Puerto Rico: A different island right now

Opinion By Jossie Valentín, City Councilor, Holyoke, MA

It‘s been over a month since the “Paro Nacional” took place in Puerto Rico and put my beautiful island back in the news.

Police and protesters face off in San Juan, Puerto Rico (Photo: Carlos Giusti/AP)

The intent of the “Paro Nacional” was to create power in numbers — to standup and speak out. Unions, students, older adults, children — all hitting the streets on May 1st to let their voices be heard.

But then, the tear-gassing began. And the pushing. And the violence. Lots of it. To the point where the ACLU and other organizations are demanding that investigations take place to assess the numerous reports of violence and police brutality. People were gassed because they made it known that they were tired of being stepped on over and over again, they still don’t have electricity, they’ve lost their jobs, their kids’ schools have closed, they have financial uncertainty, and they’re frustrated by the slow response (still) from the federal government.

Children protesting about their schools being closed; tear-gassed,

Student leaders from the University of Puerto Rico; tear-gassed,

Socially conscious attorneys; tear-gassed.

As Mayor Cruz said shortly after hurricane Maria, “Puerto Rico can no longer hide behind palm trees and piña coladas.” The time to stand up with our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters is now.

Both the “Paro Nacional” and hurricane Maria have left their mark as storms, each in their own category. And both the “Paro Nacional and Hurricane Maria require that we stand up with our brothers and sisters.

When it comes to Maria specifically, my wife and I witnessed the pain and resilience from the storm firsthand during a three week relief work trip to the island last November. It’s a pain and resilience shared by those who came to the United States after hurricane Maria. Leaving their “patria” behind (as I did 20 years ago) was as painful then as it is today.

San Juan, Puerto Rico Mayor Yulín Cruz speaks to a full house at Mount Holyoke College.

In April, I had the honor and privilege of welcoming the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, to my hometown of Holyoke. She spoke about Puerto Rico’s transformation after Maria. Her talk was extremely relevant to us since Holyoke, Massachusetts has the highest percentage per capita of Puerto Ricans in the United States. With almost 45% of our population being Puerto Rican here in Holyoke, you can imagine the impact that hurricane Maria had on thousands of Holyokers, in addition to the number of evacuees that have made Holyoke their new home.

The audience was engaged and inspired by Yulín’s speech.

I have always questioned who the island is truly being rebuilt for after the storm. Now I question it more than ever. Foreclosures, an economic crisis that pre-dated September of last year, schools closing, Puerto Ricans still without electricity in their homes, and the dwindling number of small businesses after hurricane Maria, are among the many reasons that over 300,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island in search of opportunities and some type of stability.

If you have never heard about “La Junta”, you may not be aware of the financial turmoil the island has been in for a while. “La Junta” is the Puerto Rican name for the 7-person fiscal control board that was established in 2016 as a result of PROMESA (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act). The purpose of this board it to “restructure the 72 billion dollar debt of Puerto Rico.” Some of the latest proposals from “La Junta” include a three-fold increase to the tuition costs at the University of Puerto Rico, a reduction of pensions of at least 10%, a reduction of the minimum wage for young people in Puerto Rico, among many other austerity measures.

One more thing: go to Puerto Rico on vacation.

Early morning along the beach in Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Help the economy. Volunteer your time while you are there. There are plenty of grassroots organizations happy to welcome you as they work on rebuilding and transforming communities. One at a time. And have a piña colada while you are there too. Puerto Ricans are some of the warmest, most giving, beautiful people you will ever meet.

And we are everywhere.

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