Puerto Rico Earthquake relief fundraiser highlights grassroots and voting power among Philadelphia Puerto Ricans
The event, organized by Philly Boricuas and SAPFA was held at The Fire on Feb. 28.
Back in the 1960s, Angel Ruiz Ortiz and his fellow Puerto Ricans were a generation of revolutionaries.
That’s what he told the crowd as he took the stage at The Fire last Friday at a fundraiser organized by Philly Boricuas and the Spanish American Professional Firefighters Association (SAPFA).
The proceeds went towards both Philly Boricuas’ relief backpack drive and a future planned trip to Puerto Rico for members of SAPFA in the aftermath of the 2020 earthquakes.
“We wanted to change the world,” said Ortiz. “We thought we were going to change the world.”
But in his words, “the 60s left and we didn’t change the world.”
“Our generation really failed in that endeavor,” said Ortiz.
In fact, if anything, he thinks it’s worse than it was more than 50 years ago.
“Today, we have fascism in the United States,” said Ortiz, referring to the Trump administration.
For Puerto Rico, that’s meant piecemeal and, for the most part, absent relief from the U.S. federal government in the aftermaths of both Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the 2020 earthquakes.
Add to that an island government that’s just as politicized with a recent history of corruption, and the revolution Ortiz longed for in the 60s still rings true today.
Luckily, there’s a new generation to carry the torch.
“It is in your hands to change what we have. We left it undone. The revolution has not begun,” said Ortiz
Some could say it started over the summer with the deposition of then-governor Ricardo Rosselló. But the discovery of containers of undistributed aid on the island from the days of Maria in the aftermath of earthquakes, show that his replacements are just as indifferent towards changing their ways.
“Our government sucks,” said Adrian Mercado, one of the leaders of Philly Boricuas.
Three weeks after the earthquakes struck Puerto Rico back at the end of 2019, he and other members of the organization visited the island and met with leaders of the various tent camps created to house the displaced near the disaster’s epicenter.
What they saw were people wholly under-resourced and ill-prepared.
“They didn’t even have an emergency-preparedness plan. They didn’t even know where the tsunami zone began or ended,” said Mercado.
Thankfully, Philly Boricuas was prepared, and brought with them a load of backpacks containing relief items donated as part of a drive the organization started back in Philly.
Some of the items, in addition to the backpacks, included diapers, baby wipes, water filtration devices, flashlights, first-aid kits, sleeping bags and much more.
“A lot of people we met did not have what was in these backpacks,” said Mercado.
According to Puchi de Jesus, another leader of the organization, the relief items in the backpacks help residents cope with the aftermath of the earthquakes, but also prepare them better for the upcoming hurricane season.
“That’s also something people are really focusing on,” said de Jesus.
As of now, Philly Boricuas has donated 600 backpacks to the island, with the most recent 100 going this past week targeting the disabled community.
The goal of the fundraiser on Feb. 28 was to help reach the ultimate goal of being able to send 1,500 backpacks of relief to Puerto Rico.
Four thousand dollars was the initial funding goal, but it was surpassed by the time of the fundraiser.
“We’ve more than doubled our funding goal,” said Adrián Rivera-Reyes, another leader of Philly Boricuas.
Flush with enough cash, he said the plan is to hit their 1,500 backpack goal and reassess. If they’re still needed, the drive will continue, but if not, the money that’s left will go directly to organizations on the island with whom Philly Boricuas has developed a relationship.
With the funding goal met, the night at The Fire was also a time to consider the role of Puerto Ricans in the upcoming census and presidential election.
To the right of the dance floor sat a table with flyers advertising voter registration and the census in addition to a donation jar, raffle tickets, and a sheet detailing some Democratic candidates’ Puerto Rico policies.
“This election is truly for Puerto Rico, vulnerable communities, communities of color, for disabled communities...It’s an election that’s about life or death,” said Rivera-Reyes.
In the past, U.S. presidents have declined discussing Puerto Rico in the context of U.S. politics, and have often promised to support votes on statehood or independence to no avail for its people.
Rather than the statehood or independence debate, Mercado wants this election to be about the island’s debt, specifically the economic pilfering of Puerto Rico as an effect of PROMESA, which set up a fiscal oversight board to deal with the many U.S. corporations it owed money to.
The result was that the island’s public service budget — which funds everything from infrastructure maintenance and health care to education and pensions — took a major hit.
Mercado also mentioned Puerto Rico’s Sales Tax Refinancing Corporation (or COFINA using the Spanish abbreviation), which maintains an 11.5% sales tax, as another major contributor to the island’s financial troubles.
He said in Puerto Rico, such issues are common knowledge, but in the states, some education is required.
That’s where he and the rest of Philly Boricuas come in.
“It’s time we use our voice as the largest Latino demographic in the country to address the issues of Puerto Rico,” said Mercado.
Or, to echo the words of past revolutionaries like Ortiz:
“We need power,” he said.