On Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico, leaving widespread devastation in its wake. The following day, nearly every home on the island lacked electricity, roads were closed, gasoline was scarce and many people lacked sufficient food and water. In response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, the College’s Puerto Rican community has organized, buoyed by the sense that their collective action could make a difference for their home island.
VISTA is currently planning numerous fundraising efforts, and the organization has already created an easy opportunity for students to donate.
“We coordinated with the Chaplain’s Office and SoCA (Students of Caribbean Ancestry) to offer students the opportunity to donate one meal swipe for this week,” Karen Linares ’18, a co-chair of VISTA, said. “The proceeds will be split between the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands and the Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico.”
The response to the tragedy began with three individuals: Mérida Rúa, professor of Latina/o and American studies, Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, a fellow at the Clark Center and Rosa O’Connor Acevedo, a teaching associate for Spanish. All three are Puerto Rican. “I heard about the hurricane on Wednesday; it was the day I had to teach two classes. I saw this hurricane destroy my island,” O’Connor Acevedo said. For her, the need to get involved was personal. “I had to do something, because I am here at Williams and enjoying all the benefits, but my family is struggling in Puerto Rico,” O’Connor Acevedo said. O’Connor Acevedo lived her entire life in Puerto Rico before heading to Williamstown, and her family is from the southeast area of the island, one of the hardest-hit areas.
For Lugo-Ortiz and Rúa as well, it has been a daily struggle to keep in contact with family and ensure that their loved ones are safe. “I sent [my cousin] a text asking if she had been able to see my 80-year-old aunt. It took a while to get back to me, but she’s alright. … They always say that they’re OK and they have food and water today, but I don’t know about the next few days,” Rúa said.
On Sept. 24, O’Connor Acevedo, Rúa and Lugo-Ortiz met at Tunnel City Coffee to determine a plan, and ultimately decided to hold a larger meeting during which they could come up with a strategy for campus-wide action. Last Wednesday, that meeting was held at 4:15 p.m. in Hollander Hall. “The room was completely full. There were people even sitting on the floor, some sitting against the door,” O’Connor Acevedo said. Additionally, the meeting was attended by representatives from VISTA, the College’s Latinx student organization, Students of Caribbean Ancestry (SOCA), the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) and Rick Spalding, chaplain to the College.
At first, the plan was to prepare a collection for Western Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico, which was shipping supplies to the island. However, several hours before the meeting, FEMA released a recommendation that individuals stop collecting donations because it was unable to properly distribute the massive number of items that were being sent to the island. Because of this, attention shifted to 10 organizations that were providing services directly to the people of Puerto Rico by distributing food, water and gasoline, restoring infrastructure and providing emergency medical services. The meeting ultimately culminated with the idea of a 10-week fundraising drive, with each week devoted to a different organization. One week, they envisioned working alongside dining services to donate two swipes for every student at the College: one to Hurricane Maria relief and one to aid for those affected by the recent earthquake in Mexico. On another week, attendees discussed a possible exhibition in Sawyer Library.
Participants at the meeting also frequently returned to the idea that many opportunities existed to help the people of Puerto Rico other than monetary contributions. The Jones Act in particular – a law forbidding non-American ships from travelling between two American ports – came up often. Critics of the law, which included O’Connor Acevedo and Rúa, argued that it was limiting the number of resources that could reach Puerto Rico, adding that the 10-day waiver issued by President Donald Trump was entirely insufficient.
“10 days just isn’t enough. Recovery will take more than one to two years,” Rúa said. She called for students to contact their representatives and demand either a year-long waiver of the law or a full repeal for Puerto Rico, as Arizona Senator John McCain advocates. In addition, O’Connor Acevedo worries about the strain that the natural disaster put on the island’s already massive $73 billion debt. “There is no way we can pay our debt with the disaster that we have now,” O’Connor Acevedo said.
In the week following the hurricane, the situation in Puerto Rico has continued to deteriorate. Some people cannot find gasoline for their cars, and O’Connor Acevedo reported that some of her family members were only permitted to purchase $15 worth of gas at a time. Rúa added that, for her family, there was a two-hour line just to get into the local Costco parking lot. “This is only the place that people know of. There are other places with no contact whatsoever,” she said. For Rúa, three days passed after the hurricane before she was even able to get in contact with her family.
Many also feel frustration at the lack of newspaper coverage and political response toward the event. “[The disaster’s] been ignored because that island has been ignored for a very long time,” Rúa said. Ultimately, for her, one of the best ways for people to help was simply to pay attention to the island’s struggles. “We have to get people to talk about Puerto Rico. … Just try to read what is going on. I hope people share so that they can organize and keep talking,” she said.