That recent terrifying trio of hurricanes brought along with them not only horrific destruction but history lessons.
To many Americans, Puerto Rico was always an island somewhere, a vague idea of someplace in the Caribbean.
Most of us, I would guess, had forgotten, if we ever knew in the first place, that Puerto Rico is an American territory whose residents are American citizens, as are the Virgin Islands and 14 other territories. Lest we forget, Alaska and Hawaii were territories before they became states, as were other areas, such as the Louisiana Territory and the Southwest Territory.
After centuries of often brutal colonization by Spain, Puerto Rico (Spanish for “Rich Port”) came under American dominance during the Spanish-American War in 1898 after which Spain, the loser, ceded Puerto Rico to the United States after Americans invaded the island.
Throughout the years, there were many conflicts and rebellions by Puerto Ricans determined to gain total independence, but despite that, relations between Americans and Puerto Ricans became entwined for better or worse. That island’s residents were offered American citizenship in 1917. The country later forged its own constitution and legislative assembly.
Puerto Rico is a mostly mountainous island about 110 miles long by 40 miles wide. It has few natural resources and is highly dependent upon imports. Its economy relies upon manufacturing and the service industry, especially tourism. It has been pummeled before by disasters – a major earthquake and tsunami in 1918 and many times by hurricanes of varying strength, most recently and disastrously by Irma and then by Category 5 Maria. It also suffered terribly, with rampant poverty, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The nation is in dire debt to the tune of about $70 billion.
And now Puerto Rico is suffering terribly again, and its 3.4-million residents – our fellow American citizens – remain in peril. There will be ongoing scarcities of water, food, medicine, electricity and gasoline. Lack of sanitation and clean water is likely to cause disease outbreaks. Rebuilding homes and infrastructure will take probably a year, at least.
Many good people worldwide – including Puerto Ricans who are hurting, hungry, desperate and destitute – are rallying to help, refusing to give in to the helplessness and despair that threatens to engulf them.
Here are ways that all of us can help. Check out the following donation websites and others on the Internet: American Red Cross: www.redcross.org; UNICEF (to help children especially): www.unicefusa.org; Save the Children (another site to help children): www.savethechildren.org; Catholic Relief Services: www.support.crs.org; and Salvation Army: salvationarmyusa.org.
For more donation sites and ways to help, visit the Public Broadcasting System website at www.pbs.org.
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.