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Puerto Rico Again

Anti-discrimination laws protect those living with HIV/AIDS —yet why are positive children still fighting to go to school?

Patricia Nell Warren's Left Field

As I write this column, it is Hispanic Heritage Month. The celebration focuses on thirty-five million Americans who identify as having ethnic or cultural ties with Spanish-speaking countries elsewhere in our hemisphere. They include the nearly four million Puerto Ricans who live in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and another four million-plus recent immigrants or descendants of immigrants who left Puerto Rico to live on the U.S. mainland.

As a group, numerically speaking, Puerto Ricans should loom large in U.S. health and AIDS policy. Yet the four million in the Commonwealth live in a political limbo. Their head of state is the President of the U.S., but they have very limited representation in Congress, and cannot vote in federal elections. Hence a festering situation where Puerto Rican healthcare, including AIDS care, has decayed even more disastrously than on the mainland. Indeed, in the upcoming Presidential election, as the future of U.S. healthcare hangs in the balance, the Commonwealth will have no voice in voting for a candidate who might make things better.

Over the years, while writing for A&U, I’ve often covered the explosive public-health uproars in Puerto Rico, and do interviews with AIDS activists there. These explosions can happen in part because few non-Hispanic Americans give a moment’s thought to Puerto Rico, unless they happen to disembark in San Juan for a nice day of tourism during a Caribbean cruise. Even many in our government have no real awareness of Puerto Rico’s political or social concerns—including protests over U.S. military use of the island of Vieques as a bombing range. As Guillermo Chacon, vice president of the Latino Commission on AIDS, told USA Today: “One of the most difficult things is getting the mainland to recognize Puerto Rico as being part of the country.”

Many Puerto Ricans react to Yanqui indifference and condescension by feeling unsure whether they would benefit by becoming the fifty-first state. In their 1998 election, a high voter turnout sent the message: A majority of voters still prefer to remain a commonwealth.

In a column earlier this year, I wrote about Puerto Rico’s current crisis of political corruption and breakdown of health services, as described to me by AIDS activist José Colón and other friends of mine. Paradoxically, the disintegration of AIDS treatment networks is occurring amid the Commonwealth’s development of pharmaceutical manufacturing. In my opinion, the Puerto Rican breakdown is a direct reflection of—and extension of—the extreme political corruption and breakdown of health services on the U.S. mainland.

Indeed, our bureaucrats in Washington are so busy dealing with their own weekly scandals that they evidently can’t be bothered with scandals in Puerto Rico. For example, in 1998, when the first of the big AIDS corruption scandals burst into view, the FBI made a wave of arrests at the San Juan AIDS Institute. Eventually twelve people went to prison for embezzling millions of dollars in Ryan White monies. Yet it had taken several years of complaints to Congress by José Colón and his activist group, before Foggy Bottom paid any attention to these crimes, which hurt the lives and health of thousands of Puerto Ricans. The trials were mostly ignored by mainland media.

The most recent AIDS scandal is happening in the city of Juana Díaz, where some school authorities seem to be clueless about the Civil Rights Act and the Disabilities Act. These federal U.S. laws apply in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities, including HIV-positive children. Yet schoolgirl Digna Santiago Cruz and her three siblings were kept from enrolling in public school because all four are HIV-positive. School superintendent Algarín said that the kids “were too infected with HIV” to go to school.

Eighteen-year-old Digna turned out to be a tiger whose tail you don’t want to pull. With support from her family and local activists, she publicly demanded to be enrolled. Two of the four children are now in school, but they are reportedly still being discriminated against. Colón tells me that one of the younger girls was ordered by the teacher to sit outside the classroom. According to the San Juan Star, Education secretary Rafael Aragunde has launched an investigation and expressed outrage over what happened.
Colón asks: “Why is this happening again in Puerto Rico when Congress passed the Ryan White CARE Act to honor a student from Kokomo, Indiana, who, just as Digna is doing now, fought his way into the classroom?”

Good question. And it seems to me, as Hispanic Heritage Month comes and goes, that our government needs to move past paying lip service to the concept, and get proactive about their responsibilities and obligations to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Anyone who wants to help the Cruz children in their legal fight can send donations to their mother, Mrs. Delia Cruz, at: HC-Box 5, PO Box 5394, Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico 00795.

Author of fiction bestsellers and provocative commentary, Patricia Nell Warren has her writings archived at www.patricianellwarren.com. Reach her by e-mail at pnw@patricianellwarren.com.

October 2007

Copyright (c) 2007 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.