Across U.S., Mainland Puerto Ricans Rally, Mobilize to Help Island’s Hurricane Victims
Some of the efforts are well-publicized: Lin-Manuel Miranda has a new song to raise funds for Puerto Rico and Jennifer López, Marc Anthony and other high-profile celebrities have pledged millions in help and delivered crucial items to the island.
But many more are working in the shadows of anonymity with 5K races, bake sales, lemonade stands, pizza parties and even pig roasts, trying to help the beleaguered U.S. territory recuperate from the worst hurricane in a century. More than two weeks after Maria, most of the island is still in the dark with no electricity and many sectors without running water.
Puerto Rico native Rose Figueroa, an engineering consultant in Ann Arbor, MI, started a local chapter of Puerto Rico Rises, a Florida-based group that is collecting and sending supplies to the island.
“You feel kind of helpless at first and then you realize that you are the best tool people have on the island,” said Figueroa, who is coordinating collections in five cities throughout Michigan. She and several other engineers and technical professionals are planning on traveling to Puerto Rico soon to help with rebuilding efforts on the ground.
Margarita Bauzá is a native of the small southern town of Guayama in the island and is currently living in Detroit. “A lot people don’t know how to help and they want to, but it’s not like you can drive a truck down to Puerto Rico.” So she has taken to social media to help connect the dots and post links to organizations coordinating aid and she has also organized fundraisers.
“Our customers care about what’s happening in the world,” said Jennifer Stark, co-owner of Amici’s Pizza & Living Room, a Detroit-area business that recently donated 10 percent of its sales over three days for Puerto Rico hurricane relief efforts and plans to continue fundraising efforts. “Doing right by the people is the right thing to do. And I’ve been watching the mayor of San Juan on TV and it’s been very moving to me,” said Stark. “People want to help and the outpouring has been great.”
Puerto Ricans are the second-largest group of Latinos in the United States, surpassed only by residents of Mexican origin. A years-long economic crisis has resulted in a steady decline in the island’s population.
A recent Pew Research Center report finds that in just a ten-year period from 2005 to 2015, the number of Puerto Ricans living on the mainland United States grew from 3.8 million to 5.4 million. Puerto Ricans residing in the 50 states and Washington, D.C. say that’s why helping the island has become such a widespread and concerted effort.
“It’s personal for us. We can’t leave Puerto Rico alone. And based on the economic and political influence we are having here in the states, we have to be that connection to hope for islanders and ensure that that federal government and Congress and state governments help our fellow brothers and sisters,” said Puerto Rico native Norman Bristol Colón, who is the special assistant to the Secretary of State and Director of Special Projects for the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Bristol Colón has helped organize local non-profits and community groups for large-scale collection of much-needed items and funds across the state, which has the fourth-largest population of Puerto Ricans in the United States.
“We have a lot of support here in Pennsylvania and we are also looking at creating foundations to continue to help the island because is not a short-term help,” he said. “It could be five to ten years for the island to completely recuperate from this so we are in this for the long haul.”
Florida has a Puerto Rican population of nearly one million, A study by the Hispanic Federation and Nielsen estimates that the Sunshine State’s Puerto Rican residents could surpass the Cuban American population by 2020.
In Texas, the Puerto Rican population has more than doubled from 69,000 in 2000 to 177,000 two years ago and continues to grow amidst a health job sector in the Lone Star State, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in NYC.
Houston-based attorney Benny Agosto Jr. told NBC News he was anxious to go to the island right away and help.
“It’s a very debilitating feeling to watch it unfold on TV and not be there to help, but it’s better at first to help from outside the island. When we face issues such as bureaucracy, we say we cannot let this be undone or forgotten so we pick up the reins and get to work,” said Agosto, who is in private practice and is a past president of the Hispanic National Bar Association. He and his group have helped raise funds and gather supplies to send to the island, including medicines and dialysis machines.