Puerto Rico (PR) is a tiny island in the Caribbean, measuring 100 miles east to west and 35 miles north to south. In 1898, after the Spanish-American War, under the Treaty of Paris of 1898, Puerto Rico came under the sovereignty of the United States.
With the westward expansion of the 19th century, the US established ‘incorporated territories’ that could and did become formal American states – like the Colorado Territory. But, in 1901, a series of legal opinions known as the Insular Cases argued that Puerto Rico and other territories ceded by the Spanish were full of ‘alien races’ who couldn’t understand ‘Anglo-Saxon principles.’ Therefore, the Constitution did not apply to them, and Puerto Rico became an ‘unincorporated territory’ with no path forward to statehood. (Becky Little, PR’s Complicated History with the US).
Puerto Ricans received U.S. citizenship in 1917, and Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth in 1952. A Commonwealth, in very simple terms, means PR is not a state and has a non-voting representative in Congress. It has its own Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, however, the U.S. Congress federally controls Puerto Rico, which is why PR is considered a U.S. territory. As per the 2011 President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico, the White House clarified that “under the Commonwealth option, Puerto Rico would remain, as it is today, subject to the Territory Clause of the U.S. Constitution” (puertoricoreport.com).
Spanish and English are the official languages of Puerto Rico, and its currency is the U.S. dollar. If we were to classify PR’s relationship with the U.S. on Facebook, it would be “it’s complicated.” And it is very, very complicated!
Without going into details on how they got there (because this is still being discussed), Puerto Rico’s economy has suffered a lot in the past decade or even more. Everyone has an opinion, but no one really has a concrete answer…yet. Its infrastructure has not been able to keep up with the times because there is no money to fix it…well, at least that’s the argument of some. Based on some people’s opinions, the government has stolen money from the people for years. Others say the money just has not been used for the right things. You know how this goes, everyone has their own opinion on why the island is where it is today.
Throughout the years, hurricanes have hit the island quite a bit. The last hurricane I lived through down there was George in 1998, a category 3 hurricane. George came in kind of like Maria, from the southeast crossing the whole island and exiting through the northwest. The devastation I saw in 1998 was pretty bad. But, three weeks later, power was restored and life went back to normal. Three weeks – that was it!
A month or so ago, we were hit with Irma. Some never lost power, some lost power for a day or two, some lost power for a week or a bit longer. Life went back to normal pretty quickly here, too, after Irma. I clearly remember all the Facebook posts of people (me included) complaining about having no power. Our kids were constantly asking when was wifi coming back. Adults were asking the same thing, let’s not fool ourselves!! Also, I clearly remember how this community came together and helped each other in our time of need. It was pretty great to see how we helped each other out and even better getting to know all our neighbors.
Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 27. As I am writing this article, it has been 25 days since Maria hit Puerto Rico. As of today, 18 bridges and 26 of the main routes of the island are closed to traffic. There are 5,141 people and 90 pets in 106 shelters. 59% of the people have a little bit of cell signal, and of the 1,619 cell towers, 690 have been repaired. 15% of the people have power. Let me be clear on this last one, power is being restored by priority. Hospitals first, state buildings next, etc. It is not 15% of people like you and me. The governor of Puerto Rico announced that by Oct. 30, 30% of the people will have power; by Nov. 15, 50% of the people will have power; by Dec. 15, 95% of the people will have power. Obviously, these are estimates.
I often find myself wondering if it would’ve been acceptable, after Irma, for Florida Gov. Rick Scott to throw these dates and percentages at us, and if we would’ve been just fine with that. I find myself wondering if we would’ve seen people outraged at the thought of not having power for 11 weeks and 2 days.
As it stands right now, Puerto Rico is at a standstill because of the lack of power. For all kinds of reasons, companies have begun to fire people because they can’t afford employees anymore. Businesses that depend on sales have begun to get very worried because people are starting to be unemployed = no money = no sales for businesses. The economic repercussions this storm will have on the island will be immense. Remember how we all worried about the small businesses in Lake Nona being closed for a week after Irma and how we all flocked to them when they opened because we all knew they had taken a hit? Yeah – this is not an option in PR right this moment.
I speak to my family and friends down there every day. Every day, before I touch base with them, I have to take a deep breath to get ready for the conversation that’s about to follow. This is a small sample of the conversations I have with my mom:
Me: hola, all good?
Mom: hola…..well….I had to stand in line for 7 hours to get a bag of ice and had to leave because I couldn’t stand in the heat anymore. OR well…(she lives in an apt where generators are not allowed) some neighbors have decided they are going to have generators and the smell is terrible. OR well…..the Puerto Rico you knew is gone. It will be at least 10 years for it to go back to what you knew. Everything has changed.
Me: Mami, let me get you on a plane and come here for a few days.
Mom: No….I can’t leave. I have to stay.
Every day, I have the same conversation with my mother. EVERY DAY! The conversations with my friends don’t differ too much. One of my best friends is a dialysis patient, and she had to leave the island because the hospital ran out of diesel and couldn’t get any quickly enough to give her treatment. She was lucky to get a flight out – that’s another issue! Flying out is not simple.
Puerto Ricans in Orlando have thrown themselves at helping PR. I have never seen anything like it. We hosted a 5k a few weeks ago, and 2,000 came and donated money and supplies. Puerto Ricans in Orlando are doing everything we can to help not only the island but the people who are now starting to make their way to Orlando because who can deal with a humanitarian crisis day in and day out?
This past week, I volunteered at the airport’s Welcome Center where there is a whole area dedicated to guiding these displaced families. I saw what a humanitarian crisis looks like. I had never seen the aftermath of a disaster like this one. People sat across from me crying, desperate, helpless, confused, hopeless. People were showing me pictures and videos of what once was their home. I am no doctor, but I could see these people were suffering some degree of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Grown men were crying and choking over their words because their families are displaced. What is going on in Puerto Rico is a HUMANITARIAN CRISIS!!!!! We can’t ignore that! We can’t sweep it under the rug because it’s inconvenient for us. This is about fellow U.S. citizens in a humanitarian crisis.
There are ways to help! Go search on Facebook for Re-build Puerto Rico, which is an effort I am leading to help people in the island, but also to help those Puerto Ricans coming into our community. I also am posting genuine, legitimate efforts that need funding to do epic work bringing supplies to remote areas of the island.
Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory…you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story [from Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda]. What we can control is how we react to the crisis that is in our faces.
For more information on how you can help, email firstname.lastname@example.org.