It's no secret that the mayor of Puerto Rico's capital city has been a critic of the Trump administration. Now, eight months after catastrophic Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico, the community is still suffering, but she has had some time to think and reflect — and her words cut deep. Delivered on Sunday, May 20, Carmen Yulín Cruz's Boston University commencement speech criticized Trump's Puerto Rico hurricane response and offered inspiration to young activists fighting the good fight.
Her voice was shaky with emotion at times, as the San Juan mayor recounted the most challenging obstacle she had ever faced in her career. She said in her opening remarks,
The devastation was like nothing I had ever seen before. There were no cars, no people on the streets, no dogs barking, and no music playing. There was nothing. Just a deafening silence and total darkness. One thing broke the terrifying stillness of those early hours. It was the pain, the sorrow, and the anguish of those whose lives were now a mere memory buried underneath the rubbish and the debris.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, a Democrat, is a former member of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives, and has been a vocal advocate for immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, the differently-abled, and more. Her advocacy did not start with Hurricanes Irma and Maria — but based on her speech, it certainly culminated during the humanitarian crises that ensued. Like in September 2017, when the country was facing the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Cruz didn't mince words in her commencement address, and she blamed the federal government for failing to prioritize the catastrophe. Cruz delivered a harsh rebuke of President Donald Trump, without using his name, saying,
Those charged with the responsibility to come to our aid failed us. The much-needed timely and robust supply chain of aid of essentials like water, food, and medicine took too long to get off the ground. Rather than leadership at the highest places we faced a general lack of urgency and a dismissive attitude. Neglect started taking its toll and people were suffering the consequences. We were dying and they were killing us with bureaucracy and inefficiency.
The idea that the Trump administration was "killing us with bureaucracy and inefficiency" is a popular refrain that Cruz used in the aftermath of the hurricane. Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017 just two weeks after Hurricane Irma decimated the region and had already left thousands of homes and hospitals without power. Maria is widely-regarded as the most devastating storm to strike Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republican on record.
Trump was criticized routinely for his part in the recovery efforts, as weeks and months went by with thousands of Puerto Ricans going without food, water, electricity, or gas. He downplayed the death toll in his visit to the country, saying that it should be "proud" that only 16 people died (although the death toll has reportedly risen to 64, it's unclear exactly how many people perished, per ABC News).
Trump and Cruz even traded rebukes on Twitter, with Trump saying that she had "such poor leadership ability." He also tweeted that "they want everything done for them when it should be a community effort," apparently referring to Puerto Ricans.
Cruz's speech on Sunday was the baccalaureate address — she shared the lectern with Rep. John Lewis, who gave the commencement address — and her remarks reportedly received a standing ovation, per BU Today, the school's news site.
Hurricane season starts on June 1 this year, and Cruz referenced the fact that there will likely be more work to come. Cruz told the graduates,
Look around, really look around the world we live in. It is filled with violence, discrimination, poverty, and injustice. The question is, 'What are we prepared to do to change this world? What will you do to ensure that people all over the world have a chance to thrive and not only survive?' Complaining about it will not change much. You must get out there, fight, and make that change. Fight for what you believe in no matter if the odds for success are against you.
Incredible words from an incredible leader.