The Recolonization of Puerto Rico, Part 4
Here at the end of Latinx Heritage Month, we are wrapping up our series on Puerto Rico by highlighting Jason Ortiz, a Connecticut Puerto Rican activist-organizer probably best known for his work in cannabis justice in our state: he’s the current executive director at Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the policy director for Connecticut United for Reform and Equity (CURECT), and founder and immediate past president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association. But Ortiz’s activist work has had a long arc. He was first trained in nonviolent direct action by VPT Board President Joanne Sheehan and had his political awakening as a teen when he participated in a protest at the infamous School of the Americas in Georgia with a YouthPeace organizer. But aside from cannabis activism, Jason Ortiz perhaps performed his most impactful work as the founder and president of CT Puerto Rican Agenda. It was through this organization that Ortiz was able to organize relief efforts and emergency lodgings in Connecticut for thousands of displaced Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria.
A few weeks ago, we got to interview Jason Ortiz about Connecticut Puerto Ricans, challenges and advantages in organizing along ethnic lines, and advice for organizers in those positions. We have included parts of that interview below.
[Read The Recolonization of Puerto Rico, Part 1 here: https://www.facebook.com/VoluntownPeaceTrust/posts/2012501098900215]
[Read The Recolonization of Puerto Rico, Part 2 here: https://www.facebook.com/VoluntownPeaceTrust/posts/2068347923315532]
[Read The Recolonization of Puerto Rico, Part 3 here: https://www.facebook.com/VoluntownPeaceTrust/posts/2073703802779944]
When Hurricane Maria reached Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, the island was still recovering from its brush with Hurricane Irma just a couple of weeks earlier. The power grid had failed for about two-thirds of the island, another third had lost access to clean water, and various infrastructure elements were badly damaged. When Maria developed into a Category 4 storm and slammed into the already battered island, it knocked out the rest of the power grid and 95% of cell towers, majorly flooded thirty rivers, destroyed nearly all road signs and traffic lights, structurally damaged an unknown number of buildings, and closed over 90% of roads even a month after the hurricane had passed.
The wide dispersal of Puerto Ricans through much of the United States has at times strengthened the home island. Puerto Ricans make up over 8% of the Connecticut population, the highest percentage of any US state. Puerto Ricans in Connecticut generally maintained close ties with family and friends on the home island, then and now, and many Puerto Ricans still frequently travel between the island and the US mainland. Thus, various issues and crises in Puerto Rico over the decades have often felt much closer to Connecticut than the geographical distance would suggest.
Therefore, even before Maria ripped through the island, some Puerto Ricans in Connecticut were already preparing relief efforts for the aftermath of Irma. In June 2017, a group of Puerto Rican politicians, community leaders, and activists across the state founded CT Puerto Rican Agenda, a chapter of National Puerto Rican Agenda. Jason Ortiz became the first president of the Connecticut chapter and quickly joined the CT PR Agenda to the national Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Network. Even considering past pan-Puerto Rican campaigns like the anti-Navy work on Culebra and Vieques islands, the scale of the effort for Hurricane Maria relief was “unprecedented” in the Puerto Rican diaspora. In the early stages, according to Ortiz, “the folks stateside were mobilizing faster than the needs on the island, and I think that does show… that that network [connecting Puerto Rico and the mainland US] is stronger than it ever has been before.”
Despite the strong Puerto Rican network, there were still challenges to organizing around such a multifaceted and catastrophic issue as hurricane relief. For Jason Ortiz, part of the challenge was trying to balance the needs of hurricane-displaced Puerto Ricans and the needs of local vulnerable populations: “The work with the families was so hard, they needed things like housing and jobs which Hartford residents didn’t even have. For example, we had to ask for the displaced families to be put at the front of the affordable housing line, which meant Hartford families who were already waiting had to wait longer.” But organizing Puerto Rican communities statewide also meant that the coalition could draw from more resources. According to Ortiz, “The Center for Latino Progress played a big role. The San Juan Center and the Puerto Rican Day Parade of Hartford helped as well. Joe Rodriguez from Blumenthal’s office played a big role getting us spaces and donors. But mostly it was Puerto Ricans who were not in an official group. Through the hurricane efforts people kind of knew each other, but it felt like one of the few times we organized Ricans statewide — Hartford Ricans were meeting the Meriden Ricans, who finally met the Bridgeport Ricans, etc. outside of the establishment Ricans.” Many of the Puerto Ricans within these cities already had strong relationships with each other through extended family ties, churches, and various cultural activities. Jason Ortiz, the CT PR Agenda, and the rest of the statewide coalition were able to unite these pre-existing relationships and communities into a single cause.
These unification efforts bore fruit. The Connecticut National Guard flew emergency supplies into Puerto Rico and St. Thomas. In the state itself, Connecticut acquired the temporary housing of roughly 13,500 displaced Puerto Ricans — 10% of all Puerto Ricans who left the island for shelter on the mainland. At the peak, 187 families were housed in hotels like the Red Roof Inn in Hartford through the FEMA Transitional Sheltering Assistance program. The coalition in Connecticut initially received $3 million in state funds to support displaced families, and in conjunction with state leaders like Senator Blumenthal and former Governor Malloy, successfully had the funding renewed multiple times. And all this was accomplished in the face of a president who was intentionally slow to respond to the crisis and who was at the time actively stoking white supremacy.
Many of the intercity relationships between Puerto Rican communities in Connecticut that were forged during the Hurricane Maria crisis have continued to develop, although not necessarily through formal channels. While Jason Ortiz left CT PR Agenda to focus on cannabis justice in Connecticut, he has since been able to draw on some of these relationships he had helped to develop. Some had joined in the minority cannabis justice movement that successfully convinced the Connecticut State Legislature to decriminalize cannabis this year. Although CT PR Agenda is now defunct, Ortiz holds high hopes for the political potential of these communities. With the growing Puerto Rican population in Connecticut, as well as climate change exacerbating hurricanes in the Caribbean, the need for broad organizing will likely increase in the coming years. For the organizers who find themselves in these kinds of communities, Ortiz has some advice: “Don’t try to get everyone to do the same thing. Give folks lots of autonomy but then support. And trainings are a must, and on a continuing basis. It’s ok to start small and let folks develop relationships before, say, organizing a statewide march or something. Organizing around ethnic lines by definition requires it to be across ideological lines, so it will be necessary to put aside political purity to get to real unity, but simultaneously allowing for the views to be expressed even if you disagree with the content. It’s less about finding one path and more about finding lots of different ways.”
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dos Santos, Cyrus. “Puerto Rico Struggles With Recovery, Connecticut Officials Promise Help.” CT News Junkie. 22 September 2017 [Accessed 12 October 2021]. https://ctnewsjunkie.com/2017/09/22/puerto_rico_struggles_with_recovery_connecticut_officials_promise_help/
“Housing Benefits Extension to Puerto Rican Families Halted.” NBC Connecticut. Last updated 19 January 2018 [Accessed 12 October 2021]. https://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/housing-benefits-extension-to-puerto-rican-families-halted/141604/
Ormseth, Matthew. “Hurricane Maria, One Year Later: Exodus Strained Connecticut, But Families And Service Providers Still Resilient.” Hartford Courant. 20 September 2018 [Accessed 12 October 2021]. https://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-news-hurricane-maria-year-later-20180918-story.html
Park, Daz. “Interview with Jason Ortiz on CT-PR Activist Organizing.” 14 Sept. 2021.
Ragland, Jamil. “Ortiz: Puerto Rico facing long, challenging recovery — bravely.” The CT Mirror. 29 October 2017 [Accessed 12 October 2021]. https://ctmirror.org/2017/10/29/ortiz-puerto-rico-facing-long-challenging-recovery-bravely/
Scott, Michon. “Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico.” Climate.gov. Last updated 18 April 2021 [Accessed 12 October 2021]. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/hurricane-marias-devastation-puerto-rico
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