Puerto Rico: Heartbreak, love and determination

Ninth Precinct police officers helped collect items for Puerto Rico disaster relief on E. Third St. last Saturday. They accepted canned foods, such as beans and soup, along with diapers, baby food, batteries, first-aid supplies and feminine hygiene products. Photo by Rebecca White

BY PUMA PERL | I was raised in Gravesend, Brooklyn. I just happened to be there, as if I’d disembarked from a long train ride at some random location. Eventually, I found my home on the Lower East Side and my spiritual center in Puerto Rico. It wasn’t until I began to carry Puerto Rico in my heart that I understood the concept of passion and love for a homeland. My daughter has strong connections with her Boricua side, and she spent all of her childhood summers in Bayamón. I did not want her to grow up estranged, as I had.

The news of Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that tore through the island on Sept. 20, threw many New Yorkers into shock. With no working infrastructure, reaching loved ones was impossible; some are still waiting, although many telephone lines are finally up in towns beyond San Juan.

People desperately sought ways to cope with the onset of fear and anxiety. On the news, the president stated, “Texas and Florida are doing well, but Puerto Rico was obliterated.” When asked if he would visit, he said, simply, “Yes.” In the end, he did finally visit on Tues., Oct. 3.

Protesters outside Trump Tower Tuesday evening called on the president to respond more rapidly and appropriately to the dire emergency in Puerto Rico — and stop insulting the island and its people. 

The word I hear from people most often is “heartbroken,” but it has not prevented them from mobilizing. The morning after the storm, my neighbor Carmen Gomez Gonzalez was home worrying about her mother, who lives in Isabela, a town in the northwest region.

“I had to do something,” she told me. “I called my sister and my friend and we brought a table downstairs, put up some signs, and that was it.”

For four days, residents on the block passed by, donating the items most desperately needed, and offering cash to purchase more. Through it all, Carmen had no news. A week later she learned that her mother is safe. Carmen is focusing her energy on getting to Puerto Rico. The closest airport, in Aguadilla, does not accept passenger flights, so she is trying to figure out how to make her way from San Juan.

My friend Eric Morales, a Brooklyn native, has become familiar with travel barriers. He experienced the agony of missing family members and, upon locating them, the red tape of negotiating flights home. His sister, Yvonne Morales, and her girlfriend were vacationing in their mother’s town, Ceibas, when the storm hit. Their mother has multiple health issues and might not have survived had Yvonne not been there.

Morales and his wife, Rosa, worked tirelessly on travel arrangements, dealing with astronomical costs — which have since dropped — and finding ways to get the family to San Juan. They refused to see the expense as an issue.

“I’ll just work more,” Eric told me. “I’d swim there to get my girls home.”

It took 16 hours for them to make it home, not including the long wait at the airport, but on Sept. 27, they arrived. While this is a positive outcome for the immediate family, they don’t view it simply as a happy ending.

“If I didn’t have to bring my mom home, I would have stayed and helped,” Yvonne said. “I felt guilty getting on that plane while so many are suffering.”

A cousin who is in the military has reported back about the catastrophic conditions.

“We are planning to go in a few weeks,” Eric said. “My uncle in Ponce is in a second round of radiation and needs treatment. Pastor Raymond Ramos [another Brooklyn friend] is down there now and I’m trying to help him set up a relief base for distribution. There have been babies with no food, sick people without medication. It’s a nightmare. People need to know.”

From left, Brenda, Carmen and Rosalinda collecting donations on Water St. Photo courtesy Brenda Luciano

Shipping and distribution, especially during the first week, were obstacles not easily overcome. The goods collected in my building were brought to the Puerto Rican Family Institute. They delivered them to the National Guard. But it was still impossible to move the arriving crates past San Juan to towns and camps across the island.

Also frustrating was the president’s refusal to waive or, more appropriately, abolish the Jones Act, a 1920 regulation requiring that goods shipped by water from the U.S. mainland to Puerto Rico only be done by American-owned boats. He had promptly waived the act for Texas and Florida. His tweets about the hardship it would cause the shipping industry angered many.

“Texas and Florida are doing well,” Trump tweeted on Sept. 25, “but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from weak infrastructure and massive debt, is in deep trouble… .”

On Sept. 28, it was reported that, under congressional and public pressure, as well as a formal request from Puerto Rico’s governor, Trump waived the act. The celebratory bubble burst quickly at the news that it would only be for 10 days. Lawmakers have been pushing for a one-year waiver in order to speed deliveries to an island that may be without electricity for six months or more.

The president’s communications reached a new low when he began a Twitter war with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz after she requested more help. Trump accused her of “poor leadership quality” and the community of “wanting everything done for them” and cautioned the citizens, still without power, not to watch “fake news.” A photo of Cruz wading through sewage with a bullhorn searching for survivors quickly went viral.

Poets / performers Nancy Mercado, left, and La Bruja at La Marqueta in East Harlem. Photo by Puma Perl

Despite the lack of a unifying leader, for New Yorkers the fight goes on. Collections and benefits are underway, particularly in areas with large Latino populations. I’ve touched base with many corners in addition to my City Council District 1 neighborhood, where signs announcing collection sites are everywhere. On Mon., Sept. 25, I stopped by a tremendous collection outside the Sunset Park office of Assemblymember Felix Ortiz, who was also searching for two family members. The following evening, I attended Barrio Poetix Hurricane Relief Benefit in East Harlem’s La Marqueta, a night of poetry, music and art. Tables surrounded the space to accept donations and sell contributed artwork. During a break, I asked performer and sponsor La Bruja, how they were transporting the items.

“That’s the problem,” she responded. “I spoke to my aunt in Manatí. They are running out of food, drinking polluted water, the animals are dead… . They need our help now.”

During the event, performer Maria Aponte, the founder / president of Latina 50 Plus, and board member and artist Mia Roman announced a $500 donation from their organization.

District Leader Daisy Paez, left, and Rachel Birch at the Educational Alliance. Photo by Puma Perl

On Thursday, before attending the Emergency Rally for Puerto Rico at Lower Manhattan’s Federal Plaza, I visited Daisy Paez, a newly elected Lower East Side Democratic district leader, at the Educational Alliance’s Manny Cantor Center on East Broadway, where she works. It’s also a collection site, spearheaded by Rachel Birch, the settlement house’s director of donor engagement and special events. I asked Paez about coordination of collections and collaborative efforts in our neighborhood.

“Right now, agencies and churches are all involved independently,” she said. “I had a call from a rabbi yesterday too, asking how he can help. What I am working on, with my partner, David Maldonado, is a very large fundraiser which will include well-known musicians. We need to do it on a grander scale.”

This conversation led me to reflect on the lack of visibility of City Councilmember Margaret Chin. I have not sensed her presence or found any statements or analysis, despite the fact that District 1 is 25 percent Latino, primarily Puerto Rican. I spoke with Marian Guerra, Chin’s director of communications, who stated that the councilmember’s office was supporting the community initiatives and working with Paez to secure a date and venue for a large event.

Many are determined to continue the struggle, but more than a willing spirit is needed. As poet / educator Bonafide Rojas stated, “When Puerto Ricans are referred to as a ‘resilient’ people it’s because we had to be, not because it was something we wanted to be. When people speak of resiliency, you are unconsciously letting a corrupt government, a colonial power, incompetent leaders, puppet politicians and an infrastructure that is decades old and overdue for repair off the hook… . We are an oppressed people. We as Puerto Ricans want respect, sovereignty, dignity, human rights and freedom to choose our future!”

Upon this writing, two of my daughter’s Bayamón family members have yet to be found. Do not let this story slip into the back pages. This writer does not recommend specific charities, but urges you to carefully research your choices and to support local efforts.

Palanté, Siempre Palanté!