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Barbershop: Puerto Rico Journalists

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now it's time for The Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And we're spending the week in Puerto Rico.

This is the official start of this year's hurricane season. And after last year's terrible storms, a difficult recovery, we wanted to know what's the public mood here? What are the biggest concerns? What have we been missing? So we gathered a group of journalists to give us their take on things. And let's be clear - this isn't a scientific survey. This isn't a poll. We called a group of colleagues, and we're basically asking them to empty their notebooks and tell us what they see.

So we're joined now by Adriana De Jesus Salaman. She is a reporter at Noticel. That's an online news outlet based here in San Juan.

Thanks for coming.

ADRIANA DE JESUS SALAMAN: Oh, thanks. Happy to be here.

MARTIN: Also with us is Ezequiel Rodriguez Andino. He is the program coordinator here in the studio we are using at Radio San Juan. Thank you so much for walking down the hall and being here...

EZEQUIEL RODRIGUEZ ANDINO: Thank you for being here.

MARTIN: ...In the studio with us.

And last but certainly not least, Jay Fonseca. He is a TV host at Telemundo NBC, a radio host at Univision Radio and a columnist at Primera Hora, a local newspaper here. He has all the jobs.

Welcome. Thank you so much for being here as well.

JAY FONSECA: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I know it's hard to measure, but I'm going to start by asking you how would you describe the public mood now that this year's hurricane season has begun? And if you want, you can tell me what your mood is.

And, Adriana, do you want to start?

SALAMAN: Yeah, sure. I think, in general, given current events of this week - the Harvard - that study - and everything that's going on with the fiscal control board - I think everything is very somber, and people are very suspicious towards everything that's been going on.

MARTIN: Jay, what about you? What are you seeing?

FONSECA: Anxiety - I see a lot of anxiety. People are just waiting what's going to happen. We really don't know. Thank God, now, it's - I mean, it seems like there are not going to be that many hurricanes as the forecast, prior to this date. But now, you know, it doesn't really matter. Just one hurricane can devastate everything and - as we saw with Maria and, of course, Irma two weeks prior to that. So yeah, anxiety is the word.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ezequiel, what about you?

ANDINO: I also think fear. I think people are fearing the worst, and I think people, through that fear, they don't know how to even convey that fear. And that's why we get so many noise around social media, for example, of differing opinions because I think people are really afraid of what's going to happen this year in the hurricane season.

MARTIN: Jay, you mentioned that - well, Adriana, I think you mentioned that the Harvard study had just come out - actually had just come out literally as we were landing. And I know that there are some people who are saying that the story didn't get the attention it deserved on the mainland, but I can tell you our phones were ringing like crazy - people looking for response about that. And I've seen literally dozens of pieces on it by now.

On the one hand, you know, I haven't met anybody here who says that they were surprised by that. So I'm going to ask you, as people who've been thinking about this and covering this, how do you interpret the response to the number? What do you think it means and what do you think the importance of that number is?

So, Jay, do you want to start?

FONSECA: Yeah, sure. I mean, we all knew that 64 was not the number - of course, there's no way possible. We know we have at least 1,000 people that died, more than last year to the same date. So we do know that for sure. I think the number 4,645 - it's higher than expected. In my opinion, the main problem is that we don't have the facts. We don't have the data.

MARTIN: Ezequiel, what is your take on the number, how we're talking about the number or what the number means?

ANDINO: OK. I think the problem here is that the people like Adriana said - the people lived this - you know, a hurricane - you live it. It's there in your house. It's pounding the door. You're seeing the floods come in. And I mean, there's no way that people didn't live through this and know what happened. And they saw other people dying in front of them. And they couldn't get a hold of them through the phone. They couldn't get a hold about everybody. Emergency services - there were dead.

So they saw it, and this is a government we have now that ran on saying that they wanted to be transparent, and they're always talking about accountability. And in this instance, where you see people die in your neighborhood, and then you see them talking about transparency and accountability, but you see that number - that 64 - that makes you go mad because that's not transparency because we know. We're seeing the death. We're seeing the people suffer around us. We are suffering through this hurricane, and you're telling us repeatedly, question after question - reporters here were asking them is this number real? Is this numbers going to be revised? They keep telling in every press conference, no, this is the official number. I think that hurts, and that's why the people are scared and they're mad because it's a mixed message.

That's the main story here, and that's the main feeling we want to talk about. And people are just talking about the number instead of, like, you know, what that - hiding that number really means.

MARTIN: To this point, we've been talking, I assume, about the Puerto Rican government. What about the federal response? What about the Trump administration?

You know, for a number of news outlets on the mainland, I have to say it seems to be Trump's Katrina. And what they are sort of making the point is that this is seen as a failure of leadership and made more egregious by an attitude of dismissiveness and disrespect.

For example, let me just play a clip from the president's visit here, which was last October. And this is where he - this was - the image that a lot of people saw was him throwing the paper towels into the crowd. But this is one of the - this is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you've thrown our budget a little out of whack because we've spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that's fine. We've saved a lot of lives. If you look at the - every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died and you look at what happened here with really a storm that was just totally overpowering - nobody's ever seen anything like this. What is your death count as this moment, 17?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sixteen certified.

TRUMP: Sixteen people certified - 16 people versus in the thousands.

MARTIN: So who wants to start? I mean, this is - the reason - one of the reasons I played this is that this is the moment that a lot of the news outlets on the mainland referred to in responding to the latest news of this week. So who wants to start? Jay.

FONSECA: I mean, I just think that Mr. Trump came here, but he wanted to talk to his base, and he's always focused on his base. So he came here just to say that he came and - but he wasn't really - we weren't that important. It's obvious. And in my opinion, he will have never said that about Texas - Houston - after Harvey or about Miami after Irma.

This is something - in my opinion, you can tell that the president thinks that his base don't believe we're part of America. He doesn't believe we are part of the United States. And we were invaded by the states. We didn't ask. I mean, we were invaded. It was an invasion in 1898, and then we were basically property. And that's what we are. We're like a farm. So that's what we are for them. And that's how I see the president.

And after those thoughts, I mean, in my opinion, he - you know, I felt disrespected. And it's shameful to hear a president talking about that like that from - you know, we're American citizens.

MARTIN: I get the impression, though - maybe, Adriana, you want to take this first - is this is - I get the impression, though, that the president's comments or the president doesn't loom as large in people's consciousness here as it does back on the mainland because the president just dominates the news. He just does. And so I just get the feeling that that isn't the case here, at least when it comes to dealing with this disaster.

Adriana, do you want to take that?

SALAMAN: Yeah, I just think that people in Puerto Rico have a lot of other things to worry about under in their day-to-day right now. Like I said, there are thousands of people who still don't have roofs over their head - people living with blue tarps still, some like 10,000 or more people still without electricity. And to them, like Jay said, our relationship with the United States has never been extremely friendly.

And so the relationship with the citizens here, even though we are American citizens, it's with our local government. And that's who everybody sees as their respondent. So that's basically the reason I don't think they have time. And also, in the United States, the news cycle is moving extremely fast these days. So it's - I think it's hard for them to keep up with everything that's been going on.

MARTIN: Ezequiel, what are your thoughts?

ANDINO: I think that there's a part of Puerto Rico that thinks that anything that the United States us for is like - they are going to be grateful about it. If the president came, even if he insulted us like that in front of everybody and he gave us paper towels like he did, like, we will take the paper towels, you know? There's that sentiment where, you know, everything they can give us, we will take.

And what I really think happened with that specific soundbite when it happened here was that our governor was on his side, laughing with him. That's struck an even harder chord with people that maybe he should at least frown upon this instead of rejoicing on the fact that he was telling people, oh, we only have 16 deaths.

And that's - that works with what I said before - like, they wanted people to think that we didn't hurt that much when people knew that we were hurting a lot. And that's the disconnect there. And I think the way here in Puerto Rico people see the United States - they will take whatever the United States gives us because we're going through a lot. So if they got that blue tarp, they will love that blue tarp, even though it's inhumane to have that blue tarp when the next hurricane comes.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go - and thank you all so much for disrupting your Saturday to spend a little bit of it with us. And you know, thanks for, you know, sharing your thoughts. Before we let you go, I wanted to ask - because most of our audience is on the mainland - is there something that people on the mainland don't know that you'd really like them to know?

Who wants to go first?

FONSECA: Well...

MARTIN: Jay.

FONSECA: Sorry.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Jay.

FONSECA: Well, in my case, I think that the United States population should know that we want jobs. We want to work. We don't want to be dependent. And even though we have 60 percent of the population right now that is dependent on the government basically is because there are no jobs. So people are fleeing from the island to the mainland just to get a job.

So if you - if we need something from the states, it's basically to understand that we don't need more flooding of money. We need, basically, stimulation of our economy. So people - the migration is going to kill us.

MARTIN: Adriana, what do you want most people on the mainland to know that they might not know?

SALAMAN: Well, if you ask the government that, they're probably going to say to you that Puerto Rico is open for business. And even though that might also be true, I think the United States - the citizens in the mainland should know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. They should internalized that, and they should understand that Puerto Rico, eight months after the hurricane, is still struggling, and we need all the attention people in the mainland can give it.

MARTIN: Ezequiel, I'm going to give you the last word.

ANDINO: History - I want them to learn their history. Puerto Rico is part of the United States - either you want or not - because you guys came here. And you've been here since 1898...

MARTIN: And look at me. I mean, I...

ANDINO: I'm looking at you, but I'm not looking at you (laughter).

MARTIN: I'm just being - I mean, my people's path here was a little different, too.

ANDINO: I know. I know.

MARTIN: It wasn't exactly voluntary.

ANDINO: I was getting there. I was getting exactly there. If you really want to understand how United States have done its, like, foreign policy - and I'm using quotations - if you really want to understand Puerto Rico and that, please learn us. I mean, we're here, and we are Americans citizens because you chose we are American citizens. We never had a say about that. You just gave it to us. And we're here now, and this mess is part of your mess. And you really need to understand it not only for us but for you, too because whatever happens here, it's on you. So you know, get with the program.

MARTIN: That's Ezequiel Rodriguez Andino, program coordinator here at the studio he was kind enough to share with us - Radio San Juan. Also, that's Adriana De Jesus Salaman, a reporter at the digital news outlet, Noticel, and Jay Fonseca, a columnist at Primera Hora, TV hosts at Telemundo, radio host at Univision Radio.

Thank you all so much for speaking with us today.

FONSECA: Thank you.

SALAMAN: Thank you.

ANDINO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.