2018 / Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto
Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, is the 2018 recipient of the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.
When Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September 2017, Yulín made frequent appearances on national and international television. She pleaded for help, criticized Federal aid efforts, and accused Donald Trump and his administration of “killing us with inefficiency.”
In response, on Twitter, Trump accused Yulín of poor leadership and suggested that Democrats had told her to badmouth him.
In the wake of the storm, Yulín took to the streets to aid her neighbors, assess their needs, and assist in the cleanup. When acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke called the federal response “a good news story,” Yulín had harsh words.
“Dammit, this is not a good news story,” Yulín said. “This is a ‘people are dying’ story. It’s a life or death story.”
Since then, Yulín has remained an outspoken critic who has helped to keep focus on Puerto Rico, where hundreds of thousands of people still lack power. When questioned about her motivations to speak out, she says: “This is not about politics; it is about saving lives.”
Yulín, who was born and raised in San Juan, moved to the United States to complete her Bachelor’s degree at Boston University and her Master’s at Carnegie Mellon. She worked as a human resources director at several companies and at the U.S. Treasury Department.
She returned to Puerto Rico and entered politics in 1992, becoming an advisor to Sila María Calderón, a San Juan Mayor who later became Puerto Rico’s only female governor. Yulín became involved in the Popular Democratic Party in 2003, and was elected president of its women’s organization.
In 2008, Yulín won a seat in Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives. Four years later she was elected Mayor of San Juan after a short, seven month-long campaign, defeating a three-term incumbent by relying on a coalition of students, unions, feminists, immigrants, and LGBT voters.
With Yulín as Mayor, San Juan has become the first and only municipality in Puerto Rico where employees have the right to collective bargaining, and it has taken steps toward a municipal version of universal health care. Under her administration, San Juan is now the only municipality with a transgender health clinic and also with an aquatic therapy clinic.
Yulín firmly believes that community empowerment strengthens the democratic process, and that embracing difference can enrich our lives.
As a result of her tireless commitment to the people of San Juan and Puerto Rico in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, Yulín has received various recognitions and awards including the Martin Luther King Center’s Humanitarian Leadership Award in 2018, the Antonio Villaraigosa Leadership Award in 2018, and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation Humanitarian Award in 2017. She was also nominated by People en Español as one of the 50 most Powerful Women in 2017, and Time magazine chose her as candidate for Person of the Year recognition in 2017.
2018 Prize for Truth-Telling Speeches
DAMON SILVERS: Good afternoon. I’m really sort of overwhelmed by being in this room with these people. And before I speak about one of the people who overwhelms me, whom I’ve been honored to introduce, I just want to say, you know, when I was a boy, and as you can see, that was a while ago—When I was a boy, and I would come home from school, my mother would talk to me about, like, who you should emulate. And there’s people in this room that she mentioned to me, Daniel Elsberg and—[applause]—I don’t recall her mentioning Ron Ridenhour’s name. But I remember her talking about the man in the helicopter door. And clearly, we are here gathered to commemorate those people. So you know, the people who are in this room shaped me. And so I just want to note that.
Secondly, I want to urge you to go to the event that the young man from Richard Montgomery High School asked you to attend tomorrow at 3:30 at the White House. My daughter Rosie will be there. And we should all be there too.
So now to turn to, really, what I was asked to talk about. This is, this prize is called the Truth-Telling Prize. And as I was looking through the book, I realized something about it, which is that it has been awarded largely to professionals. Meaning people like military officers, analysts, people who had a kind of a calling and a duty that they found compelled them to take enormous risks on behalf of what they felt was right.
It’s never been awarded to an elected official. [laughter] It’s never been awarded to an elected official until today. And I think that that is a powerful, powerful thing, because we heard earlier this afternoon about the notion that one good man—and I know that that Emerson quote—can make all the difference. But I think it’s really much more powerful, in the sense, when one good woman, whom I’m about to introduce, is able to embody and encourage the best in a lot of people.
And this type of courage and truth-telling in an elected official is fundamentally about moving the collective, and about defining our society, and answering the question in the affirmative, that I think we often are asking today, are we a good country? When an elected official can lead and be the source of truth-telling, we are answering that question in the affirmative.
Now Mayor Carmen Yulín de la Cruz, who has always said to me, whenever I see her, “That’s Yulín. That’s Yulín. That’s not Mayor. That’s not Mayor de la Cruz,” she is a truth-teller, I think, in a way known to all of you. I think pretty much everyone in this room has seen Yulín on TV, telling the truth about the agony of Puerto Rico. And I would just say to you that remember, that agony is ongoing. It’s ongoing. There are people without water and without power in Puerto Rico today, who haven’t had it since the storm. And a fiscal plan is about to be imposed, literally within the next—within hours on the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, that will impoverish people least able to be impoverished, and will pay the people who least deserve to be paid.
So we’ve got to understand, that this is ongoing. But that, from the beginning, Yulín was the truth-teller about this. Now that’s what we were shown on TV. Now I’m here, I think, because I can say something firsthand. Not something I saw on TV, but something firsthand about who Yulín is and what she did.
We had—And this, again, comes back to this point of being our collective better selves. Really, the 16 million people of the labor movement, many of whom are members of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, desperately wanted to help, and could not figure out how. We had hundreds of people who were ready to drop everything in their lives and go to Puerto Rico. We had an airplane, kindly donated by United Airlines, to get them there. But we faced the fundamental problem of, what will happen when they get there? And anyone involved in disaster relief can tell you, this is the basic problem. If you go into a disaster and you don’t have an entry point, then you’re adding to the problem.
Yulín and her team worked with us to create the entry point. They made it possible for those 300 people, nurses, doctors, truck drivers, electricians, crane operators, experts at picking up debris—there’s a lot of debris to pick up in Puerto Rico—Yulín made it possible for them to be their better selves. For the young man from Fort Wayne, Indiana who worked in a truck factory, who said to me, “I have never felt better about myself in my entire life when I got off the plane back from Puerto Rico.” And for the electricians who I watched turn on the generator that powered the senior citizen’s home five miles out of San Juan two weeks after the storm, so that it was possible in bright lights to tend the wounds of people who were literally bleeding, and had been bleeding for two weeks. Yulín made that possible, personally. She was on the phone, working out the details of how to get people down there. But that is not all.
When we arrived in San Juan, we came into a situation that you should pray you never find yourself in. Which is that we were in a major metropolitan area where there was no water. Now, now, what does that mean? It’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to be in such a place. And we were the favored few, because we were in this compound where there was a warehouse full of water. But even so, there were all kinds of people controlling it, and all this kind of stuff. And we had 300 people who had been flying all day and had no water. How do we get the water?
We found Mayor Yulín, who was living in the warehouse, with her family, and was sitting with her aides, at midnight. And she had been doing that for two weeks. We had just showed up. She had been in there for two weeks. We found Mayor Yulín. She was working at midnight in the warehouse. And she and I personally pulled the water pallets out of the warehouse, and whatever we could find in these freezer trucks, and handed it out to people.
Now we just happened to be there that night. This person we’re about to give this award to, she had been doing that round the clock, until we showed up. And I believe she’s probably been doing it since. There were no cameras. There was nobody there. It was just us, in the middle of the night, pulling pallets out of a freezer truck. That is the person that I am honored to introduce to receive the Truth-Telling Prize.
MAYOR CARMEN YULÍN CRUZ SOTO: I was at home cleaning my toilet—I do my own cleaning—when I got this call telling me that I was to receive the Ron Ridenhour Award for Truth-Telling. And I thought, “This has got to be a joke.” And I remember saying, “Look, you know. I only did what I had to do.” I am the great granddaughter of a sugarcane plantation worker. My grandmother worked in a cafeteria at night in New York City, so that my father could eat there during the day. So I am two generations removed from extreme poverty.
So I thought, “This isn’t special. You do what you have to do when the time calls for it.” And then I remembered, I was a politician. [laughter] And I thought, “Well, maybe this is somewhat strange.” And then I remembered I was five feet tall. And I was a woman. And I was a woman of color.
So you see, sooner or later, we all have a choice to make in life. We either tell the truth and no matter what the consequences, or we stand down and are quieted. With that silence, we profoundly participate in a complicity for the absolution of reprehensible acts. That was precisely what I had to do. I had a choice to tell the truth after two hurricanes, no one, two hurricanes, Irma and Maria, devastated the Island Nation of Puerto Rico.
I raised my voice in an effort to bring attention to the humanitarian crisis brought upon by the neglect displayed, by a man that does not get it. It isn’t that he can’t get it, it’s that he does not get it. Playing along would have meant giving way to a false narrative, thus I told, for some, the inconvenient truth. We were dying. And they were killing us with the bureaucracy and their inefficiency.
And so the simple act of truth-telling brought me to you today. Well the American people opened their hearts, and reminded us, time and time again, that we weren’t alone. That our lives mattered. That we weren’t going to be dismissed and forgotten. The President of the United States and the federal government failed the people of Puerto Rico. And people died because of that.
Faced by their inescapable inefficiency, the Trump administration engaged in an attempt to cover up their failed efforts. Some went so far as to call the Puerto Rican situation “a good news story,” in an attempt to change the narrative. There were actually some Pentagon papers written, emails sent to a reporter whose name, unfortunately now, I forget, stating that the Mayor of Puerto Rico continues to be a damp on us trying to change the narrative, and stating that only the massacre in Las Vegas seemed to have changed the focus, made the implication that lives could be traded from one place to another, that that’s going to be looked at as a way of covering up the inefficiency of the very people that were supposed to be there to help.
I didn’t know about Mr. Ron Ridenhour either. But I did what every person in this room does a couple of times a day, I Googled. And I read his letter. And I couldn’t believe the similarities, from 1969 to 2018. In his letter, Mr. Ridenhour states, “After hearing this account, I couldn’t quite accept it.” So after seeing the pain in people’s eyes, after seeing the women that had to hold onto a rope to go from one side of the river to another, just to get a nebulizer, so that their children would not die of an asthma attack, seeing the hunger and the thirst of elderly people who were waving from outside their homes, just asking for somebody to help. But I had never seen poverty like that before. I’d seen it here, but I’d never felt it here.
Because I had a grandmother that, as small as she was, she had a huge heart. And she sheltered me from that. And she went to school, NYU, and Columbia University, and made sure that education gave me a future. So there’s teachers in here. Never give up the fight. Never. So my grandmother taught me, because I was small, I had to run a little faster or hit a little harder, speak a little louder. And louder I spoke.
So, after seeing all of that, I too couldn’t quite accept it. So I did what I had to do, in the hopes that somebody would hear us. And somebody would help us. And the suffering and the violation of our human rights would end. And I have to thank the AFL-CIO and the 327—I know exactly the amount—of workers and machinists, electricians, plumbers, doctors, medics, teamsters. And no, that was the Che Guevara cap that I was wearing, it was an International Association of Machinists cap, which I will wear forever in the honor of men and women that left their homes just to tell us that our lives mattered.
I have often been asked why I believe this happened. You see, it is difficult to understand that a country that can put a man in the moon 238,900 miles away, cannot fathom the logistics to take help to men, women, and children, 1,000 miles from its coast, because as it was said, the logistical challenges were unsurmounted. Well maybe from Mar-A-Lago Golf Course they were unsurmountable. [applause]
So the neglect and the deaths that followed will forever be etched in all of our memories. For you can kill with a weapon, as was done in My Lai, or you can kill with neglect. For an inaction produced by neglect and injustice can also be considered an act of aggression. Perhaps it was too easy for President Trump and his administration to disregard our lives, because we are a territory, a colony of the United States. But we know better. The American people have not forsaken us. And they have done what some in the federal government have been unable to do. And they have helped us understand that we no longer have to consent to be treated like less.
Maria has unmasked many truths. One is that Puerto Rico’s status, its colonial status must change into a dignified relationship, one that sets us in a path of mutual dignity and respect. Now don’t let the lights in San Juan fool you. Just today, again, the entire island of Puerto Rico is without power. And it’s going to take about three days to get the power back on. Last week, again, two days, the entire island without power. And so it has come to pass that every so many weeks, and it always seems to be the same line, the line that was supposedly replaced by Whitefish Corporation. Something fishy there, right?
So I humbly accept this recognition on behalf of the thousands of Puerto Ricans that still have no electricity seven months after Irma and Maria, on behalf of the parents, teachers, and children who today are taking to the streets to defend their communities by protesting against the closing of their schools, as their local government shows disregard for public education. More than 300 schools are going to be closed, and communities are going to be ripped apart.
I accept it on behalf of the university students who are fighting to keep campuses open, and their tuition affordable as the fiscal control board tells us that we have to close half of the university campuses in Puerto Rico. On behalf of the elderly who will soon see their pensions reduced as part of a long list of austerity measures imposed on us by a fiscal control board that, without a doubt, is evidence of Puerto Rico’s political subordination, and which existence must come to an end.
But also, I accept this award on behalf of the close to 500,000 Puerto Ricans that have had to leave Puerto Rico to survive. Families have been ripped apart because conditions at home are not what they should be. And it makes you mad. And I’m more comfortable in tactical boots and jeans and a t-shirt, but I got all dressed up today, just to ask you, ask you to help us, and continue. Repeating the voices of help, because people are still dying. People cannot plug themselves to their respirators, because the amount of diesel that it takes, and the money that it takes to get them running just is not enough. We don’t have enough. It’s not like what the President said, we want things to be done for ourselves. We want to be able to do things for ourselves.
And we are so grateful for so many in this room that have hugged me and said, “I went down to Puerto Rico this day and that day.” And so grateful for the teachers and the unions and the AFL-CIO workers. But we still need your help. We must continue to be relentless and unapologetic about telling the truth and asserting our right to be treated, all of our rights, to be treated with dignity.
But most of all, I must continue to tell the truth, no matter what they say, no matter who says it, no matter the color of the house where they live in. Because, you see, the truth is, we don’t even know, as of today, how many people have died. And we have to honor the lives of the roughly more than 1,000 Puerto Ricans who died as a result of a botched effort, at the hands of an administration who is mostly concerned about the narrative and the political implications.
I ask you to help me further the message. The political subordination and financial domination which allowed this injustice and neglect to occur must come to an end. I humbly ask you to help us further our endeavor. I am committed to continue to tell the truth in order to save lives. Because after all, my grandmother taught me that you never start a fight, but you never, never, never leave one unfinished. Thank you very much.