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Long Islanders weigh in on next step for Puerto Rico

Maritza Rivera with daughters Steffani, center, 10, and

Maritza Rivera with daughters Steffani, center, 10, and Marissa, 7, in Bay Shore on Thursday. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

What’s next for Puerto Rico?

Long Islanders with ties to the U.S. territory celebrated the resignation of the embattled governor. But they also thought hard about the great challenge ahead of rebuilding an island devastated by corruption, massive debt and the lingering destruction of Hurricane Maria.

An explosion of joyous texts and phone calls ricocheted between Long Islanders and loved ones in Puerto Rico after Gov. Ricardo Rosselló resigned as midnight approached Wednesday.

Margarita Espada of Central Islip received an excited call from her son and daughter, who had both flown to Puerto Rico on Sunday to participate in the daily street protests calling for Rosselló’s ouster.

“They were celebrating, screaming and happy,” said Espada, 53, who helped organize relief efforts following Hurricane Maria in 2017. “People were celebrating in the street.”

Rosselló said he would leave office Aug. 2 after days of protests and looming impeachment proceedings. The public outcry escalated following the leak on July 13 of crude and insulting chat messages between the governor and his top advisers.

“This is a revolution, a peaceful revolution,” said Espada, director of Teatro Yerbabruja in Puerto Rico and on Long Island, an organization dedicated to using the arts as a tool for social change.

Even as local supporters joined in the celebration, they looked ahead for a new day for the beleaguered island.

“Now that we have shown the world we can come together, we need to stick together,” said Ana Maria Caraballo, 36, of Middle Island, who also helped in post-hurricane relief efforts. “OK, what do we do now?”

Caraballo said she was wary of the appointed successor, the secretary of justice, Wanda Vázquez. Vázquez has been criticized for a reluctance to confront problems while in office.

“She was not elected by the people. She did not earn their trust,” said Caraballo, who added she’d give Vázquez a chance.

Many Long Islanders have family and loved ones in Puerto Rico affected by the deteriorating conditions there.

Espada’s family has reached deep into their savings to survive. Her mother, who has digestive problems, regularly waits hours to see a doctor.

“She would get on line at 4 a.m. to sign up to see a doctor at 10 a.m.,” she said.

A friend of Caraballo’s has posted on social media about her empty refrigerator. “She has a baby to care for,” she said.

In their optimism, Long Islanders hope new leadership will investigate corruption there, fully restore electricity and water, reopen schools and, in general, repair the island to where it again becomes a vacation paradise and a place favorable to investors.

Jose Gonzalez, 38, of Bay Shore, cheered the news of the resignation. He has two cousins who lost their teaching jobs there when schools shut down after Maria.

“They’re thinking twice about spending every penny,” said Gonzalez, who shut down his auto detailing business for a time to collect food and water after the hurricane.

The optimism, and the sense of a great task ahead, were both evident among those gathered on Thursday at El Pilóon restaurant in Bay Shore. Maritza Rivera came through the front door with her two daughters — all showing their Puerto Rican pride from head to toe.

“We’re excited, we’re happy — finally,” said Rivera, 43, of West Sayville, sporting a bright red “Puerto Rico Strong” T-shirt, a bandanna and a pair of sneakers she personally decorated with sparkles. Her daughters wore big Puerto Rican flags draped around their necks like superhero capes.

“Now everybody has come together,” Rivera said. “Hopefully we’ll have a better Puerto Rico.”

Sitting at a table nearby, Juan Aviles, 72, of East Islip, said he wanted to see what the next leader had to say.

“I see people cheering. Is it going to be better? Is it going to be worse? Is it going to stay the same?” Aviles said. “All you can do is hope for the best.”

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