Some call Puerto Rico New York City’s sixth borough. While it is only an unofficial, figurative title, it speaks to the deep relationship between our region and the island. New York is home to one of the largest populations of Puerto Ricans on the mainland U.S. There are more than 1.5 million Puerto Ricans in New York and New Jersey.

Five years, almost to the day, after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, the all-too-familiar images of rising floodwaters and windswept streets from Hurricane Fiona are retraumatizing people here in our region — along with those living there themselves.

The images also prompt the question of how to help fellow Americans recover, even as reports on the death toll continue to emerge from Florida and North Carolina after Hurricane Ian made landfall there in late September.

“When it comes to Puerto Rico, somehow… people forget that these are Americans. These are Americans. What other state would this happen in that the entire country would not galvanize everything it can to make sure it’s happening OK,” said New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a trailblazer who was the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress in 1992 and has represented portions of Brooklyn ever since, said she warned federal officials a year ago that the island’s infrastructure — notably the electrical grid — was still too vulnerable to potential storms.

While the federal government announced a plan earlier this year to invest $12 billion to modernize Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, shifting to 100% renewable energy by 2050, she said the people living there need help now.

“We have a moral obligation. We, the federal government, has a colony in the Caribbean and therefore, with that, comes responsibility,” she said, pounding the podium to punctuate her point.

Bronx state Sen. Gustavo Rivera and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito each have a unique perspective on the responsibility that our region bears when it comes to Puerto Rico, and the role of Latino leaders in fulfilling it.

They both appeared on “The People’s Guide to Power,” WNYC’s midterm election series on Sunday, and spoke with host and senior politics reporter Brigid Bergin. Excerpts of those conversations are below. They have been edited for clarity.

Brigid Bergin: Mayor Eric Adams called Puerto Rico New York City's sixth borough. Can you talk about that idea? Why would someone call Puerto Rico the sixth borough?"

Bronx state Sen. Gustavo Rivera: There's a deep connection between Puerto Ricans here in the United States, period, but certainly here in New York. It was one of the places that Puerto Ricans started out in when they left the island, and they came to work, to prosper, to look for a better future for themselves.

Many of them came to New York and they've been established here for a while. The political power structure as far as Latinos are concerned, Puerto Ricans were kind of the first to break through. I've been in office for just over a decade. But there are folks that have been in office for decades or have been around for decades.

So there's a connection between folks there and here and I don't necessarily envision that changing anytime soon.

What do you think of trips like the one we just talked about — visits to the island after a disaster? Do they help bring real visibility to what's needed there? We talked about how President [Joe] Biden is traveling there Monday, Oct. 3. I know you made some trips with former Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo after Hurricane Maria.

I did, but I also traveled on my own. The first thing I'll say as far as many of these trips certainly bring in attention to the plight of folks. I'm always wary of big trips with elected officials. My concern first is: is this going to soak resources from the island when it's most needed?

It's why a couple of years ago when Hurricane Maria happened we canceled the Somos conference. There's a conference that happens every November in Puerto Rico that is a follow-up to a conference that happens in March or April in Albany.

It sounds like what you're saying is it helps inform your ability to answer that question: How can we help?

Precisely. Speaking as somebody who was born and raised there, (I no longer live there. I have friends who are there. Most of my immediate family has moved to Florida now), but I think that our priority needs to be: how do we find organizations on the ground, Puerto Rican-led organizations that have a presence on the ground, that have credibility on the ground, that are already have been doing the work of both power building, literally? The one that comes to mind immediately is Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico that has quite literally been building power structures. They actually, after Hurricane Maria, were one of the places because they had solar power infrastructure that they had been building for over a decade, they were one of the only places on the island that was immediately able to have power back on immediately.

But they're also building power in people because they are built by Puerto Ricans for Puerto Ricans and have an agenda that is beyond disaster relief and for the long-term benefit of the island. That's what we have to do. We need to find organizations that are doing work on the ground that are Puerto Rican-led.

Here in our region, Puerto Ricans made up the largest share of the city's Latino community for years. Now it's Dominicans, along with so many other groups that make up the broader Latino community. But can you talk a little bit about some of the dynamics at play between Puerto Ricans and this broader Latino community?

In the case of Puerto Ricans, there's a big difference between the Puerto Rican community and any other Latin American country, whether it's the Dominican Republic, Mexico, or any Central American country.

We are [U.S.] citizens. When we were born in Puerto Rico, I was a citizen by birth. When I came to New York, I came originally in 1998 to do a degree in political science. I didn't have to do anything regarding immigration. Even in the racist political times in which Puerto Ricans broke through, it was a little easier because we didn't have to deal with the citizenship issue.

Over the years, as communities have grown — and certainly the Dominican community is a perfect example — they have grown not only numerically, but more generations have been born here. They've kind of broken through and established themselves politically.

But there has been a challenge to develop a broader pan-Latino agenda, for lack of a better term. I'm one of the most senior Latinos in the entire state Legislature 12 years after being elected. There's a term, Godfather, about the way that many people got into politics as somebody kind of throws their arm over them and says like, “Hey, I'm going to bring you in, et cetera.”

Certainly in Latino circles, for a long time, that's just how it happened. You were in a circle. You were either a family member of an elected official or a friend of an elected official, and you just were in the circle and all of a sudden you got elected to a little district leader post or City Council.

I came in completely outside of that by sheer luck and hard work, but then found myself now it's 12 years later, I'm one of the most senior members and I'm kind of scratching my head and being like, “How can we actually address this? How can we actually build a broader Latino agenda?”

It's difficult sometimes when you have a lot of folks fighting for their own fiefdoms in different places.

Sen. Rivera, does achieving elected office translate into broader community engagement? I mentioned Congresswoman Velázquez earlier, first Puerto Rican woman elected in 1992, and of course there's also Congressman Adriano Espaillat, the first Dominican elected, but not until 2016. Has the ability to achieve elected office translated into real engagement?

Depends how you define engagement. I certainly think both Congressmember Velázquez and, and Congressmember Espaillat are history makers. I certainly can say that both are friends, and I look specifically up to Congresswoman Velázquez quite a bit since she's been “la luchadora” (a fighter) for a long time. Espaillat and I actually served together in the Senate. Now he is my congressmember.

As far as civic engagement, it sometimes does not translate.

We do the work in our particular communities to make sure that we get re-elected. Certainly they both have been successful in doing that.

You talked about the kind of the struggle because people are focused on their own fiefdoms. You are certainly someone who has operated outside of the Bronx machine. I'm wondering if you want to elaborate a little bit on what you mean when you say that?

We need to talk about nepotism. This is certainly not just for the Latino or the Puerto Rican community.

I have a real issue with nepotism because it completely stunts any type of real leadership building. When you extend it to an immediate circle of friends who are loyal to that particular structure, that doesn't build broader power.

When it comes to Puerto Rico, somehow… people forget that these are Americans.
New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams

Melissa Mark-Viverito was the first Latina elected City Council speaker, a citywide post. She used it to raise the visibility of issues like criminal justice reform, as the first to call for the closure of Rikers Island. She also focused on bringing greater support to immigrant New Yorkers with funding for legal services and programs like IDNYC, the city’s municipal identification card.

Brigid Bergin: Speaker, I know you have family in Puerto Rico now. I'm wondering what has the recovery been like?

Melissa Mark-Viverito: Lackluster, to put it mildly. It is really an affront that we continue to be repeating the mistakes of the past. You think that with prior circumstances like Hurricane Maria, we would've learned a lesson.

I've been saying that this is the living embodiment of insanity. Basically, going through the same motions and same actions over and over again expecting a different result. The fact that we have portions of the island that are still 40%, 50% without electricity, other parts, maybe 20%. We have the president coming tomorrow (Monday) to visit. It is just unacceptable, right?

There are billions of dollars in the pipeline that were designated after Hurricane Maria. Some of us who were advocating for Puerto Rico are asking for that money to be applied toward Fiona relief efforts.

When we speak specifically about the infrastructure and the grid and the electricity, that the money be invested solely in renewable sources. That's the only way that we're going to overcome this reality in Puerto Rico: by supporting renewable sources of energy. There have been many coalitions on the ground, community-based, community-led, that have provided very tangible solutions on how to move forward.

The reality though is that the government, whether it's the central government of Puerto Rico or whether it's the federal government, have not invested in those community-led and community-sponsored solutions. That is what we need. We need the voices of the people to be at the decision-making table. We have the voices, we have the solutions. And so it is about Congress giving us the power because we have the tools, right? When I say power, I'm talking about the money. Money needs to be directly invested in these community-led responses.

We need to be inspired. We need to be given hope. When we elect people to office as Latinos, as Puerto Ricans particularly, I do expect them to be in front of those mics.
Melissa Mark-Viverito, former City Council speaker

My mother lives in Puerto Rico. My mother is aging. So the issues with Puerto Rico are very, very important to me. But when you talk about localizing this, this is why leadership matters.

This is why we need our public officials in office to be visible. Not only talking about working behind the scenes, no. We need visibility in using our voice and our platform to talk about the injustice and the inequity that exists.

We need to be inspired. We need to be given hope. When we elect people to office as Latinos, as Puerto Ricans particularly, I do expect them to be in front of those mics. I do expect them to be using their platform to speak about the injustice that we're living in Puerto Rico, because the federal government has a role to play. We can talk about what kind of change is needed at the federal level to try to bring justice to Puerto Rico.

When we talk about the lack of Latino leadership that is elected coalescing, utilizing their voice, to talk about the fact that for the first time in how many mayoral administrations this mayor did not select a Latino deputy mayor when we're 30% of the city of New York; to say that the state Democratic Party must have Latinos in executive leadership, which they do not, then we can't be taken seriously as a community.

These levels of power need to reflect our reality as a community in this city. I cannot be taken seriously and others cannot be taken seriously if our leadership is not flexing that political muscle on our behalf.

Tune in next Sunday at noon on WNYC for the next episode of “The People’s Guide to Power,” where we explore the power of money in politics with a closer look at public campaign financing in the city and soon NY state. Call and join us live at 212-433-WNYC, that’s 212-433-9692.