President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump tour a neighborhood impacted by Hurricane Maria, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

Dear Mr. President: Puerto Ricans Are Americans, Too

October 9, 2017

A president who sees everything through a lens of so-called fake news should not be expected to recognize a real-life situation. Not surprising, then, that when President Trump landed in Puerto Rico, he quickly pronounced that the devastation there was not a “real catastrophe like Katrina.” No matter that most of the island’s 3.5 million residents are struggling to get clean water and food, and are still without electricity. Or that Lt. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchannan — directing the military response on the ground — calls the situation “the worst he’s ever seen.” But what could the president really assess about the magnitude of the problem from a drop-in tour far away from the mountainous parts of Puerto Rico where most residents live? The communities where FEMA is still not present. The places where San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz reported desperate people drinking from a creek.

The mayor was part of the official delegation greeting the president. She met him with a forthright explanation for her previous words of frustration and anger, "people are dying here.” She told him it was “not about politics.” But it clearly was, for him, as he pointedly ignored her. But that graceless response seemed almost appropriate in the wake of his treating the gathered crowd as if they were animals, tossing rolls of paper towels at them. It was painful to watch, and hard to look away. President Trump capped his visit noting the millions needed for Puerto Rico’s recovery would “throw our budget a little bit out of whack,” though he hastened to acknowledge that “every death is a horror.” Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez responded emotionally in an interview on NewsOne Now saying, “It’s always dollars and cents for him. And I guess in his mind, he sees a dollar value to people’s lives.”

Given the President’s long and short-term history dealing with people of color, I feel certain his response would be different for white Americans. If he didn’t see Puerto Ricans as lazy ingrates who, as he tweeted, “need everything done for them.” Classic racist stereotyping straight out of the Breitbart handbook. Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che underscored that with sharp-edged jokes, “This isn’t that complicated, man. It’s hurricane relief. You did it for white people twice!”

More than two weeks after the category 5 Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, most people are still in the dark, while others are still out of reach of relief workers. And there is limited food and clean water. Worse, fears are the government’s belated response has increased the possibility of the spread of disease and more deaths. And the sure-to-be battle for recovery funding is just beginning.  

Congressman Gutierrez is disappointed that the president didn’t come to Puerto Rico with “seriousness and hope,” recognizing the island’s ravaged state as a real catastrophe. And he wants the President to remember that Puerto Ricans have given their lives fighting for their country. As he notes, their full citizenship is never questioned, “when there was a war.” Real Americans, indeed.


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