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Trump Failed Puerto Rico. These People Picked up the Cost

Insights + Opinion
Trump Failed Puerto Rico. These People Picked up the Cost
Luz Hernandez with her niece, Noemi Quinones, who was the first of Hernandez's relatives to ask for help. Nexus Media

By Jeremy Deaton

Every morning, Luz Hernandez goes to work at her hair salon on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood fixture without a website or a Facebook page, where a trim costs $40 and customers can get a cup of coffee while they wait. Every night, she returns to a full fridge in an air-conditioned home in the Bronx. Income from the salon allows her to live comfortably, though not lavishly — but compared to her family in Puerto Rico, who were devastated by Hurricane Maria, she feels like royalty.


After the hurricane, she recalls thinking, "I have everything here — water, lights, a roof over my head — and they're over there without any lights." Hernandez said she could not sit down to a hot meal in a cool home while her brothers and nieces and nephews on the island languished without food or air conditioning. Worried about her family, she took it upon herself to deliver the relief the federal government had failed to provide.

In the aftermath of the storm, Hernandez said, she spent around $8,000 to send aid to family back home, in addition to another $2,000 donated by her clients. "I swear to God, I have the best clients," she said. The money paid for canned beef and chicken, coffee, peanut butter, batteries, solar-powered radios and lamps, as well as generators needed to operate fans, refrigerators and medical equipment, such as her brother's dialysis machine.

"I don't think I did anything so heroic. I did what I had to do," she said. "I took care of whoever needed the most." She only wishes the government had done the same.

Luz Hernandez has spent $8,000 sending canned food, batteries and power generators to her family in Puerto Rico.

Source: Nexus Media

Hernandez is remarkable, though not unusual, among members of the Puerto Rican diaspora — many of whom devoted hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to helping victims of Hurricane Maria. Those interviewed for this story said they were angry that the government had failed to provide relief, particularly to rural areas, and they remain baffled that President Trump continues to oppose additional disaster aid for the island, which is still recovering from the storm.

Fernando "Ponce" Laspina, who runs El Maestro Inc., a boxing gym and Puerto Rican cultural center in the Bronx, recalled the lack of aid after Maria. "The federal government really didn't do the job," he said. "We know a lot of older people who died because they didn't get help on time." Like Hernandez, he made it his mission to help those who were left behind.

Fernando Laspina at El Maestro, Inc.

Source: Eddie Aguiar, Hunter College

Laspina said that after the hurricane, El Maestro Inc. filled three 40,000-pound shipping containers with food, water and medical supplies — wheelchairs, walkers, diapers and medicine — and paid around $5,500 to ship each one to a different town desperate for aid. The organization relied on donations and volunteer labor. Dozens of people showed up from around New York City and as far afield as Connecticut and Ohio to contribute goods and help fill the containers.

"We had all kinds of people here," he said. "There were no barriers, you know — black people, white people, Chinese people, young, old, female, male, gay people — it didn't matter. It was just one big family in New York City coming together for Puerto Rico." Meanwhile, he added, "No help from the elected officials."

Edna Benitez took a similar tack, working with Proyecto Matria, a human rights group, to bring relief to a community overlooked for disaster aid. She focused her efforts on Miraflores, a small, mountain town in central Puerto Rico. "This is a community that was marginalized prior to the hurricane," she said. "After the hurricane, they were just devastated, and they spent several weeks without food and just drinking water from the falls."

Edna Benitez, rebuilding a home in Miraflores

Source: Edna Benitez

Benitez was aghast at the dearth of federal aid after the storm. "I said to myself, 'Where is FEMA? Where is the help that we're supposed to get? Are we a part of the United States?'" she said. On Trump, she said, "We know what his agenda is. He wants to build a wall, and he needs funding for that, and I think that that's more important [to him] than people's lives and people's homes and people's dignity." Trump has pushed Congress to include $4 billion in border wall funding in its disaster relief package, all while fighting against additional aid for Puerto Rico.

Frustrated by the government's response to Maria, Benitez partnered with Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan to raise money for her work in Puerto Rico. Donations paid for her and other volunteers to travel to Miraflores to rebuild homes, set up cisterns, and help community members develop small businesses selling locally grown foods and knitted goods. Benitez, 61, has been to Puerto Rico eight times since Hurricane Maria. She has painted houses, sealed roofs and cleared land for farming, dipping into her savings to help fund her efforts. In July, she will be taking a group of teenagers to Miraflores to do farm work.

Contemplating the work of people like Benitez, lifelong New Yorker Elena Martinez said, "The communities in the diaspora in Florida, in Chicago, in New York and Connecticut, they just came through." She added, "I guess it's more real when you know people who were literally affected by it."

Bobby Sanabria, on drums, and his Multiverse Big Band playing a benefit concert for Puerto Rico musicians, October 2017

Source: Bob Ramos

Martinez, who runs the Bronx Music Heritage Center with Puerto Rican jazz drummer Bobby Sanabria, raised money to help musicians on the island pay for housing, food and gas after Maria shut down theaters, restaurants and hotels, making it difficult for them to find work. Sanabria put together a benefit concert after Maria, raising $10,000 for the Jazz Foundation of America's Puerto Rico Relief Fund. He subsequently produced a record of the music of West Side Story, devoting a portion of the proceeds to the effort.

Elsewhere in the city, Surey Miranda and her husband, Victor Martinez, helped families fleeing the hurricane resettle in New York. She and her husband run a Spanish-language website with resources for newcomers, and work closely with displaced families to help them secure housing and apply for food stamps. Miranda said chats about how best to navigate the government bureaucracy can turn into long conversations about the trauma of living through a natural disaster. She said that, in the first few months after the hurricane, she spent around 30 hours a week helping people, sometimes staying up until 3 a.m. consoling survivors, all while working a full-time job.

Surey Miranda (left) with her husband Victor Martinez (right)

Source: Victor Martinez

Miranda believes Trump has neglected Puerto Rico because people living on the island, while citizens, cannot vote for president and have no representation in Congress. However, she said, millions of people of Puerto Rican descent living on the mainland can vote, and they do have some measure of political power. "If you see the numbers, there are more Puerto Ricans stateside than on the island," she said.

Martinez believes the Puerto Rican diaspora, which proved critical in providing relief after the storm, could take Trump to task at the ballot box. "The people here on the mainland who can vote will hopefully take this into account when elections come up," she said.

Moreover, because Maria spurred so many families to migrate to the mainland, where they can vote, the diaspora is gaining power in states like Florida and Pennsylvania. Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria now have the chance to oust a president who refuses to provide the aid the island needs.

Hernandez took some comfort in this. "It's really sad that he's such a racist," she said. "The thing is, the people who moved to … Florida or wherever, they could now go register and vote, maybe change the color of the state."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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