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Puerto Rican community at UNC outlines the help needed for those back at home

Members of the groups pose together in front of the food and supplies they've gathered for Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Jose Cartagena.

As the rest of the country moves on from the ravages, Puerto Ricans living abroad find themselves firmly settling into a painful new reality. 

Brenda Quiñones-Ayala, a UNC doctoral candidate in the Department of Romance Studies, expressed the anxiety of her community. 

“Being here in the States, you feel powerless," Quiñones-Ayala said. "You feel sad looking at the images, and it really affects you."

Despite their steadfast efforts, she said it's obvious to students and faculty that their help alone is not adequate. Quiñones-Ayala believes that recovery planning does not take into account the long-term impacts of the disaster. 

“The fact that right now people are exiting the country will have a long-term impact on the economy,” she said. “And that needs to be factored into the funding that is assigned to the country. You can not only think about the immediate.”

Furthermore, she believes the aftermath of the hurricane is highlighting deeper issues that reflect the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. 

“Let me clarify something: there is an inherent right for help. It’s not charity,” Quiñones-Ayala said. “Being citizens gives us obligations.” 

Lorna Avilés, an assistant Spanish professor, emphasized the idea of making direct impact in small communities in Puerto Rico. She said it’s often difficult to see results through the work of big organizations.

“We actually want to connect with specific organizations on the ground that we know are directly doing work at places where we want to reach out,” Avilés said.

Drawing from their Puerto Rican heritage, an intimate care for their communities helps organizers overcome the bureaucracy of the efforts of bigger entities. According to Avilés, tailoring to communities' needs is more effective than sending standard, Americanized packages. 

Instead of shipping foods that people in Puerto Rico don't actually eat — like sausage links or Cheetos — to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Avilés said she instead responds directly to local requests. She’s currently working with an organization that caters to elderly people by providing adult diapers, mattress covers and other life necessities. 

Avilés’ mother, whose extended family lives on a small island adjacent to Puerto Rico, has been told that electric power will not be restored until 2018. 

“Sending them money is not very beneficial because one of the biggest issues is just access to stuff,” Avilés said. “You can send them all the money in the world, but how is that going to help them see at night or get access to water?”

José Cartagena-Ortiz, a program assistant at the Kenan-Flagler Business School, described his sentiment after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as "survival guilt." 

Cartagena-Ortiz said he feels that the Puerto Rican identity is being buried within the American identity. He said Puerto Ricans feel their unique set of challenges aren’t being addressed due to a lack of visibility. 

Cartagena-Ortiz said he fought for two years to have the Puerto Rican flag displayed outside the business school. 

“When you display the flag, you are giving people the chance to ask, 'Wait, I have never seen this flag, where is this flag from?'” he said.

Without a genuine representation of Puerto Rico, Cartagena-Ortiz believes people will not understand the challenges his community has to navigate. 

“I had support of my team because I talk to them about Puerto Rico on a daily basis, and explain to them me as a Puerto Rican, the things that I go through,” Cartagena-Ortiz said. “When people know someone and the reality of what’s happening, it creates consciousness.” 

While the organizers worry about the actual conditions of life in Puerto Rico, they remain hopeful about the nature of people there. 

“This effort is a community effort, and help is coming from everywhere. It goes beyond racial considerations, class considerations, it’s a sense of humanity,” said Carlos Vázquez Cruz, a UNC doctoral candidate in the Department of Romance Studies. “It’s solidarity, it’s beyond anything that divides people.”

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