On Thursday evening, Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, a local filmmaker and member of the collective Defend Puerto Rico, will travel with 300 pounds of emergency aid—“solar generators, rechargeable chainsaws, women’s hygiene products, dry fruit, whatever we can get”—to the island of Puerto Rico, where, according to the local government, over 90 percent of people remain without electricity and, according to the US Department of Defense, 55 percent, or 1.87 million people, remain without access to drinking water after Hurricane Maria shattered the island’s infrastructure on September 20.
“Delta Airlines is allowing me three bags of 100 pounds each, for free, to bring to the people,” Jacobs-Fantauzzi said to over 100 people who gathered to rally at the Ronald V. Dellums federal building in downtown Oakland on Wednesday evening. “I’ll be there representing all of you and our people,” he said. “!Puerto Rico no se vende! !Puerto Rico se defiende!”
Members of the Bay Area’s Puerto Rican community and their allies were there to demand that the United States government provide immediate, unconditional aid to “relieve and rebuild” the island, remove a prohibition on foreign assistance, and cancel Puerto Rico’s $74 billion debt. The rally was part of a nationwide day of action involving at least 13 cities, and was organized by Vamos4PR, a coalition of community and labor organizations that support the people of Puerto Rico. As residents of a US territory, Puerto Ricans are American citizens, but without full constitutional rights, such as being able to vote for president or have a voting representative in Congress. Puerto Ricans living on the US mainland often call themselves “diasporicans,” referring to a diaspora.
Thirty-four people have officially died on the island because of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Wednesday. But because of the lack of communication, infrastructure, and access to food, water, and medical supplies, many fear that number is much higher—and growing. “We are dying here,” said San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz at a press conference in San Juan on September 29, captured by NBC Nightly News. “If we don’t get the food and the water into people’s hands, what we are going to see is something close to a genocide.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is currently providing aid on the island. Earlier this week the agency reported that some 12,000 federal responders, including members of the Army Corps of Engineers, the United States Forest Service, and Customs and Border Patrol, were on the island working to restore power, clear debris, re-open roads and check on survivors.
But the agency has faced criticism for not doing enough. “We are outraged at the slow and inadequate response the US government has mounted in Puerto Rico,” wrote Oxfam America President Abby Maxman in a statement on October 2. “Clean water, food, fuel, electricity, and health care are in desperately short supply and quickly dwindling, and we’re hearing excuses and criticism from the administration instead of a cohesive and compassionate response.” FEMA has not fast-tracked its aid in the same way they did for Hurricane Harvey in Texas, reports Vox, and Congress has not voted on an aid package specifically for Hurricane Maria damage—it’s using funds left over from money appropriated for Hurricane Harvey.
President Donald Trump did not visit Puerto Rico until October 3, 13 days after the hurricane hit. He infamously threw paper towels into a crowd at Calvary Chapel in the San Juan metro area, where disaster aid was being delivered.
At the rally in Oakland, protesters heavily criticized the federal response. “The president is out talking about ‘Everything’s fine, they did a wonderful job,’ and we know that’s a lie,” Jacobs-Fantauzzi said.
“We need to make sure the aid goes immediately to Puerto Rico,” said Denise Solis, one of the event’s organizers, and that rebuilding happens “by and for the people of Puerto Rico, without the displacement of Puerto Ricans like happened in Katrina.” After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans lost approximately 400,000 residents, with low-income African Americans the least likely to return.
Many Bay Area residents have family in Puerto Rico, with whom they have limited contact. Residents of Puerto Rico’s capital city, San Juan, are more likely to have access to electricity and cell service than rural parts of the island.
Julia Cepeda, an Oakland resident and case manager at El/La Para Trans Latinas, a San Francisco-based organization that offers social services to transgender Latinas, is from Puerto Rico. Her entire family still lives there. She said she’s able to touch base with her family every two to three days, and that her family members have had to wait 10 to 11 hours just to buy $10 worth of gas. “They almost had to sleep at the gas station,” she said.
Jamilah Sanchez, of Oakland, who attended the rally with her son and daughter, said her 77-year-old father was living alone in San Juan when the hurricane hit. “Like many Puerto Ricans, he just had enough food and water for two days,” she said. Unable to get ahold of him, at her friend’s urging she made a public Facebook post. After it was shared many times, a woman in San Juan saw it and was able to check in on her father, who she said “sounded a little delirious and hungry,” according to Sanchez. Sanchez and her sister were able to arrange for him to fly out of San Juan, after many hours of delays, to her sister’s home in Massachusetts.
Gerard Artesona, also of Oakland, said his 84-year-old grandmother lives alone in Aguadilla, a city on the northwest tip of Puerto Rico, and it took a week and a half until other family members on the island could visit her. “They’re trying to convince her to leave,” Artesona said. “She used to live in New York, but at her age, everything she has is out there [in Puerto Rico]. She doesn’t really want to leave.”
Libertad Ayala Ruiz, also at the rally, said her mom lives in San Juan. She wasn’t able to get in touch with her after the hurricane hit, but she was able to communicate with friends via the internet who told her they’d checked in on her mom.
“The first time I talked to her was two days ago,” Ayala Ruiz said. “She called me. It was a huge surprise. It was her birthday, too, so I think the universe conspired.”
Ayala Ruiz says its quiet and dark and many trees are down where her mom lives. Water is barely coming out of the faucet. She hasn’t heard anything from her father, who is in the mountains in Jayuya.
Rico Pabon, an Oakland musician, said he has 15 to 20 family members on the island, but that he’s only been able to contact his cousin and his sister, who lives in Trujillo Alto outside of San Juan. They can’t access cell phone service consistently, so texting is easier than calling, he said.
His family has been relying on a finite supply of bottled water, Pabon said, so he sent his sister water filters and bacteria-killing tablets, which she was supposed to be able to pick up in the cargo area of the San Juan airport. After waiting to pay for rationed gasoline—with a $20 limit, said Pabon—and burning most of that gas stuck in San Juan traffic, his sister was unable to collect the package, even though she spent all day at the airport trying to sort through the bureaucracy.
“They have very limited electricity. Their systems are not all completely back online,” said Pabon, referring to the airport’s ability to process cargo. At the time of this writing, the water filters and tablets he sent to his sister have been held up at the airport for four days.
After the rally at the federal building, the protestors marched through City Center to Citibank, which, along with a variety of other banks and hedge funds, owns Puerto Rico’s debt. There, Solis encouraged everyone in the crowd to cut ties with Citibank and show solidarity with the campaign to cancel Puerto Rico’s debt.
“We want a complete cancellation of the debt. It is an unjust and illegal debt by Wall Street sharks,” said Jacobs-Fantauzzi. “They are making money off of the people who are suffering the most, and we call for a complete repeal.”
In 2016, Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), which gave control of Puerto Rico’s finances to an unelected Financial Oversight and Management Board. That board has implemented austerity measures on the island, and in May filed for bankruptcy proceedings. The terms of the bankruptcy are currently being litigated in federal court, which means U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain will have the final say over how or if Puerto Rico’s debt is restructured or canceled.
Jacobs-Fantauzzi and other members of Defend Puerto Rico also demanded the immediate and full repeal of the 1920 Jones Act, which requires all ships entering its port, or any US port, from another US port to be owned, built, and crewed by Americans. On September 28, the Trump administration temporarily suspended the Jones Act, for 10 days, to speed up the distribution of emergency supplies to Puerto Rico.
The protestors also want an extension of the 60-day deadline for people to apply for FEMA natural disaster assistance. “The people on the island don’t even have electricity. How are they going to be able to apply for FEMA?” said Jacobs-Fantauzzi.
Jacobs-Fantauzzi will arrive in Puerto Rico later this week, as part of a delegation organized by activist, scholar and former Green Party vice presidential candidate Rosa Clemente. They will be doing live, multimedia reporting from Puerto Rico.
“Its important for us to be together, and celebrate together, and make sure our voice is heard,” said Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi, his brother. He helped start a Puerto Rican student group at UC Berkeley in the 1990s with just four people. “We kind of didn’t know that there were other Puerto Ricans in the Bay Area,” he said. That group has now morphed into Bay Area Boricuas. “People that met as students are now married with three kids out here protesting with their families. It has definitely created a community of Puerto Ricans and allies” in the Bay Area, he said.
Vamos4PR and Defend Puerto Rico were joined at the rally by La Tertulia Boricua, Bay Area Boricuas, Taller Bombalele, Bay Resistance, Causa Justa::Just Cause, Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West, and the Climate Justice Alliance. They are planning another nationwide day of action on October 11.
After the rally, full of singing, chanting and dancing, a woman walked up to Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi and expressed her gratitude. “I feel so empowered,” she said.
But a sense of urgency still lingered in the air.
“People at this point are starting to get desperate for water,” said Pabon, speaking of friends and family on the island. “It’s starting to run out.”