Our president went on another rant last week about Puerto Rico. I’d rehash it but whenever I do a murderous shriek starts ringing in my ears — causing blood to come out of my nostrils, tear ducts, and…wherever (Don’t you just love a classic callback?). Suffice it to say it was yet another insult (in a long series of vindictive, inaccurate, and offensive statements) aimed at the people devastated by Hurricane Maria.
It’s been a year since the hurricane touched down on Puerto Rico’s shores and recovery has been ongoing. And slow. And mostly ignored on the mainland. But last month — when a George Washington University study revealed that the death toll on the island was close to 46 times the original estimate and the official number was changed to 2,975 people (for context 1,833 died in Katrina and 2,977 due to the attacks on 9/11) — it re-entered the collective consciousness. In doing so, it became a renewed target for our president’s alternating rage at those who question or oppose him and delusions of grandeur.
“I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico,” he told CNN with a straight face. He said this shortly after hearing the news that the death toll makes Maria the deadliest natural disaster on U.S. soil in a hundred years. And that’s when the shrieking began.
I’m Puerto Rican. Or half. My father was born on the island but moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn with my grandparents and his five older siblings in the 50s. Their story is the classic American dream, my grandfather began cutting hair in hotels and eventually moved up to owning his own barbershop. Meanwhile, my father and his brothers and sister were forcibly assimilated into mainland American culture while facing both subtle and blatant racism on a daily basis.
It worked. By the time my brother and I came along, my dad thought there was no benefit in us learning Spanish, so he never spoke it to us. He talked rarely about his childhood and since I grew up in northeast Wisconsin (away from extended Puerto Rican family) where there were few Puerto Ricans, I grew up with little connection to my heritage. I mean don’t get me wrong, I loved West Side Story as much as the next theater nerd — which was, I’m sure, a very accurate portrayal of the Puerto Rican experience — but other than that and a few family weddings here and there where I embarrassed myself on the dance floor, I didn’t have much opportunity to feel ownership of being Puerto Rican. My family did visit Puerto Rico every few years growing up, but I always felt like a tourist. We would do the stuff everyone does. Eat some good food, sit on the beach, visit Old San Juan, drive through El Yunque… I was Puerto Rican and proud of it, in theory, but I also felt like an outsider with no ‘claim’ to the place where my father had been born.
This is a feeling that I think a lot of second and third generation mainland Puerto Ricans in their 20s and 30s share. It’s a pretty place to vacation, but it isn’t ours. Or at least that was how I felt. Post-Maria there’s been a shift. As I watch report after report of how badly on-island Puerto Ricans have suffered over the last year, I have this stirring in me to connect to the island.
Puerto Rico, the place where my father was born, is in crisis and I feel an increasing sense of responsibility.
Because our federal government has failed Puerto Rico.
One frustrating aspect of the loss of life in Puerto Rico this year (aside from the lack of government transparency) is that so many of the nearly 3000 deaths were preventable. Thousands of people have died in the aftermath of the storm due to things like sepsis, inability to refrigerate their medications, heat, nearby hospitals being closed, and the power to run breathing devices. So while some in the federal government have praised themselves on the 10/10 response and insist (still) that Puerto Ricans should be thanking them, the reality is that our government failed Puerto Rico. And it’s a little hard to believe that racism didn’t play into at least some part of that failure.
Take the way the federal government responded to the two hurricanes that hit just before Maria. Texas and Florida, hit by Harvey and Irma respectively, received far more aid (even though Maria was a stronger storm with higher wind speeds). Frontline in conjunction with NPR, found that, when you compare the numbers in the nine days after the storms, there are drastic differences in the responses. For instance, during that period, Puerto Ricans were supplied with 2.8 million liters of water. Harvey’s victims received 4.5 million liters and Irma’s, 7 million. Puerto Ricans also received about one-tenth of the food as Irma victims. And while they needed hundreds of thousands of tarps, Puerto Rico was supplied with just five thousand. That’s in comparison to the 98 thousand Florida received after Irma. In terms of boots on the ground, in the nine days following the storms, ten thousand federal disaster relief personal arrived in Puerto Rico. Harvey had 30 thousand.
And it was only this month that power was finally restored to the last customers on the island — ending the longest, largest blackout in American history (and second in the world). It’s hard to imagine any other Americans in the country going that long without such a basic need. Puerto Ricans are American citizens but, as the numbers show, less worthy in the eyes of the government to receive full aid after a disaster.