SPEAKING OUT: Puerto Ricans are treated as second class

By Joshua Phelps
The Scene staff

The residents of Puerto Rico are not “illegal aliens.” They’re U.S. citizens. It’s time we start treating them that way.

In a Morning Consult poll, only 54 percent of Americans knew that Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens.

Fifty-four percent!

Even before Hurricane Maria, the U.S. commonwealth was struggling. It filed for bankruptcy in May to deal with its $70 billion debt. The unemployment rate was 11.7 percent.

Puerto Ricans can’t vote in elections for U.S. president or Congress, so they have no political clout.

Maria hit hard on Sept. 20. Nearly a month later, many people feel the U.S. government hasn’t responded adequately. Some 85 percent of the island remains without power.

Many roads are inaccessible, and roughly 80 percent of crops are gone. Water supplies also have been contaminated.

The official death toll stands at 48 people, but it’s believed to be much higher.

As time passes without power and access to critical supplies, Puerto Ricans are tired of being treated like “red-headed stepchildren.” (A term my Southern relatives are fond of using.) They want equal treatment more than ever.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. military are on the ground, working to rebuild the electrical grid and delivering food and water. But it’s still a disaster.

I reached out to Jorge Maldonado, vice president of the non-profit Puerto Rican Society in St. Louis.

At a Central West End coffee shop, he didn’t seem outraged about the U.S. government response to Maria, considering it came on the heels of hurricanes in Texas and Florida.

Maldonado doubts that the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority can restore power by March, as predicted. His family is using a diesel generator.

“March sounds like an ambitious, pie-in-the-sky goal more than a realistic goal,” he said.

The society normally hosts social events and gives scholarships to Latin American college students. But now it’s raising money for hurricane relief.

“We realized that we’re going to have to help ourselves,” Maldonado said.

So how has President Donald Trump handled the crisis?

He paid a visit to the island and threw rolls of paper towels to a crowd. It’s like he was telling them to clean up their own mess.

Trump later had the nerve to tweet, “…We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!”

Trump isn’t wrong. FEMA can’t stay forever, but its involvement in hurricane relief has lasted for years in Louisiana and elsewhere.

Trump also tweeted, ‘“Puerto Rico survived the Hurricanes, now a financial crisis looms largely of their own making.’ says Sharyl Attkisson. A total lack of accountability say the Governor. Electric and all infrastructure was disaster before hurricanes.

Congress to decide how much to spend….”

All this may be true, but I thought, “Why kick a horse when it’s down?”

Trump even had a feud with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who tweeted, “your comments about Puerto Rico are unbecoming of a Commander in Chief they seem more to come from a ‘Hater in Chief.’”

Maybe Trump is a hater. Maybe he just hates being criticized. Clearly, he knows little about Puerto Rico’s history and hardship.

The island became a U.S. commonwealth after Spain lost the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Instead of offering residents the same rights as other Americans, the United States sidelined them as part of an “unincorporated territory.”

U.S. interests supported a sugar-based economy, causing the coffee industry to collapse, leaving many people in poverty.

Puerto Ricans had no legal standing as U.S. citizens until 1917, when the Jones-Shafroth Act was passed. This allowed the United States to send their men to defend the Panama Canal during World War I.

Puerto Ricans could go to war for America, but they still didn’t have basic citizenship rights, such as voting.

A hundred years later, the island is facing one of its greatest challenges.

Maldonado said it hasn’t been easy for the Puerto Rican Society to get supplies to people in isolated areas, mainly because of road damage and debris.

The society has partnered with local organizations, but communications is difficult because of power outages.

“Those on the island that have internet communicate with each other and tell each other where to go for goods,” Maldonado said.

How can you help improve quality of life in Puerto Rico? Donate food or money. Maldonado also stresses the importance of LifeStraws, which filter contaminated water.

The Puerto Rican Society will hold a fundraiser from 6 to 10 p.m. Oct. 23 at Bar Italia in the Central West End. The cost of $20 includes a buffet-style dinner. For more information, call 314-262-6284.