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Puerto Ricans Are Americans, Too
The response to Hurricane Maria shows islanders are treated like second-class citizens
Nina Roberts; Reporting by Atl Castro

Every summer since I was 7, I have traveled with my family to the beautiful city of San Juan, in Puerto Rico. My mother’s cousins live in a bright green house in the old part of the city, where we often spend afternoons. I love the yellow and green bananas growing in their backyard.

I know the best beaches in Puerto Rico to swim, surf, or boogie board. I know where to buy handmade candies and dark cups of coffee, and the few restaurants that sell pana, Puerto Rico’s breadfruit. Nights are dedicated to listening to the old men and women of the neighborhood singing, playing their güiros and tambourines, or dancing in the center of the placita.

But lately I feel like the over-1,000-mile distance causes mainlanders to forget that people from Puerto Rico are American citizens.

In fact, according to a 2017 Morning Consult poll, only 54% of Americans know that people born in Puerto Rico are United States citizens. Perhaps that’s why many haven’t paid attention to the incredible damage that followed Hurricane Maria last September on my little island, compared to what happened after the storms in Texas and Florida.

When I heard about what happened in Puerto Rico, my heart physically hurt. I couldn’t bear to look at the photos of roads covered by downed trees, floods that destroyed homes, and the darkness that shrouded the island since it lost electricity.

Flights were canceled in and out of the island’s airports. Supplies were stuck at San Juan’s port because the roads were blocked and there weren’t enough drivers to deliver them. Ten days after the hurricane hit, 55% of Puerto Rico still didn’t have clean water to drink.

image by YC-Art Dept

Part of the U.S., But Not a State

As time passed, my hopelessness turned to anger. The president wasn’t doing enough. Neither was the governor of Puerto Rico. The mayor of San Juan was picking fights with the president. It seemed like relief for Puerto Rico was coming slower than for other U.S. disasters.

Ten days before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane. Just four days later, over 40,000 federal employees were tasked to help with the disaster. To compare, a day after Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, only about 3,500 federal employees were on the ground in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands combined.

Puerto Rico has long been treated unfairly, because although it is part of the U.S., it’s not a state. In 1898, the U.S. took the island from Spain. In 1952, Puerto Ricans adopted a new constitution, which established the current status of Puerto Rico as a commonwealth of the United States. Its residents elect their own legislative assembly, a governor, and a representative to the U.S. House of Representatives. But unlike American citizens in U.S. states, Puerto Ricans on the island cannot vote in presidential elections, and their representative in the House has no vote. My grandfather was drafted to fight in Vietnam when he was still living in Puerto Rico, serving a government that he didn’t elect to represent him.

The island’s economic problems, which started way before Maria, also show how Puerto Ricans are treated as second-class citizens. Puerto Rico’s government currently owes over $72 billion. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one is that Puerto Rico gets less money from the federal government than it would if it was a state. The debt also got bigger because many Puerto Ricans left to look for better jobs on the mainland. If this island is in so much financial trouble, why won’t the country lend a hand?

Hurricane Maria damaged Puerto Rico tremendously, and its effects are still felt today. Many people still don’t have electricity. In January, one school in San Juan finally got power again after 112 days without it. But there are some bright spots. Hotels and other tourist places are welcoming travelers again, and this business makes up around 8% of the island’s economy. While there is a lot to rebuild, Puerto Ricans are working to restore what was lost and damaged.

The issue still rests with how well the island is being maintained and supported by the U.S. government. Every Puerto Rican is a United States citizen. This means we have a responsibility to aid the island and its people when necessary. We can’t go back in time and change what was done, but we can try harder than we did in the past to make Puerto Rico even more vibrant and beautiful than I remember it.

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