Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz of San Juan, Puerto Rico spoke to students, faculty, and staff at Mount Holyoke College on April 26 recounting the tragedies the occured after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the island seven months ago, while also being optimistic in Puerto Rico’s transformation in the years to come.
Yulin Cruz said she learned the value of true leadership after the hurricanes devastated her home of San Juan. After the hurricane, she tried to lead by example – sleeping in a cot, eating mostly spam on a daily basis, and helping her community even if that meant walking through water infested with human excrement.
“There was a deep silence in San Juan … There was a profound feeling that something was not right; that the San Juan we knew would not be there again,” she said. “The only thing breaking that silence was the sobs of men and women going into their homes and seeing that there was nothing left. Roofs completely shattered. Houses completely leveled. The pet that you love your entire life – dead. It was rough to see and I think about it and I try to be strong, but I can’t because we knew that people were going to die.”
Mount Holyoke senior Sofia Rivera, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, had the idea to try to bring Yulin Cruz to be a keynote speaker at the college. She said she reached out to Holyoke City Councilor Jossie Valentin, a friend of Yulin Cruz, who then hand-delivered an invitation to Yulin Cruz while Valentin and her wife volunteered for relief work three weeks in early November. Funding for the event was made possible by the Weisman Center for Leadership at Mount Holyoke College.
“It is an honor for me to know that one conversation about this idea became a reality,” Rivera said at the event on April 26.
Yulin Cruz also spoke at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke on April 25 and will receive a key to the city of Holyoke from Mayor Alex Morse on the afternoon of April 27.
She said the people in Puerto Rico continue to suffer from the aftermath of the hurricanes, but she’s hopeful in the island rebuilding and finding a path towards a brighter future.
“We came from the belly of hell to the gates of hell, but it’s still hell,” she said. “There’s still 500,000 people who are in really bad shape. They have tarps or semi-permanent roofs. The suicide rate has gone up 55 percent. Let’s not talk about the children who have challenges. Nobody’s disabled; they’re all able to do something.”
Yulin Cruz said Puerto Rico should make investments in solar power because the island is sunny most of the year. Municipalities in the island should utilize Community Development Block Grant funding to not simply rebuild homes, but create better homes and infrastructure on the island.
She said she couldn’t expect her community to follow her if she wasn’t going through the same experiences as they were.
“You never leave anyone behind. That’s not an option,” Yulin Cruz said. “If you want to be a true leader, people will follow you if you let them lead you … We women have an advantage, and I say this with profound humility — we let our hearts get in the way …. True leadership comes from the heart.”
Yulin Cruz said one thing that she’ll be haunted by for the rest of her life is the people she couldn’t help save.
“It isn’t the ones that we got out that will stay with me; it’s the ones that we couldn’t help,” she said. “I say this with great respect – true leadership is never satisfied ever. It’s not that we are perfectionists. It’s not that we are insatiable. It’s that true leadership knows that there’s always something else to do. I couldn’t stay awake 24 hours a day. So, I couldn’t save people for 24 hours and people died. My only hope was that died knowing that we couldn’t get to them, not that we didn’t want to get to them. People died because they didn’t have the money to put diesel in the generators.”
Yulin Cruz was recently named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2018. She said she was the only Latina to make the list and despite this, Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives voted to not congratulate Yulin Cruz on making Time’s 100 List, she said.
“You don’t ever expect those that cannot stand up to see you when you’re doing so,” she said. “So, you move forward … Sometimes those who don’t agree with you; don’t validate you that is a badge of honor, ladies. Haters will be haters.”