By Zainab Iqbal
Published: December 6th, 2017
The mayor of hurricane-stricken San Juan, Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulín Cruz, gave the keynote address and spoke about the current state of response to natural disasters at Brooklyn College’s “Weathering the Storm” event last Thursday, Nov. 30 at the Competition Gym in the West Quad.
“Weathering the Storm” was a day-long event with several panels discussing the role of the academy in responding to natural disasters. The keynote address was being transmitted live to Puerto Rico, Cuba, and South Africa.
“If anybody is reading this; we have not had any food or water for the past seven days. We have a child who has asthma, we have no way of giving her medication. And… we need help,” Mayor Cruz read aloud a text message she had received days after Hurricane Maria hit.
Cruz was introduced in the gym by Brooklyn College President Michelle Anderson, Director of the Chancellor’s Latino Faculty Initiative in Academic Affairs at CUNY Arlene Torres, Chairperson of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies (PRLS) Dr. Maria Perez y Gonzalez, NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Assistant Professor of PRLS Reynaldo Ortiz-Minaya.
“She is an outspoken woman,” Anderson said of Cruz. “She is a defender of her people and she is here at Brooklyn College.”
“I’m especially grateful to be here at Brooklyn College, with 17,600 students,” Cruz said. “That’s more than the police force of all of Puerto Rico put together.”
Cruz captivated the audience for one hour, telling her story of San Juan. She described what she saw the first few day she went through the city—fallen trees, operations being done with the light from a cell phone, and a family whose child didn’t have any asthma medication for seven days.
“It was very clear to us from the beginning that this was about saving lives, nothing else,” she said. “It didn’t matter if that life was white or black or LGBTQ, or Baptist, or Catholic. It was about saving lives.”
Cruz, a petite woman who wore a white jacket and long black boots, didn’t stand on the podium for the entire hour. In fact, she took the microphone off its stand and carried it across the gymnasium, as she walked and spoke directly to the audience—sometimes choking on her words.
“I’ve seen a child, being held by his grandmother, look at a bottle of ice water and gasp because when he touched it he knew that it would give him what he needed,” Cruz said. “I’ve seen Muslims and Jews, blacks and whites, gays and not gays, hold each other’s hands and feed each other.”
Cruz then criticized The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). According to her, FEMA was telling Puerto Ricans to register using the internet.
“Now I want you to understand there’s no power, no communications, no phones, there’s certainly no internet, and FEMA is telling us to register via internet or call on phone,” Cruz said. “Well I did what my mom told me to do—I stood quiet.”
Staying quiet, she then realized, was something she shouldn’t have done. After all, U.S. President Donald Trump was telling a whole other story, she said.
“The stark contrast of what we were seeing and what we were experiencing, and what was being told to you was sheer abomination,” Cruz said. “You were being fed up a story that wasn’t real.”
Hurricane Irma and Maria, both catastrophic hurricanes, left the entire island of Puerto Rico without power for over two weeks, according to the Washington Post. After vising the torn island, Trump “uttered ‘great’ 10 times and used ‘incredible’ and ‘amazing’ seven times each,” to describe the humanitarian efforts in Puerto Rico, according to the Washington Post.
Cruz realized she had to speak up, and so she did. She urged the federal government to “save us from dying.” Trump then accused her on Twitter of wanting everything to be done for Puerto Rico, “when it should be a community effort.” According to Cruz, it already was.
“The private sector, educational sector and non-for profits came to the rescue,” she told the gymnasium. “They didn’t see statistics, they saw people.”
She then criticized Trump by saying, “When I say we’re dying here and you’re killing us with your bureaucracy and your inefficiency, I wasn’t being dramatic,” she said. “I was merely just uttering the words that others could not utter.”
She wasn’t done criticizing him yet; in fact, she had just gotten started.
“You know that Carly Simon song that says ‘you’re so vain you probably think this song is about you?’” she asked. “Well you’re so vain you probably think this hurricane is about you!”
Though Cruz has gotten a lot of positive feedback for standing up to the president, she has also gotten some hate, including people saying she’s only helping other cities in Puerto Rico because she wants to run for governor.
But according to her, she’s not.
“I’m not running for governor,” she said. “I’m helping other towns in Puerto Rico because that’s what good people do and that’s what elected officials need to do.”
“I know some people don’t like it when I say things that I say,” Cruz said. “Well I am sorry if the truth interferes with their lies but we will continue to tell the truth and ensure there’s an agenda so that what happened in Puerto Rico doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.”
According to the Guardian, when Trump was asked to rank the federal government’s recovery effort out of 10, he said “I give ourselves a 10.”
“Who grades themselves in a humanitarian crisis?” Cruz rhetorically asked Brooklyn College.
She then spoke directly to the women in the audience urging them to “don’t play nice.”
“If you play nice, you get the raw end of the deal,” Cruz said. “Because the guy with the power is going to crush you.”
She then went on to say that “honorable,” the word everyone uses to describe her, is not true.
“I am not honorable,” she said. “ Honorable are the people that have endured, that are still in Puerto Rico today with no water, no electricity, no medication, with their children not going to school, and they still believe and they still hope. They are honorable.”
Cruz received a standing ovation after her powerful emotion-filled speech.
“As I stand here with these nice boots, nice looking jacket,” she said, “there are people in Puerto Rico that don’t have anything to eat, not enough oxygen to breathe.”