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Over Budín and Quesitos, Buffalo Puerto Ricans reflect on the island’s political crisis

Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

A new governor of Puerto Rico—the U.S. territory that’s been embroiled in massive protests over the past several weeks—was sworn in on Friday. Shortly before the controversial transition of power, WBFO spent a morning at La Flor Bakery on Niagara Street to ask what Puerto Ricans living in Buffalo think about the political uproar on the island.

Sitting under a painting of a red, white and blue Puerto Rican flag in the bakery’s back dining room, Arsenio (Tony) Moya and his wife, Luz, ate breakfast with their son-in-law John Starkey. Starkey is the principal of Lafayette International Community High School, which many of Buffalo’s Puerto Rican students attend.

“People are a little nervous about what’s happening, but it’s also a good thing that there’s this change, and it’s good that the people came out to participate in these protests,” said Mrs. Moya, with interpreting help from Starkey.

“These problems have been happening for a long time,” she said, referencing the island’s longstanding social and economic challenges. “It’s good that they got rid of the governor who wasn’t following through on his promises.”

Since September 2017, Puerto Rico has also been struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which caused the deaths of 2,975 people, according to a study by researchers at The George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. That’s compared to the 1,833 people killed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, according to the National Hurricane Center.

“Things have been piling up for Puerto Ricans,” said Nicole Acevedo, a Puerto Rican journalist and reporter for NBC News Digital. “People have been dealing with sluggish hurricane recovery. People were surviving this tragedy, really, and what triggered the protests were the chats that were released last month.”

Nearly 900 pages of private chat messages exchanged on the messaging app Telegram between former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and some of his closest advisers were leaked to the Puerto Rican press in July. The messages included many misogynistic, homophobic and otherwise offensive comments—even jokes about the Puerto Ricans who died in Hurricane Maria.

Acevedo said the chats proved to be the “perfect trigger” that detonated two weeks of mass protests that eventually led to Rosselló’s resignation, which went into effect at 5 p.m. on Aug. 2.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Customers place their breakfast orders at La Flor Bakery on Thursday, Aug. 1.

Geovanny and Michael, two 19-year-old Puerto Ricans who have been living in Buffalo for about four years, said they’ve been watching the protests every day on Facebook and YouTube.

“Nobody wants to see our government like that—joking about us, talking bad about us,” said Geovanny.

Michael added that he doesn’t like the corruption he sees in the Puerto Rican government.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “They steal money and don’t do the work.”

Ketzia, 33, who grew up in Puerto Rico and whose mother still lives there, agreed.

“The people [in government] just want the money. That’s the only thing they want,” she said, waiting for her breakfast order. “They think just about themselves. They’re not thinking about the people living there.”

Another patron, Zoraida Santiago, has lived in Buffalo for 14 years after moving from New York City, where she lived for 25 years. She said her family members who are still in Puerto Rico are “trying to survive the best way they can.”

Santiago lives just a few blocks up Niagara Street from La Flor Bakery, which she said is one of her favorite spots in the city.

“This bakery is very lovable because they have a lot of Puerto Rican food, the girls are very nice, and they treat you with love and respect.”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Gilberto Perez is the Puerto Rican baker behind many of La Flor’s favorite delicacies.

Gilberto Perez, originally of Ponce, Puerto Rico, is the longtime baker behind many of La Flor’s delicacies, such as Budín (Puerto Rican bread pudding), Quesitos (puff pastries filled with cream cheese and/or guava), and the bakery’s most popular item: Tres leches (a sponge cake soaked in three different kinds of milk).

Speaking in Spanish with one of his regular customers interpreting, Perez said he’s heard fellow Puerto Ricans discussing the situation on the island over the past couple of weeks, but that it’s not his job to get involved. However, he said he agreed that the government should be changed to one that’s more “useful” and cares more about the community.

La Flor Bakery is located on one of the first blocks in the southern end of Buffalo Common Councilmember David Rivera’s Niagara District—and the councilman himself is of Puerto Rican descent. His parents migrated from the island to the mainland U.S. in the 1950s.

I’m very proud to be Puerto Rican,” said Rivera in a phone interview with WBFO. “To watch all these things play out, it does cause a little bit of grief and a little bit of alarm at the same time. And I’m sure many of the folks that are here feel the same, because we care for the island and the people of this island. So, we’re very sensitive to that here in Buffalo.”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
La Flor Bakery is located at 544 Niagara Street in Buffalo.

Acevedo, the NBC reporter, said the crisis and the questions about Puerto Rico’s future didn’t end with Gov. Rosselló’s resignation. First, she reported that Pedro Pierluisi’s swearing in as the new governor last Friday is already being challenged by Puerto Rican legal groups. And second, whoever succeeds in succeeding Rosselló will be in charge during a critical moment in Puerto Rico’s history.

“What we’re seeing right now is basically like a reckoning in the party system in the island, which is different from the United States,” Acevedo said. “In Puerto Rico it’s not Republicans and Democrats. The party system is dived by preference over [the island’s] territorial status.”

In other words, the new governor will be taking the lead at a time when Puerto Rico could confront the longstanding and divisive question of whether it should become a U.S. state, declare independence as a sovereign country, or remain a self-governing commonwealth in association with the U.S.

But Acevedo also said the Puerto Rican diaspora living in places like Buffalo—and all around the world—have shown that they also have the power to affect the future of their island.

“Puerto Ricans have a view of being caught up in the mess, right? But the Puerto Rican diaspora almost has like a panoramic shot,” Acevedo said. “They see things from afar and they’re seeing how things connect to each other, and they use that knowledge from being far away to amplify the voices and the concerns of the people in the island, who are the ones caught up in these issues every day.”

“Puerto Ricans, we are everywhere,” said Geovanny, back at La Flor Bakery on a hot summer morning in Buffalo. “Even when bad things happen, we’re always together.”

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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