When my parents came back from Puerto Rico after doing repairs on my grandmother’s house, they told me they saw an island without any hope. The devastation caused by Hurricane Maria was inescapable. There was nowhere to escape the damage that had been done. This was in the Summer 2018, about 8 months after the hurricane hit. It has now been a year since their visit, and the island I’m witnessing on this research trip is nothing like that.
Photos taken by Fernando Romagosa (2019)
What I’m seeing is bumper to bumper traffic from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. as Puerto Ricans go to their various occupations. I’m seeing students and young professionals exerting themselves for the benefit of the island. Everywhere you drive, there are posters saying “Puerto Rico: No Me Quito” … “Puerto Rico: I’m Not Leaving.” This island is still suffering; after almost two years there are still 30,000 homes without roofs. However, few, if any, are wallowing in their sorrows. The Puerto Rico I’ve seen this first week here is nothing short of inspirational and gives me hope that this island will come out stronger than it was before.
The interviews I conducted this past week have supported what I saw last week around the island. Many of our participants were hopeful about the island’s future. Most believe that the youth will take responsibility for the broken system they inherited. And those that didn’t express outright hopefulness mentioned a few things that needed to be done to come out on top. And honestly, I think that’s a hidden way of saying they are hopeful. Though they aren’t getting their hopes up, they feel like fixing a few (yet major) problems would help Puerto Rico prosper. They see a way out, but don’t have faith that the people in power will do the right thing. Personally, it is still too early for me to develop any conclusions on the state of the island.
Photo taken in Toa Alta. Captured by Fernando Romagosa. (2019)
Something that has surprised me during my time here is how personable and open almost everyone is. Government officials, if able, will take some time out of their day to answer any and all of our questions. The majority of folks in their home too. We never have to look around that much to find a willing interviewee. People invite you into their homes and treat you more like a close acquaintance or friend than any regular guest. Although a lot has been destroyed on the island, new community ties have been made and many feel like there is the potential for Puerto Rico to thrive.
To say that the problems Puerto Rico faces are multifaceted is an understatement akin to saying that oceans are big or that tuberculosis is bad. They’re all true, but there’s not real understanding of the magnitude. I previously understood that there was no easy solution to issues here, but I always blamed the lack of self determination imposed on the island by the United States. I’ve now learned that this is just one variable in a complicated equation which has resulted in the financial downfall of the island and, arguably, its not the most important one either. The interviews this week, with both Directors of the Agency of Emergency Management and private citizens, have revealed to us that the biggest issue the island faced after the hurricane was the mismanagement of aid. The causes for this? Gross incompetence by federal agencies, as well as rampant corruption within all levels of Puerto Rican politics.
The gross incompetence by federal and central government agencies came from a total lack of preparation. When FEMA agents came to one municipality, they were told that the destruction had affected the entire municipality. When FEMA agents asked specifically where the destruction had occurred, municipal workers took them down the few roads which could be driven on and demonstrated the totality of the destruction caused by the hurricane. Despite this, many folks complained about disorganized services from FEMA; many families were visited by multiple FEMA agents, with each one starting that family’s case from scratch as if no agent had come before, often times giving different verdicts on whether aid would be given. Some even complained that, while the agents were Puerto Ricans, they were not well informed on how to evaluate damages, leading to rejected claims or insufficient support. There is one thing, though, that we heard from every Director and citizen; no one was prepared for the extent of the damage that the hurricane caused. Municipal and central government plans were ineffective, and, due to the deep financial crisis which Puerto Rico is in, neither could afford to fix roads or provide housing for homeless folks. The federal aid given to 3.2 million United States citizens was insufficient. Both private citizens and local municipalities had to request funds from FEMA because they can’t afford their own repairs two years after the hurricane has passed. While these financial issues can all be traced back to US control on the island’s economy, Puerto Rican politicians are mainly to blame for the maldistribution of aid.
Photo taken in Utuado. Captured by Fernando Romagosa. (2019)
One participant said “en Puerto Rico no hay políticos, hay politiqueros. No hay política, hay politiquería.” This translates to “In Puerto Rico, there are no politicians, just individuals playing at being a politician. There are no politics, just people playing at politics.” Everyone has heard stories of mayors withholding supplies from the populace to give them to their friends, allocating aid to areas with more voters, or theft of aid entirely. One of the most egregious we heard was of a mayor who kept generators from his constituents to run his own restaurant. Suffice to say, when asked about these instances, many participants were saddened, but not surprised. Other participants complained about the bureaucracy that private aid had to go through before it reached the public. Even when NGO’s tried to send aid, the aid would often fall victim to corrupt officials that would withhold the it from where it was needed most. Some Directors even told us stories of funds they had requested from FEMA months after the hurricane not appearing, even two years after the hurricane. They were told the funds had been sent, but the money was lost in the ether. Its not unreasonable to say, nor is it unfair, that FEMA might withhold funds knowing how inefficient the aid has been due to corruption. While participants also mentioned many other factors for the current state of the island, many, if not all, were still hopeful that the island would succeed. This hope came with a heavy price. Many participants stated that Puerto Ricans could come out on top, but only if they stopped relying on any form of government, became self sufficient through sacrifice, and helped others in their time of need. The hurricane revealed that Puerto Rican citizens are more than willing to complete the third clause, but whether they will be come self sufficient through sacrifice will still have to be seen.
Talking to the Puerto Ricans on the western coast and in the middle of the island revealed many complexities that I believed existed but was, for lack of a better word, ignorant to. However, the most surprising thing I’ve learned throughout this week has been how Puerto Ricans see themselves in relation to their U.S. citizenship. Last week, when asked how they felt about their American citizenship, most answered that they felt discriminated, forgotten, and left behind. This made total sense, as I was unaware of the corruption that many participants talked about which affected the distribution of aid which Puerto Rico received. I never expected, when asked this question, that Puerto Ricans on the western and central parts of the island would tend to answer that they were not only happy and thankful for their U.S. citizenship, they also said that they felt secure as U.S. citizens. When prompted to explain, most described how they were Puerto Ricans, but that their U.S. citizenship granted them liberties which were not seen around the world. They would then present examples of other Latin American countries, such as Venezuela, as well as Caribbean countries like Haiti, as examples of the security that the United States government provided. Despite having uneven and disorganized aid from the federal government, they were appreciative for the little that they received. Though all agreed there was more to be done on the island, few said that they believed that the U.S. did not provide enough. They were fine with what they received. Fewer still believed that they deserved more. Puerto Ricans don’t identify as U.S. citizens; how they conceptualize their citizenship, however, still remains to be seen.