A disaster seizes the attention of the public. Images of destruction and chaos on cable news channels transfix us in coffee shops and in our homes, and we wonder how we might respond in a similar situation. Tales of heroism, sacrifice and community emerge shortly afterward, reminding us that even in the most challenging times, the simple act of caring for those in need shines like a beacon of hope.
But what happens when there are no images to see, no tales to tell? What happens when an entire place disappears off the digital communications map?
That’s where people like Jason Ortiz step in. The 33-year-old is president of the Connecticut Puerto Rican Agenda and the executive assistant to Hartford Councilwoman Wildaliz Bermudez.
Ortiz is deeply involved in helping Puerto Ricans both here and on the island. The drive to help Puerto Rico after the one-two punches from Hurricanes Irma and Maria is personal. He has relatives living there. Those family members are among the more than 70 percent of Puerto Ricans who are still without power. Not only does that mean no electric stoves or refrigerators, it also means few working cell phone towers. There are few pictures coming from residents who need help. No tweets. No stories.
Ortiz sat down with the CT Mirror to speak for those who can’t reach the mainland from the island, to tell us something about what is happening in Puerto Rico now and, more importantly, what he says needs to happen in the future to help the three million American citizens living there rebuild their lives.
Does your work focus primarily on the city of Hartford or do you have more of a statewide network? What exactly do those organizations do?
The Connecticut Puerto Rican Agenda is a statewide organization. We’re actually a chapter of a national network, the National Puerto Rican Agenda, and we seek to educate and mobilize Puerto Ricans to take action on issues that affect our communities.
That includes those issues both here in the state regarding education opportunity, educational funding for our cities, but also making sure we’re helping folks on the island achieve whatever kind of economic goals and dreams that they have, and what we can do here to make sure that happens.
What were some of the initial things that you heard, both here and from the island, when Hurricane Maria initially hit? What were some of the things people were talking about before it hit and immediately afterward?
Well, first we started with Irma, and so we were getting ready to help address whatever needs were going to happen for Hurricane Irma. The Connecticut Puerto Rican Agenda is part of a coalition that formed called the Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Network, that included the Agenda, the Center for Latino Progress, the San Juan Center, CIC of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, which is the Hartford Puerto Rican Day parade, and we’re also working with the Hispanic Federation. We are a fiduciary sponsor, and communicating with the Connecticut Puerto Rican Caucus.
That’s what was happening before Irma even hit, and we were getting ready to be mobilized, so when Maria hit, we kind of knew that there was going to be a lot of work that needed to be done. Of course for the first two weeks we didn’t hear anything from the island, because there was very very low communication.
And so the Puerto Rican community, in Hartford and Connecticut and the diaspora in general, kind of had to mobilize resources and support without knowing exactly what was going to be needed of us, so it was definitely a massive undertaking.
I believe, and I’m only 33, but I’ve heard from other folks who have been around much longer than me, that the response from the diaspora is actually unprecedented, and it’s never happened before, and that the folks stateside are mobilizing faster than the needs on the island, and I think that does show a bit of a change as we move forward with Puerto Rico and the relationship with the diaspora on the island, and that that network is stronger than it ever has been before.
Can you speak a little bit more to that? What do you think accounts for the way you were able to mobilize people so quickly to respond to Hurricanes Maria and Irma?
Social media, 100 percent. Now we’re getting information in real time, and so before it might have taken days or weeks or even months to hear from your family on the island exactly what’s going on, but now we see it minutes after it happens, and we can spread it quickly to folks all over the country.
And the interesting thing about Puerto Ricans is you know we are concentrated in the Northeast but we are all over the country. And so we’re able to share, among our networks, friends and family members, information about our island, super-fast.
And so I think that ability to alert the 5 million Puerto Ricans stateside very quickly, the concern that has always been there for our island found a channel to be expressed. And so I think the concern has always been there, but now we’re just able to mobilize much faster.
You saw how fast, as Maria was happening people were already organizing. Hurricane Relief Network, that we’re a part of, was having a meeting as Maria was hitting. We couldn’t exactly know what to do because it was in process, but we were ready. And I don’t think that would have happened as fast with other communication channels.
How has the response to the needs for Maria been across the state? Have you found that things have been centered in Hartford or has the Puerto Rican population across the state been responsive to the island?
Everyone has been very responsive to the island, and I think there’s multiple ways of helping. There are some folks that are doing supply drives, other folks that are figuring out how to help families that are going to come here. There’s a lot of fundraising happening, and then we’ll see increasingly political action forming, especially considering how our president has chosen to respond to the crisis.
As our community bands together to help in a real material way with supplies, we’re also banding together in a political way, to figure out the best way to leverage our political power, because Puerto Ricans do hold a lot of political power in important states like Pennsylvania, New York City, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Florida.
And so as we see the federal government not help our people in the way that we need, it’s actually incumbent on us here in the states to use our power to pressure Congress to do the right thing. And I see that rapidly increasing in the communication between different states, also increasing significantly as our federal response to the crisis gets worse and worse.
In terms of on the ground, have you heard from residents in Connecticut, and have they been able to get in contact with relatives in Puerto Rico? What have they heard from their family members down there, and what have you heard directly from people that you’ve been able to speak to on the island?
Well my grandmother and my sister both live on the island full time, and so I’ve not been able to hear directly from either of them. I still haven’t heard directly from my grandmother. I just heard directly from my sister a couple days ago, so we’re talking weeks.
The way that it’s been actually happening has been really interesting because the folks on the island have limited communication, it’s been a lot of coordination with the folks stateside to share communications with other people and so, for instance, we had a friend that reached out to one of my uncles that had spoken with my sister that told me that she was all right, and I heard that through one of her best friends in Florida, right?
So the messages that your family is okay are taking all types of routes to get to you, but it has been incredibly limited, as far as how we can actually communicate with folks on the island, and understand what their needs really are, and I think that’s one piece that has been difficult for folks stateside to understand. We want to help immediately and we want to go do things, but they’re dealing with a lot on the island as far as communication, electricity and things like that go.
And so it’s been painful to wait and hope to hear back as we organize to be ready for when they tell us what they need and to be ready to provide it, but there’s so many people who have not spoken with their families.
There’s still many cities all over Puerto Rico that do not have communications and so they have to travel to major metropolitan areas just to send an image or send a phone call out, and trying to travel from the west side of the island to somewhere where you can get cell service could take hours, especially now when there’s no gas so you can’t just get up and go.
That’s been pretty stressful and there’s a lot of anxiety and things right now, so we are seeing that folks are starting to establish those communications and make sure everybody’s okay.
Even this far out from the actual storm, Puerto Ricans on the island are still struggling with the basics of communication and the basics of moving around the island, so that’s presenting a real difficulty for them?
Eighty percent of the island still doesn’t have electricity and over 50 percent still doesn’t have water almost a month after the hurricane, right, and Puerto Rico is about, geographically, the size of Connecticut, and so you can imagine if the state of Connecticut was 80 percent without power for a month, people would be losing it. And that’s what we’re seeing right now in Puerto Rico.
Almost a month in there was a four-star general put in there over a week ago, and still 80 percent is without electricity. You can’t have cell communication without electricity, and that’s a major stumbling block and still a problem.
What are some things that people can do, both Puerto Ricans in the states and non-Puerto Ricans, other citizens of the United States and of Connecticut. What things can they do right away to help with the needs that the island has right now?
Well, I would actually caution folks to not look at it that way, in terms of what the island is going to need immediately, because what we need immediately is federal intervention to reestablish electricity and communication right, and no amount of fundraising is going to help us do that.
I think we should encourage everyone to find an organization on the island that they trust, that matches their values, and they should give directly to them. And if you’re not sure you can definitely use the Hispanic Federation and the Connecticut Puerto Rican Agenda’s links on our website, CTPuertoRicanAgenda.com, to make a donation to the Hispanic Federation and we will then decide what we’ll do with it as the information from the island comes in.
But the big thing is here we can pressure Congress to do the right thing and to actually invest a significant amount of money. It’s going to take billions and billions of dollars to rebuild the Puerto Rican infrastructure, and that’s something that we can demand here, right? One of the federal panels just approved a $10 billion expansion of the border wall, which would be way more than enough to help Puerto Rico. So the money is clearly there, it’s a matter of the political will and making the Puerto Rican people a priority.
I think that’s what all of our friends, family and allies here in the states can do is make sure a massive, historic infrastructure aid relief bill is introduced and passed in Congress. And I don’t think anything short of that would do Puerto Rico justice.
What will it take to make sure that Puerto Rico continues to receive the media attention and the national attention it needs in order for this rebuilding process to work in the long term?
I think the Puerto Rican diaspora needs to escalate its direct action in response to President Trump. I think we need to bring it to beyond direct fundraising and rallies and really start mobilizing politically and bring these issues to D.C.
I think every congressperson in the United States of America should understand how important Puerto Rico is and has been to the United States and that we should make sure that we help rebuild an island that we’ve been using politically for over a hundred years.
I do think we’re going to see over the next few months some very angry Puerto Ricans that are going to take their issues to Congress. And you know the thing with Puerto Rico is we have a tremendous amount of artists and celebrities and performers and sports heroes and various influential figures across the country that can make sure that this issue not just gets the media attention, but gets the results it deserves.
I think we’re going to see our nonprofits and grassroots networks utilizing those more influential figures to not just make this an issue for the media for the next few terms but to actually galvanize a movement and to empower Puerto Ricans here and on the island to get what we need even more generally after the hurricane.
Is there anything else you wanted to say that I didn’t ask you or anything else you wanted to speak on?
I think the thing that’s been so amazing to me and so positive has been the solidarity between the island and the diaspora. You know, prior to that, over the course of our history there’s been a bit of tension between folks stateside and on the island, but when our island was in trouble the diaspora very much stepped up, and I feel like folks on the island have felt it, and the crisis has brought us together as a people.
I think it’s very important for us and for everyone to understand that Puerto Ricans, both stateside and on the island, are all Puerto Ricans and we’re all here to make sure that Puerto Rico prospers.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.