San Juan, P.R., mayor lifts up young women in Holyoke

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz joins hands with students at Girls Inc. to form a human chain for a photograph to send back to Puerto Rico in support of school children there who are still trying to get their public schools to reopen.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz joins hands with students at Girls Inc. to form a human chain for a photograph to send back to Puerto Rico in support of school children there who are still trying to get their public schools to reopen.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

HOLYOKE — A little girl asked one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world a simple question on Wednesday afternoon.

“Whose footsteps did you follow, or did you follow your own footsteps?” asked Yecelin Rios, 9.

Carmen Yulin Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, smiled and answered.

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“Mostly my grandmother’s,” she said. “Even though I didn’t become a teacher like she did, there was something about the way that they always taught me that you have to pay it forward, you have to make sure that others also achieve what they want to achieve.”

The lesson stuck with her when she became one of the most outspoken voices on the island following Hurricane Maria’s devastation last fall. As Category 4 winds killed scores of people and left thousands without shelter, water, food, or power for months on end, Cruz drew admiration and criticism when she condemned the Trump administration’s response as woefully insufficient.

“When the aid was not getting to Puerto Rico, I couldn’t just be quiet,” Cruz said during a visit Wednesday to this Western Massachusetts city, where Puerto Ricans make up half the population. “It was my responsibility not just as a mayor but as a human to speak the truth.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz embraced a student at Girls Inc.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz embraced a student at Girls Inc.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The day after Cruz walked the red carpet for the Time 100 Gala where she was honored with celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, activists such as Tarana Burke, and leaders of nations worldwide, Cruz spent the day encouraging young women here, as well as highlighting Puerto Rico’s ongoing struggles nearly eight months after the hurricane. She said she felt more comfortable in cargo pants, boots, and a T-shirt than a ball gown.

The mayor visited two local nonprofits, the Care Center and Girls inc. of Holyoke. At the Care Center, where young mothers work to attain their GED and go to college, Cruz was greeted by applause.

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She made a point to hug every woman in the room.

“As women, I’ve found out recently you get a little more attention when you stand up and speak up,” she said. “For the most part, if a gentleman does it they’re assertive. If we do it, we’re hysterical.’’

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz danced with Sheylliah Miranda-Cruz 10, of Holyoke at Girls Inc.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz danced with Sheylliah Miranda-Cruz 10, of Holyoke at Girls Inc.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

Most like Anaid Rodriguez had family in Puerto Rico. She wanted to know how the 55-year-old mayor remained so calm when facing down Trump.

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“Was she cursing him out in her head?” said Rodriguez, 18, a mother of a 1-year-old boy, who eventually wants to be a therapist. “I just wanted to know how she’s doing.”

Cruz was frank about her dealings with the Trump administration and the state of affairs on the island. She gave statistics about the high rates of suicide, about how towns still had to ration power. It made many tear up.

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“The way I describe it is we were in the belly of hell,” Cruz said. “Now, estamos en la entrada del infierno [we’re at the gates of Hell.] But it’s still hell, and we have a long road to recovery.”

She encouraged the women to push for what they wanted despite challenges along the way.

“Power has nothing to do with the position you occupy,” Cruz said. “Power has to do with how you handle the circumstances life deals you.”

At Girl’s Inc. of Holyoke, she danced, sang snippets of songs by Lopez and Christina Aguilera, and told those in the room more than once that they could accomplish anything because being born girls was a particular kind of superpower.

“Now say it with me, ‘There is nothing that I cannot do,’ ” Cruz asked. They all repeated the mantra.

She had a busy couple of days in Western Massachusetts. Later Wednesday, Cruz spoke to hundreds during a question-and-answer session. On Thursday, she is set to attend a round table with high school leaders before a press conference, and then a keynote at Mount Holyoke College. On Friday, she is set to receive a key to the city of Holyoke.

Sheylliah Miranda-Cruz, 10, left an appearance by Cruz determined. She’d been bullied because she wanted to play tackle football.

“Now that the mayor talked to us . . . what I’m walking away with is my dignity and my bravery to do whatever I’ve set out to do,” she said.