Simmons student leads call for aid for Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane María

Several weeks have passed since Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico, leaving the whole island without power and worsening conditions for a population that had already been suffering a severe economic crisis. Experts anticipate that it will take years for the island to recover, and many have been critical of the federal government’s response thus far.

Meanwhile, one Simmons first-year has taken matters into their own hands. Sarai Prieto Avilés, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, has undertaken multiple efforts on behalf of the island. They and their peers organized a donation drive that lasted about four weeks, collecting clothes, non-perishable food, hygiene products, drinking water, and other essentials on the academic and residence campuses. They have sent approximately 30-35 boxes, which was not an easy task. “It’s really difficult,” says Sarai. “Because of the Jones Act, things are really expensive to ship out.”

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Flag of Puerto Rico. Image from Shutterstock.

They and their girlfriend, Katie Murphy, started an appeal to Senators to repeal the Jones Act. Officially titled the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, this law requires that ships transporting goods between U.S. ports be owned and primarily operated by U.S. citizens. “Puerto Rico already has a very weak infrastructure and economy because of the debt crisis,” says Sarai. “So the Jones Act has very adverse and significant consequences on our day-to-day life. For example, it raises our cost of living… when Puerto Rico is twice as poor as the poorest state in the United States, which is Mississippi.” After María, a repeal of the Jones Act would mean that organizations wishing to ship goods to Puerto Rico would have more ships with which to do so.

Sarai and Katie’s appeal began as an event in which they invited students to call their Senators. It took place on academic campus on October 27th and 28th between 10 am and 3 pm. About 40 students made calls, but Sarai wanted to continue pressuring Senators to take action on the issue: “The idea behind this campaign is to literally, physically flood the offices of these people so they can’t ignore their constituents.” They began offering to send letters to Senators on behalf of other students: “I’ll walk up to someone,” Sarai says, “I’ll talk to them for a little bit about the Jones Act, and I’ll ask them if they want to participate.” Their two pre-written letters describe the negative effects of the Jones Act, and the more comprehensive letter also calls for better economic development, healthcare, and infrastructure investments for the island.

Sarai praises students’ concern for the island: “Surprisingly, people have been really responsive… I haven’t been rejected by anyone yet so it’s been going pretty well.” However, they criticize the general lack of awareness among folks in the U.S. regarding the long history of exploitation to which the U.S. has subjected Puerto Rico. They emphasize the need for a broader view of the island’s situation, noting that deficiencies in the hurricane relief efforts can be traced back to the island’s status as a modern-day colony.

The donation drive and letter campaign are by no means the end of Sarai’s work. Among the ideas they have are an “adopt-a-box” project in which groups of students could pool funds to ship donations to the island. Also, they want to continue pressuring owners of Puerto Rico’s $73 billion debt. Sarai and other Simmons students recently attended a rally near the offices of one of these debt owners, a man named Seth Klarman. According to Sarai, “he’s someone who is taking advantage of Puerto Rico’s vulnerable situation to make a profit.” Sarai envisions organizing a series of rallies at Klarman’s own house in the near future. Finally, they expressed interest in creating a task force of Simmons students to further expand the efforts. Anyone who is interested in sending a letter to their Senators, helping to cover postage and shipping costs, or participating in this task force is encouraged to contact them at prietos@simmons.edu.

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