For Karen Rodriguez, Sept. 20 — the anniversary of when Category 5 Hurricane Maria hit her native land of Puerto Rico — brings back difficult memories.
Her hometown of Utuado, located in the central mountainous region of the island, was hit hard. She said the devastation in that area was so severe from mudslides and overflowing rivers, that many of her family members’ homes were completely wiped out.
But two years later, Rodriguez is starting to feel different.
“Last year was about remembering those lost,” said Rodriguez, the lead organizer of “The People for Puerto Rico” march and rally. “This year is about moving forward.”
Several hundred members of the Puerto Rican community came together Saturday to reflect on the resiliency of their homeland, two years after Hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated the island. Traveling by bus, Puertorriqueños from New York, New Jersey — and other parts of Pennsylvania such as Harrisburg, York, Bethlehem, Reading and Lebanon — were in attendance.
A recent Census Bureau estimate puts the number of Puerto Ricans living in Philadelphia at more than 100,000. Across Pennsylvania, more than 3,400 people who were displaced because of Hurricane Maria have applied for assistance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The day started at City Hall where Philadelphia City Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez — who was born on the island — unfurled her 60-foot-long Puerto Rico flag.
The rally marched west on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to Eakins Oval.
Rodriguez said it was important to remind the public that roughly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria, and in her opinion, because of a lack of federal response.
The island is also still waiting on $600 million in emergency food stamp aid from President Donald Trump’s administration that was approved back in June.
“It’s very lacking and we believe that Puerto Rico deserves to be respected a lot better,” Rodriguez said. “Many roads are still destroyed, people are still living under blue tarps.”
She said Saturday’s event is meant to remember those that are still suffering, but she said it’s also to encourage the Puerto Rican community to vote and participate in the 2020 Census, which will have an effect on representation in Congress as well as funding for community organizations, schools and infrastructure.
Local members of Congress were also present at the Philadelphia rally, including Reps. Brendan Boyle, Dwight Evans and Madeleine Dean.
“For Puerto Rico, it has been dealing with one crisis after another,” Boyle said during the rally. “Having to deal with a massive debt crisis that punishes people and then having to deal with a president of the United States that actually acts like he genuinely hates the people of Puerto Rico, it’s wrong. It’s deeply immoral.”
There were plenty of jabs at Trump during the rally — including the ever-present giant Donald Trump baby balloon, that’s been seen at protests worldwide, often against the current administration.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney also shared a few words with the crowd about the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria.
“This guy is the worst president in our lifetime,” Kenney said. “To abandon our brothers and sisters of Puerto Rico is a disgrace. We need to make sure that our government holds firm to taking care of the people who experience natural disasters like Hurricane Maria.”
Ieesha Artis traveled from Lancaster to attend Saturday’s rally. Her grandparents are from Puerto Rico and she still has family who live in the U.S. territory. Artis also brought along her five children, including her 1-year-old daughter Bella. She hopes attending the rally sends her kids a positive message.
“I want [Bella] to know that it’s important to speak up for your family and your rights,” Artis said. “And at the end of the day, you’re still Puerto Rican and you stand up for everything they need because it’s not right we have to go through all of this.”
There are plenty of other changes people like Rodriguez called for at the rally to help Puerto Rico, including the canceling of the island’s $70 billion debt amassed from Hurricane Maria. But a pervasive message that came up among many in attendance was remembering that Puerto Ricans are a strong community.
“We are absolutely a resilient community because regardless of the fact that we are still suffering, we’ve been able to keep together as a people,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully the energy that we’ve created can help people become more energized and actively participating in elections and actively participating in things they can do within their communities and in Puerto Rico.”