The Racist Neglect of Puerto Rico

When I woke up to Donald Trump’s Saturday morning tweet storm against Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, my initial reaction was disbelief.

Surely there was no way that — in the middle of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico — the president would call out the mayor of the country’s battered capital city and outright criticize her handling of the crisis, explicitly saying she had “such poor leadership ability.”

There’s no way that was actually happening, right?

But then — as my mind has become accustomed to since the election — I had to check myself.

“Why yes, self, this is actually happening. None of this should surprise you. We left behind decency a long time ago.”

I’ve been in a near-constant state of disbelief ever since I watched President Obama board Marine One on January 20. I’d walked over to the Capitol to witness that moment firsthand. I wanted to see him off — to say “thank you” in a way. But it felt like attending a funeral. It was as though we were being taken away from a nurturing mother and handed off to a deadbeat dad who couldn’t care less about your well-being. You just need to tell him he’s loved. Because he gets mad and mean when he doesn’t feel loved.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when Trump fired off those tweets against Mayor Cruz, targeting both her and the Puerto Rican people for “want[ing] everything to be done for them.” And maybe it wasn’t surprise. A better term for it might be depressed-that-this-is-our-new-reality.

Here we have the president of the United States not only displaying gross incompetence by failing to respond to the crisis appropriately and efficiently, but also displaying a disturbing lack of empathy for his people who are literally dying as he plays golf at his namesake resort.

He’s adding salt to a very fresh and very open wound. He essentially blames Puerto Ricans for their despair — if only they’d stop expecting assistance from the federal government and take care of relief efforts on their own, things would be moving along more smoothly.

Can you imagine Trump directing that message to Texas or Florida? Yeah, me neither.

So what is it about Puerto Rico that makes it more accountable to take care of itself after a major natural disaster? The response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma was, “We will rebuild.” The response to Hurricane Maria is, “This is an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” Why do these messages differ?

Hmm…if only I could put my finger on it.

Let’s get something straight: Trump’s failure to lead and execute an effective response to the crisis in Puerto Rico is rooted in his racism.

Consider the language in his tweet: “They want everything to be done for them.” Why the other-ing? Puerto Ricans are American citizens. If Trump had a single empathetic bone in his body, he would have made an effort to unite. To provide solace. To — oh, I don’t know — be a leader. He would have reminded our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters that as fellow Americans, we are here to help and provide support — not to cast blame or point fingers.

But, again, that’s not our reality.

The statement is also troubling because it relies on the dangerous “Latinos are lazy” trope by suggesting that Puerto Ricans are just lying around waiting for the feds to come in and save the day. That could not be further from the truth. Mayor Cruz, in particular, has been on the ground virtually 24/7 and is “living on a cot,” according to retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré.

It’s important to note that Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 20. The extent of the damage was instantly evident: Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure was decimated, and it was clear that food, drinking water, medicine, and other supplies were going to be needed in massive quantities as quickly as possible.

So how did the president decide to spend those first days in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria? By tweeting, of course. But not about the disaster unfolding in real time. He had more pressing topics to cover — like, you know, Steph Curry and the NFL.

He also found the time to jet to his New Jersey golf club for the weekend, with a pit stop in Alabama to hold yet another self-aggrandizing rally. Trump surprisingly managed to find a few minutes for some actual work. According to the Chicago Tribune, Trump did meet at his golf club that Friday with a few Cabinet officials — including Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke, who oversees disaster response. But perplexingly, “the gathering was held to discuss his new refugee travel ban, not the hurricane.”

Then on Monday, Trump spewed out a series of tweets, saying that Puerto Rico was “in deep trouble,” and pointed to its outdated infrastructure and large debt as factors that complicated recovery efforts. In so many words, he not-so-subtly suggested that Puerto Rico is somehow responsible for the devastation it’s currently experiencing.

And just when I thought he couldn’t get more cruel and coldhearted, he fires those direct shots at Mayor Cruz and the Puerto Rican people. He blames everyone but himself for his own staggering ineptitude and negligence. I’m not falling for it, and neither should the American people. Because as much as I don’t like it, he’s the Commander-in-Chief. He’s literally in a position of power to actually do something about this crisis. But that’s the thing: It’s easy for Trump to be dismissive when he doesn’t view the people he’s neglecting as his equals.

Mekita Rivas is a multiracial writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. In addition to ROAR, her work has been featured in Bustle, GOOD, Racked, Romper, and Teen Vogue. She holds undergraduate degrees in journalism and English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her current projects include a collection of short stories and a feature film screenplay. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram.

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