HOLYOKE — The mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico told a crowd of hundreds Wednesday that Hurricane Maria’s devastation showed her the difference between the American government and the American people.
“We knew that we were in trouble. It was evident the president wasn’t hearing us, the guy that lives in that big white house at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., so we had to do for ourselves what they neglected to do and what the American people were doing out of the goodness of their hearts,” Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz said. (see video above)
Her remarks referred to President Donald Trump and how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) failed to help after Hurricane Maria in September 2017 destroyed most of the island, home to 3.4 million people, and killed over 1,000.
Cruz’ visit at Gateway City Arts on Race Street was part of Holyoke Innovation Week and was arranged through Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley and Holyoke City Councilor Jossie M. Valentin.
Valentin asked questions of Cruz as a standing crowd of a few hundred listened, cheered and shouted remarks in Spanish. Stools were provided on stage but Cruz, displaying the “woman of the people” behavior that has made her popular, shunned the convenience.
“If they’re going to stand up for the whole thing, we’re going to stand up for the whole thing,” Cruz said.
She thanked the crowd for welcoming her and said she appreciated the opportunity to make remarks. She flashed a sense of humor at times — noting she’d been married in 2017 but was no longer, “I am single, gentlemen. What can I do? You’ve got to put it out there” — but soon was talking about ruined homes, lack of water and glazed eyes.
“When situations get really bad, you have two choices, that’s it. You stand up and speak up or you stand down and become an accomplice to people that, even though they have blood running through their veins, they’re really not human…You have to stand up to injustice,” she said.
Her taking on Trump and FEMA was sparked by seeing her home destroyed and residents going without food, electricity and medicine for much longer than was necessary, she said.
“I’m not politically correct. I tend to say things like I see them, and as somebody described me, I’m Mother Teresa with a foul mouth. So if you’re faint of heart, please forgive me,” she said.
FEMA was telling Puerto Rico that people seeking help had to fill out forms on the in internet, she said.
“There was a total blackout, we had no electricity,” she said. “I kept going outside and seeing people with glazed looks….We were like lost, we didn’t know what hit us.”
FEMA, she said, kept asking her, how much food do you need, what are your priorities?
“And I thought, what the f— are these people talking about? It was very frustrating,” she said.
She also discussed what Puerto Rico needs to do to get stabilized, which she said features elimination of a federal control board whose rules are squeezing instead of helping.
Help includes Puerto Ricans being accountable and fulfilling their responsibilities instead of blaming others, she said.
Cruz has become the face of Puerto Rico in the American media on the storm’s devastation and the slow and lacking federal aid.
Gaddier Rosario, who was born in Puerto Rico and now lives in Amherst, said he showed up at the event because there are two kinds of leaders: those who give orders from behind a desk and those who go where people are. Cruz is the second, he said.
“I think she gets out into the street to work instead of just” giving orders, said Gaddier, 48, a painter.
Jesus Espinosa, 56, of Holyoke, said Cruz has shown herself to be a leader who speaks when she has something important to say and not just to talk. Her work in helping people with the hurricane’s ravages and criticizing slow efforts of federal officials showed her sincerity, he said.
“I think she was really outspoken. Every time they needed her, she was there,” said Espinosa, who was born in Puerto Rico.
“Cruz’s legacy will be marked by her uncompromising refusal to let anyone ignore the lives of those affected by the hurricane,” said an article written by actor Benicio Del Toro for the Time magazine series on 100 influential people.
As The Guardian newspaper reported March 21, “Cruz, who rose to prominence as an unsparing critic of the Trump administration in the hours after Maria made landfall, said the halting and, in her view, neglectful federal response to the crushing devastation on Puerto Rico was a glaring reminder of the island’s ‘status as a US territory.’ ”
Cruz’ visit is part of Holyoke Innovation Week April 22 to 29.
The $165 million Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center is the the anchor for the Holyoke Innovation District, which, officials have said, is both a geographic zone and a plan. The district consists of the downtown blocks around the computing center, which is between Cabot and Appleton streets overlooking the first-level canal.
The idea is to maximize city benefits from the computing center such as by attracting and helping business owners, and workshops and other events like those scheduled this month, officials said.