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Puerto Ricans in anguish as they await news from the island

September 30, 2017 at 4:36 PM EDT
As Puerto Ricans face a growing humanitarian crisis following damage from Hurricane Maria, their friends and families in the continental U.S. are desperate to get in contact. And if they have, many are booking flights to bring their loved ones onto the mainland, adding to a growing diaspora from the U.S. territory. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano spoke with members of the community in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.

By Ivette Feliciano and Zachary Green

IVETTE FELICIANO: Since Hurricane Maria hit, 40-year-old barber Hector Cruz Santiago hasn’t been able to reach his 20-year-old daughter, who’s a student at the University of Puerto Rico, in San Juan.

HECTOR CRUZ SANTIAGO: Nothing. I’ve tried a thousand ways to communicate, and I haven’t been able to. It really worries me, because I have no idea how she’s doing, if she’s OK, if she’s unwell. It’s a huge stress.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Santiago settled in this Puerto Rican enclave of Bethlehem in central Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley 15 years ago.

LUZ ESTREMERA: I really have no idea how my family is doing. I just want to know what’s going on and to know that they are OK.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Santiago’s wife, Luz Estremera, is worried about aid reaching her grandmother and aunts in the coastal town of Guayama. She’s hasn’t heard from them, but she’s gotten tidbits of information about her hometown on social networking apps.

LUZ ESTREMERA: Puerto Rico is my island, it’s so sad. I love her, I want to live there but… everyone wants to come here. You can’t live there anymore.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Adding to their stress, concerns about how the U.S. territory will pay to rebuild given its massive debt crisis, rampant poverty, and high unemployment rate. Puerto Rico’s power company owes 9 billion dollars of the island’s 72 billion dollar debt. Maintenance cutbacks before the hurricane exacerbated damage to the electric grid.

The Lehigh valley’s Puerto Rican community has grown to almost 40-thousand people in the last few years. It’s sending cans of food and supplies to help the island’s residents.

MARY COLON: What we are envisioning is as we get more and more of our families from the island, they are going to be coming through here.

IVETTE FELICIANO: At the area’s Hispanic center, board president Mary Colon believes the hurricane will accelerate the exodus that began due to Puerto Rico’s financial crisis.

MARY COLON: We have to roll up our sleeves and welcome the families that are coming here and help them as well as help those who are staying behind.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Michelle Cabrera moved with her husband and two children to Bethlehem from Puerto Rico 7 years ago and says her sister and niece will soon to join them on the mainland.

MICHELLE CABRERA: My mom is still pending because she takes care of her grandparents. They are sick, diabetic. And my grandmother does not want to come. She has her house there.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Puerto Rico’s three-and-a-half million U.S. citizens have one representative in congress, but she can’t vote. So Cabrera and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce here are organizing a letter writing campaign to Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation asking for more federal aid.

MICHELLE CABRERA: Puerto Ricans that have moved from the island here, it is our job to make a movement and to talk to the community, the representatives. Anything that we can do to have that voice.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Yarimar Bonilla, an associate professor of Latino and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University, is from Puerto Rico.

YARIMAR BONILLA: You know a lot of people are discovering Puerto Rico and its political status for the first time right now. You have this in a bureaucratic apparatus that is not able to work quickly and efficiently especially when they’re in a context outside of the continental United States.

IVETTE FELICIANO: She’s written about how Caribbean territories like Puerto Rico with limited self-governance are more vulnerable during a crisis.

YARIMAR BONILLA: In the sense that they have complicated arrangements with US and imperial European powers. So places like Guadeloupe, Turks and Caicos the British Virgin Islands, a lot of the sites that have been impacted by the hurricane season this year, they are in different kinds of entanglements with the United States in Europe.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Bonilla’s caught a flight from Puerto Rico and packed as if she’ll never go back.

YARIMAR BONILLA: We saw that in New Orleans after Katrina. Many people left and did not return. All of us observing this in the United States, we’re–we’re very scared about what is going to happen to our communities and we feel the clock ticking.