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A San Juan mayor visits — tears and smiles ensue

September 8, 2018

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto strolled into the RAICES meeting room during her recent visit to San Antonio and, after greeting various staffers, headed straight for the whiteboard.

Attorneys of the immigration nonprofit glanced at one another, confused, as she drew a small, green smiley face before spinning around and sitting down at the long meeting table, a smile on her face.

Just 15 minutes later, the whimsical mayor had her head in her hands, her glasses cast aside.

She was sobbing.

“Sorry,” she said, laying a makeup-stained paper towel back down on the table. “We need to break down every once in a while to gain more strength.”

On the screen in front of her was the still image of a mother who had been separated from her children at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“This is our disaster, here in South Texas,” said Jonathan Ryan, RAICES’ executive director.

The San Antonio Association of Hispanic Journalists, a professional group I belong to, invited the Puerto Rican mayor to attend our annual gala last month, and she spent a few days in San Antonio afterward meeting with local agencies, mostly immigration-focused.

Cruz was both reactive and reflective in these meetings, alternating between surrendering to the grief she bears from the suffering of others and articulating questions showing she had clearly done her research. And then there was the silliness — the dancing, the drawing on whiteboards, the teasing of her staffers.

She was alternately fierce and tender. As quick as she was to bring up her armor and fire complaints and criticisms, she was just as quick to surrender to her tears, her vulnerability as commanding as her outrage.

SAAHJ honored her with its Corazon de Oro Award for her work in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which wreaked devastation on the island on Sept. 20 of last year, plunging it into darkness and tearing its already tenuous economy into shreds.

Cruz, 55, was a beacon of hope for many amid the chaos of the long, drawn-out recovery process fraught with corruption and partisan bickering. A staunch critic of President Donald Trump and the federal government’s response in Puerto Rico’s recovery, the mayor is a member of the Popular Democratic Party in Puerto Rico, supporting the island’s current status as opposed to statehood.

“I haven’t slept a full night since September 20th. We toss and turn,” she said. “Because it isn’t the ones that we helped that stay with you. It’s the ones that you couldn’t help that stay with you. It’s the ones that you know fell through the crack and literally died that stay with you. Those are the ones that haunt you at night — those faces that you will never see.”

Cruz met with staffers at Catholic Charities of San Antonio, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, RAICES, a group of Dreamers and members of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition. She also dined at Paramour with local leaders, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, former Mayors Julián Castro and Henry Cisneros and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro.

During her stay she added several friendship bracelets to a quirky, colorful collection on her left wrist. Two were slipped onto her wrist by unaccompanied minors — immigrant children she met at Mission Concepción during Sunday Mass.

Another bracelet was from DACA student Andrea Fernandez, 22, who was one of five she met during her stay.

Cruz doesn’t know the DACA experience firsthand — Puerto Ricans are American citizens, after all — but she does know the experience of being a person of color who comes from a blue-collar family that had to work hard so she could have a better life.

She is the great-granddaughter of a sugar plantation worker, and her grandmother grew up poor, working in a cafeteria so her father could eat. It’s something she frequently brings up, reminding others she does not take them for granted.

In a tearful meeting with Cruz, Fernandez told her she’d always known she was undocumented. The UTSA student worries a little about her family’s legal status. And she worries about her own status in the DACA program, which the Trump administration has threatened to end.

Fernandez will be getting her public policy degree from University of Texas at San Antonio this December and won an internship in D.C. at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute this fall.

“I have barely given an inch in the hundreds of miles those people have given to the movement, and my hope is to do more,” Fernandez said. “I always say I was blessed with a lot of luck.”

But Cruz interrupted.

“You’re not lucky. Stop saying that, that belittles you,” she said. “You worked hard, and your parents worked hard.”

Cruz’s voice grew stronger, impassioned.

“The world will make you feel less, all the time. And if you’re a woman they’ll make you feel less. And if you’re a Latina woman they’ll try to make you feel even less. Don’t let the world tell you you’re lucky — you’re not.”

An hour later, the meeting was over and Fernandez approached Cruz. She took a light blue bracelet off her wrist and slid it onto that of her new role model.

And there, Cruz said, it will stay.

“They remind me of the battles and struggles that have to be continued,” she said later of her bracelets. “We endure because the cause is larger than our weaknesses.”

Silvia Foster-Frau is a San Antonio Express-News staff writer, covering immigration.

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