Miller: WBA International Community Engagement and the Power of a Name

During the last week of winter break, along with twelve other trips spread throughout the country, 14 participants traveled to Puerto Rico for a week of service and solidarity. Having the privilege of being one of 12 students embarking to Puerto Rico, I learned and reflected a lot about the way we, as a country, as a school, and as individuals think about Puerto Rico. We can all agree that any place ravaged by natural disaster is undeserving of such tragedy and deserving of support in the aftermath. What became clear to me during our week in Puerto Rico is that the United States government should have been the agent providing such support.

For participants on the trip, the status of Puerto Rico was a common discussion, before, during, and after. From the time that the location was changed, we knew that we would no longer be travelling internationally, as originally planned. We didn’t get passports, our parents worried a little less, and some of us were careful with how we referred to our plans for the last week of winter break.

But what became increasingly clear as the office of Campus Ministry sent schoolwide emails and posted blogs for the world to see is that not everyone was quite as careful. Originally holding plans of travel to Ecuador, WBA International Community Engagement retained its name when the destination changed to Puerto Rico.

Though I was frustrated by the misrepresentation beforehand, the people I met in Puerto Rico crystalized this frustration. We heard stories of houses destroyed and the ways in which communities banded together in the aftermath of the hurricane. One man shared his story of driving around his coastal neighborhood with his chainsaw to ensure that everyone could leave. We heard of the fear families felt in the days immediately following Hurricane Maria, unable to communicate with their loved ones and unsure of their safety. Not once did I hear of any support from the federal government, nor did I hear of the intervention of FEMA.

As conversations continued throughout the week, some people we met shared the nuance of their name. Though referred to by English speakers as a commonwealth, in Spanish, Puerto Rico is considered a free and associated state. However, Puerto Rico is not a state, it is not free, and the US response to Hurricane Maria suggests that the association is weak at best, even in times when this association is crucial. The personal anecdotes of the aftermath of Maria seem to be representative of the experiences of the island as a whole.

The weakness of the association between the United States and Puerto Rico becomes evident when comparing the federal government’s response in the wake of Maria to the federal response to Harvey. Though FEMA was not completely absent from the island, a closer look at the varied responses reveals great disparities.

President Donald Trump traveled to Texas four days after Harvey hit, whereas it was thirteen days after Maria before he made his way to Puerto Rico. Nine days after Harvey, victims in Texas had received 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million liters of water, and 20,000 tarps which could be used for covering homes and preventing further damage. In contrast, nine days after Maria, victims in Puerto Rico had received just 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water, and 5,000 tarps. At the same time, 30,000 federal workers were deployed to Texas in comparison to the 10,000 sent to Puerto Rico.

Though some disparity can be accounted for due to the differing population of those affected by each storm, it cannot be ignored that the estimated death toll in Puerto Rico was approximately 34 times higher than that of Texas, despite the fact that the population affected in Texas is only approximately four times greater than that of Puerto Rico.

In learning these statistics and hearing personal stories, I had to wonder why these disparities exist. One can speak to the logistical challenges of providing aid to an island, but if you have visited Puerto Rico you know the flight from Florida to San Juan is relatively short. Others may argue of the financial burden, but a look at the Department of Defense budget or even the GoFundMe for Trump’s border wall suggests that there is always money available–if people care enough.

In recognizing these disparities, we must consider a few things. Does Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth disqualify them from equitable humanitarian aid in the wake of a particularly devastating natural disaster? How would this response have been different if Hurricane Maria occurred during the previous administration? What role did we play in allowing complicitness in the federal government?

After the powerful week on the island of enchantment, I was increasingly bothered at the schoolwide emails and blog posts referring to our week as a week of international community engagement. Confused, upset, and planning to share my opinion, I sought answers from Dr. Susan Gabert, Director of Campus Ministry.

Dr. Gabert explained that “the reason the name of the trip was an international trip was because originally the trip was meant to be to Ecuador,” and there was a change of plans due to circumstances beyond the control of the Service and Solidarity program. Dr. Gabert continued to take responsibility for “contribut[ing] to the misunderstanding of Puerto Rico” by “not changing the name to better reflect the relationship of Puerto Rico as a territory of the United States.”

While the naming of the trip is undoubtedly part of the ease with which many people disregard Puerto Rico, we also must be cognizant of the fact that we all could be doing more. We have all failed Puerto Rico, in one way or another. As a commonwealth of the United States with no voice in national elections, the Puerto Rican voice has been silenced. Those of us with voices and votes must constantly bear in mind those who have been denied this privilege. For me, this means electing officials that will govern with compassion on behalf of those who are silenced, and not electing officials who can be found in the aftermath of a tragic natural disaster throwing rolls of toilet paper into the crowd like t-shirts at a baseball game.