There’s a man in the picture who appears to have nothing. He wears overalls and a hat. His whole face is in shadow but I imagine it to look like pictures from the American dust bowl in the 1930's. This is either a man who has never had a thing of his own or one who has lost it all.
He is also my grandmother’s amazing grandfather who appears in all of her best stories. I feel like I might lose those amazing stories if I stare at this picture too long. They make no sense alongside the utter emptiness of this photo.
My grandmother’s stories include beachside estates and progressive dinners with partygoers riding horses along the beach from one elegant dining table to the next. They roasted a pig for days, in a pit covered by tropical leaves. The stories are opulent and the whole scene is foreign to me. My grandmother grew up on the Virgin Islands. I have a hard time imagining it. The sparkle of these memories, however, always translated, inviting me to see my grandmother as a young girl reveling in the magic. That image matched the woman I knew. My grandmother always believed in magic and that’s how I knew she was from somewhere else.
In the photo of her grandfather, there is a wooden structure behind him. It looks to be made out of scraps and isn’t much bigger than a covered bench at a bus stop. My grandmother noticed when I stopped flipping pages in the photo album. With a flick of her hand, she says, “Oh, that’s after he lost everything in a hurricane.”
Everything. I remember puzzling over that single word. How could her larger-than-my-imagination grandfather be this small man standing in front of a shack of found scraps? Everything. How do you lose everything like that?
Seeing Those Who Lost Everything
Now I know. Recent pictures from Barbuda, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have reminded me of this old photo. Everything is missing. Rooftops. Trees. A clear road out. I have also learned that it was a category 5 hurricane that hit the Virgin Islands in 1928. My great-great grandfather lost his home and all that he owned in the very same way that so many people in the Caribbean today have lost everything.
One photographer captured the magnitude of the devastation and described it:
“From the air, it looked like an atomic bomb hit.”
[You’ll have to click through to se Wired’s photo of the week, Drone Captures Hurricane Maria’s Devastation in Puerto Rico.]
The disaster has also laid bare an American imperialism that few realize still exists in the modern world. The people of these U.S. territories are citizens but that has always been an unequal proposition. Writing for GQ, Joshua Rivera reminds us:
“But that citizenship is a half-truth, anyway. Puerto Rico is a colony in a world where colonies don’t really exist anymore, where the concept is so foreign that no one can properly grasp how perverse it is that a population lives under the farce we call a commonwealth.”
The people of Puerto Rico have citizenship but no vote to shape the government that decides for them. Amid this tragedy they are being accused of mismanaging their economy and infrastructure. It’s convenient to forget how Washington policymaking renders these questions unmanageable by the people themselves.
A YouGov poll from last year found that only 43% of Americans know that Puerto Rico citizens are US citizens. Seeing the people of Puerto Rico as foreign and distant from us has consequences. It might explain why the hurricane response on the island looks so different from efforts in Texas and Florida. Citing a more recent poll, FiveThirtyEight.com shows that, “of Americans who knew Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens, about 8 in 10 supported government aid, compared to just 4 in 10 people who did not know.”
Public appeals for assistance come from Puerto Rico with careful reminders that we are fellow citizens with obligations to one another. From Governor Ricardo A. Roselló:
“Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States, can turn into a humanitarian crisis… To avoid that, recognize that we Puerto Ricans are American citizens; when we speak of a catastrophe, everyone must be treated equally.”
The Mayor of San Juan is now a primary target for criticism. She has been seen wearing a t-shirt that reads, “Help Us, We Arre Dying.” Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz found herself stuck in the middle of a fake news problem. President Trump had tweeted that the relief effort was going well and was a “good news story.” Cruz responded with a “mayday” message:
“I am begging anyone that can hear us to save us from dying. If anybody out there is listening to us, we are dying. And you are killing us with the inefficiency and bureaucracy.”
Rally for the People of Puerto Rico
When decision-makers turn their backs on the people of Puerto Rico, they are doing it in our name. That’s how representative government works. It’s up to us to raise our voices out of our own sense of civic duty and on behalf of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.
Step One: Decide for Yourself that We Can Do Better
News from Puerto Rico is a jumble. It makes sense to be skeptical. Headlines have rolled by suggesting we’re doing everything we can but the situation on the island is so difficult that supplies aren’t making it out of San Juan. Other headlines suggest the effort is being mismanaged from Washington, leaving millions of US citizens without drinkable water or electricity for more than a week.
This NYT piece, Trump Administration is Pressured to Step Up Hurricane Recovery in Puerto Rico, picks up with the administration’s decisions this last week and offers a fairly thorough review of the scope of what is known and what has been done since the hurricane struck more than a week ago.
The article includes observations from the people in Puerto Rico who report “inhumane conditions” and few signs of any relief effort, alongside complaints from elected representatives in D.C. frustrated by a sluggish response and assessments from those who have led past relief efforts:
“They need to scale up,” said General Honoré, who was widely praised for turning around the response to Katrina. During that relief operation, he said, “I had 20,000 federal troops. Not federal workers, federal troops.”
He added, “And Puerto Rico is bigger than Katrina.”
The article also details the difficulty in moving relief supplies out of the ports as well as the administration’s criticism of the media for exaggerating their reports of inaction. One of these things matters more than the other.
Step Two: Contact Your Elected Representatives
It’s not 2018 yet but repeated attempts at repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act and a largely incomplete tax cut proposal are reminders that all political decisions are calculations for re-election. This is precisely the channel of popular sovereignty that the people of Puerto Rico have been denied.
It’s up to us to call our representatives, to send postcards and to make Puerto Rico part of the conversation. Call them at their local offices. Drop by in person if you find that there’s an office near you. Enter your address here to find a complete list of representatives with office addresses and phone numbers.
If you need one, follow the latest script provided by Celeste P. on Twitter:
Step Three: Send What You Can
Times have been tight at my place too. I know that sending money isn’t always as easy as it sounds, but I would ask you to re-visit the picture of my great-great grandfather who lost everything and the photo of Puerto Rico where it looks like an atomic bomb exploded. Who can imagine having to find your way back from that?
Decide for yourself what you can afford. Fast Company has an excellent list of charities to consider.
More Interesting Stories to Come
Like my grandmother’s stories, the photo of her grandfather only exists in my memory. I’m lucky that her magic lights my steps whenever I make an island trip. With every visit I find it impossible to escape how different my grandmother’s experience was from my own.
But that flick of her hand at the photo album said it all. It suggested I should flip to the next page. Move on. That’s not where the story ended.
There were plenty more photos of family on the island enjoying better times. Those were the ones with interesting stories. Those were the ones I wanted to see.
Today we have to take the time to stare at these images from the Carribean where so much is missing. We have to imagine ourselves in the frame and ask ourselves what we can do to help. Then perhaps, decades from now, someone else’s abuela can flick her hand at the photos and suggest there are more interesting stories to come.
This post has benefitted greatly from a “Daily Sketch” we’re developing as a way to catch good ideas from the firehose of information coming at us each day. Sign up for our updates and join our effort to promote and practice a civic perspective.