NiLP Guyest Commentary
White Privilege in the
Wake of Hurricane Maria
By Mark Berrios-Ayala
The NiLP Report (May 22, 2018)
As a young lawyer, fresh out of law school, I have the passion and need to give back to the community that I am a part of: that is struggling now. I have never been prouder to be Puerto Rican, and since having gone through college and law school, I now see the scourge white privilege has long plagued all people of color in America, and that now plagues Puerto Ricans in ways worse than we ever could have imagined. I feel obligated to tell our story as a Puerto Rican and a Floridian resident since I was a baby.
Perspective, Statistics, and Stereotypes
As a young man growing up in Central Florida, I always knew that I wanted to make a difference in my lifetime. I first strived to be a film director, then a politician, before I finally decided I wanted to be a lawyer. It was not until I was in college that I realized how horrific the stereotypes I - as a young Puerto Rican male - face. All throughout college I was assumed to be Cuban or white, and when I told people that I am, in fact, Puerto Rican, they stare in utter shock and disbelief. One classmate of mine at the University of Central Florida once told me there was no way I could be both a Puerto Rican and a college student with ambitions to enter the legal profession. A girl I knew at UCF told me that I "was doing better than 99% of other Ricans."
This has always been painful for me to hear; so many people think so lowly of me all because of the Puerto Rican blood flowing through my veins. I remember once when I was eating lunch in my high school, a classmate asked me, "why do all Puerto Ricans drink Bacardi all the time?" Our people are stereotyped as all a bunch of drunks. This girl, like many others, seem to think that the one educated Puerto Rican speaks for all Puerto Ricans across the world. All too often, Puerto Ricans are viewed as "gangstas" and thugs, as lazy and loud, and as drunks who want everything done for them. Female Puerto Ricans are not immune from this either. They are stereotyped as loud and aggressive. I learned this stereotype from a classmate of mine in law school.
Since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 20th, 3.4 million Puerto Ricans - United States citizens - were left living in the Stone Age. Puerto Rico was left without electrical power because the electrical lines were destroyed. When the power went out, so did the running water, leaving many on the island to seek water in streams and rivers that-unknown to them - arry disease that could bring an epidemic to the tropical island. Fifty thousand Americans-from the completely destroyed island that does not have power-are coming to Florida as refugees without power, without clean running water, with their lives destroyed, and now being forced to embark on an experience in America typically reserved for recent immigrants.
It took Trump two weeks to come to the island to see the devastation for himself. In fact, as Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, Trump spent his time tweeting about Colin Kaepernick's kneeling actions during the National Anthem and did not visit till celebrities like Pitbull, Ricky Martin and Lin-Manuel Miranda sent aid to Puerto Rico and attracted media attention to Puerto Rico's plight. The worse part of our plight is-we are Americans!
Then, Trump tweeted "jokes" about how Puerto Rico may get less aid because of how much debt they are in or how it threw the nation's budget "out of whack." The national embarrassment grew when Trump entered a twitter war with San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín after she criticized the US government's awful response to the disaster. Even the Army Corps of Engineers' top dog says he is unsatisfied that it could take till the end of March to get the power back on for everybody. Trump also sent Whitefish Energy, a Montana-based company to fix the situation. Whitefish's contract forbids the government from auditing the costs or profit elements of the deal. Whitefish then billed Puerto Rico for sixteen-hour days with little documentation to support that employees worked those hours.
Puerto Rico got ripped off when Whitefish charged the Puerto Rican government up to $319 an hour for its employees to who work for only $42 an hour, way over market rates in the middle of a nation-wide disaster that has left the island with almost nothing. Whitefish Energy is based in the hometown of Trump's Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke. Secretary Zinke personally knows the CEO of Whitefish and his son has worked for Whitefish as well. Whitefish Energy is a small company, only having two employees when Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20th.
To make matters worse, thirty million FEMA meals meant to go to the people of Puerto Rico were left sitting in a storage space in Atlanta for three months. Only 50,000 of them made it to Puerto Rico. In fact, Tribute Contracting, the company gaining the 156-million-dollar contract to deliver food was a one-woman operation. FEMA selected Tribute Contracting after vetting it among competitors, failing to acknowledge or realize that Tribute Contracting's owner, Tiffany Brown lost five previous contracts with the Government for failing to deliver food. Before this revelation came out, Ms. Brown said that she subcontracted two other caterers to make and deliver the food.
One of the catering companies only had a total of eleven employees. I am happy that Ms. Brown, a woman of color, received a contract like this. However, Tribute Contracting was a terribly incompetent choice for a company to feed starving Americans. In Kissimmee the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration delayed their delivery of food to Puerto Rico because it was infested with rats. Rats!
New Life in a Foreign Land
Florida is the top destination for Puerto Ricans in the wake of Maria, since many have family already there. Orange County Public Schools, the public-school entity for Orlando, has even gone as far as enrolling kids at the Orlando airport, and hire teachers as they wait for their flight to Orlando in San Juan. Many Puerto Ricans had to clear out their meager savings to buy $3,000 tickets to seek refuge in places like Orlando and Miami. Normally, round-trip tickets that time of year cost $250.
In the next four years, another 750,000 Puerto Ricans are predicted to migrate to the mainland United States, with many of them settling in the Sunshine State. Once these American refugees get to the mainland, the next challenge is finding housing. Orlando lacks enough affordable housing for most of these refugees, and countless resort to living out of their cars, sleeping in the airport they arrived in or spending what little money they have on motels. Tourist season is upon us, so hotel rates are skyrocketing.
Next, Puerto Ricans will have to deal with the challenge of learning a new language. Unlike Puerto Rico, English is the commonly used language in the United States, and they will need to learn to pick up the language fast to make it in America. This will hit children the hardest as they are mostly taught Spanish in their public schools back in Puerto Rico. Coming to the mainland without being fluent in English will make it tough for them to make friends, get a part time job, do well on the SATs, and write college admissions essays. To make matters worse, there are not enough bilingual teachers in Florida's public schools to help them learn properly, keep their grades up, go to college, and help them live a better life than their parents.
Puerto Rico was in the middle of a terrible economic crisis before Maria, and since Maria, it has only risen to catastrophic levels. Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland are quickly finding that they need to find an immediate job to replenish their depleted savings. In Orlando, there are plenty of jobs, but most of them are low-wage hospitality jobs. I remember when growing up in the Orlando area how many of the people I knew worked for hotels, resorts, restaurants, and gift shops for minimum wage. Some of them had families to feed, and barely made ends meet. I worked at a McDonalds while in college, so I feel their pain of being overworked for meager pay. Many of them may need food stamps to make ends meet as our fellow Americans begin anew in the Sunshine State.
The worst part of the Puerto Rican experience, especially after Maria, is the discriminating and ignorant-based treatment from our president and fellow mainland citizens. Most Americans have never met a Puerto Rican, let alone even heard of Puerto Rico. Most Americans are surprised that Puerto Ricans are United States citizens as they fail to realize that we only became citizens in 1917 so the military could draft us to fight in World War One.
I have personally seen memes and graphics on Facebook that proudly call for the deportation of "Porto Ricans" because we are not from here and are coming to America illegally. Consequently, we feel a lack of empathy that people in Texas and Florida take for granted. All too often when the topic of aid to Puerto Rico comes up, the government groans with apathy and answers back with how "costly" it will be or that we need to do things ourselves. We never heard this kind of talk when Houston called for help, and both places hold United States citizens.
from the Eyes of a Puerto Rican
When Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and the rest of Texas, America's response was swift and robust. As Hurricane Irma bearded down on Florida, fuel ships sailed under military escorts to the ports and the state provided transportation to help those that could not evacuate themselves. Hotels as far away as Georgia and Alabama were booked to the rim. When I evacuated, I drove 100 miles to find a gas station that still had gasoline available. I lost a week and a half of earnings at my then-current job. At the time, I was part of the most epic evacuation of my life. After the storm, the navy sent a hospital ship to help the injured for those that could not evacuate.
When it was time for Puerto Rico to receive the much-needed generosity of the American people and its establishment, it was met with the bitch and moan of the President. Crude jokes were frequently made about our ongoing debt crisis while people went without clean water. A twitter beef with the Mayor of San Juan manifested while millions of Americans were reeling with the reality of living in the Stone Age for six months to a year before the power would remotely come back on.
Furthermore, tweets homed in on the actions of protester Colin Kaepernick while many Puerto Ricans dipped into their life savings for a one-way trip to the US to start a new life-from the bottom up-like so many immigrants that came before them. Many Americans see our plight for help as nothing more than a handout to some welfare addicts. Not all Americans are as apathetic. My former roommate, a republican, was the first friend of mine to ask about family in Puerto Rico, the family that is still unaccounted for and a grandmother facing rolling blackouts.
Puerto Ricans coming to Florida will get no federal housing assistance. There will be no trailers like there were in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The lack of affordable housing, combined with the low wage jobs awaiting us and the struggle to learn English to accommodate will put the Puerto Rican refugee on the fast track to become the new poor minority. Even though we have been citizens by statute for over a century, we are seen as poor, criminal, unwanted immigrants by many in the United States. Despite all the war veterans, like my father, we produced for America, despite our 105 billion-dollar economic contribution to the United States economy, this negative worldview continues to be pounded against us.
Furthermore, the Jones Act makes it harder and more expensive to send aid to Puerto Rico and people and property out. The Act requires ships sailing between two points in the United States, or its territories to be built, owned, and operated by Americans. While this may seem like a good idea at first, it only makes the relief effort costlier and time consuming. In Florida, Jacksonville is where most Jones Act compliant ships bound for Puerto Rico depart.
Shipping costs between Puerto Rico and New York could cost $3,000 per single container. It would only cost $1,200 to send that same container to nearby Jamaica or Dominican Republic. The shipping industry in America is dying, few ships are made in America anymore, and the amount of Jones Act ships are now few and far in-between. When pressured to extend a temporary suspension of the Jones Act in favor of expediting relief efforts, Trump tweeted his concerns with the shipping industry over the Puerto Rican people. Both liberal and conservative circles called for the repeal of the Jones Act, yet no such thing has happened.
Puerto Rico is a victim of white privilege when the response after Hurricane Maria was lacking the more meaningful zeal and vigor of the responses to Irma and Harvey. There were no navy escorts en-route to make sure there was plenty of gasoline in citizens' tanks to flee, and the hospital ship sits largely empty off Puerto Rico's coast because there is no way to get the injured onto them. There are no signs of a quick and robust recovery for Puerto Rico enjoyed by Texas and Florida. All we had in compensation was to see Trump throw paper towels at people in Puerto Rico. Even Brietbart, the Mecca of the Alt-Right movement, has urged Trump to make the Puerto Rican recovery quick and robust, so that he will win Florida in the next election.
Would this kind of response happen in mainland America? I hope by now you have answered with an unmistakable NO! Florida and Texas did not suffer Puerto Rico's fate because they are fellow Americans. Unfortunately, Puerto Ricans are not seen as Americans. The response to Puerto Rico waned, like it did after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, a city primarily of African Americans. I remember seeing images of people creating road blocks to stop trucks, so they could have something to eat. New Orleans was a victim of white privilege and we feel your pain.
We Puerto Ricans are not only a people of color but are viewed as "vermin" foreigners coming to freeload off welfare. President Trump openly encourages Americans to view us and other people of color this way, mostly by action and words, such as when he hires Alt-Right leaders to his cabinet, when he tweets videos depicting Muslims as stereotypical savage terrorists and calls Mexican immigrants "rapists" and "murderers." The response would have been different had Florida lost its power for six months. It would have been different if Texans had to drink water out of contaminated streams after Harvey.
How would we feel if people if children in the suburbs of Houston went to bed without food because FEMA awarded a multi-million-dollar contract to a company with a history of incompetence? We would not tolerate Trump if the United Nations condemned the recovery response in Houston, as it did for Puerto Rico. We would not condone Floridians moving out of the state because they have no power or running water-with only the cloths on their backs-to Canada for a new life.
White privilege means there is a hidden bias that all people of color go through every day. This does not mean that all white people are part of the racist agenda, quite the contrary, many white people are genuinely caring people. Some of my closest friends have been white. A white classmate of mine from my law school told me, "of all the people at this school, I am going to miss you the most." When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, many Americans, our fellow countrymen, turned their noses up to the thought of giving meaningful aid. This was not true for Texas, and this was not true for Florida. Still, some White Americans do care and contributed to the various fundraisers to help with Hurricane Maria.
Puerto Rico's situation is like that faced by Bangladesh in the 1970s. In 1970, Cyclone Bhola made landfall in what is now Bangladesh. Back then it was part of Pakistan, and the Pakistanis oppressed the Bangladeshi people. When Cyclone Bhola hit, it was the final straw for their independence movement. Bhola alone killed half a million people in Bangladesh. It is the deadliest hurricane ever recorded to date. Pakistan's response was mediocre and that angered the Bangladeshi people.
They later declared their independence and fought a brutal war for it. While Maria killed fewer people than Bhola, countless Puerto Ricans are feeling the same way. We feel that our contributions to American society go unnoticed. We feel that no one cares for the hard-fought victories our veterans gave for America. We feel angry that even though we are American citizens, we are treated as foreigners. We feel resentment that our history and contributions to the civil rights movement go unnoticed. We have given everything to America in the last 120 years, yet we have gotten nothing in return but bigotry and domination. That is how the Puerto Rican is the victim of white privilege in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
is a Florida-licensed attorney, first-generation college and law school grlduate, and Boricua! He handles cases in civil rights litigation, works in Coral Gables, Florida and attended Florida International University College of Law. He is also the Website Editor at PROFESA, an association of experienced leaders that represent the Puerto Rican community in South Florida. He sees himself as "just a humble man trying to make an impact on the world." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.