trinity College

(Published November 10, 2020)

AREPR Trailer from PRDA on Vimeo.

Controlling climate stories is one way that colonialism denies sovereignty to people in the Global South and in marginalized communities across the world. Climate stories are tales that acknowledge, uphold, and share communal knowledge systems to facilitate a transition to more sustainable climate models built on non-Western frameworks. In places like Puerto Rico, colonial structures determine the kinds of climate stories that are “tellable.” By tellability, I refer to the production of rhetorical qualities that deem a story to be worthy of telling—or not (Ferrell 128). Capitalist frameworks position concern for the climate as good for business. Billionaires, including Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos have made tax-free investments in climate technologies for their personal financial gain, allowing them to rhetorically position themselves as philanthropic billionaires.[1]A similar group, operating under the name Crypto Rico, claims that it can “rebuild Puerto Rico with money that we saved from the IRS in a Robin Hood fashion” (Strauss). Taking advantage of foreclosures and government incentive programs, cryptocurrency groups from the mainland United States have swept in to buy valuable property—including prominent cultural and historical sites—and limit access to the public, essentially walling off parts of Puerto Rico from its people. Their responses are heralded by governments and media alike, with feature stories appearing in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, CNN, NPR, and social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Colonialism renders such capitalist-based climate stories the most interesting and worthwhile, and therefore tellable. Puerto Rico’s long history of being colonized lends itself to these predatory kinds of stories. As Mimi Sheller and Krista A. Thompson note, the visual rhetorics produced by colonial and postcolonial images that have defined island natural landscapes, the people, and their cultures as picturesque, . . .  [have] relegated [them] as consumable places within the global system” (qtd. in Goggin 4). This problem, however, is not caused by visual rhetorics alone. The inherent coloniality of our climate stories perpetuates environmental racism by both ignoring the disproportionate effects on communities of color and by reinforcing techno-solutionism, a belief that large-scale social problems like inequality, discrimination, or climate change can be eradicated through technological means. Both outcomes downplay the experiences of marginalized communities by participating in their erasure.

Erasure is inherent to many of our stories. Archival scholars like Michelle Caswell describe the

“symbolic annihilation” perpetuated by institutional archives by asking, “What does it mean to be omitted from history textbooks? What are the implications of not being able to find any (or very few) traces of the past left by people who look like you, share your cultural background, or speak the same native tongue? What impact do these archival absences have on how you might understand your place in society?” (26)

Malea Powell terms this the “project of the imperial archive in the Americas,” or the ways many institutional archives systematically negate the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples (117). In many ways, the work of the archives is the work of storytelling—archives preserve selected narratives about the human experience for future generations. Colonial logics contribute to these ends by shaping notions of credibility and expertise in ways that are problematic; however, community groups and rhetoric and composition scholars can work together to challenge colonial storytelling practices and to develop new ways of telling and sharing stories, foregrounding specific histories and legacies.

For these reasons and more, I am collaborating with a group of Puerto Rican scholars and community organizations to develop the Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico (AREPR), an open-access digital repository documenting the lived experiences of Puerto Ricans in the wake of Hurricane María, the 2020 earthquakes, and COVID-19 (http://arepr.org/). Community-driven archival projects such as these are one crucial strategy for refuting coloniality by “recognizing [participants’] right to exist, highlighting their contributions to society, and empowering them to imagine futures where they are included” (“Recommendations for the Field”). This is particularly important in Puerto Rico, where tellable media narratives have often negated the lived experiences of its people. For example, after Hurricane María, government officials listed Puerto Rico’s death toll as 64; however, independent inquiries by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University estimated the death toll to be 2,975, and a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine placed the death toll at 4,645 (Andrade et al.; Kishore et al.). Many of those uncounted existed on the margins of Puerto Rican society—they had limited access to resources necessary for survival, lived in secluded regions, were itinerant, and/or died from ailments that were caused not by the hurricane itself but by the failure of federal and local governments to respond appropriately. By diminishing the death toll, the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments were able to weaken public knowledge of their failures— a continuation of the colonial enterprise.

Refuting coloniality through community archiving projects also comes by way of rejecting extractive forms of knowledge acquisition by relegating authority and control of collection processes, material selection, and dissemination strategies to the participating community organizations. Other entities—such as universities, libraries, and archives—provide support to these initiatives by providing infrastructure, material, and labor as needed. As such, they align with Karrieann Soto Vega’s call for decolonizing environmental justice rhetorics by “delineat[ing] the history of the connections between colonial/capitalist exploitation, activist resistance, and resulting crises of climate change, emphasizing the voice and experience of agents of change from the ground up” (n.p.).

As a digital humanist with expertise in community-engagement and digital project development, I serve as the project director for the AREPR. In this role, I coordinate technical resources across our partner organizations, seek external funding opportunities, and facilitate communications between our partner organizations, including the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras, the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, the Digital Library of the Caribbean, and the community organizations with whom we seek to collaborate: JunteGenteComedores Sociales de Puerto RicoEl Puente – Enlace Latino de Acción ClimáticaOperation Blessing, and Instituto Transdisciplinario de Investigación-Ac­ción Social (ITIAS). I also leverage the resources made available to me as a faculty member at Michigan State University, including physical and digital infrastructure, time and expertise of librarians, stable server space, access to technical support for Omeka S, and a network of community-engaged digital humanities scholars and practitioners. More information about the project, including excerpts from our successful grant application to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, are available in the inaugural issue of the journal Interdisciplinary Digital Engagement in Arts & Humanities (Boyles).

The University of Puerto Rico and Michigan State University are well positioned to collaborate on this project. Nadjah Ríos and Mirerza Gonzalez Velez, both at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras, are experts in developing community-engaged archives in Puerto Rico. Their projects, the Caribbean Carnival Archive and the Culebra Digital Archive, emphasize a deep commitment to Puerto Rican communities and culture. Ricia Chansky and I, at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez and Michigan State University respectively, are practiced oral historians with ongoing projects focused on life in Puerto Rico during and after Hurricane María. Valeria Fernández González, our project manager, also has impressive experience working with community groups across Puerto Rico on arts initiatives. Her expertise in community engagement, paired with her educational background in library and information science, make her particularly well suited to engage with both technical and communal aspects of this project. The combined efforts of these five scholars make it possible to provide training, partner with community organizations, and collect and preserve physical, born-digital, and interview materials from across Puerto Rico. Many of the scholars affiliated with the University of Puerto Rico also are members of the community organizations with whom we seek to collaborate. As such, Ríos, Gonzalez Velez, Fernández González, and Chansky are situated well to provide regular, face-to-face contact with community groups and to continue developing deep, meaningful relationships with their members. This aligns with the mission of our team: to establish collaborative, horizontal relationships between participants and scholars by utilizing strategies like post-custodial archiving and informed consent, and foregrounding issues pertaining to human rights, community development, and social justice.

We embody these values through the framework of resilience, recovery, and refusal. Each of these terms is potentially contentious, adopted by colonial and anti-colonial entities alike in the rhetoric surrounding post-María Puerto Rico. The tellable narratives propagated by media and governments are often one-sided, reaffirming structures that exacerbate the “coloniality of disaster” or the conditions in which national crises are weaponized for the benefit of those in power (Bonilla and LeBrón 10). The Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico (AREPR) challenges these definitions of resilience, recovery, and refusal by sharing the lived experiences of Puerto Ricans in a post-disaster colonial state. Our team uses trauma-informed interview strategies, emphasizes failures to respond to injustices rather than the injustices themselves, and utilizes methods such as post-custodial archiving—in which contributors retain all rights to their content—to ensure that the anti-colonial aims of the project are carried into the project’s design and dissemination.

The interdisciplinary aims of this project have clear overlaps with digital humanities and archives—fields that have the skills to envision and develop community-driven cultural heritage projects—and rhetoric and composition—a field that both researches the weaponization of language and understands how cultural artifacts and stories are key components of community composition and meaning making.

The video above is a brief compilation of interviews conducted during an exploratory phase of this project. Adhering to the values listed above, this video was recorded as relationships with the University of Puerto Rico and the Digital Library of the Caribbean were being formalized. In this early stage, the project focused on recording the lived experiences of Puerto Ricans in the wake of Hurricane María to counter tellable media narratives about disaster response and recovery; however, the AREPR has since shifted its work to emphasize the innovative disaster response strategies implemented by on-the-ground activists and community groups. Future scholarship on the project’s new direction is already in development and will be written and published collaboratively.

The interviews in the enclosed video were conducted in May 2018, a mere eight months after Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico’s three inhabited islands. The interviews were conducted and filmed by me and two undergraduate research assistants, Kyle Fields and Jerry Rodriguez. All video editing was conducted by Kyle Fields.

This project is especially relevant to this special issue on Rhetorics and Literacies of Climate Change because it theorizes the significance of climate stories to the field of rhetoric and composition. As rhetoric and composition scholars, we can participate in climate action by challenging and interrogating what stories we tell and how we tell them. Such work can be accomplished in two ways: 1) by shifting notions of tellability to emphasize sovereignty rather than coloniality and 2) by engaging in active listening, a process that repositions expertise as belonging to those living in climate “hot spots,” or those sites experiencing the severe impacts of climate change. The Oral History Association describes active listening as a process in which listeners seek “additional clarification, elaboration, and reflection” (“Principles and Best Practices”). Architecting Sustainable Futures, an organization focused specifically on community-based archiving practices, pushes this notion one step further by asking listeners to “honor the wisdom of the local community where these community-based archives exist by listening to the people who are currently doing the work and who have historically been doing the work.” For the AREPR, active listening both foregrounds activist histories that have long addressed issues of sovereignty and coloniality in Puerto Rico and repositions expertise as belonging to those living in climate hot spots. Sovereignty-centered storytelling and active listening are two forms of praxis through which rhetoric and composition scholars can reimagine the field’s relationship to environmental justice rhetorics and the impending climate catastrophe.

Sovereignty-centered Storytelling 

Notions of sovereignty in Puerto Rico are complicated due to its status as a twice-colonized nation. Moreover, Puerto Rico is home to the Taíno, an Indigenous group that often goes unrecognized by colonial powers. Under Spanish rule, the islands’ resources were leveraged for the wealth of Europeans through the movement and forced labor of enslaved peoples. Since the United States took power in 1898, colonization has taken a number of forms, including, but not limited to, shifting the nation’s ecosystem for sugar production, testing dangerous chemicals on political dissidents, establishing a naval base on the island of Vieques, exposing residents to toxic coal ash, and passing laws to restrict the rights of Puerto Ricans. As in the mainland of the United States, laws are utilized to limit Puerto Ricans’ claims to sovereignty. Some particularly pressing examples are the Jones Act, which mandates that all goods going to or from Puerto Rico travel through a port in the mainland United States, and the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which gives an unelected fiscal control board total power over Puerto Rico’s finances and debt management.

At the same time, venture capitalists and cryptocurrency colonists have been claiming that investing in Puerto Rico imbues them with sovereignty from government oversight. Naomi Klein discusses these two opposing versions of sovereignty in her book The Battle for Paradise: “[Y]ou have that version of sovereignty, where sovereignty means hyperindividualism. . . . This is in contrast to the vision of deep sovereignty that we’re hearing more about, which is . . . all about interdependence within and between communities and with the natural world” (29). The former perspective, which views sovereignty as a form of hyperindividualism, is a cooptation of Indigenous and decolonial scholarship. Sovereignty lies in direct opposition to settler colonialism and, as such, is inherently opposed to colonial systems that benefit the few to the detriment of many. To transform our notions of what is tellable and untellable, to push back against colonial notions of the climate crisis, we need to recognize that sovereignty is innately Indigenous and consciously communal. The need to foreground Indigenous sovereignty is twofold: 1) environmental justice cannot exist without honoring the original inhabitants of the land, and 2) Indigenous claims to land pose the greatest legal threat to ongoing fossil fuel extraction. As such, centering Indigeneity in the fight against climate change is necessary, both ethically and practically.

As scholars of rhetoric and composition, we have the ability to connect with communities, highlight their composition practices, and design projects that highlight and honor these community-based knowledge systems. Rather than simply analyzing environmental rhetoric, we can and need to start building patterns of social action that respond to climate change. This could take many forms—the expansion of environmental pedagogies, the development of eco-friendly composing practices, and the escalation of community-engaged projects focused on responding to climate change. Each of these examples is a form of intervening or transforming current practices for the sake of creating a better world.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith describes intervening as “the process of being and of becoming involved as an interested worker for change. . . . Intervening is directed then at changing institutions which deal with indigenous peoples and not at changing indigenous peoples to fit the structures” (148). In other words, intervening requires that we shift our practices away from European knowledge systems to other ways of knowing. One way to do so is by telling climate stories, though, to be clear, telling climate stories is not an invitation for appropriation. One of the flaws of Western logic systems—and by that I mean the intertwined systems of oppression undergirding Western culture, which bell hooks terms “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy”—is that they are tied up in the consumption and exploitation of knowledge and labor (17). For us to engage in climate activism, we need to rid ourselves of the notion that our relationships with other communities and knowledges are consumerist. This is an opportunity for us to form new social structures that enable both horizontal modes of communication and collaboration and new possibilities for a more ethical and equitable future.

The AREPR expands on these ideals by highlighting the value of recently developed disaster-related cultural heritage artifacts, particularly those that can provide inspiration, insight, and information to other organizations seeking to implement effective disaster response protocols. Not only do these materials have the potential to save lives, but they also are imperative to developing future emergency protocols that are based on local knowledge and community action. In essence, the AREPR compiles a set of best practices for disaster-stricken communities, especially those experiencing low bandwidth, limited digital infrastructure, and climate vulnerability. By acknowledging, promoting, and appreciating the unique knowledge developed in Puerto Rico during and after these disasters, this project seeks to intervene in climate colonialism by advocating for climate justice.

As the effects of climate change worsen, it is increasingly necessary for us to hear climate stories; that said, not all climate stories are created equal. We live in a world dominated by settler narratives that center Eurocentric experiences and knowledge systems, thus leading to increased marginalization and climate volatility by design. In sum, we need to hear from individuals and communities living in climate hot spots. Klein terms these areas “sacrifice zones” and notes that, “[F]or a very long time, sacrifice zones all shared a few elements in common. They were poor places. Out-of-the-way places. Places where residents lacked political power, usually having to do with some combination of race, language, and class” (This Changes Everything 311). Places like Puerto Rico.

Project History, Scope, and Methods

To document the lived experiences of Puerto Ricans post-María, I traveled to the main island in April 2018 with La Voz Latina—a Latinx student organization whose members were largely second-generation students from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. This work developed out of an earlier disaster rhetorics project, in which I interviewed four individuals about their experiences during and after the San Felipe hurricane of 1928. When Hurricane María made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, the project expanded to include both hurricanes. During the 2018 trip, I conducted a series of interviews with residents of San Juan, Loíza, Comerío, Yabucoa, and Mayagüez.[2] These locations coincided with the disaster response work being conducted by La Voz Latina during their travels. As a result, we had the opportunity to interview a wide variety of community organizers and activists in the sites most pertinent to their work. Some of these include offices of the Hogar Albergue para Niños Jesús de Nazaret, the homes of Leila Silva and Wanda Bristol López, who started an animal shelter and an elder care facility in their own residences, respectively, and the campus of the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras. Conducting the interviews in these spaces demonstrates how common places have been transformed into sites of activism post-María. Moreover, the interviewees’ varied geographic and cultural backgrounds offer unique insights into how different Puerto Rican communities experienced María and its aftermath. During the course of our interviews, we asked participants a series of open-ended questions including the following:

1. What is your name?

2. Would you like to share anything about your experiences on the day María hit the islands?

3. Would you like to share anything about the days and weeks following María?

4. What types of support were most helpful to you?

5. What support do you still need?

6. Should the U.S. or Puerto Rican government have responded differently? If so, how?

7. How will María affect your community as we move into the next hurricane season?

8. Is there anything else you’d like us to know?

The enclosed video offers one example of a climate story. Each person is intentionally positioned as an expert of their own experiences and those of their local communities. Positioning the speakers in this way resists colonial notions of scholarship by asserting the value of their lived experiences and the unique knowledge they bring to our understanding of the hurricane. While there are broad similarities between each of the speakers’ experiences, their unique geographic contexts provide insight into localized strategies for resilience, recovery, and refusal.

Moreover, the project follows post-custodial archiving practices to ensure that our collaborators retain sovereignty over their stories. The AREPR takes as procedural precedent the Bracero History Archive, which is a bilingual community collecting initiative built around post-custodial archiving processes. Like the AREPR, the Bracero History Archive interrogates the significance of a historical moment both to complicate our notions of federal response mechanisms, migration, and community and to highlight the need for humanistic approaches to these issues. Similarly, it takes as thematic precedent the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (HDMB), which archived oral histories of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. As HDMB Project Director Sheila Brennan notes, “Maintaining control over their personal story turned out to be much more important for our contributors than we had expected. Following the hurricanes, many residents of the Gulf Coast felt that their lives had been taken over by others acting on their behalf and so it was very important to many of them that they retained ownership over their personal histories” (Brennan and Kelly).

Resilience, Recovery, and Refusal in “AREPR

The “AREPR” trailer asks us to interrogate the tellable narratives promoted by mainstream media with the untellable stories shared by speakers in the video around the following three themes: resilience, recovery, and refusal. Additionally, I highlight how the AREPR’s project design similarly challenges notions of tellability by participating in both sovereignty-centered storytelling and active listening.


Resilience was a term bandied about Puerto Rico immediately following Hurricane María. In their ground-breaking work, Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm, Yarimar Bonilla and Marisol LeBrón discuss the problematic nature of this term, noting that the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments have become dependent upon the “assurance of a ‘resilient’ population that can continue to adapt to the challenges that lie ahead” (10). While resilience has become the tellable narrative of life in post-María Puerto Rico, it also masks the undue trauma experienced by Puerto Ricans in the wake of disaster: “The much-touted resilience of Puerto Ricans thus needs to be itself understood as a form of trauma: years of abandonment by local and federal governments have forced community to take care of themselves” (27). The tension between these two narratives is evident when media coverage of the event is compared with the stories of Puerto Rican citizens—in this case, those shared in the “AREPR” video.

Notably, media outlets lauded Puerto Rican resilience by noting that many communities were entirely self-sufficient in the weeks and months after María. Outlets such as The New York Times, CNN, and FEMA frequently cited Puerto Rican citizens and officials who promoted resilience as an effective response strategy, establishing resilience as the tellable narrative of post-María life in Puerto Rico (Giusti-Cordero; Gomez Colon; Ortega). Although the innovative and effective communal responses developed by organizations across Puerto Rico are certainly worthy of praise, narratives of resilience obscure the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments’ failure to provide Puerto Rican citizens with adequate resources, infrastructure, and support.

The “AREPR” video highlights these inadequacies by sharing a different perspective on resilience from Puerto Ricans living on the main island.[3]For example, Ishi Maldonado notes that “very few [governmental] agencies came to help.” Immediately after, Maldonado observes, “In those first two, three weeks, we didn’t saw anything. We didn’t saw police, we didn’t saw the mayor, we didn’t saw nothing. It was just us.” In a portion of her interview that did not appear in the “AREPR” trailer video, Maldonado adds that the aid that did arrive was not suitable for the lived realities within her community; food brought by the Red Cross was unable to withstand the warm temperatures on the island and had to be eaten immediately. The Red Cross did not return for nearly a month, leaving residents of Comerío scrambling for other food sources in the interim. Resilience, then, was born of necessity, but it is not new to the peoples living in colonized nations.

To challenge tellable notions of resilience, the “AREPR” video and the AREPR are designed to highlight the failures of the U.S. and Puerto Rican government’s response to María (2017), the earthquakes (2020), and the COVID-19 pandemic (2020). To ensure the longevity and accessibility of these stories, interviews are transcribed and translated in both English and Spanish, with future transcription work likely conducted by students at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras and the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez. Once transcriptions and translations are complete, interviews will be made available via the public-facing features of the project’s Omeka S site. Redundant copies of these interviews will also be made available by the Digital Library of the Caribbean and the Michigan State University Library’s Digital Repository to ensure that interviews are widely accessible to a variety of audiences. Given the challenges of building and sustaining digital infrastructure in post-María Puerto Rico, the support of these organizations is integral to the dissemination of the project; decisions regarding content, design, and dissemination, however, are determined in collaboration with the project’s community partners. This model ensures that Puerto Ricans have the sovereignty to tell and preserve the stories that matter most to them, and it encourages others to become active listeners by positioning Puerto Rican citizens as experts of their own experiences. This shifts colonial notions of ownership by placing Puerto Ricans in control, rather than the institutional entities housing their stories. Models such as these are particularly pertinent in this moment, as shifts in colonial relationships are integral to our response to climate change.


Our framework for understanding disaster often is linked to the notion of recovery. In particular, recovery is generally theorized as beginning immediately after a disaster and extending until a society resumes normal operations. In many cases, the tellable narratives around recovery promote the notion that recovery is a short-term process—a fact which erases the ongoing traumas experienced by survivors. In Puerto Rico, the notion of recovery is particularly problematic in that it obscures the long-term effects of colonialism. Bonilla and LeBrón ask, “Is recovery simply measured by a return to the conditions that marked life in Puerto Rico before the storm? If so, that would mean a return to the status quo of extraction and exploitation necessary for colonial capitalism to function. . . . [T]his would represent not a recovery but simply the continuation of colonial disaster” (16). Here, Bonilla and LeBrón challenge our notions of disaster by applying it to the process of colonialism rather than to recovery. In this framework, recovery is only possible if the entire colonial capitalistic system is replaced.

Flawed notions of recovery are the norm in post-María Puerto Rico. Perhaps the most widely disseminated example is President Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico’s main island. In a televised press conference, Trump downplays the severity of the hurricane in many ways, most noticeably by throwing paper towels at the audience. In doing so, he implies that Puerto Rican’s experiences are trivial. By propagating moments such as these, the media similarly contributed to tellable narratives of recovery, eradicating the disaster enacted by colonialism in entirety. In the “AREPR” video, Maldonado comments,

I remember when Trump came, he was just like, “Oh, you only have like, I don’t know, 20 people died.” And I was like, “No, those numbers are not real.” But it also has to do a lot to do with our government. Because I—don’t think they have been as transparent as they could. Because if—I think if you would just display the real number of deaths and the real number of damage that was in the island, maybe you would get the help.

Her comments highlight how Trump’s alarming and unethical rhetoric was given credence by Puerto Rican politicians. Private chat messages between Ricardo Rosselló, the former Governor of Puerto Rico, and his inner circle of political friends confirm Maldonado’s statements: Participants confessed to corruption, profiteering, and withholding aid during the months following María (Valentín Ortiz and Minet). Additionally, “[a] large part of the exchanges revolve[d] around how the governor can change the narrative of the news media” to promote tellable narratives about Hurricane María and to quash stories focusing on the lived experiences of Puerto Rican peoples (Marcial Ocasio).

The “AREPR” trailer challenges tellable notions of recovery by demonstrating how María was weaponized to further the aims of colonialism. Notably, Dr. Pablo Rivera asserts that “[t]he educational system took advantage of the hurricane situation to close schools.” Puerto Rican scholars Isar Brusi and Rima Godreau confirm this observation, observing that

“[b]y the time the hurricane dealt a devastating blow to the island’s public education infrastructure, the system was already under siege from economic policies that disinvested in infrastructure, equipment, and teaching personnel. After the hurricane, disaster relief efforts did not slow down this process; rather, they accelerated the dismantling of Puerto Rico’s schools and public university.” (235-6)

Private and charter schools have profited greatly from this development, as they have become the only options for many Puerto Rican residents. Contracts made between these entities and the Puerto Rican government have similarly benefitted Puerto Rico’s politicians; in fact, former Puerto Rican Secretary of Education Julia Keleher was indicted for using these contracts to commit “fraud, theft, and money laundering for the purpose of enriching herself and her conspirators” (United States v. Keleher, et al. 13). Education wasn’t the only sector under attack.

For example, the Fiscal Control Board—commonly known as the Junta—was established in 2016 to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt, and “[w]hen Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico in September 2017 with category 4 destruction, the island was already reeling from austerity measures, population loss, a health care crisis, and a failing electrical infrastructure” (Morales). Each of these issues—the direct result of Puerto Rico’s colonized status—was exacerbated in the wake of the storm and furthered the reach of colonial capitalism. As Silva noted in May 2018, “Our infrastructure cannot afford another hurricane.” Her words ring just as true now: Puerto Rico remains in an ongoing state of colonial disaster.

The AREPR amplifies voices that advocate for Puerto Rico and creates an interdisciplinary database for a larger audience. This structure invites viewers to engage in active listening, activism that acknowledges and values the expertise of those marginalized under the mantle of colonialism. Doing so supports survivors through witnessing and validating their experiences. In turn, active listening creates opportunities to both reject colonial notions of tellability and advocate for climate justice.


Although the word “refusal” is less frequently applied to post-María Puerto Rico, notions of refusal undergird both the tellable and untellable narratives of the event. Bonilla and LeBrón hint at this tension by stating, “Refusing to be swallowed up and disappeared by inaction and silence, Puerto Ricans continued to shout their truth and take recovery into their own hands. . . . All the while state aid, both local and federal, refused to arrive” (10). In other words, the act of colonization shifts the meaning of refusal: to Puerto Ricans, refusal is an act of defiance pushing for decolonization, and to colonizers, refusal is a form of inaction that reinforces their power.

When the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments refused to respond to María appropriately, the Puerto Rican people rose up in defiance. Political organizing led to mass protests in summer 2019, ousting two governors with known ties to corruption and cronyism. Although these protests do not appear in the “AREPR” video, members of the project team did document two #RickyRenuncia protests and one #WandaRenuncia protest in the city of San Juan. Video of these events will appear in future iterations of the project.

Moreover, the “AREPR” video depicts early forms of refusal exhibited by Puerto Ricans. For example, Lledyn describes how community members in Yabucoa— widely considered to be the place in Puerto Rico most affected by María—refuse to live under conditions deemed acceptable by governments and recovery organizations: “Only about two weeks ago, one of my neighbors tried to kill himself by jumping off a power line tower. He represented and symbolized how we feel and how desperate we’ve become after eight months of still being without power, without water.” These sentiments were not limited to Yabucoa, but rather were shared amongst communities across the island. Journalist Alexia Fernández Campbell reports:

The number of people on the island who have reportedly tried to kill themselves since Hurricane Maria hit the island has more than tripled. From November 2017 through January 2018, a crisis hotline run by Puerto Rico’s Department of Health received 3,050 calls from people who said they had attempted suicide. That’s an astounding 246 percent increase compared to the same time last year.

Suicide became a form of refusal for many Puerto Ricans—a refusal to live in untenable conditions, a refusal to operate under colonial rule, and a refusal to accept the failed disaster recovery strategies of the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments.

Leila, on the other hand, exemplifies another kind of refusal. By transforming her home into an animal shelter, Leila similarly refuses to accept life under the austere conditions in post-María Puerto Rico. Instead, she develops infrastructure to respond to the needs of her community. One such need was housing for animals whose owners had died or been forced to relocate. Leila responds to this issue by rescuing animals from across the island and caring for them until they can be adopted. She says, “From September [2017] to January [2018], it was 68 dogs that I rescued from the street.” While these forms of refusal vary greatly, both highlight the impossibility of living under the “coloniality of disaster” (Bonilla and LeBrón 10). They also reveal how communities have historically developed responses to fight against injustice by pushing back against colonial oppression.

Similarly, the AREPR adheres to Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s framework of refusal, which outlines strategies for hearing the personal narratives of marginalized peoples. In particular, Tuck and Yang assert that “analytic practices of refusal provide ways to negotiate how we as social science researchers can learn from experiences of dispossessed peoples—often painful, but also wise, full of desire and dissent—without serving up pain stories on a silver platter for the settler colonial academy, which hungers so ravenously for them” (812). Refusing can take many forms: using trauma-informed interview strategies, focusing on structural inequalities rather than individual experiences, emphasizing failures to respond to injustices rather than the injustices themselves, and keeping sensitive information private rather than making it available for public consumption. By following these codes, we advocate both for sovereignty—designing our project to meet the needs and values of the community—and active listening—recognizing and honoring the expertise of our community partners in an effort to remove colonial notions of tellabilty as much as possible. This is one way academics can demonstrate their dedication to communities and circumvent consumerist models of community engagement.

We have a responsibility to uphold climate narratives engaging in “refusal,” or the rejection of settler control. According to Tuck and Yang, “To refuse settler sovereignty is to refuse the settler’s unquestioned right to know, and to resist the agenda to expand the knowledge territory of the settler colonial nation” (812). Refusing settler knowledge means uplifting climate stories that counter Western power systems, highlighting alternative ways of knowing, protecting information of vulnerable communities, and/or proposing new solutions for the impending climate crisis. For settler scholars, this may mean that we need to remove ourselves from certain stories, as not all stories are for us. Doing so resists “[s]ettler codes [that] express the putative right of the settler to know and thus to govern all the people, land, flora, fauna, customs, cultures, sexualities in his seized territory” (Tuck and Yang 812). 


This article has examined notions of tellability and untellability in post-María Puerto Rico by tracing notions of resilience, recovery, and refusal in the “AREPR” video. Doing so offers one example of sovereignty-centered storytelling that challenges traditional notions of ownership and expertise. In particular, centering the expertise of the video’s participants demonstrates how the conditions of disaster and recovery are inseparable from histories and ongoing practices of colonialism, capitalism, discrimination, and activism, as Soto Vega similarly argues in this issue. Their words invite viewers to practice active listening, an act that challenges traditional notions of expertise by valuing lived experience. Rhetoric and composition scholars are uniquely positioned to understand this shift in expertise and its effect on texts, audiences, and contexts. As such, we can implement active listening strategies into our own research and pedagogy—including trauma-informed interviewing techniques, culturally engaged curricula, reflection activities, and a broader culture of care—to challenge our own notions of expertise and to teach our students and communities to do the same.

While the stories within this video focus on Puerto Rico, they also bring attention to how disasters are weaponized and leveraged by those in power and how similar crises are increasingly frequent as the effects of climate change worsen. We already are seeing these issues at play in the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments’ early responses to COVID-19—centering corporate interests to the detriment of public health and safety. In response, the “AREPR” video and the larger AREPR offer us new ways of relating to the pending climate catastrophe by foregrounding stories previously deemed untellable and by implementing project design strategies that elicit, encourage, and exhibit these stories. Although these stories offer insight into the lived experiences of those living in climate hot spots, they also ask us to shift our notions of the ethical and humane by laying bare the injustices of colonial policies.

As rhetoric and composition scholars, we have the opportunity to advance such models—indeed, we must—to intervene in the harmful disaster response strategies that already are encroaching on our lives. There are many ways to document climate stories and injustices present across the globe. Our field can and must engage with climate stories to make sustained rhetorical interventions in broader conversations pertaining to settler colonialism, Indigenous sovereignty, environmental racism, coloniality, disaster, and social justice. As Dustin Edwards observes, “[t]he ethical promise here is that stories can generate new kinds of rhetorical engagements for collective flourishing on a damaged planet” (69). I propose we take his argument one step further: Stories are tools through which to dismantle coloniality. Stories can challenge notions of tellability, sovereignty, and expertise that ask us as researchers, teachers, listeners, humans to envisage new possibilities for the future and the future of our communities. This is a political act.

[1] In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein discusses elite and exclusive conferences where billionaires determine how best to address the coming climate catastrophe. Often, these decisions are influenced by self-interest—participants are hesitant to place their current and future profit margins at risk. Moreover, they tend to ignore the risks posed by their proposed solutions, particularly if the negative consequences will be felt largely by marginalized groups. Their position as leaders in global climate discussions, therefore, is problematic.

[2] Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish depending on the preference of the interviewee. All interviews were recorded on two Panasonic Lumix G7 DSLR cameras using directional microphones to ensure we had redundant copies of each file. These tools were chosen so that we could achieve high audio and video recording quality while maintaining portability and ease-of-use.

[3] This project will expand to include all three of Puerto Rico’s inhabited islands—the main island, Vieques and Culebra. The “AREPR” trailer is a compilation of the María Memory Bank’s first offerings, including stories from residents of San Juan, Mayagüez, Yabacoa, Barranquitas, and Trujillo Alto.

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