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Dear Half of the U.S: Puerto Rico Is Not a Foreign Country, and Your Ignorance Hurts Other Americans

I can’t help but notice that while more economically resilient parts of the U.S. have gotten lots of attention in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irmadon’t get me wrong, as well they should—there is an American territory containing 3.5 million American citizens (more people than reside in Alaska, Iowa, Idaho, Hawaii, Kansas, Mississippi, Maine, Montana, Nevada, or New Hampshire) that is getting significantly less attention than its mainland counterparts.

Puerto Rico is in dire straits right now in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. You can read all about the specific damage done (the entire island is now without power and will be for months, a major dam has a crack in it, entire communities are destroyed) HERE, but I don’t want to focus on the destruction right now so much as on the response to the destruction.

Yesterday, Kaila rounded up a bunch of reactions to the fact that Trump and his administration have been slower to act on Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts than they were to respond to Texas and Florida. As of right now, Trump is saying that he’s going to Puerto Rico next week, Tuesday, and the relief efforts are slowly going in. The reason Trump cites for a slower response time? The ocean.

“It’s very tough because it’s an island. In Texas, we can ship the trucks right out there, you know, we’ve got A-pluses on Texas and Florida and we will also on Puerto Rico, but the difference is this is an island sitting in the middle of an ocean, and it’s a big ocean, it’s a very big ocean, and I think we’re doing a really good job.”

I guess the U.S. doesn’t have the world’s largest military (including a Navy with boats), and I guess planes and aircraft carriers haven’t been invented? Anyway, he’s moving on it now, so great. Keep moving! (Though, I’m curious about who’s handing out these A-pluses. Do we grade humanitarian relief now?)

Though apparently, there’s this point:

And the fact that he’s blaming Puerto Rico’s debt and faulty infrastructure for compounding the damage from the storm, when American economic policies, and American business owners like him with his Puerto Rican golf course that went bankrupt, are largely responsible for that debt and faulty infrastructure. You don’t get to take financial advantage of an island and then complain that they’re in debt and making it really, really hard for you to help them out.

In addition to the slow response time from our government, however, is the fact that Puerto Rico’s suffering is taking up a lot less of our media and social media landscape than Houston or Florida did when they lay in the path of hurricanes. ABC isn’t hosting a “Day of Giving” responding to Puerto Rican recovery.

And whereas my social media feeds were flooded with #HoustonStrong images from everyone (including Puerto Ricans), the only response I really saw leading up to and immediately following the storm was from fellow Puerto Ricans. It’s only now, nearly a week after Maria hit, that I’m starting to see the general population posting about helping Puerto Rico, and that’s because we’re finally receiving and spreading images of the destruction there (which are difficult to receive when an island has zero electricity). Because people love disaster from far-away places.

Back when it was Hurricane Irma we were worrying about, I wrote a piece commenting on the way the media and average American citizens were talking about Puerto Rico in the lead-up to that storm. As if it weren’t America. As if the people who live there aren’t American citizens entitled to federal aid. It was frustrating to hear deep concern over what effects the storm would have on Texas and Florida juxtaposed with mentions of Puerto Rico almost as an afterthought.

And I have plenty of blame for the media, but I have to acknowledge that the news media tends to cover what their viewers and readers think are important, what will get ratings. It’s clear that Puerto Rico doesn’t rate that high on most people’s radar, in large part because most American citizens don’t think of Puerto Rico as America.

In fact, as reported by The New York Times, 54% of respondents in a recent poll done by Morning Consult didn’t know that people born and living in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. Even more disappointing is that the findings varied widely by age. Only 34% of people aged 18-29 knew that Puerto Ricans are Americans, compared to 64% of people aged 65 and older.

Education matters, too. Only 47% of people surveyed who only have a high school education knew Puerto Ricans are Americans, compared to 72% of those with a bachelor’s degree. What exactly are we teaching kids in elementary and high school?

Why does this ignorance matter? It matters because all of these people can vote, and Puerto Ricans living on the island can’t. It matters, because people tend to be in favor of cutting “foreign aid” first when our country is in financial trouble, and if they see Puerto Rico as a “foreign country,” that affects public support for sending aid there.

The poll goes into that too, saying that 8 in 10 of Americans who know that Puerto Ricans are Americans support sending aid there, compared to the 4 out of 10 who support aid among people who were unaware of that.

It would be nice to think that Americans care about everyone all the time. Mexico is going through a horror show right now after the earthquakes they’ve recently suffered, and they, too, deserve our help. Especially since they gave us aid in response to Hurricane Harvey.

What’s troubling, is that today I saw a friend of a friend on Facebook talking about helping “the poor people in Mexico and Puerto Rico.” In the same breath. As if they were comparable. As if they were both places that are far away with brown people who speak Spanish and upon which the U.S. should have pity, as opposed to one of them being a part of the U.S. to which our government and our citizenry bear a responsibility.

To support relief efforts on the ground, the non-profit ConPRmetidos and The Foundation for Puerto Rico are working with local organizations to provide relief as needed. You can donate by clicking HERE.

(image: ABC)

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Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.