Why We Have to Keep Fighting for Puerto Rico

An Interview with Eva-Marie Quinones, Head of National Youth Engagement for the Unity March for Puerto Rico

By Stephanie Presch, Content Specialist, UnidosUS

On November 19, UnidosUS participated in the Unity March for Puerto Rico. The march was held on the day that marks Christopher Columbus’s arrival on the island to reclaim the date in solidarity with the Puerto Rican people, who are still suffering more than 60 days after the impact of Hurricane Maria.

The march drew support from politicians such as Congressman Luis Gutierrez, Senator Kristen Gillibrand, and Congressman Joseph Crowley, as well as celebrities such as Chef Jose Andres and composer and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Today, more than two months since Hurricane Maria hit the island, there are still thousands who lack electricity, clean water, have to stand in line for medical care, and cannot send their children to school.

Eva-Marie Quinones is a doctoral student at Yale University and the Head of National Youth Engagement for the Unity March for Puerto Rico.

While the House approved a $44 billion relief package, this money is meant to be split between Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s also estimated that Puerto Rico needs more than $90 billion for adequate relief — so this package falls woefully short.

Following the march, I spoke with Eva-Marie Quinones, a PhD student in Political Economy and Comparative Politics at Yale University and the Head of National Youth Engagement for the Unity March for Puerto Rico about why the march was organized and why it’s important to keep fighting for the island.

“It was a protest that disaster relief was improperly responding to Hurricane Maria, and it was a protest that Puerto Rico would not be in such a bad position if it were not treated so unequally.”

How did you get involved with the Unity March?

EQ: I got involved with the Unity March in mid-October; after learning the march would be occurring I contacted Evelyn Mejil (who organized the march), and asked if there was anything I could do to help.

She conducted a group phone interview with me, and afterwards, contacted me about becoming Head of National Youth Engagement so we could encourage more college students and young professionals to attend and fight the perception that Puerto Rico is a stale issue that only one generation cares about

What was your favorite thing about participating in the Unity March?

EQ: It’s hard to pick my favorite thing, but I think it would have to be the amazing people I met. Not only was everyone on the National and State Committees extremely hardworking and efficient, they were also some of the kindest, most loving people I’ve ever met.

Though some of them knew each other from previous experiences, they welcomed me warmly and treated me like family. Because there’s such a need for follow-up to the Unity March (both legislative and more activism-centered) I really hope I can work with them again in the future.

Lin-Manuel Miranda addressed the crowd.

Why do you think it was important to have the Unity March?

EQ: The people of Puerto Rico have long been suffering as a consequence of the institutional structure of the U.S. territory system. Even putting aside past abuses, (which include sterilization without informed consent and bomb testing in Vieques), Puerto Ricans pay many kinds of federal taxes, but receive far less in social services and federal aid than Americans on the mainland. They can’t vote. Public education and health care systems are generally underfunded and lacking, and the poverty rate is nearly four times the national average.

There was already ample reason to march for Puerto Rico and protest the fact that they’re treated as second-class citizens, but Hurricane Maria really amplified these problems.

The destruction of the island was far worse than it should have been because many buildings were poorly constructed, and the federal government has been slow to provide FEMA relief and restore power and clean water.

The food aid has been absurd — people have been receiving boxes of Snickers and M&Ms as legitimate “meals.”

We are about 60 days out from Hurricane Maria and about 55% of homes don’t have power.

The Jones Act has made it impossible for Puerto Rico to accept aid from other nations and created a U.S. monopoly on goods that raised prices on an already poor population. This is easily as bad as or worse than Hurricane Katrina (though I hate to compare tragedies), where the government also failed its people.

This was really a protest on two levels: first, it was a protest that disaster relief was improperly responding to Hurricane Maria, and second, it was a protest that Puerto Rico would not be in such a bad position if it were not treated so unequally.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

EQ: Going forward, people need to continue to show they care about Puerto Rico. You can’t march on Sunday and say on Monday, “I did my part and now I’m done.”

Because the legislative process is fairly slow and this will definitely be an uphill battle, so those of us who can vote need to keep using our political capital and make it known that we won’t settle for a tweet about Puerto Rico and instead need to see real change.


Originally published on the UnidosUS Blog on November 20, 2017.