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Why Many African-Americans Haven’t Been Outraged By Puerto Rico’s Devastation…but Should Be.

About eight years ago, I took a trip with one of my mentors, Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, to Loiza, a small town outside of San Juan in Puerto Rico. We were there for Fiesta de Santiago Apostol de Loiza. Reggaeton superstar Tego, who’s originally from there, headlined the concert.

I remember walking down the street with my dark brown skin and mini curly ‘fro. Someone driving by in a car yelled out of the window “VIVA CELIA CRUZ!” I remembered us all being so tickled. I did, after all, very much so resemble Celia Cruz during her hey day.

While Celia was not Puerto Rican (she’s one of the most well known Cuban luminaries in history outside of Fidel Castro), and I’m not Latina, I immediately connected with that passerby’s observation of the proximity of myself, an African American women from the U.S. Black South, specifically New Orleans with the Queen of Salsa.

This was one of many examples of an immediate connection that I’ve experienced over the past 20 years of my life when I’ve come in contact with the greater Diaspora. It happened initially as a student at Howard.

It continued to occur during my travels to some of the Blackest locations in the Diaspora – Haiti, Brasil, Cuba, Suriname, Curacao, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic.

During these travels and during my work, which is primarily based on the East Coast of the States and throughout Black communities internationally, I’ve also adopted and been adopted by many Diasporan communities. Some of that extended village hails from Central and Latin America.

They make up the Latino/a/x Diaspora. Their last names are Lebron, Cruz, Acevedo, Piñeda, Alba, Vega, Roman, Clemente, Cordero, Peralta and Capote. And while Spanish, or broken Spanish is their first language spoken at home, both politically and racially, we identify in similar ways. Their family trees are as nuanced and interesting as my own.

So as Harvey and then Maria ravaged the Caribbean, rather during the days following, I was deeply concerned. Initially I was fully engrossed in the 24/hour news cycle. Then I tuned out, because, to be honest – hurricanes are triggering.

Katrina traumatized me. But because people tuned into what  happened in New Orleans and subsequently poured love, resources, empathy and support for my family and hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents, I couldn’t turn a blind eye.

Especially because I’m directly linked to “those people.” Puerto Ricans. Caribbeans. Our people.

What I’m currently thinking is: That most of Black America is disconnected from Puerto Rico. Unless you grew up in New York or some parts of Philly or Chicago, most African Americans are detached culturally and politically from Puerto Ricans.

Yes, lots of Negroes go there on vacations, and for quick getaways (I was about to go myself for a self-care vacay), to have their weddings on its beaches, or to go on bachelorette trips. However, most folks go to hotels and resorts and then go home. Meaning they’re not necessarily engaging with the people or the culture.

So the reality is, the vast majority of people in Puerto Rico are people of African descent, creolized thanks to the good ole Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade like the rest of us, a mix of indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans and a handful of Europeans.

Puerto Rican children circa 1898.

While many of them don’t identify as “Black” or maybe even as Afro-Latino, they are still in Diasporic terms, just as black as your light skin family from Louisiana, actually darker in some cases and more phenotypically African.

I’m raising this point not to say that people’s identities should determine how we extend care and concern, but that I think it’s harder to disregard a humanitarian crisis when you are in close proximity to the people suffering from dire circumstances.

Maybe because I have a plethora of Puerto Rican extended family/friends,  it hits closer to home.  Or because I’ve spent time in places outside of San Juan, like Loiza, where there was just a huge community of Black folks, and because I have friends and godfamily who have people in P.R. that they still haven’t heard from, or that they’ve heard from and hear how they are suffering (ie: can’t keep their insulin cold enough due to the electricity situation) that I feel a responsibility to do something.

Los Pleneros, El Barrio, New York City.

Who’s kneeling and who’s not kneeling and whatever fboyPrez has to say about it is conversation worthy, and to many degrees, matter.

But so does the fact that Puerto Rico, which in political terms, and reality, is a U.S. Colony, that can’t get aid from other countries, without that aid first coming here, thanks to Jones Act (that he apparently waved earlier this morning). We can’t even fathom the extent of the devastation and probably won’t for months to come.

My grandmother died, not in Katrina’s floodwaters, but two years later due to health complications including having her legs amputated, after not receiving dialysis treatment for over two weeks, in its aftermath. 

Loiza, Puerto Rico, 2015. Daniel Allende.

The world’s heart broke for the people of New Orleans and the greater Gulf South post-Katrina. Much of the 9th Ward still looks like a war torn land. And we’re a part of the U.S. mainland. Imagine had New Orleans been an island.

We’re currently a few years into the International Decade of People of African Descent as declared by the U.N. Please pay attention to what’s happening outside of our walls, our Diaspora is vast.

Black folks and people of African descent suffering anywhere, is our problem, and vice versa. Black Lives Matter Globally.

VIVA PUERTO RICO, now and forever. 

– Shantrelle P. Lewis


There are multiple ways you can donate to efforts. Also remember, it’s not just Puerto Rico but several other Caribbean islands that have been devastated including St. Martin, the US and British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Barbuda (which is uninhabitable with 100% of its residents currently evacuated) and parts of Cuba. Whatever you do PLEASE DO NOT GIVE MONEY TO THE RED CROSS.

Even if you have a co-worker who is Puerto Rican, it’s better to put money in their hands, to send to their family members than donating to huge bureaucratic organizations that won’t put aid in the hands of the people. Additionally, if you find the need to donate clothes, PLEASE do not send your worn out, raggedy, most used clothes.

During Katrina, I was horrified by some of the items people donated. Used underwear, in some classes decades old sweaters that were in the back of the closet. The islands are tropical. Only donate something you wouldn’t mind wearing yourself, definitely something for warmer climates, and if at all possible, just donate new clothes.

Here’s a list of resources with more information about how you can get involved:

Hurricane Maria Community Recovery Fund

Los Ambulantes/Trusted Puerto Rican Relief Organizations

Flint Family in St. Martin displaced by Irma Go Fund Me  

Defend Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Fund

Further Reading

USA Today For the First Time in 300 Years, There Isn’t A Single Person Living on the Island of Barbuda

NYT: Nearly Half of Americans Don’t Know that Puerto Ricans are Americans 

NYT: Puerto Ricans on Mainland Rely on Stranger to Reach Relatives

History: Puerto Rico’s Complicated History with the US

HuffPost: Living in Gentrification as a Puerto Rican in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Listverse: 8 Atrocities Committed Against Puerto Rico by the US

12 Pieces of Advice for Hurricane Survivors

Colorlines: How to Help Residents of Puerto Rico and The U.S. Virgin Islands Recover After Hurricane Maria