Students raise money, awareness for Puerto Rico

Photo from Wikipedia Commons

After both Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico in September, the U.S. territory has been in dire need of aid. The Puerto Rican community at USC is doing its part to support the island by setting up efforts to raise awareness, mobilize politicians, donate money and send supplies to Puerto Rico, both on campus and in the greater Los Angeles area.

“I didn’t want to sit idly on the side,” said Victor Cruz, a Puerto Rican graduate student.

Cruz is part of the communications committee for Los Angeles for Puerto Rico, a grassroots organization formed just after Hurricane Maria hit the island. The group is primarily aiming to promote three fundraisers to send monetary aid to Puerto Rico, Cruz said.

“ is the one we want people to most directly donate to do, because that money is being directly given to people in Puerto Rico — there’s no intermediary force,” Cruz said. “That money is directly distributed to nonprofit organizations that are working most closely with the hardest-hit areas of the island.”

The other two fundraisers are Voices for Puerto Rico, an effort organized by Puerto Rican cultural influencers in the mainland United States and a YouCaring page set up by Los Angeles for Puerto Rico. The money from both of these efforts will go to local nonprofits in Puerto Rico, Cruz said.

Another fund not specifically associated with Los Angeles for Puerto Rico is Students with Puerto Rico, a GoFundMe campaign organized by several University of Pennsylvania students at the University of Pennsylvania, which has now spread to over 100 universities across the United States, including USC.

Limari Archuleta, a senior studying health promotion and disease prevention, is the USC representative for Students with Puerto Rico.

“As Puerto Rican students on the mainland, watching all of these horrible pictures and videos, all these horrible things happening back home, we felt useless, so we wanted to do something from over here,” Archuleta said. “The money that will be fundraised there will be donated to the [Puerto Rican] First Lady’s United for Puerto Rico campaign.”

As of Friday, the campaign raised over $142,000 in nine days, with a goal of $150,000.

USC students are also organizing efforts to collect supplies to be shipped to Puerto Rico.

“We’re asking for basically anything — batteries, canned food, diapers, anything you can think of,” said Archuleta, who is organizing a “USC for Puerto Rico” campaign as a subsidiary of the larger Los Angeles group. “Puerto Rico is in huge need. A lot of people lost everything.”

Currently, drop-off locations for supplies will be open at El Centro Chicano on the fourth floor of the Student Union, and at the Smiles Cafe adjacent to the Caruso Catholic Center. Archuleta is also working with other student groups and departments at USC to open more drop-off locations soon.

“I would love to have the support of big departments of USC,” Archuleta said. “I would really love for President [C.L. Max Nikias] to support us in the same way he released a statement about Mexico [after it was hit by an earthquake].”

Raising awareness about the disaster is also a major part of aiding Puerto Rico.The New York Times reported that 46 percent of Americans don’t know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and those are Americans are nearly half as likely to support aid efforts for Puerto Rico as those who recognize the territory as part of the United States.

Similarly, media coverage of Hurricane Maria and its effects on Puerto Rico has been relatively low, especially when compared to media coverage of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, both of which hit mainland states. At its peak, coverage of Texas and Florida, where Harvey and Irma respectively made landfall, was three to four times higher than coverage of Puerto Rico at its peak, according to data journalism sight FiveThirtyEight.

“What we’re doing is not simply raising funds — we also want to raise awareness of the Puerto Rican situation,” said Assistant Spanish Professor Ronald Mendoza-De Jesus, who is also working as a part of Los Angeles for Puerto Rico.

Cruz also said that because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, there are a number of restrictions that make it harder for Puerto Rico to rebound from natural disaster.

Since the hurricane, President Donald Trump has temporarily waived the Jones Act for a 10-day period. The act is a shipping law that requires all goods shipped between points in the land owned by the United States to be sent through vessels owned, operated and built by Americans, making it more expensive to get supplies to Puerto Rico.

Although waiving the law allows aid in the short term, the law has been severely detrimental to the Puerto Rican economy throughout its history because it makes trade and taxation on the island much more expensive, according to The New York Times.

As of May 2017, the Times reported that the territory is $123 billion dollars in debt.

“That’s one of the things we’re asking Congress for, to abolish the debt that Puerto Rico has on the island, because hedge funds own the Puerto Rican debt, so it’s not possible for Puerto Rico to restructure its debt in the way other states would,” Cruz said. “It’s really crippling the efforts to rebuild there. That debt itself is going to be affecting the long term reconstruction of the Puerto Rican nation. We’re looking to have the United States, if not forgive the debt entirely, allow Puerto Rico to restructure its debt in the same way it would allow states to restructure their debt.”

Cruz and Los Angeles for Puerto Rico are contacting politicians at the local, state and federal levels to mobilize political support for Puerto Rico, so the island will be able to deal with a natural disaster atop an already dire economic situation.

For Archuleta, Cruz and Mendoza De-Jesus, supporting Puerto Rico is important because of their deep personal connections to the island.

“Puerto Ricans are very gregarious, and fiercely linked to the island,” Mendoza-De Jesus said. “Even the ones who have been gone for a long time … want to maintain as close ties as possible to it.”