On Sunday, throngs of people lined Sixth Avenue in Manhattan for the 61st annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade. Rosa Clemente wasn’t one of them. “I made a choice this year. I couldn’t march,” the Bronx-born Boricua activist and former Green Party candidate for vice president tells Rolling Stone. “I really think this should have been a day of mourning.”
Clemente, who is 46, has attended the parade almost every year of her life, and marched in it twice. Parade day, Clemente says, is typically the day of the year that she is “the most proud and happy to be a Puerto Rican – and everyone else who is not Puerto Rican is respecting that.”
Clemente is a longtime organizer in the community and advocate for Puerto Rican causes. Last year, she marched alongside the members of Defend Puerto Rico, in the past she’s marched to raise awareness about the U.S. Navy’s activities in Vieques. She knew lots of fellow activists who saw the parade as an opportunity to draw more attention to the under-covered tragedy in Puerto Rico, and while she supports their efforts, Clemente says, “I just couldn’t do it.”
She made the decision to protest the parade two weeks ago, when the New England Journal of Medicine published a Harvard study estimating that the U.S. government had dramatically undercounted the number of people who died on the island as a result of Hurricane Maria. The study estimated that 4,645 Puerto Ricans lost their lives because of the hurricane – 4,581 more than the official government estimate of 64 deaths. The number is only slightly less than the total deaths of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina combined.
The study confirmed fears Clemente had harbored since three weeks after the hurricane, when she traveled to Puerto Rico with other activists to film the aftermath of the storm and recovery effort. She became convinced after spending 10 days interviewing island residents that the death toll was much higher than what was being reported. “I believe what the people of Puerto Rico were telling me,” she says. “They saw it, they know what’s happening.”
The revised tally was published the same week ABC canceled Roseanne after its namesake star tweeted that if “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby” the result would be former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett. The major television networks – NBC, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News – devoted eight-and-a-half-hours to the fallout from Barr’s tweet and just 32 minutes to the Harvard study, according to a count by Media Matters. The reaction, galling as Clemente found it, didn’t exactly shock her.
“We’re not treated as United States citizens. It’s not new to me, so I’m not surprised that not only what happened in Puerto Rico was not covered post-Hurricane Maria, but that even the deaths of almost 5,000 people seem to not matter,” Clemente says. “And I even think this number of deaths has not moved the needle.”
If there’s any good to come out of the tragedy, though, Clemente, a long-time proponent for Puerto Rican independence, says it’s the fact that the apparent indifference of both the media and the government has stirred more interest in independence than she’s seen in the past.
“A lot of people in Puerto Rico were afraid what would happen without the United States government,” Clemente says. “Post-Hurricane Maria they have survived without the United States government. Everything that they were afraid of – especially older people in Puerto Rico: We can’t live without the United States government, we need this, we need to be a commonwealth – that was all proven wrong on September 19th.”
Those conversations, though, are going on as islanders steel themselves for the start of a new hurricane season. The electrical grid is still in tatters. “It doesn’t have to be a category 5, 4, 3, or even 2 to devastate Puerto Rico,” Clemente says. “The infrastructure is destroyed on the island, so one major [category] 1 hurricane with lots of rain could devastate the island irreparably. So, yeah, everyone is concerned. It’s hurricane season and it’s not going to take a hurricane of that size to bring Puerto Rico to its knees again.”