By afternoon, hundreds had amassed in front of the Lincoln Memorial as part of the Unity March for Puerto Rico. Many more had showed up in the morning to march from the U.S. Capitol, down Independence Avenue toward the Lincoln Memorial, as marchers observed attendance in the thousands.
Evelyn Mejil, Sunday’s event organizer, said the demonstration was a powerful display of unity behind the efforts to rebuild Puerto Rico. She said the event came together amid a tense personal struggle; she didn’t hear from her family for two weeks.
Mejil, 40, lives in northern New Jersey and learned that her relatives in Puerto Rico lost their homes.
“It was a combination of frustration, anger, sadness, desperation, anxiety,” Mejil said. “When you get that feeling of [being] powerless and voiceless, I thought that something needed to be done.”
After delivering the closing remarks on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Mejil characterized the rally as a success.
“I think everyone was able to unify and be one message, which is, ‘We’re here for Puerto Rico and we’re going to continue to make sure we put pressure on Congress so that we do the right thing for Puerto Rico,’” she said.
Among the marchers was “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who demonstrated along with the nonprofit Hispanic Federation.
Two months after the hurricane, more than half of the island is still without power, according to a Puerto Rican government website tracking disaster relief. About 10 percent of the island’s residents still lack access to running water.
“And so today we march. Peacefully and with purpose,” Miranda, the Tony-Award-winning playwright tweeted.
Rafael Martinez, 55, arrived from New York City early Sunday morning with his wife, Jay Ortiz, and their two young daughters to help demand government support for the island.
“This is [President] Trump’s Katrina,” Martinez said. “Enough is enough. People are starving, they don’t have clean water, and some don’t even have roofs. We need to help these people.”
His wife nodded in agreement as their children huddled nearby.
“Just because we’re separate, we’re not getting the support we deserve,” said Ortiz, 35.
On its website, the Hispanic Federation listed a number of pleas: proportionate aid for Puerto Rico to that given for disaster relief to the mainland United States, where Hurricanes Harvey and Irma battered cities in Texas and Florida; stronger infrastructure in Puerto Rico that can outlast future hurricanes; swift delivery of supplies to residents in need; elimination of the Jones Act, which limits how many ships can be sent to Puerto Rico; and forgiveness of Puerto Rico’s $73 billion debt.
The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly referred to as the Jones Act, was a popular target of the speakers and rally attendees.
Marchers demonstrated against the World War I-era law, which mandates U.S. shipments to the island be made on American vessels — even if they’re not the cheapest or most readily available. The Trump administration temporarily waived the Jones Act to speed up hurricane relief in September, but marchers on Sunday pushed for its permanent repeal.
For 49-year-old Debbie Rios of Baltimore, Sunday’s march served two main purposes: to show support for Puerto Rico and to educate people about the Jones Act.
“It’s a long road,” she said. “We really need everyone to understand how the Jones Act is hurting the island.”
Puerto Rico has asked Congress for $94 billion in disaster relief aid, according to the Associated Press, including $18 billion to rebuild the island’s power grid and $31 billion for housing. The White House asked Congress last week for $44 billion in disaster aid for hurricane-ravaged areas in Texas, Puerto Rico and Florida. The amount was decried by lawmakers as too small, according to AP.