In thinking about the destruction Hurricane Maria brought to Puerto Rico, the island where I was born and bred, my mind wandered to the Veterans National Cemetery in Bayamon, where my parents and family members and friends are buried. I wondered whether this tranquil green spot bounded by another cemetery, humble homes and lush hills was untouched by Maria; whether the few trees, including the flamboyans, in around the cemetery, stand.
This United States island territory and its people need our help now. There are the immediate needs of ensuring that all the population have the basics, including medical care, and that the most vulnerable — the elderly, the infirm and people with disabilities — are cared for. And then there is the need to repair and rebuild the island, which was already bankrupt and undergoing severe economic hardship even before Maria hit. As for the immediate needs, donations are already pouring in from the mainland, U.S. states and localities are contributing manpower and resources, and FEMA, though stretched thin, is on the move.
But these efforts need to be ramped up and are hampered by the fact that Puerto Rico is an island and getting supplies there is no easy or inexpensive task. Local government officials are pleading for the additional manpower still needed to distribute and deliver supplies throughout the island. Puerto Rico will also need massive funding to rebuild and repair its infrastructure, the still uncounted homes, schools, and businesses destroyed, and to bring the island and its people to any kind of normalcy. The Trump administration announced FEMA will bear the cost of disaster clean-up and Trump is visiting the island next week, but will the U.S. Congress make necessarily-massive supplemental appropriation available and will President Trump support it?
Would this even be a question if an entire state — a Rhode Island or a Nebraska — had been similarly ravaged by a storm? While Puerto Ricans are American citizens, those living on the island are too often treated as outliers and differently than Americans on the mainland. Perhaps because they live on an island, once a tourist paradise and gateway to the Caribbean, many fellow Americans do not know or forget that Puerto Ricans are citizens, and the media and U.S. leaders often need to be reminded of this as well. Likewise, they do not know or forget that Puerto Rico is part and parcel of the United States.
The United States acquired Puerto Rico in 1898 after the Spanish American War and in 1917 Congress passed the Jones Act making all Puerto Ricans American citizens. Interestingly, it was in 1917 that Puerto Ricans began serving in the United States military during World War I.
According to a Department of Defense website, Puerto Ricans have since served in every military engagement “with the soldiers of Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry Regiment distinguishing themselves in combat during the Korean war.” As of 2010 there were 116,029 veterans living on the island. Yet so many of these veterans remain unrecognized as citizens by their fellow Americans and the island is too often thought of as a foreign entity.
On that same DOD website, Marine Corps Sgt. Alexander Muñoz, who served in Iraq, recounts how he was proud to serve and to be Puerto Rican. But Muñoz also added:
“A lot of my friends stay in the states and come to visit me. They don’t even know where Puerto Rico is. Come on man; we’ve been with you guys since 1898. We’re proud, but we know how to serve. We know how to say thanks. We’re part of the nation. You’re my brothers.”
Puerto Rico is part of the nation, Puerto Ricans are our brothers and sisters, and in their time of unimaginable need, we must take care of our fellow Americans. Puerto Ricans are demonstrating extraordinary resilience and optimism but they cannot go it alone. Congress needs to appropriate emergency supplemental funds to launch Puerto Rico’s recovery and begin some return to normalcy.
And in this instance, President Trump should live true to his words of putting America first and first take care of Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million fellow Americans.
Gloria Tristani is a former FCC Commissioner and the only Puerto Rican to serve in that capacity. She is special policy advisor at National Hispanic Media Coalition.