From Trust to Betrayal, the Power of the Puerto Rican Voice

Apr 29, 2019
11:59 AM

Fajardo, Puerto Rico a few days after Hurricane María (Photo by Dennis Rivera Pichardo | Center for Investigative Journalism)

They say in life it’s the ones you love that hurt you the most. That accurately applies to Puerto Rico’s recovery effort after Hurricane María devastated the island almost two years ago. The expression shows how the United States government, an entity we trust our faith, love, money, and safety in, failed to make an adequate response and recovery plan for Puerto Rico after María, hurting the island and its people. Lots of people do not care about our plight anymore because they live in bubbles of their own perspective, reinforcing their beliefs and attitudes toward us. While love and trust can turn to betrayal, it shows the power of the Puerto Rican voice.

A Post-María World

The betrayal of Puerto Rico’s on the recovery effort hurts to this day. In Puerto Rico, 60,000 homes have “blue tarp” fixtures on their rooms because the original roofs were blown off during María. The tarps are temporary fixes until a permanent roof is completed. Another 166,000 homes are under repairs or reconstruction. For a long time after the storm, people across the island lacked clean water and reliable power after María destroyed the power grid which limited the amount of clean water available. Depression and anxiety run rampant across the island and the refugees fleeing it as they grapple with the fact that they lost their homes, businesses, cars, jobs, livelihoods to a storm with little hope of a quick recovery. In fact, about 30 to 50 percent of the survivors of the storm suffer from PTSD.

After María, like most disaster relief efforts, FEMA was tasked with responding to the storm and leading the recovery effort. In fact, this is the longest FEMA operation ever. When it came to housing aid, FEMA showed how an organization trusted with people’s livelihoods can end up prolonging a people’s suffering. Of the thousands of people who applied for FEMA housing assistance, 62% were denied aid by FEMA. There are two reasons why. The first reason is that FEMA required that all applicants for housing aid apply online. The problem with that is that the island did not have power for months: meaning that many could not apply. FEMA officials did not think to have paper applications.

The second reason many applications could not get their aid is that FEMA required a deed to the property before aid could be given. The issue is that deeds are not commonly carried in Puerto Rico, with properties passed down from generation to generation. For those that do get aid, they find that it is not enough to cover the expenses of repairing their homes and lives. The average amount is $2,300 for home repairs, desperately low for the costs of roof repair and replacement furniture.  Like an unworthy lover, FEMA betrayed its trust to the Puerto Rican people and prolonged their ability to move forward in life after María.

The Politics of Disaster Relief

Time and time again, Puerto Rico’s trust loyalty is betrayed as its situation is exploited for political gain. There is about $20 billion in aid that is approved but not authorized for spending. Meaning the money is virtually useless for any type of aid. President Trump also approved $13 billion in relief aid for repairing infrastructure damaged by flooding in Iowa and Nebraska without fail. However, when it comes to the aid needed to repair Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, Trump constantly complains about the amount needed. Puerto Rico makes its own money, about $105 billion a year in gross domestic product alone. Puerto Rico is an unincorporated organized territory, meaning it belongs to but is not part of the United States. If there is one place Puerto Rico should get its money, it’s from the United States.

Trump and the rest of the politicians in Washington use disaster relief aid as a political football in order to curry votes. Specifically, H.R. 268 which would give about $600 million for food stamps in Puerto Rico. The states get food stamp aid on an ongoing basis. Puerto Rico, however, gets its food stamp aid in a lump sum payment only once a year. The $600 million would help feed hungry people on the island that need food, those still struggling to get their lives on track. While this is not the first time Puerto Rico’s suffering is used for political gain, it stands to be one Boricuas learn to recognize the power of their voice.

The Ones With the Good Hearts Hurt Most

Puerto Ricans are a resilient people with strong, kind hearts. Unfortunately, as in life, the ones with good hearts suffer the most. The ones with the good hearts help the most: this is true for Puerto Ricans—from the early veterans of World War I who fought bravely despite being forced to be citizens of a nation that they did not want to belong to. The cultural contributions that Puerto Ricans bring to America continue to be ignored to this day. The ones with the good hearts trust the most: this could not be truer with the Puerto Rican faith in the U.S. government in the immediate days after María. We waited for the government to rescue us from the destructive hurricane-force winds only to be disappointed when the government left thousands of packages of bottled water by the airport from being distributed. We hoped the government would be able to bring us power quick and efficiently after we were living in the stone age for a year.

The ones with good hearts give the most to those they trust. From World War II to the War on Terror, thousands of Puerto Ricans have fought and died so America could be free from tyranny. However, we have had a long history of tyranny here on the island with governors like Blanton Winship ruling over the island like a dictator. When our diaspora left Puerto Rico for the mainland United States looking for opportunity only to find racial oppression and marginalization when they arrived in the Northeast. Often betrayed by their white counterparts when treated as foreigners and not citizens, in their (supposedly) own country. This brings the last experience of the good-hearted into perspective.

We hurt the most.

Puerto Rican history is full of pain bringing empowerment. FEMA’s terrible response to Maía and Trump’s political posturing and insensitive tweets are nothing more than the latest chapter in the Isle of Enchantment’s history with the United States. One where America acts as an unworthy lover, taking Puerto Rico’s trust and love for granted, plundering its natural and human talent, abusing it for self-gain, and neglecting Puerto Rico when it is inconvenient to help it.

The federal government is the one we trusted most and the one that hurts us most The United States hurt Puerto Rico when it failed to repair the islands power grid when María demolished it. The United States failed its fellow Americans when it left thousands of boxes of bottled drinking water outside instead of getting it to those who needed it. Trump hurt us when, despite being so afraid of having a “Katrina moment,” bragged about the death toll is 64, when it really was 3,000. Trump hurt us when he said the recovery effort was an “unsung success” when it really was a major let down creating a massive exodus. Lastly, Trump failed us when he used our suffering to play politics, by always authorizing money to places like Nebraska and Iowa when needed but not Puerto Rico when it was our turn for some aid. It always seems like America always has money for the national security of its interests but not for the national security of keeping its most vulnerable citizens from suffering natural disasters. Puerto Rico hurts because it gives to the “trusted” United States but receives little in return.

It Is Not Their Eyes That Are Blind, But Their Hearts

We all live in a bubble of perspective. These bubbles can be formed by the school we went to, the experiences we have had, or the community we belong to. The problem of bubbles is that it limits our perception of the world and others in it. Bubbles make it harder for people to see the suffering others go through or how real their pain is. This makes it harder for those that are suffering, particularly those that suffer at the hands of another, to get their word out. It’s hard to understand pain without experiencing it. So, the saying goes, we give you our pain —not to hurt you— but to show you our pain. Imagine what must be going through our people’s heads when Trump questions aid for us but not for Iowa, or Nebraska. Imagine how it feels that the weather forces you to abandon your home and move to another part of your country to start from scratch as if you were an immigrant. Imagine you sitting in your home now, without power, or food, or running water for days, weeks, months while your government considers you the “other country.” You would be in tears if you felt our pain.

We are used to the pain, but we are not the only ones. Other people of color get this treatment daily, but our bubbles often limit our ability to see that. Native Americans when they lost their land. Immigrants when they are told to “go home” because they are from a different culture. Women when they are judged by their bodies and not their character. Blacks, when they are shown their lives, don’t matter. Our experience showed us that America, the one we trusted most, will let us down, with its top leader bitching about why we need more money in our time of need.

Using Our Passion and Sacrifice as a Bridge to Hate

It’s one thing to see the one you love and trust love another, it is worse when you realize that your love and suffering is a bridge to get the person you trust most to the one they love. Trump and the alt-right love the old America, when it was dominated by the “good ole’ boys.” Older white men who only care about furthering their interests and subjugating women and people of color. Trump has repeatedly clashed with people of color of all races, once calling white supremacists “very fine people.” Trump openly advocates denying Puerto Rico of aid. Puerto Rican statehood is only acceptable in Trump’s eyes, is if his candidates are electable and in power. Trump fears having a “Katrina moment” in his presidency when he does not realize he has a worse situation on his hands. The pain we go through every day gets worse when you realize this is to make the good ole’ boys Trump is in bed with happy and in power at the expense of us remaining weak, poor and marginalized. While love and trust can turn to betrayal, it also awakens the power, of the Puerto Rican voice.

Power of the Puerto Rican Voice

You will never know your own power until someone has hurt you. We have been hurt countless times in the past and have gotten up and persevered. María will be no different. In Florida, both parties vie for our vote in the past midterm election. Some candidates event came to our community events and town halls. Our power in Florida grows. On the national level, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sweeps Washington with new ideas on how to lead. Trump’s terrible response to María was indeed a terrible thing for Puerto Ricans. As Sun Tzu said in the Art of War, there is opportunity in chaos.

There is still work to be done, we need to take back our lives Hurricane María took from us. We need to embrace the economic redevelopment of our island. We need to start our own businesses, get an education, learn our history, and plan for our future. Keep on the lookout for those that seek to exploit us while we are vulnerable. Our trusted American government has brought betrayal when it failed to adequately respond to our needs, but it is paving the way for the power of Puerto Rican voice to be felt across this nation and the world.


Mark Berrios-Ayala is a Florida Licensed attorney. He is Puerto Rican. You can email him here.