It has been nearly a month since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, creating a humanitarian crisis, the likes of which the island hasn’t seen in decades. For almost a month, many Puerto Ricans have not had power, water or food. It is hot and almost impossible to communicate with victims stranded by the freak act of nature. Many members of my own family live in Puerto Rico, and the first contact we had with any of them only happened this week despite the fact that Hurricane Maria made landfall in mid-September. Several Facebook pages emerged in the early aftermath of the storm, posting updates and pictures of safe citizens who are unable to communicate with their families living outside of Puerto Rico. Power is not expected to be restored to the island of 3.4 million for six to eight months. FEMA published (and then deleted) a statement declaring less than 11 percent of Puerto Ricans have power.
It has been nearly a month and the United States government continues to ignore Puerto Rico. The Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, has powerfully asserted herself in the face of growing governmental isolation, receiving only Presidential scorn and a spot on the FEMA blacklist in return.
Many people forget (or simply never knew) that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens thanks to the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917. The bill was passed by President Woodrow Wilson and allowed Puerto Ricans to travel to and from the U.S. without a passport. Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. commonwealth rather than a state is the source of a rocky relationship between the two. A history of corruption and abuse has not aided in smoothing over relations. However, the island’s residents are protected by the same Bill of Rights as everyone else on the mainland USA, and deserve the same disaster relief response received by Houston and Florida.
Creator of “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda, has taken relief efforts into his own hands. This is not the first time the artist has been vocal about issues concerning Puerto Rico; in April, 2016, he appeared on an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” to call attention to the island’s massive debt crisis. On Twitter, he lambasted Donald Trump after the Trump’s (unfortunately frequent) disparaging remarks and neglectful behaviors concerning the relief efforts for Puerto Rico. Miranda himself is of Puerto Rican descent and he frequently features his heritage and culture in his work (most notably his Tony award-winning musical “In the Heights”).
Six days after Hurricane Maria ran its course full strength over the island, Miranda penned a heartfelt essay in “The Hollywood Reporter.” The essay begins with a personal anecdote, a story about Miranda’s cousin’s family seeking refuge in the cement home beside his late grandfather’s wooden dream house. The storm’s winds, which reached Category 5, destroyed the house completely, but Miranda’s family remained thankfully unharmed. Unfortunately, surviving Hurricane Maria is only the first in a very long line of obstacles the island now faces.
Miranda has teamed up with the Hispanic Federation, an organization dedicated to supporting Hispanic families and strengthening Latino institutions in several fields. In conjunction with several community leaders in New York, Florida and Washington D.C., the Hispanic Federation created the UNIDOS Disaster Relief and Recovery Program. Every single penny raised goes towards meeting hurricane-related needs and long-time recovery of children, families and communities in Puerto Rico.
On October 7, Miranda dropped a star-studded tribute song titled “Almost Like Praying,” a modern day “We Are the World.” All money raised by the song will be donated to UNIDOS Disaster Relief. The track samples its title lyric from the Broadway musical “West Side Story,” a Puerto Rican-centric star-crossed love story. The lyrics name every single one of the island’s seventy-eight principalities, sung by predominantly Puerto Rican artists. In an interview with NPR, Miranda says “I thought, well the only lyric that really unites us and that makes the most sense for a fundraising song is if I can somehow write a lyric that includes all 78 towns in Puerto Rico so that no one feels left out and no one’s town feels forgotten.”
There are eleven artists featured in “Almost Like Praying,” including Miranda himself. The singers are multi-generational, and the song itself crosses genre lines between pop, rap and salsa to croon patriotic “I love you’s.” The coquí, a tree frog native to Puerto Rico, chirps in symphony with the island’s signature steel drums and the beat created by cow bells. Miranda says on recruiting the group, “Everybody said ‘yes’ having not heard the song. They just they felt as helpless as I did and they were trying to do as much good as I’m trying to do and make as much noise as I’m trying to make.” Celebrities wield more and more influences every day, and it’s incredibly vital that they use their fame for good when it can mean the difference between life or death.
Miranda is not the only Latino artist to give back to the island he calls home. Rapper Pitbull has chartered planes to bring in supplies that the U.S. government can’t seem to find themselves able to send the Puerto Ricans in a timely manner. Jennifer Lopez donated $1 million dollars to hurricane relief, as did reggaeton icon Daddy Yankee. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, in conjunction with rapper Fat Joe, led a donation drive in the city, chartering two planes to send the supplies to the island.
Recovery efforts in Puerto Rico are slow-going. Poor infrastructure and lack of aid from the U.S. government impedes the ability of those on the ground to do their best and reach the largest number of citizens. Puerto Rican residents deserve to be treated like the United States citizens they are, and nothing less. Lin-Manuel Miranda expresses both frustration and hope in the outpouring of public support, saying “I have to say, despite the humanitarian crisis going on on the island, despite the difficulties, despite the slowness of the U.S. government’s response, I’ve never had more faith in people and American people and people all over the world.”
And for you, if you are interested in helping in any way, learn more about donating to Puerto Rican hurricane relief on the Hispanic Federation’s website and make a difference in the lives of millions.