The ground is buckling under my family's feet in Puerto Rico, as though an earthquake were rattling the entire island.
The earthquake is a collapsing economy. Stores are shuttered in San Juan. Businesses are leaving the island. Jobs disappear without warning. The "official" unemployment is 12 percent, but the real unemployment is closer to 25 percent. From 1996 to today, 160,000 factory jobs dwindled to 75,000. In 2010, the government laid off 33,000 workers. Right now it owes $73 billion. Governor Garcia Padilla says he can't pay it, and the island is this close to bankruptcy.
At first, none of this affected my cousin Adail Nieves. Born and raised in Caguas, he was taking computer classes and ready to work hard—at anything. He lived in a rented room and kept his overhead very low. AdaÃl was going to make it. Every night, he'd sit at the window with his computer books, and read by the light of a streetlamp. He kept his books in a soapbox nailed to the wall, and a poem was nailed above them: Rudyard Kipling's "If."
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you"
Adail kept his head. He cooked rice and beans on a hot plate, ironed his pants by placing them under his mattress, and sewed patches on them. He made the rounds of government employment offices in San Juan, Rio Piedras, Caguas, Cataño, Guaynabo, Dorado, Naranjito, and Bayamón. He entered and exited the gleaming bank buildings of Hato Rey, and criss-crossed the sixteen piers of San Juan Harbor. The steadiest job lasted three months: cleaning boat hulls in Las Croabas. Otherwise, Adail was lucky to work one or two days per week.