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.
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.
Santiago settled in this Puerto Rican enclave of Bethlehem in central Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley 15 years ago.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yarimar Bonilla, an associate professor of Latino and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University, is from Puerto Rico.
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.
She's written about how Caribbean territories like Puerto Rico with limited self-governance are more vulnerable during a crisis.
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.
Bonilla's caught a flight from Puerto Rico and packed as if she'll never go back.
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.
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Ivette Feliciano shoots, produces and reports on camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Before starting with NewsHour in 2013, she worked as a one-person-band correspondent for the News 12 Networks, where she won a New York Press Club Award for her coverage of Super Storm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in 2012. Prior to that, Ivette was the Associate Producer of Latin American news for Worldfocus, a nationally televised, daily international news show seen on Public Television. While at Worldfocus, Ivette served as the show’s Field Producer and Reporter for Latin America, covering special reports on the Mexican drug war as well as a 5-part series out of Bolivia, which included an interview with President Evo Morales. In 2010, she co-produced a documentary series on New York’s baseball history that aired on Channel Thirteen. Ivette holds a Master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in broadcast journalism.
Zachary Green began working in online and broadcast news in 2009. Since then he has produced stories all over the U.S. and overseas in Ireland and Haiti. In his time at NewsHour, he has reported on a wide variety of topics, including climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the arts. He also produced a series on guaranteed income programs in the U.S. and won a 2015 National Headliner Award in business and consumer reporting for his report on digital estate planning. Prior to joining Newshour, Zachary was an Associate Producer for Need to Know on PBS, during which he assisted in producing stories on gun violence and healthcare, among others. He also provided narration for the award-winning online documentary series, “Retro Report”.
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