An exhausting time to be Puerto Rican

  • Providing some relief: Jennifer Lopez wears a giant Puerto Rican flag as she and daughter Emme Maribel Muniz perform during half-time of the Super Bowl on Sunday in Miami (Photograph by Charlie Riedel/AP)

    Providing some relief: Jennifer Lopez wears a giant Puerto Rican flag as she and daughter Emme Maribel Muniz perform during half-time of the Super Bowl on Sunday in Miami (Photograph by Charlie Riedel/AP)


Being a Puerto Rican has never been more exhausting. So, if you heard a loud cheer on Sunday night when Jennifer Lopez wowed the Super Bowl crowd by unveiling a Puerto Rican flag during what is likely to be the most watched television event of the year, that may be why. It was a small glimmer of hope for a community that hasn’t been that hopeful recently.

The little hope Puerto Ricans had from an historic 2019 summer, when a sitting governor dramatically left office, has vanished just six months later.

The tangible belief in a political transformation that would elevate the US territory to a place where it would finally be taken seriously has disappeared and bowed to the status quo reality: a dazed and confused island-colony still searching for purpose and respect in a post-Hurricane Maria world.

Since the Earth started shaking on December 28, it has been clear that Puerto Rico will never be the same again — and still the quakes continue. The most destructive ones from January 6 and 7 have devastated several towns, including Ponce, Guánica, Guayanilla, Yauco and Peńuelas.

The US Geological Survey predicts more activity, although decreasing, for the next 30 days, while another major earthquake struck last week near Jamaica and Cuba.

For more than a month now, Puerto Rico has been living with earthquakes that haven’t stopped yet. The result has been loss of power, loss of water, damaged homes, millions of dollars in property damage and thousands of people displaced from their residences.

Only 20 per cent of Puerto Rico’s public schools are open owing to fears that schools are not up to seismic code. It’s as if Puerto Ricans are living through Maria again, but only this time, it seems like the end is nowhere near, even though images of people “cancelling” out January and celebrating February are being shared widely.

It took Donald Trump close to a week to issue a major disaster declaration for the area most affected, and even though more money will start coming in to help those in need, it remains that Trump wanted “reforms” as conditions or that his administration continues to hold back hurricane relief money for a storm that hit Puerto Rico in 2017.

Trump, a compulsive tweeter, has yet to mention the present situation in Puerto Rico since the strongest earthquakes hit early last month. That alone shows how little the island matters to him: he simply doesn’t care.

Unless, of course, you could be so cynical as to suggest there is a reason that news of the major disaster declaration came on the same day that Vice-President Mike Pence was talking to a small group of Puerto Rican supporters in Florida.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico governor Wanda Vázquez, who assumed office after Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation, is facing her own problems, ever since news surfaced this month that relief warehouses were never used to help people displaced by the earthquake.

Since that report, Vázquez has been doing damage control, firing government officials for what she said was incompetence, but then admitting that she always knew about the warehouses.

Vázquez had no real answer for why Puerto Rico has received $1.53 billion in federal grants, but has spent only $34 million for Hurricane Maria damage. Congress has approved even more money, $20 billion, and Trump has tried to block some of it, but the local government bears some blame, too.

The Vázquez mess prompted the Trump camp to repeat old claims that Puerto Rico is one of the most politically corrupt places in the world, as Donald Trump Jr made sure to point out, as if that excuses failing to treat the island’s residents like the US citizens they are.

The island does have a history of political corruption — you can blame that on a disconnected political class — but that history should not be held against the millions of Puerto Ricans who are the ones who have suffered on so many levels.

Historically, Puerto Rico’s political class has perpetuated a colonialism that has enabled the interests of their US colonial masters, so naturally Puerto Ricans are sceptical of Vázquez, a Republican surrounded by fellow Republicans, such as Puerto Rico’s non-voting representation in Congress, resident commissioner Jenniffer Gonázalez, and José Carrión III, the head of Puerto Rico’s Fiscal Control Board, who is also part of the Trump campaign’s official Latinos for Trump board.

It doesn’t help Vázquez’s cause, either, when she says she will “trust God and the Virgin Mary that a major catastrophe will not occur” in response to questions from Puerto Rico’s Centre for Investigative Journalism about poorly planned local responses to emergencies.

The governor, it seems, would rather push the easier narrative of resilience than begin to look at how Puerto Rico was never really ready for earthquakes and to explore how to respond to them.

She would rather say that people are “happy” about the Government’s response and make sure she tells people that she has been there since the quakes started happening.

Her visit to yesterday’s State of the Union might win some public relations points, but it will not gain much traction, either.

Resilience should not be the end goal here, although it’s true that the only way Puerto Ricans have survived is through the compassion the community has shown to each other.

It happened during the bleakest days of Hurricane Maria, and it is happening now during the earthquakes. Trust in local government and the federal government is low. Faith in fellow Puerto Ricans is high, but how long does that have to last? Don’t Puerto Ricans deserve better?

In talking and texting with countless Puerto Ricans, both on the island and in the diaspora, since the early days of these latest quakes, I found a pending sense of uncertainty and anxiety that was different from even the days of Maria.

The ground was still shaking; even though people in most of the island’s areas that the quakes didn’t rock seem to be heading back to normal; fear and a sense of a loss of control still linger. People are tired. They feel ignored and forgotten.

Enter J. Lo with a Puerto Rican flag, and it helped a bit. At least until the exhaustion returned.

Julio Ricardo Varela is cohost of the 2017 Webby-nominated In The Thick podcast and senior digital editor of LatinoUSA.org, the website for NPR’s Latino USA, a 2014 Peabody-winning show anchored by Maria Hinojosa and produced by The Futuro Media Group

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Published Feb 5, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Feb 5, 2020 at 8:35 am)

An exhausting time to be Puerto Rican

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