Published in El Diario NY
Decades ago, Puerto Ricans sent elected officials a strong message. We need to do the same with the candidates running for president.
The year is 1958 and I picture my people getting ready for the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City.
Dresses dangle from hangers and pañuelos are meticulously folded and ready for purses. Shoes are shined, and Fedoras perched on dressers next to bottles of Varon Dandy.
Excitement is in the air. The parade will unfold on Fifth Avenue, where the Irish, Italian, Greek and other major parades took place. The forces that be had tried to keep Puerto Ricans off Fifth Ave, but our community pushed back hard.
In those years, many Puerto Ricans would descend on la Quinta not knowing about the acts of hostility that had taken place.
One year, shop owners along Fifth Avenue had covered their stores the evening before with plywood, displayed the Puerto Rican flag upside down and posted signs with ‘Puerto Ricans, go home!’ Beginning at midnight, parade organizers worked to remove the panels. As legendary Puerto Rican labor organizer Gilberto Gerena Valentín describes in his memoirs, “The next day, we marched without having to face that insult, which was intended to provoke the parade’s participants and create a situation that would discredit the parade.”
The sabotage would not end there. Gerena Valentín recounts how police horses were given laxatives to stain the route and leave a stench. When the city’s health department showed up with fire hoses, they soaked some of the parade-goers.
Parade organizers delivered an ultimatum to then Mayor Robert Wagner – he’d lose the Puerto Rican vote if he did not immediately end the mess.
The rejection and disrespect of Puerto Ricans, whether they reside in states or the island, date way back. So does the refusal to submit.
Decades later, it feels as if we are battling in the same racist arena. We are dealing with a President who would prefer that Puerto Rico sank into the ocean, who sees us and our families as a nuisance and undeserving of aid, even when lives are at stake.
In response, Puerto Ricans from New York to Ohio to California have been raising their voices, in the way the diaspora has always done for the island.
After Hurricane Maria hit and caused unprecedented devastation, organizations like Power 4 Puerto Rico emerged to pressure Washington for the resources the island and families that were forced to flee need.
Our coalition of leaders and allies came together because the humanitarian crisis was exposing the web of hurdles that have to be cleared for both an emergency response and a just, long term recovery. As the clock ticked on Puerto Rican lives, one of these barriers include unfair shipping laws imposed on the island. The Jones Act delayed the transport of trucks full of supplies from neighboring Dominican Republic, only 200 miles away.
In the months after the hurricane, Power 4 Puerto Rico successfully advocated with many others to prevent FEMA from returning broken structures on the island to their original fragile conditions, which is what federal law dictates.
For the first commemoration of the 3,000 Puerto Rican lives lost, we worked with partners on the “#BoricuasRemember” campaign, with mass mobilizations taking place in Washington DC, New York and Florida. Our goal was, and continues to be, to keep Puerto Rico at the forefront of national attention.
As part of our push for accountability, Power 4 Puerto Rico brought media attention to how the Trump Administration has tried to slow down the flow of resources to the island, a matter that is currently under investigation.
And as we take on Trump, we are also demanding that the candidates who want to replace him spell out what they would deliver for the island.
To this end, we released an open letter --signed now by more than 50 organizations-- demanding that all of the presidential contenders present a comprehensive policy platform on Puerto Rico during this election cycle. Candidates will have to speak to Puerto Rican voters about the specific actions they would take, instead of offering general or vague statements.
This is a message we –both individuals and organizations– must all loudly amplify, for the future of Puerto Rico. That’s why we are asking all Puerto Ricans and supporters to join us in this call, now and in the coming months, for presidential candidates of both parties to #ShowUsYourPRPolicy. We owe it to our families in Puerto Rico, and we owe it to those ancestors who powerfully stood up on Fifth Avenue and set an example for us.
Erica González is the Director of Power 4 Puerto Rico.
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