This Should Not Keep Happening To Puerto Rico. This Should Not Keep Happening Anywhere.

A few days ago I read a story about the continual infrastructure and utility issues plaguing the..

And then I stopped writing.  “Plaguing the what?” I asked myself.  What exactly is Puerto Rico?  How do we define exactly what the territory is?  See for me this is part of the larger issue in trying to get Americans to care.  They either don’t think Puerto Rico is truly an American entity or they don’t think it is American enough.  For me, such proof is not needed.  If I see a neighbor hurting, I help, or seek help, or at least show compassion and love.

What side of the border that person in need is on never made any difference to me.  This is one of the reasons it would be hard for me to seek elective office, health permitting, in this era.  You see, I wouldn’t lie about my indifference towards borders, exceptions made for intelligent and humane security considerations.  But let us acknowledge that to the majority of Americans, Puerto Rico, whatever it is defined as, is an afterthought.  So let’s now, together, attempt to define it.

Loosely described as an unincorporated Caribbean island and U.S. territory, it has been the subject of much debate, and for its citizens that matriculate into the states themselves, its status as a U.S. interest has rarely resulted in any kind of warmth.  In popular culture citizens of Puerto Rican descent have often been the subject of misunderstood and sometimes misanthropic stereotypes and those stereotypes assigned to them have often been a punch line.  Carnia Del Valle Schorske, writing about West Side Story in the New York Times, has this to say-

My mother taught me to resist the cartoonish stereotypes of macho teenage gangsters and hysterical lovers in “West Side Story.” But I also know that when the 1961 movie version came out, she and her friends went to see it twice at the local theater in Washington Heights and cheered when the Sharks came onscreen. If this musical is still our narrative ghetto, then the least we can do is make noise about what it feels like to live in it.

The United States has a compulsion when it comes to “West Side Story,” restaging, again and again, the primal scene of the colony’s incursion into American consciousness, the midcentury’s “gran migración” of Puerto Ricans to New York City. Never mind all that has transpired since then: salsa, hip-hop, the Young Lords, the movement to demilitarize Vieques, Hurricane Maria, #RickyRenuncia, the new “gran migración” not to New York but to points south — especially Orlando, Fla., where the Pulse club massacre happened on Latin Night.

Given mid-century the time frame in American history, it seems that the racial fascination within a broad audience went from “Mammy” to “Papi.”  But it is no less deleterious to the cause of equality.  One could make the argument that every few decades this nation cycles into a different social rung of “court jester” acceptance.

“Court Jester” is my term.  It signifies a power structure amused by, but not necessarily respectful of, a different culture or ethnicity.  It also is meant to signify just how easily they can be dismissed.  All of this matters, because when a group is marginalized, their needs are undermined.  Their voices are muted.  The totality of their individuality is caricatured, and thus the full measure of their existence as a human being is not taken, nor recognized.

One of the fundamental foundations of my personal and political philosophy, is that I treat all human beings with respect.  Humans in suits making laws, and humans in jumpsuits making license plates.  I don’t judge, and I don’t assume.  When I don’t know I will ask, and if I think I do know, I will likely keep my mouth shut to defer to those who absolutely do.  But where did any of this thought process originate in me, and possbily, millions of others?  In order to give some context to my mentality I would like to show you a window into my childhood..

With his Puerto Rican background, Mr. Gregory Sierra was often cast in ethnic roles, including Latinos, Italians and Native Americans.

In 1972, during its second season, he joined the cast of “Sanford and Son,” one of Norman Lear’s many groundbreaking sitcoms, in the recurring role of Julio Fuentes, a junk dealer who lived next door to Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx), who also had a junkyard with his son, Lamont (Demond Wilson), in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. He stayed until 1975.

Julio tried hard to befriend Fred but was the frequent target of his insults.“Why don’t you go do some work in your yard,” Fred tells Julio in one episode.

“Go take a bath. Go milk your goat.”

“I did that all this morning,” Julio says.

“Why don’t you go back to Puerto Rico?” Fred says.

“I come from New York City and I can live in any of the 50 states I want,” Julio answers.

“Why don’t you try Alaska?” Fred responds. “That’s a state.”

That both a tribute to Mr. Gregory Sierra after his passing, and a line from Norman Lear’s classic comedy, “Sanford and Son.”  Fred, played by Redd Foxx played an African-American character living in Watts, Los Angeles, with his son Lamont.  Sanford and Son was at times hilarious and at other times heartbreaking, but in some ways, Fred was the bizarro Archie Bunker, in the sense that he too was irascible, held prejudices, and his anger about his plot in life provoked him to punch down.

Julio was a junk dealer.  Julio was also of Puerto Rican descent from New York City, as was Mr. Sierra in real life.  Gregory Sierra would become one of my favorite actors as I grew older and enjoyed his performances in Sanford and Son and Barney Miller, and his loss saddened me.  What Mr. Lear managed to do with humor was to show the very real pain of the oppressed.  It was up to you to laugh or relate, or learn, and truly, “Sanford” is far too complex to summarize in a short piece like this one.  Its effect on American popular culture is worthy of its own doctoral dissertation.

The Julio character hit a nerve.  Mr. Sierra’s brilliant portrayal clearly, to those paying attention, demonstrated the hurt he felt.

I was paying attention.

Gregory Sierra

My grandpa would say about men like Julio, that he is “good people.”  So was my grandpa.  Sitting in the Houston VA Hospital staring down what would in the end, be terminal cancer, he would refer to his fellow veterans, mostly from World War II and many from his beloved United States Navy, as his brothers.

In retrospect, in that crowded ward full of American heroes, he was the lightest skinned of his brothers.  I don’t think he even once noticed it.  And so this kind of upbringing, where I had a window if not a full understanding of the plight of oppressed classes, has served me well but also sadly.

I say sadly, because there is a peaceful bliss to ignorance.  It is how the right sells their “product.”  Once one knows, one can not, ever, not know.  But as this applies to Puerto Rico, and all issues of inequality, my experience watching this groundbreaking show planted a seed of empathy that grew in my heart.  And once the empathy door was cracked open, my thirst for knowledge on the subject of race and acceptance could never be quenched.

While a television character could never serve as a full education, he at least, made me want to learn.  For that, a humble actor from New York made an impact in my life.

And one should note, that rather than suffering the fate of West Sides Story’s Tony, as he could have, he decided to pursue a path that could have won him a Tony.

Though briefly tempted by gang life as a teenager, he took up acting classes after accompanying a friend to an audition and ended up playing Shakespearean roles with the National Shakespeare Company and in the New York Shakespeare Festival (playing, among many other parts, Macbeth and Romeo), as well as appearing off-Broadway.

Gregory Sierra was the living embodiment of a shattered stereotype.  And so as I matured, I found it is better to be thirsty, than to be ignorant.

Indeed more broadly, I owe a great deal of gratitude to all involved in Mr. Lear’s projects.  Yet the “me” part is only important if you also realize there were millions of “mes” so affected.  That is the point.  Norman Lear and his colleagues helped this entire country to evolve.

But fifty years on, have we progressed as a people past the point of dismissive attitudes towards our family of different backgrounds?  Progress has been made, but the inequities persist.

Puerto Rico was still reeling Friday from a massive blackout that initially left over a million residents without electricity.  Schools and government offices were closed for a second day as roughly 56 percent of all power customers, about 840,000, remain in the dark as of Friday afternoon.  The two entities in charge of providing electric services to 1.5 million power customers in Puerto Rico was not able to say with certainty when power would be fully restored across the entire U.S. territory.

“This is unbearable,” said Maribel Hernández, 49, a resident of San Juan, the capital.

Hernández, who is recovering from cancer, said she has been sleeping in her outdoor patio due to the overwhelming heat inside her house. Like many other Puerto Ricans, Hernández was also forced to throw out spoiled groceries she couldn’t refrigerate because of the blackout.

This blackout was little more than two weeks ago.  Not 2017.

With higher electric bills than the fifty states, citizens of Puerto Rico have every reason to be upset.  They also have a right to question why since 2017, only emergency repairs have been completed, and a full modernization of the electrical grid has not been initiated.  We remember 2017, right?

It’s now been seven months since Hurricane Maria shredded Puerto Rico. Thousands Americans on the island still don’t have power, and this year’s hurricane season, expected to be busy, begins in less than a month.

Last year’s Category 4 storm that toppled 80 percent of the island’s power lines and flooded its generators left the island in the longest and largest blackout in US history and the second-largest blackout in the world on record.

While regulators report that more than 98 percent of utility customers have their power back, the remaining 2 percent of customers represents more than 22,000 people that can’t turn on the lights, refrigerate food, or run water pumps. That so many Americans have languished so long without electricity is a national embarrassment.

But that is the thing; it can only be a national embarrassment to Americans if Americans understand that is their fellow citizens suffering.  Or if they care.  In an interview between NPR’s Michael Martin and investigative journalist Elivan Martinez Mercado, the issue of the grid is discussed.  You might think more than four years on from the second longest blackout in modern global history we would have progressed far more than we have.  In a sign that a glacier will melt far faster than our government moves, though not for President Biden’s lack of trying, we have not.  

ELIVAN MARTINEZ MERCADO: I spent one year without power in my house, in the mountains, so I know lots of people that’s waited about a year before seeing electricity again.

MARTIN: So when we talked earlier this week, I asked Elivan Martinez Mercado to explain how things got so bad.

MARTINEZ MERCADO: Puerto Rico electric system has been in very bad shape because of lack of investment in the power plants and in the transmission and distribution line. And this is a very important subject because this is a matter of life and death. During the past 30 years, the energy system infrastructure, it’s became outdated. So when Hurricane Maria came, it was very easy to destroy the grid. And let’s remember that about 3,000 people died after Hurricane Maria because those were electricity-dependent people. More than 80% of the transmission and distribution system was destroyed.

An amount of roughly equivalent to the victims on 9-11 died in the aftermath because of a collapsed critical infrastructure.  The infrastructure is still substandard.  Does America care?  Puerto Rico is America.  Wrong question.  The right question is frankly, does the America with authority care?  Yes.  Some of it.

After a year marked by major power outages, high-profile resignations by public officials and widespread protests in the streets of Puerto Rico, the Biden administration is responding to calls from residents to help the U.S. territory quickly transition to renewable energy.

Biden has pledged to align more than $12 billion in federal aid earmarked to repair Puerto Rico’s tattered electrical grid and boost its struggling economy with the goals of the territory’s landmark 2019 clean energy law, according to an agreement reached by the administration and the Puerto Rican government in February.

Yes President Biden cares.  President Biden cares about everything and everybody.  But he does not rule by fiat, and it takes many more persons in power to care too to expediently resolve the crisis.  It also takes an emotional investment on the part of all Americans.

In an ABC story talking about largely the same issues, I would like you to notice the comments section.  There are none.  No racists, no progressives, no clicks.  No interest.  In a story that likely spent time on the front internet page of one of the largest news organizations in the world, it generated zero comments.

Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, which hit September 2017 as a powerful Category 4 storm that damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and led to the deaths of an estimated 2,975 people. It shredded most of the island’s already rickety and aging power grid, leaving some people without electricity for almost a year.

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement that the commitments by the federal agencies and the upcoming study mean “2022 will be a year of action to modernize Puerto Rico’s grid and increase energy resilience.”

There are many reasons for this situation, from potential corruption, to a conservative allegiance to fossil fuels, to good old fashioned power struggles.  But while the powers that be sort out the why  It is the what it does I am concerned about.  As an example I would like to remind you of the death sentence that is diabetes without insulin.  And without a refrigerator, there is no insulin.  And without electricity..

More than a million customers in Puerto Rico remained without electricity on Thursday after a fire at a main power plant caused the biggest blackout so far this year across the U.S. territory, forcing it to cancel classes and shutter government offices.

The blackout also left some 160,000 customers without water and snarled traffic across the island of 3.2 million people, where the roar of generators and smell of diesel filled the air. Those who could not afford generators and have medical conditions such as diabetes, which depends on refrigerated insulin, worried about how much longer they’d be without power.

The outage further enraged Puerto Ricans already frustrated with an electricity system razed by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Emergency repairs were made at the time, but reconstruction efforts have not yet started, and power company officials blame aging, ill-maintained infrastructure for the ongoing outages.

The article goes onto say that the territory’s Electric Power Authority is trying to restructure its after years of mismanagement and corruption.  Malfeasance and incompetence aside, it is not lost on me that the survival and quality of life prospects of our American family in the Caribbean could be greatly enhanced by what amounts to rough 3.3 percent of Elon Musk’s net worth.

And that really sums it up.  That explains why I am writing at 5 a.m. on a Sunday unable to sleep, because the structural inequity of this nation is too great for my psyche at times, to let me rest.  We repeat cycles of incompetent governance in this country.  We fail, we point fingers, we investigate, we formulate a plan, then usually, argue it out of existence.

And you know what we do then?  We start pointing more fingers.  But as we point fingers, and good people like our empathetic President attempt to repair a national dam made of swiss cheese while the Republicans hand him Cheez-Whiz to spackle the holes, our national siblings suffer.  Ours.  It breaks my heart when I see the plight of any people in pain, but it breaks my heart and humiliates me when it is our own.  And when I am humiliated through no real fault of my own, I get upset.  I get insomnia.

And then do you know what I do?  I go to the refrigerator, and poor myself a cold glass of tea, and I think, “Don’t ever take use of this appliance for granted.  Someday this might be housing your wife’s medicine.”

And I wonder, as I think about Julio’s goat, and Fred’s heart attacks, and the ties of malevolent poverty that both bound and divided the two characters, why is it so easy to disregard another living being’s suffering?  Why are backs so easily turned and eyes so easily closed?

Why do so many not think about a woman, scared and sick, with no way to store her insulin?  Why do so many not think about a child living on the verge of heat stroke for months on end?

And I take another sip of cold, refreshing tea.  I look at the refrigerator.  One similar once housed our kitty’s insulin.  I begin to tear up.  Somewhere on that beautiful island a husband had to watch a wife die, or a parent a child, as I watched my grandpa succumb to cancer oh so many years, but  what seems like not more than five minutes ago.  It is crushing to watch a loved one die; it is absolutely scarring to be helpless to even assuage their pain as they look at you for the last time.

The victims of Hurricane Maria’s aftermath are dead under the weight of poverty, dead under the weight of societal indifference, and dead under the weight of a century of neglect.

History will look at the Trump administration’s lack of efforts unkindly.  But having an indeterminate future as a political subdivsion of an empire leaves many a person in limbo.  What will become of Puerto Rico?

But that answer will be informed by the correct answer to my original question, the one that set me out on this investigation, some time ago.

What is Puerto Rico exactly, as I queried at the beginning of this piece?

There is only one right answer.

Our family.


Dedicated to all of the beautiful people of Puerto Rico and in loving memory of Gregory Joseph Sierra, January 25, 1937-January 4th, 2021


If you like my work you can support me at