I have lived my 26 years of life in “El Barrio,” a section of Manhattan that has always been predominantly Puerto Rican. Growing up here, I was always surrounded by the Puerto Rican flag flying high up on the streets. Like Puerto Ricans or any other group that migrates to New York City, my family moved from Mexico to find a better way of life and more opportunities. El Barrio is my home with its piraguas cart, coquito cart on the corner every summer, and the salsa music blasting on every porch. If you know El Barrio or have ever visited you know that it is the epicenter of the Latinx community in New York.
As I reflect on the second anniversary of Hurricane Maria, I think of my own community and how this natural disaster affected El Barrio. Many of my friends and I sought to bring awareness of the catastrophe in Puerto Rico through social media. Communities like my own made it a priority to gather everyday essentials such as bottled water, paper towels, canned food, batteries, etc and send them over to the island for those in need.
The people of Puerto Rico and the diaspora are still recovering from this natural disaster, they have been ravaged by Hurricane Maria. This disaster shed light on the abuse of power by the government, the lack of resources and media coverage to Puerto Rico that left them to fend for themselves. This story of political, and economic abuse is one we continue to repeat in the history of the United States specifically towards communities of color who have consistently been disregarded. Not only must we survive human-made disasters but we must survive natural disasters on our own. Climate change does not see race, it does not see income or the color of your skin, it does not care about your gender, it affects all of us and yet communities of color are being disproportionately affected by climate change. The basic needs like air and water are controlled and designed by people; companies and governments monetarily profit from these inequalities. Racial inequalities also explain the distribution of air pollution, the location of municipal landfills and incinerators, abandoned toxic waste dumps, and lead poisoning in children.
Studies have shown that “three of every five African Americans and Latinos live in a neighborhood with a hazardous waste site.” Not only are communities and people of color being pushed to outskirts of cities, but the neighborhoods are also being threatened by pollutants. Thousands of families have no access to clean water in Flint Michigan. Water being the basic need for anything to survive, many times communities of color are economically disadvantaged. The poorest communities are being forced to buy water when they can barely afford a living. While white upper-class communities do not have these disadvantages are protected from these toxic pollutants.
These processes were also evident in the battles at Standing Rock where the government approved the construction of Energy Transfers Partner’s Dakota Access Pipeline across the land of the indigenous community. The Sioux’s actions are only the most recent in a long history of indigenous resistance to resource extraction and treaty violations on their land. Standing Rock like Puerto Rico has been victims of colonialism, having no rights under the constitution and laws of the United States. And yet both Standing Rock and Puerto Rico continue to be resilient to the forces of colonialism.
There were thousands of deaths in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit them, and many of those lives were African American residents living in the lowest income areas of the city. There were many decisions that led to such a high death toll in New Orleans, the mayor Ray Nagin failed to issue a mandatory evacuation order in a timely manner. And then failed to accurately assess and mobilize the available resources. Residents of the lower-income neighborhoods had only their homes, which led to many of them staying in the city. The lack of resources that these communities of color have access to are connected and due to the long history of institutional racism and corrupt policies in the United States.
There is the continuous vicious cycle of where racism, economic and the other forms of inequalities are both a cause and a consequence of environmental devastation that continue to disproportionately affect communities of color. It is not just that we are being affected by natural disasters, natural disasters demonstrate the inequalities of power, resources, economics, income, and race. The official count of the death toll was 64 while in reality, the actual death toll was more than 4,700 in which a majority of the deaths resulted due to the lack of resources. Power was lost in hospitals and clinics, critically ill patients were unable to receive treatments. The people of Puerto Rico were deprived of the essential resource water as were communities Flint Michigan and Standing Rock. These places are part of the wealthiest country in the world and yet lack the necessary resources to survive, Puerto Rico was without electricity and “fell to the levels of some of the world’s poorest countries” and still many people remain without power. Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, many of the island’s infrastructure was depleted before Hurricane Maria hit. Hurricane Maria made the world see that the island Puerto Rico continues to be devastated by colonial powers.
Similarly in El Barrio, we are experiencing displacement as affordable housing has been disappearing from the community. Communities of color live in overcrowded conditions that are poorly maintained. Environmental and climate changes, natural disasters, and hazards can devastate any country, city, location but affect communities of color disproportionately.