Hurricane Maria hit close to home for the many Puerto Ricans living in Alphabet City. Among the 34 who died when the storm hit Puerto Rico was Joey Montalvo’s uncle. The San Juan resident had a heart attack and medical assistance couldn’t reach him. “He can’t even have a decent funeral because all the cemeteries are flooded,” Montalvo told us during a recent visit to Don Juan’s Barbershop, on East 4th Street.
President Trump’s visit to the island did little to assuage those gathered at Don Juan’s on Thursday morning. “He doesn’t even have his facts straight,” said Montalvo, who didn’t take kindly to Trump having to ask about the death toll in the middle of a press conference, and comparing it to the “real catastrophe” of 1,833 killed by Katrina. “Every human life is a life,” Montalvo said.
“He threw that paper to the people like they were animals,” said Juan Rosado, the barber shop’s owner, referring to Trump’s now infamous paper-towel free throws.
Rosado has family in Las Piedras, and didn’t appreciate Trump’s statement that Maria has “thrown our budget a little out of whack.”
“It’s sickening that the first thing he refers to is the budget,” Rosado said. “He critiques our money and budget instead of lives lost.”
Rosado is like many residents of Alphabet City, which has been heavily Puerto Rican since the 1940s. It was a whole week before Wendy Garcia-Lopez could get in contact with her family. She eventually received a picture of her relatives shoulder-deep in storm water as they swam to escape their house.
“It’s scary to not know what’s going on,” said Rosado. “It’s even scarier how long it’s going to take to rebuild.”
Since the storm, many in the community have banded together to send aid to the island they still feel is home. At a fundraiser last Saturday at the Alfred E. Smith Houses, local residents and elected officials sold Puerto Rican food and accepted donations. That same day, the Loisaida, Inc. Center put on a concert featuring Puerto Rican artists that doubled as a fundraiser for DonatePuertoRico.com. Tonight, the Kraine Theater, in the East Village, will host an evening of theater, comedy, and music, with proceeds going to organizations dedicated to bringing clean water to the island. On Sunday, the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center and Why Not Care, a Lower East Side nonprofit, are hosting a benefit concert featuring salsa and reggaeton; in addition to a $10 suggested donation, attendees are asked to contribute baby food, batteries, diapers, and feminine hygiene products.
“We did our part, but it was just sitting in the port, there’s no transport, no truck drivers,” said Montalvo.
The U.S. recently waived the Jones Act for 10 days to allow foreign aid to be shipped into Puerto Rico. The act, passed in 1920, requires goods shipped between American ports to be exclusively carried by U.S. ships with U.S. crew. “Ten days is not enough, they need to lift it for a year at least,” said resident Awi Perkins.
Those who had survived Hurricane Sandy felt sympathy for their relatives on the island. “We were without power for five days with Sandy, can you imagine two weeks,” said Montalvo. According to a status website maintained by the office of Puerto Rican governor, just 10 percent of Puerto Ricans currently have electricity and just 55 percent have clean water.
Residents remained divided on what Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. should look like going forward. “By the looks of it we don’t really need them. They’re not much of a help anyway,” said Rosado. On the other hand, Perkins felt Puerto Rico should be made a state. “The U.S. and Puerto Rico need to merge together. They need the help. We owe a billion dollars.”
In an interview with Fox News, Trump alluded to canceling Puerto Rico’s $73 billion in debt. “They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street and we’re going to have to wipe that out. That’s going to have to be — you know, you can say goodbye to that. I don’t know if it’s Goldman Sachs but whoever it is, you can wave goodbye to that.”
A day later budget director Mick Mulvaney backpedaled on these comments. “I think what you heard the president say is that Puerto Rico is going to have to figure out a way to solve its debt problem,” Mulvaney said.
Many residents felt that “the U.S. is supposed to take care of us by any means necessary,” said Perkins. “They’re not following their own rules, they’re breaking the treaty.”
“When Alphabet City burnt down in the ’80s we came back stronger,” said Perkins. “Desperation is going to breed creativity. It’s going to create innovation and community. People have to help each other. Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.”