Hurricane Maria, a category five storm with wind speeds up to 175 miles per hour, hit Puerto Rico in September 2017. Sixty-four people died in Puerto Rico alone, with 112 in total across the region. When the power grid was knocked out, millions of people were left without power, and there was almost no drinking water. Dams broke and caused flash floods. In short, the hurricane wreaked havoc. But the shocking part wasn’t the storm; it was the reaction. It gained almost no reaction from the American public.
Puerto Rico has been an unincorporated territory of the United States since 1898. This means that our president is their president, that Puerto Rican citizens are US citizens, and perhaps it ought to mean that their struggles are our struggles. Despite the common usage of the term “immigrant” to describe Puerto Ricans in the States, they are, in fact, Americans.
The devastation of Hurricane Maria begs the question: why aren’t Americans doing more to help fellow Americans in Puerto Rico?
Now, it was during the same period as horrifying storms which destroyed parts of the mainland US. Hurricane Harvey’s effect on Texas may have drawn sympathies and media attention away from Puerto Rico.
Is it because of the island’s Hispanic background? Current sentiments in the country, most evident in the current presidential administration, show a growing disdain for those of Hispanic origin. President Trump is known to have made racist remarks against a judge of Mexican descent, and he notoriously claimed the Mexicans in America are “murderers and rapists.”
However, President Trump does not define each American individual. Every person is free to support Puerto Rico in any way they please, with money, supplies, time, or expertise. However, racism and discrimination against Hispanics can lead to deep-set or even unrealized prejudices. It’s possible that Americans who live in states have subconsciously labeled Puerto Rico as “other”, as “different”, as “dangerous” or “murderers and rapists”. Could it be that personal prejudices stopped a nation of 350 million from taking action to protect its own citizens?
After Hurricane Katrina, the government spent 120 billion dollars in aid and continues to provide additional money for relief efforts over a decade after the storm. In sharp contrast, Hurricane Maria relief efforts have been given 4.8 billion of the estimated 94.4 billion dollars that would be needed to repair the island to the way it was before the devastation. So, maybe the prejudices against Hispanics or indifference to the suffering of those considered “other” has seeped into not only American thoughts but into our government functioning.
The lack of aid to Puerto Rico shows that not all citizens are valued the same amount, and some are hardly considered to matter. Months without power after a hurricane would never be acceptable if Washington D.C. was hit by a storm, so why should it be acceptable in any other place where Americans live? It’s been nearly 250 years since the American founding fathers first declared that all men are created equal. Do we need to wait for 250 more until our society reflects it?