Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced Friday the launch of a fund-raising campaign for Puerto Rico at the eighth annual El Mundo Hispanic Heritage Breakfast.
The Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico Fund, in partnership with the Boston Foundation, will support relief, reconstruction, and economic recovery projects on the island as well as the potential resettlement of Puerto Ricans coming here in the devastating wake of Hurricane Maria.
“In this situation, we’re all united for Puerto Rico,” Alberto Vasallo III, president and chief executive of El Mundo Boston, said at the breakfast, held at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. “Every penny is needed. This is going to take decades to rebuild. Here in Massachusetts, we’re so affected because we have one of the biggest Puerto Rican communities in the United States. So this hits home.”
Baker and Walsh will serve as honorary cochairs, while Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, chief executive of the South End-based nonprofit Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, will chair the fund advisory committee.
“We’re beginning to make plans and prepare for the fact that as planes start to be able to leave the island, folks from Puerto Rico will be coming here because their kids’ school is gone, their job is lost, their home may be gone,” Baker said. “And they’ll be coming here to stay with friends and family that they have in the area.”
Seated near Baker, Walsh, and Calderón-Rosado on the dais were Pulitzer-winning author and MIT professor Junot Díaz, Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, The Partnership’s Carol Fulp, and several others.
“This is clear evidence of why civic engagement matters,” Díaz said of the fund, and of the crowded event, “and why these type of civic organizations are fundamental. Because one never knows what is going to happen, and if you don’t have the infrastructure to be able to respond and to be able to serve your community, you are in tremendous trouble.”
Hurricane Maria blasted through Puerto Rico more than a week ago, cutting off communications and leaving millions without power and with little food, water, or fuel. Relief has been slow to arrive, and the population remains in dire need.
Massachusetts has the fifth-largest population of Puerto Ricans in the continental United States. In Boston, 32,226 residents identify as Puerto Rican, just over a quarter of the city’s Latino population, according to city officials.
“This is a disaster of apocalyptic proportions,” said Otoniel Figueroa Duran, cofounder of the Alliance for Puerto Rico. “My dad is a diabetic. We’re concerned about insulin, about the supply of medicine. Water is difficult right now to find. Some people are drinking water from swimming pools to be able to survive.”
He called the relief effort by the federal government an “embarrassment.” His sister and his father are in Gurabo, which is on the eastern part of the island. Figueroa Duran said he’s working on getting his family to Massachusetts.
“It’s been so frustrating to hear everything is going well, while on other channels they’re showing it’s not,” said Edwin Alicea, president of the Puerto Rican Festival of Massachusetts. “The confusion between all the media, Latin media included, and President Trump waiting until Tuesday to go to the island. That’s an insult, a slap in the face to us American citizens because we are American citizens.”
The Boston Public Schools are expecting families to begin arriving in the city as soon as next week and are preparing to welcome students into classrooms.
Walsh added that firefighters and local law enforcement officials are ready and willing to be sent down to assist. They’re waiting for direction from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to make sure proper documentation is in place to send emergency personnel to the island.
“There’s a lot of efforts going on,” Walsh said. “And I think the best thing is to coordinate efforts and try to work closely together with each other so we can best serve Puerto Rico.”
Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.