San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto visits for Energy Week

Credit: Evangeline Liu/ Credit: Evangeline Liu/

San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto was in Pittsburgh this week for Carnegie Mellon’s Energy Week, a three-day symposium consisting of career fairs, lectures, forums, and field trips.

These events included a student-only lecture Cruz, who graduated from Heinz College in 1986, gave to a packed room in Hamburg Hall. She became well-known in the days after Hurricane Maria for her outspokenness on national media pleading for more help for Puerto Rico — which made her a target of President Trump’s Twitter attacks. In the lecture, she recounted stories she witnessed during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and implored the audience to stand up for what they believe in and use the problem-solving skills they learn at Carnegie Mellon to make a difference for others.

Describing the situation in her city and much of the island in the weeks after Hurricane Maria, she told the audience “just imagine having no cell phones” — or at least, that the cell phones were useless except for taking pictures and writing notes. There was no electricity, communication, food, clean water, or medicine for six weeks.

In the post-Maria weeks, being a mayor in Puerto Rico included jobs such as pulling people out of floodwater infused with fecal matter at 4:57 a.m. Once, about two weeks after the storm hit, she saw a baby, who reached for the water bottle the mayor was holding because the baby was so desperate for a drink. She still gets tears in her eyes when she remembers the desperation that filled her city and the island at large. Recalling the devastation, she said, “I’ve seen people die because they don’t have medication; I’ve seen people dehydrated because people couldn’t reach them.” She insisted that it is not the smiles of the people she was able to help that stick to her; it is the desperate voices of those she couldn’t help that haunt her.

For many Puerto Ricans, help took too long to arrive; FEMA told her to be patient and go online to get help, which was rendered impossible by the fact that most of Puerto Rico had no power or communications at that time. Cruz found that President Trump’s tweets and comments didn’t help with the absurdity of the situation. She stated that “common sense is the least common of the senses in government” and that “we’re an island surrounded by lots of ocean water — someone said that once and we didn’t know until he said it,” in an apparent sarcastic reference to the President’s comments that it was hard to help Puerto Rico because there is lots of water around an island. The room erupted in laughter at these comments.

Critics claimed that she was trying to be political during the crisis; she countered that this was about saving lives. “Right now, about 100,000 people don’t have air conditioning,” she said, referring to the roughly five percent of islanders who still had no power, nearly seven months after Maria. “But, we don’t want power to have air conditioning. We want power so that we don’t have to use the light in our cell phones to operate on people. We want power so that we don’t have schools operating part time because they don’t have power.”

Faced with the overwhelming emergency, she and her administration broke the problem into small pieces — how to get food and water to people, how to keep insulin cold, how to keep breast milk fresh — which matched with the problem-solving culture at Carnegie Mellon that she often praised throughout the speech. The island had to completely rethink all procedures: “We can’t think out of the box because we have no box.” In this spirit, she unfolded what looked to be a small plastic pouch in her hand, which turned out to be a solar lamp that could flash (to signal SOS without using one’s voice) or function as a regular lamp that students could use to study when they were without power. She insisted that “technology must have a heart.”

A theme of the lecture was the hope that was inspired in her when she saw people helping each other, not just in Puerto Rico but also gestures of goodwill toward the island from complete strangers on the mainland. Cruz recounted the story of how one day in November, she received a postcard from someone in Ohio, with a one-dollar bill attached. Soon, she started getting other postcards with small amounts of cash attached to them, and finally packages from Amazon with solar components from strangers who wanted to help, including some from Texas, which had just been hit by Hurricane Harvey. Her heart surged with hope. “When others had failed, you hadn’t,” she said, her voice choked with emotion. “You saved lives because you gave us hope.”

A point she frequently reiterated throughout her speech was that we need to be fearless and unapologetic when standing up for what we believe in, although she clarified her point by saying to make sure that what we believe in is actually good for the majority of people. “Make sure you don’t let anybody, no matter the color of the house they live in, tell you that you don’t have the right to speak up. Or the address,” she told the audience, referring to the President again.

She implored the student audience to go out and make a difference in the world. “Don’t ever forget that you’re blessed to be educated in one of the finest institutions [in the world],” she said. Although one cannot possibly help every person, one should never let someone go without help because one didn’t try his or her best, or because one looked the other way. It may seem overwhelming, but she said, “change it one step at a time.” She asserted in her speech that we owe it to the world, to Pittsburgh, and most of all to ourselves, to do good.