Hieronymus Bosch. c.1575. Christ in Limbo. Indianapolis Museum or Art. Wikimedia Commons.

Notes From the Puerto Rican Limbo: Introduction

In my upcoming series of stories, I will share my take on the most pressing issues and the ideas we use to tackle them, filtered through the triplethink lens of the Puerto Rican limbo in times of COVID and civil unrest.

Story by Javier A. Román-Nieves. Edited by Melaina Dyck
United States, Northern America
Published on September 12, 2020

Reading time: 4 minutes



With our chairs stacked away and everyone standing randomly in the middle of the classroom, students from the United States were asked to line-up against one wall, while those from all other countries did the same on the opposite side. This walking-across-the-room group exercise was part of a diversity workshop for incoming students at Yale School of the Environment. A facilitator asked questions designed to have participants self-identify and repeatedly realign according to their differences, displaying the group’s heterogeneity. That particular question–whether you were from ‘here’ or not–was very simple and warranted a straight-forward answer. Unless you came from one of the unincorporated territories possessed by the US, as is my case.[1]

So, I remained standing in the middle of the room, awkwardly stared at by everyone, including the facilitator, who asked where I was from. Puerto Rico, I responded. He immediately understood my predicament and went on to explain our colonial, second-class citizen status to my fellow classmates. Explaining, after all, would be part-and-parcel of my experience at Yale and beyond. I have had to answer questions from ‘why you are eloquent in English?’, to ‘why you are always raging about colonialism or sometimes glad of disarray in the US?’ Existing as a Puerto Rican in my islands' ruling metropolis implies constant explaining.

After grad school at Yale, I took a year off to rest and finish personal projects. Now, as a Puerto Rican job searching in the worst time possible, I feel as if I were still in that workshop, standing in the middle of the classroom. As colonial subjects, Puerto Ricans live in a political limbo: we are born on US soil and granted US citizenship, but lack many of its accompanying constitutional rights. Here, we are expected to make an impossible choice: stay in the US and pretend to join the political decision-making–while risking cultural assimilation–or, return to our islands and pretend to administer the colonial regime–while clutching a fluid identity. The caveat is that, whatever we choose, Puerto Rico's colonial status lingers on. Those who reject the false choice, like myself, find ourselves living in a suspended state.

That is where remaining in the center of the classroom–not entirely from the US and not entirely from a sovereign nation–requires exhausting mental gymnastics. As a friend once said, Puerto Ricans here must constantly engage in a sort of triplethink[2]: we navigate official US policy that we are citizens while being treated like foreigners and, at the same time, we navigate the reinterpreted views of these issues by folk back “home.” I filter all narratives—from my university, the media, political establishment—through all these lenses simultaneously. Widely discussed concepts used to understand environmental and social problems also go through this triple-thinking. Postcolonialism, for example, acquires whole new meanings if you have not surpassed colonialism to begin with.

In this upcoming series of stories, I will join other Correspondents of the World by sharing my take on the most pressing issues and the ideas we use to tackle them, filtered through the triplethink lens of the Puerto Rican limbo in times of COVID and civil unrest.


[1] The US still holds 13 unincorporated territories, which include Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and eight other Pacific Islands. For more info see: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-territories-of-the-united-states.html

[2] ‘Triplethink’ is a play on George Orwell’s concept of ‘doublethink’ and refers to thinking and navigating multiple contradictory viewpoints at the same time.


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Javier A. Román-Nieves

Javier A. Román-Nieves

Puerto Rican currently based in New Haven, Connecticut.

Javier A. Román Nieves is an artist, writer and natural resource manager. He obtained a first master’s degree in architecture from the University of Puerto Rico in 2004, and a second one from the Yale School of the Environment in 2019. Javier combines skills from the human dimensions of environmental management, ecosystem conservation and GIS mapping into a unique practice located between land management and environmental communications. He likes to photograph birds and stars, and thrives at the intersection of humans and nature.

See some of Javier's work here

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