helping hands

Puerto Ricans in New York Help Homeland, Using Lessons from Maria

New Yorkers rallied in Union Square in support of Puerto Rico after a major earthquake struck the island.
New Yorkers rallied in Union Square in support of Puerto Rico after a major earthquake struck the island. Photo: Claudia Irizarry Aponte/THE CITY

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Puerto Ricans in New York have a long history of solidarity with their homeland in times of crisis — whether it’s protesting military intervention, calling for the governor’s resignation or distributing aid after Hurricane Maria.

So on Jan. 7, when news of a 6.4 magnitude earthquake there reached the city — where nearly one in 10 people are Puerto Rican — the community quickly sprung into action.

“Our responsibility is to help each other,” Eric Ramos, a 50-year-old Puerto Rico native who’s lived half of his life in Brooklyn, said in Spanish. “Only the people save the people.”

As President Donald Trump gets slammed for virtually ignoring the crisis and New York politicians offer support, Ramos is one among dozens of activists assembling a flurry of events across the city to help islanders affected by the quakes.

‘We Got to Work’

The activists are determined to avoid a repeat the botched response of the local government in the aftermath Hurricane Maria, which culminated in the public ouster of now-former Governor Ricardo Rosselló.

“We’re very aware that with Maria, stuff would arrive to Puerto Rico and then they were nowhere to be found, and then it turned out the shipments were abandoned, which is just incredibly vile,” Ramos told THE CITY, referring to the 20,000 pallets of water discovered unused a year after the 2017 Category 5 storm.

Since the disaster, New York activists and their counterparts in Puerto Rico — including the Brigada Solidaria del Oeste, a group that serves the island’s west and south coasts — have been discussing lessons learned from Maria.

Sending cash is better — and often cheaper — than sending supplies, they found. Also, it’s better to ask people what they need than to ship random items, which can overwhelm distribution efforts.

The post-Maria conversations meant that when the earthquake hit, a contingency plan was already in place.

“We got to work right away,” said Ramos.

‘More Organized Now’

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, and U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez — both of Puerto Rican heritage — are among the New York political leaders working to provide aid for the island.

Trump, though, has yet to sign a major disaster declaration for the affected area and has refused to release $8 billion in post-hurricane funds approved by Congress for recovery on the island.

The earthquake, Puerto Rico’s strongest in over a century, flattened neighborhoods and a school, killing at least one person. Damage was concentrated along the towns on the southern coast, unlike Hurricane Maria, which caused widespread destruction.

While the temblor did cause yet another blackout in Puerto Rico, a week later most of the island had the lights back on — unlike with Hurricane Maria, where parts of the island were still in the dark a year later.

And also unlike during Hurricane Maria, very few people on the island lost cell service or access to the internet after the quake.

All of these elements combined to make coordinating aid to the island much easier, noted Jonathan Soto, a Bronx-based community organizer.

“We’re a lot more organized now,” Soto, who works at the Union Theological Seminary in Harlem, told THE CITY. “It comes from understanding we should take action from people on the island directly and to not assume what they need, but to establish action with people on the ground.”

From Prayer to Fundraisers

The work began with a unity prayer gathering that drew dozens to Union Square hours after the first quake.

On Sunday night, Frente Independentista Boricua, a New York-based coalition of social justice groups that favors Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States, hosted a fundraiser for earthquake relief at Overthrow Manhattan, a boxing gym in SoHo.

A fundraiser at Overthrow Manhattan for victims of the Puerto Rico earthquake, on Jan. 12.
A fundraiser at Overthrow Manhattan for victims of the Puerto Rico earthquake, on Jan. 12. Photo: Courtesy of Eric Ramos

The $5,000 raised at that event will cover costs related to sending a ship full of supplies — including cots, wheelchairs, diapers and other aid to the island. The coalition has more events in the works, including another fundraiser this weekend.

The ship also will carry aid collected from drives by neighborhood groups across, including El Maestro, Inc., in the South Bronx, and El Grito de Sunset Park, in Brooklyn. Funds are being collected until Jan. 25, Ramos said.

Once the aid reaches Puerto Rico, it will be distributed by a group of activists on the ground, he added.

Ramos chalked up the grassroots efforts to the Puerto Rican diaspora’s deep connection to the commonwealth.

“There are people here who have never lived in Puerto Rico and wake up every morning thinking about the island,” he said in Spanish. “The bond we have, there’s just no way of explaining it.”

“When that passion is combined with a creative spirit, there’s no limit to what we can achieve together.”

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