Foreground, from bottom left to top right: Daniel Alvarado, Marcel Castro, Jose Diaz, Aura Jirau, Triana Merced, Jorge Sanchez, Yaysa Sanchez, Yilda Sanchez, Sofia Zayas. (Photos courtesy to each of them respectively; Background photo courtesy of Daniel Alvarado)
Carnegie Mellon University

Puerto Rican Perspectives: Politics, Hurricane Maria, and the future

In the middle of the Caribbean sits an archipelago of islands lined with sandy beaches, palm trees and turquoise seas. Centuries ago, the Taino natives who lived there called it Boriken, meaning “land of the Valiant Lord,” according to the Manataka American Indian Council. Because of Spanish colonization in the 1500s, Boriken today is better known as Puerto Rico, Spanish for “rich port.”

Centuries later, eyed by the U.S. primarily for its military strategic value, Puerto Rico became a U.S. commonwealth after the Spanish-American War. Although its residents are U.S. citizens, they cannot vote in general elections and do not have voting representation in Congress. Political factions in Puerto Rico are divided into pro-statehood, pro-independence, and pro-commonwealth (the status quo) camps, according to Britannica

In 2017, Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico with nearly-Category 5 winds, devastating its infrastructure, including knocking out its electrical grid. The government response to the storm at both the federal and local level were widely panned as being woefully inadequate. A study commissioned by the government found that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of the hurricane and its aftermath.

This summer, nearly 900 pages of private Telegram chats between the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello Nevares, and several close associates inside and outside of his administration were published by a local newspaper.

In them, they mocked others in vulgar terms, casually joked about using violence on a political opponent, and even made fun of people killed by Hurricane Maria, according to CNN. The chats also allegedly revealed a multimillion dollar corruption scandal involving the governor’s associates, according to Puerto Rican publication Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, or Center for Investigative Journalism. 

The chats were a fuse that lit the bomb of pent-up anger in the Puerto Rican community over long-term government corruption. Spontaneous, massive, mostly-peaceful protests erupted across Puerto Rico and the mainland US and eventually all over the world with one goal: to oust Rossello from the governorship.

The protests extended to social media: versions of the hashtag #RickyRenuncia (“Ricky Resign”) trended online for days. He finally announced his resignation near the end of July. 

Political fights and nastiness are one thing. But there’s no question that the conduct of public officials and the competence of the policies they make impact the lives of ordinary people greatly. This much is clear when interviewing ordinary Puerto Ricans.

The people who talked to HS Insider for this article have very different life stories, but they all love Puerto Rico deeply and agree that a significant political change is necessary to better Puerto Rico’s future. 

A common theme they hoped would become reality is decolonization, which for many Puerto Ricans means changing Puerto Rico’s status relative to the U.S. to either statehood or independence.  

Some, like budding historian Aura Jirau Arroyo and nonprofit director Jose Diaz, passionately support independence and see it as the only way to achieve a better tomorrow for Puerto Rico. 

Jirau, a sixth-year University of Pittsburgh PhD candidate with personal and familial roots in Bayamon, Lares, and Utuado, is currently working on her dissertation on the history of student activism at the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras and its ties to the Puerto Rican independence movement. Like the student activists she is researching, Jirau supports independence as she feels that independence is “the only true decolonizing status option the archipelago can acquire.”

Unlike Jirau, Diaz, a Puerto Rican New Yorker, supported statehood growing up. But as Diaz began to learn more about the mistreatment of Puerto Rico by its colonizers, he began to tilt toward a pro-independence view, although he does harbor serious doubts about whether and when that would be feasible. 

Others, like Carolina native and University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez electrical engineering professor Marcel Castro Sitiriche, are more comfortable with statehood. However, when elaborating on his views he does not invest his argument in a specific outcome and instead sees sovereignty, both politically and resource self-sufficiency, as the most important aspect that Puerto Rico needs politically.   

Others see the status question as important but secondary to Puerto Rico’s socioeconomic woes, and regard hyperpartisanship on the status question as a hindrance to tackling these problems. People like Sofia Zayas Randel, a biology major at Carnegie Mellon University from Ponce, and Daniel Alvarado Padilla, an electrical and computer engineering major at Carnegie Mellon from Guaynabo, believe that people are wasting time dividing themselves over the status question when status change isn’t a magic cure to all the other problems Puerto Rico faces. Instead, they hope that people will vote based on the candidates themselves.

Hurricane Maria left no Puerto Rican unaffected, and some of the people who talked to HS Insider for this article were affected very deeply. 

For Triana Merced Rodriguez, who calls the mountain town of Aguas Buenas home and currently works at Johnson and Johnson, her family’s story was undeniably altered. 

Merced’s childhood home was in the direct path of Maria’s eye, she said. She had just started a job in Maryland the previous month, and her brother was visiting to celebrate her birthday. When his flight back to Puerto Rico was cancelled, they knew something was amiss. He ended up never returning home. Her father texted her “the roof is flying away, the furniture is flying away from the inside.” After that text, they lost communication with their parents for a month. 

We lost the entire house,” she remembers.  

Their area was so badly damaged that even the government couldn’t get to their home. Instead, the family had to rely on their own strength and resources to rebuild. “I sent all my checks back and little by little with the help of the entire family we are getting back on track,” she recounted. The family only got power and water back early this year.

Like Merced, Yilda Sanchez Vazquez, an electrical engineer working for the US Navy who was born in Guayama and raised in Salinas, lost her family home to Hurricane Maria. It was clear to her that both the federal and local governments failed the people in the recovery process.

She recalls with anger how FEMA only gave her family $3,000 for the home, calling this an “insult.” Not only that, the bureaucratic process was extremely inefficient. Her parents were approved for a federal Small Business Administration (SBA) loan, but the family has not even received the full amount of money from the loan. 

“SBA is very incompetent,” Sanchez lamented, citing, for one, how often the loan manager handling their case was changed — in August 2019 they got their eighth manager.

Today, two years after Hurricane Maria, she is still helping rebuild her family home. 

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Triana Merced, left, and Yilda Sanchez, right, lost their family homes to Hurricane Maria. The bottom right shows the Sanchez family’s progress in rebuilding their home as of this summer. (Photos courtesy of Triana Merced and Yilda Sanchez)

Yaysa Sanchez Salinas, a dessert maker who was born in San Juan but lived in Trujillo Alto until October 2017, provided a longer-term perspective on why Hurricane Maria has been especially traumatizing to Puerto Ricans. 

“[M]y generation has lived Hugo, Hortense, Georges, and Jeanne. . .but [has] never seen something like Maria,” she reflected, referring to storms that made landfall in Puerto Rico in 1989, 1996, 1998, and 2004, respectively. For one, the damage was particularly catastrophic after Maria — Sanchez described it as “opening the door of the house to a war zone”. 

Sanchez had once done research at the NOAA on El Nino and hurricane trends in the Caribbean. She pointed out that unlike most previous hurricanes, Irma and Maria strengthened further away from Puerto Rico and thus made landfall as stronger hurricanes. The major storms in 2017 was a phenomenon that she said “[the Puerto Rican people] had never seen before,” at least certainly not in this generation. 

Sanchez also noted that the government response was better in previous storms, criticizing both FEMA’s and Rossello’s administration’s response to Maria as “acting like rookies.”

“I remember for Hugo and Georges that the blue [tarps] from FEMA were already distributed [two] or [three] days after [the storm],” she pointed out, while post-Maria, she saw empty supermarket shelves and long lines to get cash. 

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Yaysa Sanchez’s street, before and after the hurricane. (Photos courtesy of Yaysa Sanchez)
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Empty supermarket shelves in the wake of Hurricane Maria. (Photo courtesy of Yaysa Sanchez)

Nearly two years later, Puerto Rico’s struggles during the hurricane, magnified by the government’s corruption that led to systematic failures during the recovery, became the fuel that galvanized the protestors in the streets demanding change.

Alvarado attended the historically large protest in San Juan that shut down the main highway into the city. He had been initially hesitant about the demands for Rossello’s resignation since there was no guarantee that Rossello’s successor wouldn’t be worse. What tipped him over into supporting #RickyRenuncia, however, was the chats’ revelation that Rossello actively manipulated hurricane aid for his own political benefit and that he had made fun of the dead. “I will not tolerate a governor who has complete disregard for his people,” he insisted.

Diaz attended a sister protest for #RickyRenuncia in Pittsburgh. He loved the fact that the people there were both protesting and celebrating Puerto Rican culture.

“They danced bomba, waved the Lares revolution flag and the black-and-white iteration, and they sang the original version of ‘La Borinqueña’, otherwise known as the resistance anthem,” he recalled.

For him, the magnitude and unity of the #RickyRenuncia movement was “beautiful” and “nothing short of historic.”

“It put the world on notice,” Diaz said. 

Jorge Sanchez Garcia, an undergraduate at Brown University from Carolina who attended protests in Boston, noted that it was “specially amazing” to see how the movement was mostly led by youth, women, and LGBTQ people.

“People are realizing the power that they possess when acting efficiently, loudly, and without fear,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez contended that this sends a powerful message to all politicians in Puerto Rico that they have to listen and respond to the people’s needs or else be forced out of office.

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Protests for #RickyRenuncia happened in many locations. Clockwise from top left: San Juan, Puerto Rico; Austin, Texas; Boston, Mass.; Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. (Photos courtesy of Daniel Alvarado, Triana Merced, Jorge Sanchez, and Marcel Castro)

Many Puerto Ricans felt euphoria and pride after Rossello’s ouster, but it is also clear to them that corruption in Puerto Rico was not erased by ousting one governor.  

A main area the Puerto Ricans interviewed criticized was the mismanagement of government funds.

[New leadership] should reevaluate where the administration is cutting funds from, like the schools and University of Puerto Rico, and cut back from other places that are overly funded, like high ranking [government] positions,” Zayas said.

Yaysa Sanchez similarly insisted that many officials whom she sees as unqualified who were appointed solely because of partisan or familial ties should be removed from their positions.  

Many of the people interviewed also called for the rejection of the unelected fiscal control board, PROMESA, imposed on Puerto Rico by Congress due to its debt crisis, as well as the austerity measures PROMESA has imposed.

Many see PROMESA as undemocratic and as something that has hurt people’s quality of life.

“All the schools that closed following the enactment of PROMESA… which many will tell you was an abysmal failure that was at least partly responsible for [Puerto Rico]’s destabilized infrastructure pre-Maria,” Diaz said.

Instead, they wanted more transparency and accountability in the government and a better way to address people’s basic needs.        

Yet, despite everything, Puerto Ricans’ resilience has never wavered. Merced is someone who exemplifies this trait. She feels that it is “terrifying” that she sees no future in Puerto Rico for herself, and the events of recent months have left her feeling hopeful, joyful, and confused simultaneously, she said.

But despite the hardships she has endured, she succinctly uses this Nipsey Hussle song lyric to sum up many Puerto Ricans’ outlook on the future: “never let a hard time humble us.”