Native son: Assemblyman Marcos Crespo on the response in Puerto Rico
Assemblyman Marcos Crespo has strong ties to Puerto Rico – he was born there, his mother still lives there, and as chairman of the Assembly Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force he has advocated on behalf of Puerto Ricans and Latinos in New York and in their homelands. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, he joined Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a delegation of officials to bring supplies to the devastated island. In an interview with City & State’s Grace Segers, Crespo discussed the recovery effort in Puerto Rico, the 30th anniversary of Somos el Futuro and his hopes for future Somos conferences. The following is an edited transcript.
C&S: What is your impression of the situation in Puerto Rico a few weeks after your visit?
MC: It’s still very concerning because not only are there still too many people without power, without running water, but the recent news regarding a multimillion-dollar contract – $300 million, I believe – to a company with only two staffers, and other than that only known to have a relationship with the Trump administration, doesn’t bode well for the sentiment that we have to be smart, and we have to be strategic, and we have to take advantage of the resources that will come towards Puerto Rico to help rebuild and do it the right way. (Editor’s note: In the face of criticism, the contract has since been canceled.) We’ve been talking about that from day one, that when and if that relief aid starts to come through, and when resources are made available to invest in that rebuilding, that it has to be done in an efficient way, in a smart way, in a way that is truly going to accomplish the goals of rebuilding. But at the same time, that makes investments as you go along in the economic development of the island and in the preparation and skill-building of the workforce in Puerto Rico as opposed to other folks come in, make hundreds of millions of dollars in profit doing work that could have otherwise been done for a lot less by the very same community that’s already on the island. So in that sense, it’s concerning, and we hope that this gets addressed quickly, and resolved, and that future dollars are spent the right way.
C&S: Would you say the Trump administration’s response has been sufficient?
MC: First of all, nothing can make up for the fact that the response was slow, delayed and insufficient from day one, but then we went through a period where it was only a discussion of, “Well, if you keep saying this about me, then maybe we’ll just pull out.” It was sort of a childish answer I would expect from my 5-year-old, not the president of the United States. And I think that since then it’s almost been like they’ve tried to avoid the topic as much as possible. I know there was an aid package, and it may be a first initial payment and investment in this, but certainly leaves open the question of when are we going to revisit the rest that’s needed. We know that the early estimates were close to $70 billion in damage that’s going to need to be reinvested in order to get Puerto Rico back on its feet, and so the money that was sent and the purposes under which it was directed certainly leaves a lot left to be addressed in D.C. So that’s an open question. And then there was all this ambiguity created by the president about whether or not the debt issues would have to be resolved, or negated, and then the administration tried to backtrack. It just leaves the situation in further limbo, and that’s not what we need right now. We need clarity, we need answers, we need resources and we need leadership. And certainly this administration and this president are not providing it.
C&S: Since there is this leadership vacuum coming from the top, is there anyone else you think can or should step in to deal with these issues?
MC: Well, it’s unfortunate, but I think the right people to do this have to be the federal administration. It’s just that I don’t think they have anybody there who has the right mindset, interest or can make decisions based on the right criteria under this administration. So we’re sort of stuck in this limbo. I know my colleagues in Congress, and many of the New York delegation in particular, and others have been very strong in pushing and have raised a conscious level to say that Puerto Rico needs more – and we’re grateful for that leadership that has spoken up. And on both sides of the aisle, there have been even some Republicans that have said the right things about it. But then we saw many who voted against an aid package. And it’s just unconscionable that after Harvey, after Sandy, after all the things we’ve seen throughout the country, that anybody would justify negating a community of American citizens the resources they need. In the meantime, certainly (with) the government of Puerto Rico, the leadership of Puerto Rico, I would hope to see less finger-pointing amongst them and more cooperation and sharing of the responsibility to advocate and to do what needs to be done. I believe that many of them, in particular the governor of Puerto Rico, is in a sort of Catch-22 in that I think he’s walked a fine line of sending the right messages, but also trying to be as diplomatic as he can be towards the administration, knowing that we need them to put the right bills forward and to support the resources in the right way. But we also know that we have a childish president who could very well try to fight back on the criticisms that he’s received – and he’s threatened it already – by not doing what he needs to do. So I think the governor of Puerto Rico is in a tough situation, to have to walk a fine line. Others have rightfully been very, very critical, and open about that criticism, and I think they’re saying the right things about that criticism. But I just hope it doesn’t become finger-pointing on the island. Puerto Rico has always been criticized for its politics, like so many places, but right now is a time for leadership. Right now is a time for people to realize this is not about parties, it’s not about the future questions about status or political affiliations. This is really about rebuilding an island and addressing the needs of people who are at risk of death if these issues are not resolved quickly. Kids are not going to school. Hospitals are still trying to get back. Communities are without electricity and there are health issues that continue to grow. It’s hard to say that in talking about the island I was born in, where my family lives and where my mother lives, but that’s still the reality and I hope that the leadership in Puerto Rico can continue to focus on the work at hand and leave the politics for a later time.
C&S: What do you think of how Cuomo has handled the situation? Do you think New York can go further?
MC: I don’t know how much further New York can go. I know the governor has made a commitment to go as far as we can and as long as we can, and I respect that and appreciate that tremendously. I think the governor has been just a superstar in regards to his work on behalf of Puerto Rico – being on that first flight, and then the subsequent commitments that he’s made and the resources he’s been able to organize and deliver, bringing all those New York partners together to share resources and to advocate, and more importantly to show the kind of leadership that we needed out of D.C. and out of other states, who, only after New York did what it did, stepped up as well. So we know the governor was the first one on the ground, and other governors soon followed because they wanted to do the same. He’s been just an invaluable partner and asset for Puerto Rico, for Puerto Ricans, and we’re very grateful to the leadership he’s shown. And not just to Puerto Rico – I’ll point out to the Virgin Islands. He did the same, being first on the ground in the Virgin Islands several weeks before the president even made it there. It just goes to show, I think he’s doing the right thing and we are working closer together and just very grateful to his leadership.
C&S: You have a very personal connection to Puerto Rico. Have you been in contact with your family in recent days?
MC: I have. I have been talking to my mom regularly via a neighbor’s phone, and she’s been keeping me updated on things in our town, and things that she’s been hearing on the ground there, and many (are) stories of people in desperate need, but at the same time, plenty of stories of families helping each other and sharing their limiting resources with each other and looking out for each other. There has been a little more positive news in terms of access to information, and people getting a sense now of where and how they can get assistance when they need it, and slowly but surely some businesses reopening. But there’s still tremendous concern because this is an ongoing situation. If you’ve been to Puerto Rico, the weather can be punishing, and to know that there’s not enough electricity for families to run fans or air conditioners. And then not having running water at that? It’s a scary sort of situation to be in. It’s one thing if you go camping for a day. It’s another thing when it becomes your everyday (situation) for an indefinite period of time.
C&S: How do you think that this has affected the Puerto Ricans living in New York?
MC: First of all, it’s been just a traumatizing and emotional roller coaster, and just a difficult experience. Pride is hurt, your emotions are in shambles, your concern for family is heightened. There are many who did lose loved ones. I have personal friends who have unfortunately had deaths in the family, many of them after the storm. The aftermath, I think, has cost more lives than the storm itself. And it’s been a traumatizing thing. It hurts to know that a place you love, and a place you’ve lived, and a place that your family lives is destroyed, and it’s undergoing this process, and people are burdened the way they are, suffering the way they are. That takes a daily toll on you, to feel in some way that there’s only so much you can do. In that sense, it’s been a very difficult experience for many Puerto Rican families, not just in New York, everywhere.
Then, there’s also – I guess for lack of a better term – a silver lining, in that this has been an opportunity for people to reconnect in a very powerful way with their culture, with their heritage, with the island, with their families, and I think to rethink and reprioritize the needs of Puerto Rico maybe in a way that was getting a little bit lost. Yes, we were talking about the economic crisis, but when you talked about that several weeks back before the storm, there was a sense of incredulousness, that, “Well, maybe there is something to this that is a self-made problem.” For some, it was really hard to understand the history of how that debt ended up becoming the problem that it was, and what were the political and economic issues and social issues that affected that. But I think now, people are willing to put that aside and just understand that this was an act of God that was made worse by a lack of leadership, and now we all have to step in and do something. And we hope that that fervor and renewed sense of interest and attention really helps bring the diaspora back together in a unified way, and that we refocus our energies and cooperate better moving forward in terms of addressing the needs of Puerto Rico and the people of Puerto Rico.
C&S: Do you think more Puerto Ricans are going to move to New York, temporarily or permanently?
MC: No question about it. We’re seeing that already. Many of our community-based organizations are sharing that information with us, that they’re starting to see a lot more families, new arrivals. We know it’s happening here. We know it’s happening in Florida. We know it’s happening in Texas and several other states around the southeast end of the U.S. And it’s going to continue to happen. The longer it takes to put the infrastructure back in place, the faster I think that migration out will continue to happen. It’s hard to judge anybody who does that. There are many who would like to leave and just physically can’t. This is a bit of an “I told you so” moment. Because we’ve been saying this for a long time, (that) because of a situation in Puerto Rico, we knew that people were going to leave. We’ve been talking a lot about the numbers of people who left because of the economic situation, and that was creating havoc in Puerto Rico’s ability to keep a workforce and an educated and prepared population that could help to rebuild its economy. But it was hard to judge those that were leaving to find that opportunity elsewhere. But now, you exacerbate that with people who maybe said, “Well, I can still manage to stay,” but now have said, “Well, I can’t, my roof is gone,” or “I can’t, my neighborhood is not functioning.” And now they leave, and where do you end up? This is going to have a tremendous impact on Puerto Rico’s ability to rebuild. So I think that the quicker they can get that infrastructure back up and running, then hopefully many of these families are able to return to Puerto Rico and continue to be a part of that rebuilding. I think the longer that delay, the more likely that those people settle in and choose not to go back. Make no mistake about it, if there’s some political attempt at undermining Puerto Rico’s viability by anybody in this administration, I think it will tremendously backfire when all those Puerto Ricans arrive and register to vote in their respective states and continue to move the needle in a direction different than the one they’re headed.
C&S: How do you think this influx of Puerto Ricans to New York and other areas will affect the current political situation?
MC: We saw in the election in 2016 how much stronger the Latino vote and the Puerto Rican vote in the Democratic vote came out in Florida. I think that the more that continues, the stronger the case for the state going a strong blue. You look at some of the other states where the migration is taking place. It certainly is going to have a political impact, understanding that a good majority of those voters could sway Democratic, and many of them who are just upset and angry at the lack of response. When they see the president of the United States, the leader of the Republican Party, throwing paper towels in the air – it’s an insulting moment and an image that I don’t think anybody’s going to forget come the next election cycle. I certainly hope they don’t.
C&S: Switching gears to Somos el Futuro, now that the fall conference in Puerto Rico has been canceled, do you think this presents the opportunity to reshape the event and its priorities in New York?
MC: Canceling Somos was not an easy decision. We had already announced that we would not have a conference as usual, but we would use the personnel and the resources that would have been used in the conference to join some of the relief work that’s happening on the ground in conjunction with some local not-for-profits that we work with. But unfortunately the infrastructure and the hotel accessibility was not there for us to mobilize that number of people in a safe way, and so we chose to cancel even that activity. But we're still getting together. We’re having an event here in the city, in Queens actually, to continue to bring those resources in and share them. All of those resources that would have been used in the conference, Somos announced it would be shared with Para La Naturaleza, one of the nonprofits we’ve been doing tremendous work with over the years, and they have identified a couple dozen communities that they’re looking to complete specific community projects in. We’re going to share those resources to support their efforts, and in that sense, Somos is still going to do what it can to be a part of the array of relief efforts that are happening everywhere. As a conference, we have been trying new things over the last few years, and I think it’s made the conference more exciting, and I think we’ve grown in participation because of it, in having the right kind of conversations and bringing people out to experience the island in a different way and not just in a hotel conference room, but rather going out into communities. We didn’t talk about schools. We actually we went to a school before we talked about them, and things along those lines. And we visited clinics and we visited community centers and we’ve done more of that lately. And we certainly want to continue to do that. Obviously our focus is going to be heightened in that there will be new things that will become a priority now, with the rebuilding that’s going to take years to happen, and the advocacy. The way I view Somos is that it’s a platform for leadership and the diaspora, particularly in New York, but we started to expand our invitation to leaders outside of just New York state, Latino leaders in particular, but all leaders, to educate them and sort of make them understand that they have to play a pivotal role in the advocacy. Whether people look at that from having a sense of affiliation, or care, or interest in Puerto Rico because of history and what’s happened, in the moral sense, or whether they look at it from an economic issue of what it means for their states if this migration continues – for whatever their reasons, we hope people understand that the diaspora has a responsibility. So long as Puerto Rico remains a territory, I daresay somewhat of a colony, and we are burdened and threatened by federal law but not assisted by it, nor do we have a vote, despite being citizens, until that changes, the diaspora has a responsibility to be a part of that advocacy and response and political representation. I think Somos is a platform that helps teach them and educate them about that and give them the tools and talking points to necessary to do that effectively. And we’ll continue to look to do that.
C&S: Looking at the 30th anniversary of Somos, what do you think is its significance in the state?
MC: The Latino representation in New York, in New York’s political landscape, we have played an important role. And when we talk about that, it really has to be measured by how that representation and leadership has delivered on issues that are important. And I think there’s been tremendous success stories. It started off with a concentration of Puerto Ricans, and that’s why the name begins with the Puerto Rican Hispanic Task Force, and how Somos was created, but it’s certainly much broader than that and representative of the entire Latino community. Latinos have played an important role in shaping our city and state, and I think will continue to as we grow as a population. We continue to grow in numbers, and we continue to become an important population come election season. So whether you’re Latino or not, people are starting to understand that they need to have those relationships and address the issues that are important to the Latino community. But I think Somos gives us the opportunity to highlight the impact of our community, give a platform to our leaders to talk about the issues that are important to us, and to come together and continue to network and remain united as a community about what those priorities need to be. I think Somos and the task force over the years have played an important role in giving us that highlight, of giving us that opportunity to focus on policy. We have a lot of different organizations that do incredible work, but the task force and Somos become the only or strongest legislative gathering where we get to focus on issues and move the needle politically. We look forward to continuing to do that, and we’re open to trying to reinvent that and strengthen that. We have a growing diversity of Latin Americans from different parts of South America, Central America and even the Caribbean that are growing in numbers and in the political landscape – getting elected – and we want to make sure that we have to broaden that even more. And we have to open a broader coalition of Hispanics who understand that Somos is there to be their resource and platform. I think as we do that, if we can accomplish that, then we can strengthen and further and advance our issues. This always has to come up, because when people ask, “Well, what is the Latino agenda?” It’s not only the DREAM Act, and it’s not only immigration reform, which really is a federal issue. It’s much broader than that, and it’s all of the issues that matter to everyone. We just want an opportunity to put a Latino lens on the things that matter to all Americans and all New Yorkers. I just want Somos to continue to be a platform that allows us to have those conversations, to highlight those issues, and to celebrate when needed and recognize those that make those contributions.