With the backdrop of a 59-foot Puerto Rican flag made of steel in Humboldt Park’s Paseo Boricua, local elected officials and community leaders called for action Tuesday after Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico, which made landfall over the weekend — shortly after the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria.
In 2017, the Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago led relief efforts for the island, landing a plane with essential supplies in Puerto Rico, opening a welcoming center for displaced families and providing $600,000 in microgrants to over 50 Puerto Rican towns, according to co-chair Jessie Fuentes.
“The Puerto Rican Agenda is ready to act once again,” Fuentes said under the scorching late morning sun to a crowd of community members, some of whom were from Puerto Rico or had family there, as they cheered and clapped while holding small Puerto Rican flags.
“Many of us will not be able to remove the image of the bridge in Utuado that was just built after Hurricane Maria being ripped from its very roots by a landslide,” Fuentes added. “The people of Puerto Rico need our support, they need our solidarity. But more importantly, they need the money. And I cannot emphasize that enough.”
The call came as many have criticized the lack of media coverage about the natural disaster that left many on the island without power or running water.
“Visibility matters. (Monday) we learned more about Queen Elizabeth’s funeral than we all care to know,” Fuentes said. “We must understand fully what’s happening with Puerto Rico, we must create that visibility so that we can demand for recovery and we can demand for resources.”
Former congressman Luis Gutierrez said that when his plane left Puerto Rico on Saturday, the skies were clear and the sun was shining. Less than 12 hours later, a tropical storm that hit the island became Hurricane Fiona at the very last moment.
“We have to understand that global warming is real. It’s affecting the world. And we see the impact of global warming on Puerto Rico,” Gutierrez said.
Ald. Roberto Maldonado, 26th, spoke to the unity that the Puerto Rican people demonstrate when disaster hits.
“Even with our own deep, internal political differences, when it comes to times like this, we come together for the greater good,” Maldonado said. “So, political differences aside, we’re here to do the right thing for our brothers and sisters back in Puerto Rico.”
Many speakers referred to LUMA, the private company in charge of power distribution in Puerto Rico, expressing disbelief with what they called an inability to build a resilient electrical grid for the island. They also called on the U.S. government to investigate the company.
“Yes, we should look into what is going on with the privatization of our energy system. But we should also look at why is it that nearly a billion dollars sit idly in the Treasury of the United States and hasn’t been sent to the people of Puerto Rico,” Gutierrez said, referring to aid money in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
In Spanish, Gutierrez also called on local and state governments to express solidarity with Puerto Rico as they did when Hurricane Maria hit.
“There’s nothing closer to my heart than the people of Puerto Rico, than the island that saw my wife, Soraida, being born, that saw my grandparents being born, and all my predecessors: my father and mother. I carry that island here in my heart,” he said, putting a hand over his chest. “And I ask all of you who are proud to be Puerto Rican — as they should be — to in this time of need donate and contribute.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker released a statement Monday in solidarity with Puerto Ricans on the island and in Chicago.
“We must all do more to recognize our duty to those in Puerto Rico; to draw attention to these crises not only because they are tragic, but because too often Puerto Ricans are not allowed to speak for themselves,” the statement read. “We must recognize at root that their inequitable place in this nation will push them to the sides. We stand with you.”
“Illinois has a large and vibrant community of Puerto Rican people, and I know many of these people are worrying about family and friends hundreds of miles away today. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
Pritzker also said the state will offer all the help necessary to hurricane victims, noting the recent reception of asylum-seekers and migrants coming to Illinois from the southern U.S. border.
“Illinois is not in the business of turning away those in need, and we will continue to welcome these travelers and any Puerto Rican climate refugees seeking a safe place to land with all our available resources,” he said.
At the news conference, Aileen Velazquez, Chicago’s chief procurement officer, expressed grief on behalf of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her colleagues for those affected by Category 3 Fiona.
“The city has a strong long-standing connection with the Puerto Rican communities and we are committed to working together,” she said.
Ald. Rossana Rodriguez, 33rd, and Democrats from Chicago state Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas and state Rep. Delia Ramirez, who is running for the new 3rd Congressional District, spoke about the repetitiveness of natural disasters on the island and what they referred to as a lack of response to the demands of Puerto Ricans .
“One of my mentors right here, from this community, has always said that history does not repeat itself but historical problems insist on being resolved,” said Pacione-Zayas. “It’s unfortunate that five years later, practically to the date, we are here, talking about the same things, making the same demands. It was once said that if you do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome that is the definition of insanity. That’s what we’re experiencing right now.”
Pacione-Zayas said Hurricane Fiona is not the only disaster the island, which she called a modern-day U.S. colony, is experiencing at the moment.
“The people of Puerto Rico have never been able to be self-determined. All of their structures have to be channeled through the federal government,” she said. “And it has been over two decades (that) we’ve been experiencing a fiscal crisis that stripped away any of our ability to properly plan and effectively implement a strategy to address what we know is true and that climate change is real.”
The state senator also mentioned the displacement of thousands of people after Hurricane Maria.
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” Pacione-Zayas. “And this is a travesty that we have to continue to organize our dollars, our people, our messaging to get this information out and to do what is rightfully entitled to the people of Puerto Rico, and that is to preserve their humanity and dignity.”
Rodriguez, who grew up in Puerto Rico, remembers protesting a lack of access to water when she was as young as 6 years old. People are used to being without power and having no access to clean water on the island, Rodriguez and Pacione-Zayas said.
“I have a message for everybody from the people of Puerto Rico, from my family, from my neighbors: They’re exhausted. It feels like Groundhog Day,” Rodriguez said.
Puerto Ricans are now helping one another, feeding neighbors sancocho, or beef stew, she added. “They are there for each other,” she said. “And I think that one of the most important things that we can do at this point is to support them as they do that, because they know exactly what they’re doing.”
Sol Cordero, who has been living in Humboldt Park since she was a young girl, has a sister and nieces living on the island. They’re safe but communication not been consistent because of the power being out, she told the Tribune.
“They’re doing OK. But they don’t have light. They don’t have water. And they’re just trying to stay united,” Cordero said. “They live all together in the same barrio or in the same town. So, they’re trying to all stay together and help one another.”
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During Hurricane Maria, she said, she was unable to contact her sister for the first few days.
“I think that one was a little bit worse because that one we were not able to hear from them for a couple of days,” Cordero said. “So, as soon as I got the call from her, I started crying. And it’s making me emotional right now because it comes back.”
The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center will also be coordinating fundraising efforts with Puerto Rican Agenda.
“We can’t be duplicating efforts. We all have to be on the same page on this. So, we are going to take care of the immediate needs,” said Billy Ocasio, director of the museum.
For more information on donations, visit Puerto Rican Agenda’s website at puertoricanchicago.org