Puerto Rico: Reconstruction, Resilience, and Respect.
By Dr. María “Mayita” Meléndez-Altieri
Mayor of the Autonomous Municipality of Ponce, P.R.
A few days after Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico, I visited a rural community in order to provide assistance, and distribute provisions to its residents. That day, I was accompanied by my granddaughter Anna who, with much determination, announced to everyone that help had finally arrived; that we had brought them food and water. However, after a few minutes, I sensed a change in her mood… suddenly, she turned around and, with a great sense of urgency, told me: “Grandma, the people are suffering; the people need help.” I have never been prouder of her.
That’s when we met Don Hector, a man over 70-years-old who, after many years of hard work and sacrifice, had been able to invest almost $30,000 renovating his modest house. Just five minutes after Hurricane Maria hit, he had to abandon his house and find refuge in his son’s house right across the street. Just after leaving the house, he watched as the winds demolished his home; he had lost everything! Afterwards, his health has greatly deteriorated forcing him to visit the hospital on multiple occasions. He has lost over 30 pounds. Sadly, stories like these are not scarce!
And that’s the thing about crises and disasters. They throw us into an alternate reality where we are faced with sentiments we had never felt, and forced to do things that we didn’t know we could do. We are suddenly thrown into a vortex of conflicting and radically contradictory emotions. They show us the best and worst qualities in people; heartwarming stories, and truly gut-wrenching stories.
When I assumed the position of mayor of the city of Ponce for the first time, I could not have anticipated all the challenges that we would have to confront. A decade old recession; an unprecedented population decline; a truly precarious fiscal situation. However, all those pale in comparison to the challenges brought by the devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria. Our families continue to fragment; there are still many people without access to essential services. Yet, we are not confronting this events with any reservations, but with great resolve and sense of historical commitment. In my case, with the satisfaction and pride that my people, have chosen a woman to serve them in this critical time of need. Today, this commitment is particularly relevant. It is incumbent upon all our fellow citizens in the Island, and in the rest of the United States, to raise their voices, and work tirelessly and cooperatively for our communities. This is a call of consciousness.
The reconstruction process will be long and arduous. However, the picture is not entirely bleak. Both Ponce and Puerto Rico have an opportunity to innovate and redefine our socioeconomic ecosystem. While we have made important advances, we are aware that we face an extremely challenging environment. Nevertheless, the American citizens of Puerto Rico, are resilient. As we have shown in the past, we are not afraid of being dynamic, making adjustments and being proactive when dealing with the challenges that are presented to us. For us, as for our Latino communities, that old saying still rings true: “with great challenges come great opportunities”, and we are prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that come our way. With our eyes on the future we will be the protagonists of our destiny! Past tribulations will not be in vain!
María Eloisa Meléndez Altieri is the current mayor of the city of Ponce, Puerto Rico. She was elected during the Puerto Rican general elections of 2008, becoming the first woman elected to the office in Ponce’s political history. She is also the first mayor of a party other than the Popular Democratic Party in Ponce since 1989, when Rafael Cordero Santiago became mayor. This is her second candidacy in politics on the island and her first electoral win.