After Puerto Rico suffered its most devastating hurricane in nearly a century, only to be put on the back burner for aid and assistance by the Trump administration, a diminutive, combative local official became the globally known face of the island’s plight.
Carmen Yulín Cruz, the 54-year-old mayor of San Juan, landed in the spotlight when she stared down insults (“such poor leadership”) and Twitter disdain from President Donald Trump in the days after Hurricane Maria slammed the island in late September. While he jetted in two weeks after the fact for a few hours to toss rolls of paper towels at people without water or power, Cruz worked continuously to organize and distribute relief supplies. “This is about saving lives — it’s not about politics,” she told Trump when they met.
With sustained winds reaching 155 miles per hour at landfall, Hurricane Maria plastered Puerto Rico, leaving much of the island without electricity or clean water for weeks.
At least 55 people died in the storm, though Cruz has said the death toll could easily be 10 times that number, given that hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans had trouble getting clean water or medical care even weeks after the storm. An island already dealing with a wheezing economy and billions of dollars in debt now faces the challenge of rebuilding everything from its power grid to its agricultural sector.
And as Trump officials have been downplaying that stark reality since the storm first hit, Cruz has been there to counter. When Department of Homeland Security officials commented on the pace of disaster assistance, calling it a “good news story,” Cruz shot back in a live news broadcast on CNN: “Damn it, this is not a good news story. This is a ‘people are dying’ story. This is a life-or-death story.” When Trump gave himself a “10” in handling the disaster response, she retorted: maybe 10 out of 100.
She kept up her criticism of the administration’s disaster response in the weeks after the storm, lambasting a tiny firm with political connections to the Trump cabinet that somehow landed a no-bid $300 million contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid. (That repaired grid later failed.) When she came to Washington in early November to testify on the halfhearted federal recovery effort, congressional Republicans nixed her hearing.
Cruz’s feud with Trump has made her a household name outside Puerto Rico and bolstered her political standing on the island; she notes that people who stop her in the street now refer to her as the “mayor of Puerto Rico.” There’s chatter that Cruz will next aim for the governor’s mansion, although she has batted away speculation. Her high-profile battle with Trump was hardly the first time she’d taken on a bully in the pulpit — she’s nicknamed “Pitirre,” after a tiny bird that aggressively defends itself against intruders.
In 2012, she upset a three-term, boorish, and scandal-plagued mayor to win control of City Hall, drawing tears from him in his concession speech. She has never been afraid to buck her own party, the centrist and status quo-focused Popular Democratic Party, to advocate greater sovereignty for the U.S. territory. When Puerto Ricans repeatedly took to the streets (in 2012, 2013, and 2015) to demand the liberation from prison of Oscar López Rivera, a militant nationalist slapped with a 55-year sentence in 1981 and 15 years more for an escape attempt in 1988, Cruz marched with them. (He was finally released this year, after Barack Obama commuted his sentence; Cruz accompanied López Rivera as he walked forth from house arrest on his first day of freedom.)
A former track star who went to university in the mainland United States, Cruz cut her teeth in corporate America before returning to Puerto Rico in 1992 to start dabbling in politics. Her life’s dream, she often said, was to become mayor of her hometown. After a stint in Puerto Rico’s legislature, she did just that after prevailing in a nail-biting race in 2012 — and promptly named her second dog “Victoria,” Spanish for “victory.”
The key to her wins? An inclusive style of government — co-governing, as she calls it — that reaches out to all kinds of people, from members of the LBGT community to unionized workers. People who’ve watched her political rise from her first steps as a leader of her party’s women’s wing around 2003 see her as a “take charge” kind of leader. “She’s seen as the voice of the people, a brave woman, gutsy, who will take on anybody, which is something nobody in power was doing,” says San Juan resident and activist Myrna Torres.
Even though a pitirre is a Tyrannus dominicensis, Cruz is anything but — in sharp stylistic contrast to her best-known sparring partner.
When people, apparently from her own party, slapped posters around San Juan in late 2015 calling her a “traitor” for slamming the administration of the then-governor, Cruz ordered city workers to leave them up.
“I’ve got to protect the right of people to say what they want, even if what they say is against me,” she told El Nuevo Día, a Puerto Rican newspaper. “In fact, especially when what they’re saying is against me.”
Keith Johnson is deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
In 1992, Cruz became an advisor to San Juan Mayor Sila María Calderón, who would go on to become Puerto Rico's first and only female governor.