I lived in Puerto Rico for five years before I went to college. My mother, of Spanish and Taíno descent, was married to an ambitious accountant and veteran. They had decided to join a great migration of Puerto Ricans from New York back to the island in the mid-1970’s, when it seemed for a little while that this U.S. territory was economically on its way up.
The whole island was a lush environment with world-class beaches, such as the surfer’s love spot in Rincόn; the disco/gamblers’ heaven in El Condado; and the almost surreal escape to ancient times in the mountains of El Yunque. The downside, though, was that P.R. was slowly getting padded over through the decades with cement-block homes with oversized cement patios, sidewalks, streets, highways, and cars, many, many cars.
While we lived there, we joked about el tapόn de Bayamόn, which meant “the traffic jams,” which were extreme in an area known as Bayamόn. We joked about how P.R. was always been behind the times, especially when it came to television viewing, where we were still watching Laugh-in while, stateside, Americans were watching Saturday Night Live.
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria destroyed that throw-back lifestyle by ruining 100% of their electrical grid. Maria catapulted the island back to the 19th century, far more behind the times than I could ever have imagined.
Except in the San Juan metropolitan area, where food and water was first distributed and done so quickly, if you travelled only fifteen minutes outside of the city, you could easily see that Puerto Rico had been plunged backwards over a hundred years ago. Maria made it so that it was no longer uncommon to meet people, even over a week out from the hurricane, who had not received help, save for their neighbors.
Puerto Rico’s residents for the most part began to live a lifestyle that I had only heard of in stories. My mom would tell me how she foraged for water chestnuts, a crunchy prize in the town in which she was born, Guaraguao, which in English means chicken hawk. From the stream behind her home, they pitched fresh water into huge metal pots for cooking. Washing clothes and bathing in that stream were regular activities. In the videos I was watching on the news, that’s what Puerto Ricans were doing once again.
I shook my head into my hands when I heard the mayor of Aguadilla say, “yes, of course we need help,” and I witnessed Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez cry on live video. I cried too when I saw San Juan Mayor Carmen Cruz, who had herself been sleeping on a cot, beg for help. She told us, “I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles.” She added, “Mayday. We are in trouble.”
I rolled my eyes when listening to P.R. Governor Ricardo Rossellό say over and over again, something like, “We need help but we’re okay … We need aid but we’re doing well … and … We need help but we’re getting it now but we still need help.”
He did, however, finally issue a warning, two times: once on September 24 and then again on October 1. During the latter warning, he told reporter David Begnaud that mainland Americans, especially in heavily Hispanic regions, need to be aware that if the amount of aid provided doesn’t match the extent of the disaster, there could be “a mass exodus” from the island.
Puerto Ricans have always been known for their migrations en masse, a phenomenon one doesn’t see in any of the U.S’s 50 states. It’s something that is as unique to P.R. as its coquís but it’s not as beautiful. The U.S. wracks P.R. with excessive trade rules and economic games which in turn cause the cost of living to be in the outrageously high stratospheric level in a population where half the people live under the poverty line.
The exodus actually has already started. Hundreds, if not thousands, have already left the island. My cousin was one of those who helped in that endeavor.
He flew to Puerto Rico, grabbed his mom, and left on a cruise ship. She’ll be living with him in Maryland until … who knows? I heard reports too that on the west side of the island, people were leaving by ferry to the Dominican Republic, then taking flights out from there.
It was exactly what happened in Texas and Florida after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. People left. They didn’t have an ocean with which to contend but many left.
Then many came back but that was only because they could. Puerto Ricans who leave may not have that same luxury.
On Day Seven of P.R’s recovery, I put together a care package for a friend of mine. USPS told me that they could not guarantee a delivery date.
On Day Eleven I finally got mad when I read a series of tweets posted by U.S. President Donald Trump putting down all of the islanders high and low. First he criticized Puerto Rico’s debt and infrastructure issues, as though Puerto Ricans weren’t aware, and he did this during a time of crisis. Then that same POTUS, who increasingly refers to himself in the third person and seems to reserve the word “nasty” for female targets, criticized Mayor Cruz for being “nasty to Trump.”
He continued by criticizing Puerto Rican government workers, yeah, those same people who couldn’t help because they lost their beds, their homes, their animals, food, water, communications, cars, gas, public transportation, and their roads. He then criticized the people of Puerto Rico for not engaging in “a community effort,” when that is all Puerto Ricans have been doing since Day One of their recovery efforts.
They setup community-based, fresh water systems with PVC piping and got water running through these pipes on the mountain-sides all over P.R. They battled sludge contaminated with wastewater and dead animals, and they began cleaning and burying their dead; and they were doing this entirely by themselves.
Then to pour salt onto Puerto Ricans hearing all this criticism, Trump pointed out that his laggard response to the island was because it was “totally destroyed.” Yes, Mr. President, that’s what Cat 5 hurricanes do to little islands in big oceans.
The military was ordered into P.R. eight days after Maria hit in spite of the fact that it was obvious by Day Three that they were needed. What information did Trump receive on Day Eight of the recovery that made him suddenly realize that P.R. needed military help? Was it that the distribution effort was not going anywhere? As planned?
With his behavior, it begged the question; did the president even know that Puerto Ricans are American? Reporters apparently need to tell us this about every five years because 50% of Americans still don’t know. After all these decades, since 1917 to be exact, Puerto Ricans have been American citizens, without voting power, but Americans nonetheless.
Did We Do Enough Fast Enough?
In Davenport, Florida, our U.S. representative is none other than super-P.Rican Darren Soto, the first Puerto Rican by the way to serve in Congress from Florida. About Maria, Soto remarked, “We’ve invaded small countries faster than we’ve been helping American citizens in Puerto Rico.”
Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré’s take was this: “The president has shown again that he don’t give a damn about poor people, he don’t give a damn about people of color. That SOB who rides around in Air Force One denying services needed by the people of Puerto Rico,”[i] deriding Trump for calling a certain, black NFL player a “son of a bitch.”
Here They Come!
Ever since Mayor Cruz put out her Mayday, P.R. has been inundated with politicians in seeming preparation for the imminent exodus, one that could rise to the hundreds of thousands. Florida Governor Rick Scott was one of those rubberneckers, I mean, politicians.
According to the Miami Herald, “Scott’s six-hour tour Thursday was dismissed as a photo opportunity by state Senator Victor Torres … [who] will soon welcome tens of thousands of hurricane evacuees.” BTW, Scott arrived in Puerto Rico with neither a crumb of food nor a drop of relief supplies on his plane.
Starting on Day Thirteen of P.R’s recovery, October 2nd there’ll be about 40 flights a day leaving San Juan International Airport. The mass exodus has already begun.
The Undercover Puerto Rican
[i] Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré was commenting on Trump’s initial inaction on lifting the Jones Act.