Friday, March 9, 2018

A Native’s Take on Puerto Rico in the Wake of Hurricane Maria

The precarious state of a territory seeking U.S. government disaster assistance.

By Kristie Murru

Sylvia Bofill is a playwright, director, professor and Schomburg Scholar from Puerto Rico whose plays have been produced in New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.  She graduated with an MFA from Columbia University in New York and teaches drama at the University of Puerto Rico.  In a Capstone group called “REalize Your Environmental Impact,” students interviewed the playwright on her experience while in Puerto Rico due to the devastating Hurricane Maria that hit the island in September 2017.  The podcast was recorded in the WRPR studio on the Ramapo College campus, and is currently being edited.

The playwright called the hurricane a “political disaster” in addition to the physical devastation, because all of the struggles that island residents have been faced after it hit are political.  Twenty five percent of Puerto Ricans are still without power, according to the official report, but Bofill believes that the percentage is much higher.  The aid provided to the people was entirely bureaucratic; people had to apply for it through the internet when the majority of people had no power.  Before the people were able to see any resources, she said, it had to travel through the federal government, the municipalities and then, finally, to the people.  With such a long process the people are the ones that suffer.
“Hurricane Maria cracked open a wound that was already there,” Bofill said of the precarious state of Puerto Rico.  The Puerto Rican government is currently facing a debt of over 70 million dollars and it is going to take time for the island to get back on its feet.  Local farmers in Puerto Rico have to compete with U.S. subsidized crops because those from the U.S. are sold at cheaper costs.  Since Puerto Rico is a territory and not a state, the Puerto Rican people have a lot that needs to be processed about their treatment by the U.S. government after the hurricane.
Asked whether or not she believes climate change played a role in the immense destruction caused by the hurricane, Bofill stated that she absolutely believes that it did.  “To think that you can go to another place right now and it’s going to be some sort of haven is just not the case and it’s gullible to not see the connections,” she said. Bofill cited an example that one of her friends had left Puerto Rico for California and immediately came back because California had been ravaged by fires.

This disaster will only work to “mobilize the community, revitalize activism, [and everyone will] work together to rebuild Puerto Rico,” Bofill said when asked what will come from this hurricane.  She believes that this activism will prevail, citing university students as a defining factor.  When the “Oversight Board” was instituted by the United States which gave seven elected officials total control over the Puerto Rican economy, the students were the ones to step up and make their voices heard.  

Her hope is that with this renowned focus on bringing the community together, the hurricane that caused so much destruction will spark work toward rebuilding Puerto Rican society.  For things to change, she emphasized, awareness needs to be focused on building communities and understanding the severity of climate change.

“REalize Your Environmental Impact” is a Global Communication Capstone campaign working toward informing the Ramapo College community on proper ways to recycle, compost, minimize waste and highlight sustainability based events on campus. The group is comprised of Christopher Bernstein, Paul Iannelli, Kristie Murru, and Matthew Stevens.                                      

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