Hurricane Maria a reminder of ‘second-class’ status for some
PHILADELPHIA — Xavier Totti moved to the mainland United States from his native Puerto Rico 43 years ago. He is still asked routinely if he is “legal,” and when he mails packages to relatives back home, he has to fill out an international form.
So, the 65-year-old anthropologist was not surprised by a Morning Consult-New York Times poll that showed more than half of Americans don’t realize that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory — and that its residents are U.S. citizens.
“By now, it’s sort of comical, but it makes me feel second-class, like you don’t belong,” said Totti, who lives in New York City.
Many Puerto Ricans share that view — a sentiment reinforced by what critics say has been a slow federal response to the humanitarian crisis that descended on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
“The response from Congress … has been almost as if Puerto Rico did not exist,” said Jose Cruz, a political scientist at the University at Albany-State University of New York. His mother and sister live on the island.
President Donald Trump’s response “has been inadequate,” Cruz said. “He should have been there last week. Puerto Rico is not a priority.”
As if to bolster that assessment, Trump fired an early-morning Twitter barrage Saturday against San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who had accused the administration Friday of “killing us with the inefficiency” since the storm.
“Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help,” Trump wrote in a series of tweets from his golf club in New Jersey. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”
Critics seized, in particular, on his use of the word “them.” A photograph of the mayor, chest-deep in fetid water as she used a bullhorn to call out to victims, was all over social media — as were images of Trump hitting golf balls.
“She has been working 24/7,” tweeted “Hamilton” star and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “You have been GOLFING. You’re going straight to hell.”
For her part, the mayor tweeted back photos of herself talking with rescue workers, wading through floodwaters and comforting an elderly woman.
“The goal is one: saving lives,” Mayor Cruz wrote. “This is the time to show our ‘true colors.’ We cannot be distracted by anything else.”
The president is slated to visit the island on Tuesday. On Friday, Trump pledged to help Puerto Ricans in the recovery, saying the island “is totally unable” to handle the catastrophe and adding that things are going “as you know, really well.”
“We’ve made tremendous strides,” Trump said. “We have to rebuild. If you look at it, the electric is gone, roads are gone, telecommunications is gone. The real question is what is going to happen later.”
Trump announced the visit after being criticized for going days without tweeting about the Puerto Rican crisis. When he did mention it on Monday, he referred to the island’s “broken infrastructure & massive debt,” its old electrical grid being “in terrible shape” and “billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks which, sadly, must be dealt with.”
FEMA, the agency heading relief efforts, has sent at least 150 containers filled with relief supplies to the port of San Juan since the storm struck. Earlier this week, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said 10,000 government workers are on the ground helping Puerto Rico recover.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat who was born in Puerto Rico, said earlier this week that she was “offended and insulted” by Trump’s tweet. She and other members drew parallels between the federal government’s responses to Maria and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.
“This is Katrina 2017. Let there be no misunderstanding about that,” Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez said Wednesday.
Last week, Trump cleared the way for more supplies and funds to get into Puerto Rico by lifting for 10 days the federal restrictions on foreign ships delivering cargo — a period that some Latino members of Congress argued should last at least a year.
Puerto Ricans have been recognized as U.S. citizens for a century. A majority of them — roughly 5 million — live in the United States, while an estimated 3.4 million live on the island. Puerto Ricans living on the mainland can vote for president in the general election every four years, yet residents of the island cannot, nor do they have voting representation in Congress.
Latino members of Congress have been among the most vocal and outraged over what they have called a delayed response. Eight lawmakers, many of them Latino, sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, linking Puerto Rico’s current crisis to larger problems with federal oversight. They urged the agency to relax shipping restrictions for a longer period of time, and asked that Puerto Rico not be held responsible for sharing recovery costs under normal federal rules.
“The people of Puerto Rico have long been denied the same benefits provided to other American citizens,” the letter read. “Today, the stakes are just too high.”
Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm, the strongest to hit the island in a century. At least 16 people have died. Nearly everyone on the island was left without power and most are without water.
Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, leaving more than 1,800 people dead, and causing damage estimated at more than $175 billion. Then-President George W. Bush was criticized for what some saw as a slow federal response to the humanitarian crisis in New Orleans that followed the natural disaster.
Florida Democrat Darren Soto referenced the prior storm in urging Trump to visit sooner. “Don’t let this be another Katrina,” the congressman said.
“The people of Puerto Rico are dying,” Soto said. “They’re out of food. They’re out of gas. These are American citizens. They pledge allegiance to our flag. They pay taxes.”
On Friday, Cruz, the San Juan mayor, lashed out over Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke’s comment declaring the federal response “a good news story.”
“Damn it, this is not a good news story,” Cruz told CNN. “This is a people-are-dying story.”
On Thursday, Huckabee Sanders said that Trump is actively monitoring recovery efforts and that the “full weight” of the federal government is engaged to get food, water, health care and other resources to people in need.
“Our message to the incredible people of Puerto Rico is this: The President is behind you,” Sanders said. “We all are — the entire country. … We will not let you down.”
Carmen Febo San Miguel, a doctor in Philadelphia and executive director of Taller Puertorriqueno, said she followed media coverage of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria over the past month, including a telethon for victims of Harvey that raised millions of dollars, and wondered where such efforts were for her home.
“If Puerto Rico was a state in the United States, the response would be very different,” said Febo San Miguel, whose organization uses art to promote development within the Philadelphia Latino community. “We are compatriots. This situation has brought to the surface in a very clear way how Puerto Ricans are treated as not American citizens.”