Politics

Go on the road with Puerto Rico’s rising political star: San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

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Carmen Yulín Cruz is the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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Andrea Crossan/PRI 

“I don’t give a sh-t.”

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That’s one of the first things that Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, said to me, referring to her recent public exchanges with President Donald Trump. In reference to his tweets calling her “nasty,” she went on to say, "This isn’t about me or politics. I’m not going to be the face you see out there just giving you a box of food for the photo op. I’m the face of the person who is going to make sure somebody gets that to you ... so like the last scene of 'Gone With the Wind' — "Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.""

 

That Cruz was quoting "Gone With The Wind" testifies to her famously wry sense of humor. She was speaking from Caimito, a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Maria, the worst storm the island has seen in nearly a century. Houses have been wiped off the map. Vegetation has been practically wiped away. Electrical poles have been ripped out of the ground, wires dangling. About half of Puerto Rico still does not have access to drinking water.

In the weeks since the hurricane hit, there’s been widespread outrage over the official emergency response. Much of that anger has been directed toward what is widely perceived to be an elitist, out-of-touch, local government — shockingly out of touch. I recently called Puerto Rico's Secretary of Education Julia Keleher. In the wake of the hurricane, only 22 schools have reopened. What is the contingency plan for everyone else around the island? I asked. She recommended, among other things, that students keep a journal and do practical, real-life math problems, such as: "How many gallons of water are left for the family to shower? How much food do you have left? How many tree limbs did you see?"

There’s also been frustration at the federal government’s response, including what was seen as a tone-deaf visit from President Trump, during which he stated he was "'very proud' that this was not a "real catastrophe like Katrina,"" and then gave away rolls of paper towels to the crowd.

Amid all this, Cruz has emerged as the face of Puerto Rican outrage. She publicly confronted the Federal Emergency Management Agency at a press conference and said lack of better assistance could be described as genocide. And her rebuttal to the president's "nasty" tweet was to wear a T-shirt that read, “Nasty.” 

“What really is nasty is showing your back to the Puerto Rican people,” she said. She was even parodied on Saturday Night Live.

On this hot, muggy evening — this past Saturday — Cruz invited a small group of journalists to survey some of the affected areas in San Juan. We started off in Caimito, a working-class neighborhood known for producing amazing boxers like Julian Solís and Enrique “Kiko” Solís.  

House

This is a house in Caimito. 

Credit:

Jasmine Garsd/PRI 

Caimito looks like a war zone. A cement electricity post had smashed into a small house. Many of the houses had the roofs ripped off of them. A woman stood at the door of one house, watching us. She told me they’d run out of water days ago. She was taking a gamble on what little came out of her tap and the kindness of neighbors who brought her bottled water. Her family had been pretty much living on rice. After weeks in the dark, she had little hope of getting electricity back anytime soon.

Woman

This woman was without water. 

Credit:

Jasmine Garsd/PRI 

Cruz hopped out of her massive, black pickup truck. She whipped out an instrument to measure electrical current and placed the tip against a thick, fallen electrical cord. “This is live,” she declared. Cruz turned to her aides, asking them to note the damage.

Post down

A cement electricity post smashed into a small house. 

Credit:

Jasmine Garsd/PRI 

Next, she went into houses, with paramedics in tow. There was a man who needed his vitals checked, who hadn’t been able to leave since the storm hit. At another place, a woman with diabetes who was concerned about her insulin supply. Everyone got solar lamps. “Don’t ask them if they want cold water,” she instructed an aide. “Just give it to them.”

One man, whose house overlooked a cliff, had his roof had blown off completely — his bed now beneath the open sky. “Where are you sleeping?” she asked him. “On the floor beneath this house,” he responded. She gasped and embraced him tearfully. As she walked away from him, he turned to me and asked, “How do I fill out the paperwork to get assistance?”

House

This is what's left of a house that blew away. 

Credit:

Jasmine Garsd/PRI 

Cruz looks exhausted, but there’s a warmth and kindness to her that is unusual in a politician. The way she tilts her head to speak to people and knots her brow in concern, the long embraces. She told us she was aiming toward basic necessities and the most vulnerable. “It is the women that carry the burden of the homes and taking care of the sick, the elderly and those with special needs. And I just think it’s going to be compounded when they have to go to work. Because where will their children stay? Definitely, it’s women who are hit the hardest."

Cruz says she doesn’t care about being called a nasty woman. But she has a warning, too.

“If I were a Republican president,” she said, “and I never would be one, ... I would be very worried. There is going to be an exodus of Puerto Ricans to the mainland. And Puerto Ricans vote Democrat. Anywhere they go, they will change the political landscape.”

The hurricane will also affect local politics. Depending on the response, a catastrophe of this magnitude can make or break a leader. Already, there are murmurs that Cruz will run for governor in 2020 and, after all this, she has more than a good chance. American media have a huge crush on her. She has, at times, campaigned for the island to be more independent from the US, and in Puerto Rico, those who love her, adore her.

But Cruz has her detractors. Some have complained that she is aggressively using the disaster for her own political maneuvers and that ultimately, not enough is being done. Sunday, heavy rains and an overflowing river flooded several parts of the city. “Yulin, you forgot that you are our mayor, you aren’t a candidate for governor yet. Clean up the streets of San Juan,” an angry reader said in response to an online video of the rising water.

Towards the end of the evening, we walk down a gravelly road. The coqui frogs, the soundtrack of Puerto Rico, are screeching. At the end of the dark road, there is a tiny cement shack; its roof has been blown off. It sits on the edge of a canyon. The canyon used to be filled with bush, but all the leaves were blown off by Maria, and now it’s just a mouthful of bare tree trunks, sticking out like jagged teeth.

A boy and his mother used to live here. The boy, the mayor explains to us, wants to be an astronaut. The boy loves to read. He lost his books in the hurricane. We aren’t told the boy’s name because this is an undocumented family from the Dominican Republic.

Hut

The roof of this tiny cement shack has been blown off. 

Credit:

Jasmine Garsd/PRI 

The family comes out of the house to greet us, but one of Cruz's aides holds his hand up and barks for us to give them space. So, we stand a few feet away, watching the mayor sit down to talk to them. We're within earshot. The boy looks at the solar lamps with delight and asks how something so small can produce so much luminosity. And suppose we used solar panels? He asks. Wouldn’t they blow away during a hurricane?

It’s heartwarming, and it also feels like staged political theater. There is a scent of Latin American demagoguery in the air. “That is where they used to live!” Cruz said later, pointing up the hill to an even smaller cement shack. She orders her aides to build the boy and his mother a new house. And don’t give her any mierda about bureaucracy, she instructs them loudly.

It’s staged, but these people are real. They live on American soil, and their misery is real. Before Hurricane Maria blew in, 44.9 percent of Puerto Ricans lived in poverty. 

Mayor

The mayor is shown talking with a family. 

Credit:

Jasmine Garsd/PRI 

This family was desperate long ago. Cruz was the mayor for five of those desperate years. I ask her what this poverty says about her own leadership. “It says we haven’t done enough. It says we haven’t taken it seriously enough. It says we have at times favored the grand gestures of construction, rather than the real important gestures, of human life. And it tells us that our priorities have been distorted. And we need to change quickly if we want the next generation to have hope. It is an awakening. I’ve never been down here. I apologize it took me so long to get down here. I’m not perfect. I don’t claim to be perfect.”

It’s gotten dark, and there’s no light for miles, except for the little solar lamps. It’s time for us to go home, but on the way, Cruz stops to speak to several more neighbors. She doesn’t care much about the tired, hungry journalists waiting in the van behind her.

Is she genuine or is it just politics? More importantly, does it matter right now?

The fiscal crisis and the hurricane have pushed the island into a deep existential crisis. My friend Gabe Rodriguez, as he drove us through the broken streets of San Juan, took a moment to consider his future. “Eighty or 90 percent of my family are on the mainland. All of my friends are, except for two or three. I can’t help but wonder, what are we even doing here? What does it even mean to be Puerto Rican?”

The answer, as any local will tell you, is complex. Sadly, it seems to mean politicians telling you to practice mathematics with your own misery, and the president of the United States arriving to throw paper towels at you. But Mayor Cruz came. She hugged people who were sticky and sweaty from weeks without water. She touched them. She cried with them. She made them laugh. She let them know they matter. Is she motivated to some extent by greater political aspirations? For many Puerto Ricans, they don't care. They need help. And they need someone in their corner.

Right now, that’s her.

Hut

This is a hut at the end of the road. 

Credit:

Jasmine Garsd/PRI