SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Tucked deep beneath the bleachers at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum, a hulking concrete sports and concert venue, past half a dozen security checkpoints and down a tiled hallway, there stands a double row of small rectangular dressing rooms.
The hideaways, outfitted with cots, have been home to Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, key staffers and, in some cases, their families, since Hurricane Maria brutally pinwheeled through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. Cruz, whose blunt and provocative criticism of the federal response to the storm has made her an object of White House scorn — but also earned her many admirers — sarcastically calls the converted sleeping area “The Trump Tower Presidential Suites.”
One evening, Cruz recalls, an observant staffer in the “suites” asked why she was wearing her pajamas inside out.
“Because,” she responded, “my world is inside out.”
More than a month into a crisis that seems likely to stretch for many more months, if not years, the 54-year-old Cruz has positioned herself as the face of the island — tearful, then angry, then frustrated, then hopeful, then resolute — a made-for-live-streaming omnipresence with a mile-wide emotional range. Like Ray Nagin, the New Orleans mayor whose desperate cries for help played an early role in jolting the nation to attention about Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Cruz has demanded that people listen.
But unlike the often-befuddled Nagin, Cruz has gone about the task with a blend of message discipline and media savvy fit for the digital age.
On high-profile treks through San Juan, her ravaged, debris-strewn and power-starved city, she is trailed by a mayor’s office photographer and videographer, who feed images to her social media accounts. Images of her tromping through floodwaters, rescuing senior citizens and delivering supplies are everywhere, because she seems to be everywhere.
Cruz is fond of profanity, and she’s become eminently bleepable as well as eminently quotable as she tries to communicate the urgency of the plight here. She brusquely dismisses criticism of her approach, waving off portrayals that cast her as a whiner or grandstander.
“I don’t give a s---,” she said in an interview at a folding table on the basketball court of the Clemente coliseum, now piled with pallets of bottled water and canned goods. “Because people’s lives are at stake.”
Cruz’s smash-mouth approach to the White House administration — she has called President Trump “disrespectful,” “the miscommunicator in chief” and “the hater in chief” among other things — raises the question of whether a local official can get what she needs despite a strained relationship with Washington.
Trump has threatened to abandon Puerto Rico recovery efforts. He also has sniped that Cruz is demonstrating “poor leadership,” and Trump’s Federal Emergency Management Agency director, William “Brock” Long, recently told ABC: “We filtered out the mayor a long time ago. We don’t have time for the political noise.”
Cruz seems to be banking on her ability to work around Trump, leveraging her mega-media platform and appealing directly to the public and to corporate givers. She points to truckloads of corporate donations pouring in as verification that she’s on the right path. But she also has continued to nudge the federal government to do much more, both in terms of relief resources and in delivering financial assistance to an island that has long been drowning in debt.
“The nation has a big heart and the president has a big mouth,” Cruz said.
Cruz detonated in the national consciousness shortly after Maria struck, delivering impassioned remarks at a news conference. She warned of a potential “genocide” and delivered a line that defined the early coverage of the storm: “We are dying here and you are killing us with the inefficiency and the bureaucracy.”
The words she used in the news conference were such a hit that her staff printed them out on a computer and ironed them onto a black T-shirt, she said. She wore the T-shirt on a national television interview. Later, when Trump disparaged her as “nasty,” she appeared for interviews with a T-shirt that read “nasty.”
She was going to a playbook she had used before. Cruz confides that she has lots of T-shirts — 179, to be exact — each with a political message.
“LGBT,” she says, launching into a long list.
“Against contamination of our land.”
“In favor of women’s rights.”
As Cruz was talking, the conversation was interrupted by someone bringing over white rice and pork chops.
“Oh my God,” she said.
She tilted her head forward, removed her glasses and held her face in her hands for several moments. When she lowered her hands, her eyes had welled with tears.
“It’s warm,” she said, adding that she hadn’t had warm food in a long while.
Cruz, like many islanders, made her way to the mainland United States. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and a master’s from Carnegie Mellon, then went on to human resources executive positions, according to her official biography.
She gave birth to her only child, Marina Paul Yulín Cruz, in Pennsylvania, but in the 1990s she was drawn back to the island to work as an adviser to Sila María Calderón, who would later become governor.
Cruz went on to serve as an elected member of the Puerto Rico House of Representatives, then launched a campaign for mayor in 2012. Few gave her a chance.
“I wanted to be mayor, but my party didn’t want me,” she said. “I was perhaps too liberal.”
Vargas Vidot, the Puerto Rican senator, said Cruz’s independent streak has been one of her greatest virtues, but also one of her weaknesses.
During the interview with Cruz, she occasionally fingered a rosary that dangled from her left wrist. When asked about it, she recalled without hesitation the exact day she received it: Feb. 19, 2012.
At that time, she said, her campaign seemed to be going nowhere. But on that day that she remembers with such precision, she ran into a woman she didn’t know at a restaurant. The woman told her: “You’re going to be mayor in November.”
She says her response was something like, “Yeah, right.”
Shortly thereafter, a rival became embroiled in scandal, and she ended up winning an unlikely victory. She has worn the rosary ever since.
Not surprisingly, the attention she has received since the hurricane has led to speculation that she has set her sights on higher office, such as the governorship. Cruz has now taken to countering the rumors by telling several local media organizations that she will not seek the governor’s office and that if she runs for anything in 2020, it will be for reelection as mayor.
At times she affects the demeanor of a drill sergeant, loudly barking orders. She can be self-effacing one moment — laughing as a random cat strolls through her news conference or pulling off her cap to show reporters the gray roots in her dyed blonde hair — and imperious the next, yelling profanities into the phone or gruffly ordering around her staffers, who scurry at the barest hint of a request.
“She’s always been this way, even when she was little,” said Cruz’s aunt, Irma Soto, as she watched her niece. “Always the leader.”
On a recent afternoon, as Cruz’s team of staffers and volunteers was packing to leave on a tour of San Juan, Cruz began straightening up chairs in the corner of the coliseum basketball court where she holds news conferences.
“When I was in school, I was too short to erase the blackboard,” the diminutive mayor said. “It was my job to put away the chairs.”
Later that afternoon, Cruz’s caravan — pickup trucks, a press van, police motorcycles — pushed off from the coliseum, sirens blaring to clear holes in the epic San Juan traffic.
They came to a stop on a scruffy street on a bluff overlooking the city.
Cruz bounded out of one of the lead vehicles. She wore cargo pants tucked into the brown 5.11 Tactical brand combat boots that have become her signature look during the crisis. She wears gray horn-rimmed glasses that look like expensive designer frames.
“They’re cheaters,” she said later with a laugh, pulling them off and pointing out how the tint is peeling away. “$19.99 at Walgreen’s.”
Trailed by cameras and a small pack of reporters, she made her way down a street lined with modest concrete homes, looking for old people.
“Donde estan los viejitos?” she yelled. Where are the little old people?
Startled neighbors, who had come out onto their porches and stoops, pointed to a small yellow house. Cruz went inside. There she found several older people, and she started quizzing them about their medications. For all the journalists spreading across San Juan, Cruz — through her social media postings and nonstop interviews — has become, in a sense, one of the foremost chroniclers of the storm’s aftermath. In this little house, she had found another story to tell, one she says would have been missed if her caravan had been moving too fast.
“Then you will lose the human stories behind it and the human condition behind it,” Cruz said.
From there, her caravan made its way deep into Caimito, an impoverished stretch of outer San Juan that was once a rural getaway but now has been swallowed by the spreading city, filling with the flimsy homes of some of the area’s poorest residents. Her destination was the home of a 9-year-old boy genius with a 140 IQ who lost almost all his books during the storm.
Above her head, a drone — operated by a charitable organization that is distributing solar lamps — videotaped everything.
At the base of a precipitous gravelly roadway, the procession stopped. Cruz went ahead alone as staffers held back the reporters.
“This boy is a genius,” one of Cruz’s top aides, José Cruz, whispered in a voice reminiscent of a golf announcer narrating a crucial putt.
A child in a blue T-shirt, shorts and Crocs emerged from a cinder-block house that lost its roof to the storm and had walls patched with plywood. It clung perilously to the edge of the hillside above a steep ravine.
“This is him,” the mayoral aide, whispered. “Look at him with his books.”
Ever the master of ceremonies, Cruz suggested that the boy lead the camera crews on a tour of his wrecked house. Cruz hung back. With the cameras turned away from her, she and the boy’s mother embraced for a long time. Both of them were crying.
“God,” the mother said, “will reward you for this.”