New York’s Reply to the Devastation of Puerto Rico: “It is Private to Us”
Alejandro Torres had no hope of boarding a flight from Puerto Rico or even speaking in person to an airline employee. Even so, he returned to the San Juan airport, as hot and crowded as it was: the terminal there was one of the few places where his cell phone could pick up a signal, which tied him to the life he is returning to in New York had to city.
Meanwhile, Marina Reyes Franco was stuck in New York and desperate to return to San Juan. After the hurricane that decimated Puerto Rico, flights home were repeatedly canceled. She spent her time volunteering to fill duffel bags with supplies that – at least she thought – would make it to the island before her.
“I’ve never lived here,” Ms. Reyes Franco, an art curator, said of New York City, where she stopped on her way back from a business trip to Mumbai. “I think I am now a temporary resident. I am not here on vacation. I just can’t go home. “
New York City is approximately 1,600 miles from Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, and for the many people waiting for a seat on a rare round-trip flight, those miles have never been so far. After Hurricane Maria brought the island to the brink of humanitarian crisis, its devastating reach has in some ways extended to New York as it has forged lasting ties with Puerto Rico for generations.
“I would say New York is a community in Puerto Rico,” said Torres, who left the island for the city at the age of 19 and is now a project manager for a nonprofit organization. “It’s like any other town in Puerto Rico. It’s really, really connected. Almost everyone here has a family there or nearby. “
As a global capital to which every country and culture apparently has a delegation, events in another world can reverberate in New York. After a football victory, it can be a cheer. Or it could be the agony of turbulence or a catastrophe abroad. For months after the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, the Haitian community in New York sheltered relatives and sent back money and supplies. Similar relief efforts were organized after the recent earthquake in Mexico.
But now a combination of historical ties, the extent of the destruction and a feeling that the American government is not mobilizing nearly enough to match the calamity that has befallen its own citizens has wounded a particularly deep wound in the Puerto Rican diaspora.
In long-standing enclaves in East Harlem and the South Bronx – and well beyond, in a region with a Puerto Rican population about half the size of the island itself – people have followed reports of the storm with fear and fear Destroying communities, robbing residents of electricity, running water and the ability to communicate with the outside world. They have made an effort to track down relatives and have found some consolation in stopping muted phone calls. And they have taken action: When officials in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey rallied aid and deployed forces, community groups and individuals undertook their own relief efforts and even flew back with chainsaws in their bags.
“We deal with our stress and our own kind of silent hysteria,” said Ms. Reyes Franco, “by really focusing on bringing some resources together.”
In the days following the storm, it became increasingly clear how extensive the damage is and how much it will take for Puerto Rico, an area that was sunk in financial crisis before the storm, to recover. And it’s a recovery that tests the island’s relationship with New York.
Some Puerto Ricans in New York are trying to return to gathering aging parents or have offered relatives and friends the limited space they have in their cramped apartments. City officials are preparing for a flood of people in the coming weeks – “I would be surprised if that were fewer than the thousands,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters.
“We can’t do enough for Puerto Rico,” said de Blasio this week. “We always have to do more. We have to go to Puerto Rico in the long run. That’s part of us. Puerto Rico and New York City have been united for generations, and we owe it to the people of Puerto Rico who got a raw deal in so many ways. We owe it to them to improve. “
The response to Hurricane Maria reflects Puerto Rico’s connection to New York, which spans decades and touches politics, business and culture. “It’s personal to us,” said Governor Andrew M. Cuomo at a press conference announcing aid. “In addition to a government or ethical obligation, it is a personal obligation.”
The bond grew after World War II, when air travel made it easier to travel to New York City, which soon became one of the largest Puerto Rican populations in the world, spiritually related to East Harlem or El Barrio. Florida’s population has grown in recent years, but New York’s place as an “epicenter” has not yet been dwarfed, said Edwin Meléndez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.
Of the 5.4 million Puerto Ricans who live in the 50 states, about 1.8 million live in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, according to 2016 census data.
“Right now, New York is New York,” said Meléndez. “New York is always the center of the diaspora.”
For the city’s political leaders in Puerto Rico, this meant pushing for support at the local, state, and federal levels while taking a personal toll. Ruben Diaz Jr., the president of the Bronx county, noted that he has family members he hasn’t heard of and others stuck in hard-to-reach places.
“We lean on each other,” said Mr Diaz in an interview.
Over breakfast one recent morning at Corsi Senior Center in East Harlem, the crowd poured themselves a cup of coffee and nibbled on toast while sharing stories and photos of their family’s experiences after the storm and their concerns about what would happen the coming months.
Norman Irizarry’s daughter and grandchildren were in San German, a town in the southwest of the island. Her house was flooded and his daughter was difficult to reach.
“I’m sad because I don’t have any space here in New York to house her and her children,” said 75-year-old Irizarry, frowning thick salt and pepper eyebrows. “I can’t even send her anything. The mail doesn’t work. San Juan is not coming out. I feel bad.”
Iris Cirino, 72, wore a hat that said Puerto Rico in bold red, white, and blue letters, and pulled up pictures of a relative’s house on her cell phone, with shattered bright yellow wooden spikes and doors that remained after the walls collapsed have you been. Her brother’s house fixed it, she said, but he is a diabetic and has no access to his medicines, running water, or electricity.
For her family, unlike some others, leaving for New York wasn’t even a consideration at the moment – “Because you’re Boricua, Boricua,” she said, referring to a Puerto Ricans name with a little pride. If anything, since the storm Ms. Cirino has felt the attraction of a home that she left decades ago.
“I came here when I was 13 but I’m still a Puerto Rican,” she said before adding, “I wish I could go now.”