By Hannah Rank
A quiet chatter filled the cafeteria of Aspira Business and Finance High School on Friday night. Loved ones and old friends greeted one another heartily. On a vaulted stage positioned on the other end of the room sat a group of seven chairs lined up in two rows. The chairs began to fill slowly.
First a professor from Hunter College, then two top administrators of the the high school took a seat. Then the 30th ward alderman, Ariel Reboyras, positioned himself in the front right chair. On the other end of the row sat the up-and-coming 35th ward alderman, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who after less than a year in the City Council has already made quite a splash. Finally, State Senator Iris Martinez of the 20th district and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-4th) entered. Once the elected leaders had settled on the stage, José López, Senior Advisor to the Puerto Rican Agenda, the organization hosting Friday’s event, motioned for the attendees to take their seats.
The crowd had a familiar comfort. But this was no casual get-together; Illinois’ pre-eminent Puerto Rican leaders don’t often gather publicly in the same room. The topic of discussion: Puerto Rico, their “tierra.” It’s in serious debt, and they’ve come to galvanize support and discuss solutions.
“Tonight is the first time Puerto Rican elected leadership, along with leaders from the local Puerto Rican Community are publicly coming together to discuss these concerns,” Cristina Pasione-Zayas, the co-chair of the Puerto Rican Agenda, said in her introduction. “This presidential election is very critical, and we really have a grand opportunity to put these issues on the map and to really do something for our community.”
First to speak was Edwin Melendez, director of The Center for Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College. He explained the scale and implications of the current debt crisis plaguing the island.
“Because we are in junk bond territory – there is no value to the debt that Puerto Rico has access to – the most recent administration cannot borrow any money,” Melendez said. “So, the fight right now is that we need some kind of territorial bankruptcy to protect the commonwealth and the corporations from the debt that they have to pay.”
Right now, because Puerto Rico is not a state, under U.S. law the island’s municipalities may not file for bankruptcy protections.
Melendez said nearly half of Puerto Ricans on the island are living in poverty.
“Because of that, we have an unprecedented migration to the U.S. All our communities are receiving newcomers,” he said. Melendez noted that one state receiving new Puerto Ricans is Pennsylvania, poised to be a swing state in the elections.
Gutierrez was the keynote. The congressman, who like the other speakers seamlessly alternated between English and Spanish, used his time to frame the need for political unity of all mainland Puerto Ricans.
In his speech, Gutierrez announced a plan to establish a National Coalition of Puerto Rican elected officials. Though he noted there were other Latino delegations in elected leadership, he said it was important now to establish a particular cause for Puerto Rico.
“We are going to celebrate that we are one. It doesn’t matter if we are Dominican or Colombian. It doesn’t matter if we came from Ecuador or Salvador or Puerto Rico or Cuba,” Gutierrez said. “But we all have a very particular responsibility and that’s with the island of Puerto Rico. So I’m going to continue to champion the cause, but I’m also going to raise my voice for Puerto Rico.”
He agued the debt was not the entire fault of Puerto Rico, but instead illuminates larger policy problems implemented by the U.S., where the mainland has impeded industry from flourishing. Specifically, he noted the lack of agricultural development on the tropical island, with a majority of the produce being imported via U.S. customs.
“When are we going to be given the ability to harvest?” Gutierrez asked. “In Puerto Rico, we produce what we don’t consume and we consume what we don’t produce.”
Martinez publicized a national summit of Puerto Rican leaders, to take place in New York in April, two months before the Democratic caucus in Puerto Rico on June 5 and another six weeks before the Democratic Party convention at the end of July.
“That’s going to be a very powerful message, bringing together all the Puerto Ricans all across the United States together in Nueva York and starting the movement that we need that’s long overdue,” she said.
Ramirez-Rosa closed by reiterating what others throughout the night addressed: what they see as a hypocrisy that underlies the notion of the Puerto Rican debt repayment.
“No, we reject this notion that the island of Puerto Rico has to pay this debt. Because you have exploited us for hundreds of years,” the alderman said. “We need to reimagine what it is to advocate in the face of this economic crisis, and I think that we should say no to paying that debt.”