LARES, Puerto Rico (CNS) – Hurricane-related deaths in Puerto Rico have been attributed to drowning and illness, but many Puerto Ricans, including local media professionals, see a link between such deaths and poverty.
On a recent tour through Puerto Rico’s central-western mountains, Catholic News Service found several people voicing support for this opinion.
“One has a higher probability to die in a hurricane if one is poor,” said Ismael Perez Acosta, 71, who lives alone in a rural shanty in Lares. His 87-year-old house, almost completely covered by vegetation and barely seen from the road below, is a dilapidated small wooden structure built by his grandfather.
Perez has no income, surviving on donations and casual odd jobs. His water comes from a stream that flows next to the house, a structure that has no electric power connection.
“There are many people like me, who normally live (under conditions) like a hurricane went by every day,” said Perez, who has some college education from the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo. “But to many people we are invisible, even though maybe we are the majority (of the island’s population).”
Poverty in Puerto Rico is a largely unspoken legacy of colonial times, when agriculture was the island’s main source of wealth, and it goes as far back as slavery. Many of today’s poor are descendants of a working class whose status has morphed since the Spanish arrival in 1493.
That line started with black African slaves and white Spanish laborers. Blacks mostly toiled on sugar cane fields in the lower coastal flatlands, and whites worked on coffee and fruit plantations in the central mountains.