Philly Boricuas rally to help Puerto Rican quake victims, one backpack at a time

Activist and community organizer Adrian Rivera-Reyes and Vanessa Maria Graber pack emergency items to be donated as a disaster relief package, during a meeting of Philly Boricuas, on Saturday, in North Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Activist and community organizer Adrian Rivera-Reyes and Vanessa Maria Graber pack emergency items to be donated as a disaster relief package, during a meeting of Philly Boricuas, on Saturday, in North Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Social media is the main way Vanessa Maria Graber stays in contact with her family members who live in Puerto Rico.

So when she woke up last Tuesday morning to reports that the island was hit by a 6.4 magnitude earthquake, her newsfeed was full of anxiety.

“To see them express fear and just to literally be like freaking out, ‘Oh my gosh, what is happening?’” said Graber, the radio station manager at PhillyCAM. “That really moves you.”

At around 4:30 a.m. local time, communities near the Puerto Rico’s southern coast were hit by the strongest quake in a century. Nearly a week later, aftershocks remain a daily occurrence. A 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck on Saturday morning.

The reported damage now stands at a costly $110 million for the island still recovering from 2017 Hurricanes Maria and Irma. The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development has withheld $18 billion in hurricane relief aid.

More than 4,000 people have been staying in shelters due to damage to their homes or for fear of their safety during the next earthquake.

Vanessa Maria Graber packs emergency items to be donated as a disaster relief package, during a meeting of Philly Boricuas, on Saturday, in North Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Seismologists report that the aftershocks could last for weeks, which is leaving many Puerto Ricans on edge. Graber’s grandmother said the stress she’s experiencing about when the next aftershock will hit is worse than what she felt after Hurricane Maria.

“It really breaks your heart,” said Graber, who has family in Camuy, Puerto Rico.

Graber and other Puerto Ricans living in Philly have tried to alleviate those feelings of sadness and helplessness by springing into action.

Graber is an organizer with Philly Boricuas, a grassroots collective of Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia with the goal of uplifting its community in Philly and on the island.

After seeing the news reports and hearing from family members on the island, Boricua organizers put together an emergency meeting the night of the earthquake to orchestrate a plan for how they could help. This week, they’re asking for donations of 1,500 emergency preparedness backpacks that will be sent to local nonprofits in areas on the island hit hardest by the quakes. Ideally, the backpacks will include items such as whistles, first aid kits, water filters and flashlights. A full listing of requested items and drop-off locations can be found on the group’s website.

A selection of emergency items is spread out before being packed up to be donated as a disaster relief package, during a meeting of Philly Boricuas, on Saturday, in North Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

“If there’s another earthquake tomorrow, people [can] have their backpacks ready and they can grab that and run out,” said Boricuas organizer Adrián Rivera-Reyes, an island-born cancer research scientist who ran for City Council earlier this year.

Boricuas members are working closely with nonprofits and community organizations on the island to make sure the backpacks are getting delivered to the most-needed areas. Due to distrust of the Puerto Rican government, especially after its misappropriation of Hurricane Maria relief funds, two of the Boricuas plan to head to Puerto Rico themselves on Jan. 18 to ensure the backpacks are being distributed appropriately.

“Right now, we are receiving a lot of information from people that are on the ground, but for us to really be able to assess the magnitude of what’s going on, we’ve decided it’s best if some of us are able to go down ourselves,” said Puchi De Jesus, another organizer with Philly Boricuas.

Several of the Philly Boricuas’ organizers met last summer during the local ‘Ricky Renuncia’ protests — a widespread movement where Puerto Ricans on the island and beyond called for Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation amid scandals over sexist and homophobic text messages and misuse of hurricane relief funds.

Graber said that locally, there was a desire to more than just protest.

From left, Adrian Mercado, Puchi De Jesus, Vanessa Maria Graber and Adrián Rivera-Reyes gather to reassess and reevaluate the situation in Puerto Rico during a meeting of Philly Boricuas in a North Philadelphia backyard on Saturday evening. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Puerto Ricans make up the largest Latino population in Philadelphia and in Pennsylvania, coming in at 134,000 of the city’s residents, according to 2017 data. Pennsylvania and New Jersey were among the top states where Puerto Ricans relocated to after being displaced by Hurricane Maria. Across Pennsylvania, 3,400 people originally from the island have applied for post-Maria assistance, according to FEMA.

De Jesus said part of the inspiration for the collective was seeing the low turnout at the Ricky Renuncio protests.

“There was only maybe 50-60 of the same Puerto Ricans coming out every time,” said de Jesus, who lived in Puerto Rico until she was 19 years old. “A lot of us realized, ‘Wait a minute, where is everybody?’ We realized the community here and other areas of North Philadelphia that are primarily Puerto Rican, there’s extreme poverty here too.”

“We feel the Puerto Rican community here isn’t being heard and isn’t being treated with the respect that it deserves,” she added. “So we really want the community here to be educated and to take power into their own hands, to not just demand respect and self-autonomy and the help the island needs, but also be able to lift ourselves up here. Because there’s only so much we’ll be able to do for the island if we’re in poverty here ourselves.”

Activist and community organizer Puchi De Jesus holds up a backpack with emergency items to be donated as a disaster relief package, during a meeting of Philly Boricuas, on Saturday, in North Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Philly Boricuas hosted their first Asamblea de Pueblo — or People’s Assembly — at nonprofit Taller Puertorriqueño’s space in Fairhill. The community meeting was a way for the Boricuas organizers to provide members of Philly’s Puerto Rican diaspora with information on what they can do locally to help people on the island, and about political issues the island is currently facing, such as the Jones Act and the PROMESA bill.

Since then, the group has grown to roughly 25 active members — ranging from nonprofit and political leaders, to people who have been leaders in the Puerto Rican community for decades.

As part of the Boricuas’ ongoing efforts, the group is conducting a community survey in the predominantly Puerto Rican sections of North Philly — colloquially referred to as “El Barrio” — to get a better understanding of residents’ local civic engagement and knowledge of Puerto Rican politics. So far they’ve surveyed about 100 people, and initial results show that community education activities — like the Asamblea del Pueblo — are of high interest.

“We want people to understand that a vote here in Philly is also a vote for Puerto Rico,” Rivera-Reyes said. “That when we elect congresspeople for the community here, those people will have some say and power over Puerto Rico.”

Activists and community organizers Vanessa Maria Graber and Adrián Rivera-Reyes are seen during a meeting of Philly Boricuas to reassess and reevaluate the situation in Puerto Rico after the recent earthquakes. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

They even had a chance to challenge Democratic presidential candidate and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar on her Puerto Rico policy when she stopped at La Colombe in Fishtown this past November.

With just a few weeks into 2020, Philly Boricuas are thinking ahead to the big political happenings to come this year: the presidential election and the once-a-decade U.S. Census.

De Jesus said that just before Pennsylvania’s presidential primary in late April, Philly Boricuas hopes to host a community event on the candidates and how their listed policies (if any) will affect Puerto Rico and Latino communities on the mainland.

Philly Boricuas will take part in a nationwide protest of HUD’s withholding of Maria relief funds at the federal agency’s local office in Center City.

For organizer Rivera-Reyes, working with Philly Boricuas helps ease the powerlessness he feels being away from the island.

“The earthquake, when I first heard about it… All those feelings and emotions that came after Hurricane Maria, it was just a resurfacing of all of that,” Reyes said. “It was one of those things that, I was ready from the moment I knew about it to get to work … because I knew that our people, our families, our communities down in Puerto Rico were going to be suffering.”

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