Diaspora: the movement, migration or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland. That’s how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it. It’s one of those rarely used words that is almost poetic in its sound and rhythm, like ubiquitous and magnanimous – two words that also relate to the issue at hand.
The issue, of course, is the scattering of people away from Puerto Rico. The images of the apocalyptic leveling of this beautiful island where so many Americans are victims of the latest natural disaster born of nature’s wrath make one feel helpless about how to respond. How long would any of us who are so safe here in Pennsylvania go without water? Or power? Or passable roads? Or the gasoline needed to even get on those roads if they were passable? Cell phones can’t work without electricity, toilets can’t flush without water. Food doesn’t appear magically in grocery stores. Paychecks aren’t issued if you can’t get to work or the company has been shuttered. Then there is the looting. And the endless scams. Everything seems like a scam, everyone like a scammer. Much of it is, many are.
And your government lets you down, not just local government, but the federal government. Did we learn anything from previous disasters that embarrassed us by our failure to do what a country that can produce heat-seeking missiles, ct scans and computers the size of a watch ought to be able to do in its sleep? Or is this just another case of a president who can’t seem to share in others’ pain?
The question now is whether the Lehigh Valley will rise to the occasion. I know we can.
The forces of the diaspora are in place. People have begun to leave the island. And they should – it will be some time before life will return to normal. Given how broken the Puerto Rican economy was before the storm, I’m not even sure what “normal” means.
About 30% of our employees are Puerto Rican. Every single one to whom I have spoken tells me they have family on the island – not just distant cousins, but moms and dads, siblings, grandparents, grandchildren. And every single one of them expects some of them to leave the island. Every single one of them expects their homes to be host – some temporarily, some permanently – to those loved ones in desperate need. God bless them for loving them and for accepting their responsibility to be there for them when they are needed.
We can’t build a wall and make the Puerto Ricans pay for it. Puerto Ricans are Americans. They are us. How many will join the diaspora? There are tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans here in the Lehigh Valley. Do the math – if every one of them expects visitors, if not permanent guests, the Lehigh Valley will not be the same.
Imagine the implications: the kids need to enroll in the public and parochial schools; the parents will need jobs, the families housing. The health care system will surely be tested. Demand-pull inflation (too much demand chasing too few goods) will drive up the price of just about everything. Some won’t speak the language, some won’t have drivers’ licenses, most will need help, challenging an already under-funded human services system.
Problems could become ubiquitous (“existing or being everywhere at the same time”). Or, kind, talented, magnanimous (“showing or suggesting a lofty and courageous spirit”) problem-solvers could become actively engaged. We need the latter to prevent the former. At least temporarily, some rules will need to be relaxed; we will need social services to assist with relocation (insurance trouble-shooting, rent assistance, job placement services), we’ll need translators, people to help people get to stores or health care providers, more child care.
The good news is that the leadership is already stepping up. John Brown and Tom Muller, the county executives in Northampton and Lehigh counties, respectively, will be hosting a meeting of key decision makers to begin planning the effort to accommodate the migration and minimize the pain. Every one of us will be affected, every one of us can make a difference: we can urge our employers to make adjustments; we can be more flexible with our leases; we can contribute to relief efforts; when someone makes a judgmental comment that sounds intolerant we can remind them that ‘there but for the grace of God go I;’ we can pray.
As always, the choice is ours.
Alan L. Jennings
Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley