Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist who has written for The Nation, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Salon, Mother Jones, Foreign Policy, and other publications.
In San Juan, an improvised memorial has become the focal point for grief and anger after the publication of a new, much higher estimated death count.
SAN JUAN—Walking the rows of shoes—favorite slippers, old Army boots, gold stilettos—it’s the baby shoes that stop you cold.
Last Friday, shoes began to fill a plaza opposite Puerto Rico’s Capitol building, and by Sunday morning, there were more than 3,000 pairs, a growing memorial to the roughly 4,645 people estimated to have died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. That estimate, published last week in a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, dwarfs the official death toll of 64. (The figure 4,645 is the statistical midpoint of the researchers’ range, from almost 800 to close to 8,500 people.)
Many of the shoes in the plaza contain flowers or lie beside handwritten notes and photos of the loved ones who wore down the soles. Maria was hardest on the elderly, the demographic most susceptible to the storm’s ravages and the isolation and deprivations that followed. The baby shoes are stark reminders that infants, too, were vulnerable, and many got sick from bacterial infections and unclean water in the weeks after Maria’s landfall.
“You see a lot of letters from adults to their dead parents, but also from parents to children as young as a month old,” said Rafael Acevedo, an author and poet who first proposed a memorial on Facebook hours after the publication of the revised casualty count. Together with a friend, Gloravel Delgado, Acevedo struck upon the idea of bringing victims’ shoes to the square just beyond the marble columns of the Capitol steps. The collection, organized in lines and numbered, holds echoes of both the piles of shoes and eyeglasses at Auschwitz and the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
“We always knew the official count of 64 was ridiculous, and that even the revised number is approximate, a metaphor. But we knew we had to do something to memorialize them and show our respect,” said Acevedo. “The plaza is a public space for people to talk, to come and share thoughts and stories. We arrived on Friday with a few hundred slips of paper to count and tag the shoes. There are now more than 3,000, and it’s growing every hour. We didn’t expect this level of response.”
The site of the memorial represents a rebuke to the governments in San Juan and Washington, D.C., which few Puerto Ricans believe have been honest with the public. The Puerto Rico Department of Health has published little data on Maria’s impacts on health and mortality, and two lawsuits are pending against it and other government agencies. (The suits have been filed by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism and the Institute of Statistics.)
Widespread anger with the government manifested on Sunday, as the late morning began to turn hot under a clear blue sky. A black SUV containing Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló, his wife, and their two children pulled up to the plaza. When the first family emerged with two bodyguards, they were met by cold stares and silence.
The only visitor to address Rosselló was a heckler in a t-shirt declaring #PalCarajoLaJunta, a crude reference to the island’s Financial Oversight and Management Board, created by Congress in 2016 in response to the island’s debt crisis. “This charlatan dares to come here?” he yelled. “He’s the one who said 64 people died, and he shows up now for a photo op? It’s an outrage.”
The presence of First Lady Beatriz Rosselló was also controversial. Last week, when news of the memorial began to gain traction on social media, the governor’s wife tweeted that if the organizers wanted to collect shoes for children, they should contact her charity. Her tweet was criticized as insensitive.
Asked his thoughts on the memorial, the governor told CityLab, “We respect demonstrations as long as they are kept peaceful. I feel the pain of all the people that we lost, whether it is one or 1,000. I want to make sure that we are prepared for the future so these deaths are not in vain.”
As for whether he accepts the estimates in the NEJM report, written by researchers at Harvard University and other institutions, Rosselló demurred. He said he was waiting for the findings of a forthcoming study being conducted by researchers at George Washington University. “We have to finish the process [of collecting] good information,” he said. “The best way we can honor the deceased is to guarantee that we will be better prepared for the future.”
Public sentiment on the island generally runs against faith that government policies are helping prepare for that future, storms or no storms. To help Puerto Rico get out from billions of dollars of debt, in April, the oversight board approved a fiscal plan defined by sharp austerity measures. Rosselló has rejected its pension and labor reforms but promoted others, including privatizing the territory’s public power utility and closing 283 schools.
“In a context of poverty, the governor is making laws that hurt workers and leave many people even more vulnerable,” argued Acevedo, the author and memorial organizer. “His visit here today is a cynical response to the backlash against him and his wife. He has no real interest in what we’re talking about here.”
Of the dozen or so people gathered around Acevedo to hear him speak, no one disagreed.