Breaking Big


Carmen Yulín Cruz

Track the route of San Juan’s Mayor Cruz after Puerto Rico was slammed by a catastrophic hurricane. The city leader stood up and fought for relief aid, becoming the heroic voice of her struggling island and the Puerto Rican people.

AIRED: September 14, 2018 | 0:25:46

- [Carlos] Born and raised in Puerto Rico,

Carmen Yulin Cruz Soto had an eye on leadership

since she was a young girl.

And as mayor of San Juan,

when a pair of deadly hurricanes

devastated the Caribbean...

(sirens wailing)

...her mettle was tested.

-[Yulin] I am done being polite.

I am done being politically correct.

I am mad as hell.

- [Carlos] So how did she go from humble beginnings

to leading the fight against the entire US government

to help save her people and her homeland from catastrophe?

And how did she clear her own path to breaking big?

- And the American people are not that way.

What makes people successful?

What are the unexpected turns in life that propel

people to greatness?

I'm Carlos Watson, editor of OZY.

I'm out to uncover the real secrets behind breaking big.

- [Carmen] This is my office.

- [Carlos] Really?

- [Carmen] Yeah, this is my office.

- [Carlos] And why is that?

- People can knock on the door and say, Mayor,

I have a problem, and they don't feel distracted

by the big to-do of a city hall.

- [Carlos] Pretty simple.

- We have everything we need here.

- If I had met you when you were a young girl,

would you have told me you wanted to get into politics?

- Yes. Yeah, I wanted to change the world.

- [Carlos] Known to her friends simply as Yulin,

her path to politics began at an early age,

drawing inspiration from her family, and the island

she was raised on.

The US Territory of Puerto Rico.

Who do you admire?

- Oh, I admire my grandmother.

- Why?

- She was a sugar cane plantation worker.

From nothing.

She was the first one in her house to learn

how to read and write, went to Columbia University,

and NYU in 1945, when women weren't

getting education like that.

And she instilled in me the value of education

as a great equalizer.

- As soon as she arrived, she demonstrate

what a kind of leader she was.

She was very social.

Our classmates, and the janitor, the director,

she was friend of everybody.

- I was captain of the debate team,

I was president of my class from eighth grade

to senior year in high school.

Then I started applying for college

and got into Boston University.

I took it to my dad, and he couldn't say no.

What I didn't know is that he mortgaged the house.

- [Carlos] Like thousands of Puerto Rican students each and every year,

Yulin left the island for college on the mainland.

And once there, her hunger for knowledge

grew far beyond academics.

- I had a great time at the Boston University.

It opened the world, for me.

It just opened in me the thirst for more.

Then I got a scholarship to study public policy

at Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh.

I saw the working people of the United States.

I loved living in the States,

but there's a lot of work to be done here,

and I always heard that little voice say, you gotta go back.

- [Carlos] In 1992, Yulin returned home to Puerto Rico

to serve as an advisor

to the second female mayor of San Juan.

Sila Calderon.

- I always wanted to be mayor of San Juan

because the first female mayor, Dona Fela,

Felisa Rincon De Gautier.

She had one thing in her mind and it was to

walk the path of those that have less.

And for that she will always be remembered.

So in 2000, I went in and I ran for office

to be a member at large of the House of Representatives.

- We were both running for the Puerto Rico House of Representatives,

and we met in the campaign trail.

I won, she did not.

Back then, we still don't know what kind of politician

she was going to be.

She was a work in progress.

- Puerto Rican political culture is a mix

from the whole Spanish tradition regarding

not only politics, but also the catholic standpoint of view.

It's a real, open space for political discussion.

But Puerto Ricans sometimes speak much more

liberally than they actually think.

- [Carlos] In 2008, Yulin was elected to the

House of Representatives as a member of the PDP,

the Popular Democratic Party.

And though it's considered the more liberal

of the two major parties in Puerto Rico,

it encompasses a wide range of political views.

- I came from the far right of the political party

that I'm in.

- Really?

- Yes, I was taught that way.

- So your parents, conservative. - Oh, very.

- We're talking about 2008.

Back then, I was probably the most vocal voice

of the liberal sector within the party.

Right now, being a liberal with my party

is kind of a hip thing to be, but back then

it was actually a risk.

- [Carlos] Talk to me about that transition.

- Everything I am, could, is because somebody

took the time to teach.

12 years ago, I wasn't up for egalitarian marriage.

And then I met this gay couple that had

been together more than I had been together

with my three husbands put into one.

And one of them looked and me and said,

Why do you think you're better than me?

Why do you think I shouldn't be able to get married?

And I had no answer.

They changed me.

I was taught was that diversity really was a way

to see our differences as a starting point.

Not as a wall.

- She wanted to learn about the possibilities

of a more progressive agenda within the party.

She was totally comfortable on the streets with the people.

- The student groups, the feminist groups,

the teachers unions, they allowed me to walk behind them.

And it turned me from the representative of one

political party to a public servant of an entire population.

- In politics it's usually quite notable

when a person switches their ideology

or switches their political party.

One of the areas where people tend to evolve often

are connected to their childhood

or by their early adult experiences.

Living a little bit longer, taking a little bit longer

to meet and engage with diverse sets of folks,

often they do end up taking a different position.

- [Carlos] As Yulin's life in the House of Representatives

progressed, so too did her ideology,

and her desire for change.

And when the opportunity to be a leader of that

change presented itself, she didn't hesitate to act.

- This was seven months before the election

for mayor of San Juan, and a person that was running

had a personal situation and he had to step down.

So, they had talked to everyone, everyone.

I'm like the kid in the back of the classroom,

pick me, pick me!

My party had meetings and meetings.

It was like, anybody but Yulin.

- Yulin, are you sure you want to run for mayor,

because your chances are not really good.

I know the numbers, there's no possibility

that you're going to win this election.

And she said, I know I can win, and I will win.

- [Carmen] Finally, there was nobody left.

And there I was, saying this is what I wanted to be all my life.

- [Carlos] In 2012, after only one term in the house,

Yulin mounted a grass roots campaign against a powerful

incumbent mayor, something that even those

in her own party thought would be political suicide.

- The then incumbent, he never said my name,

he would call me, "esa senora,"

you know, "that woman."

He didn't want to debate me.

You know, because that was beneath him.

- Not many persons believed that she could win

against such a powerful mayor as Jorge Santini.

- He was very vocal, had all the resources.

And Yulin was challenging, and not only that person,

but the entire system.

- [Carmen] I did everything the book says you shouldn't do.

- [Carlos] What were your top policy goals?

- One was community empowerment.

Two was participatory budgeting.

- [Carlos] What is participatory budgeting?

- You take a portion of the budget,

and you let the constituents decide

where the money is going to be spent.

So it isn't your agenda,

it is truly the people's agenda.

- The least developed communities in San Juan,

they need everything.

And she signed an agreement with 20, 40 different

communities, defining the agenda in writing.

You don't see politicians doing that,

a commitment that is in black and white.

- I knew that there was an opportunity here to galvanize,

to speak those that had not had the doors open

at city hall.

The immigrant population, and the female population,

and the teachers, and the men that had to work two jobs

to make ends meet,

even though we all thought very differently,

that we had some things in common.

- [Carlos] Utilizing her skills for connecting

with the people, Yulin's appeal began to rise.

- I went through hell with her in that campaign.

To almost everybody's surprise, she won.

- What she did in 2012 was amazing.

Galvanizing different social and political sectors.

People of progressive and liberal thought,

regardless of political party.

It not only gave her the seat of mayor,

it probably was instrumental in handing

the Popular Democratic Party its victory in 2012.

- [Carlos] After challenging political norms

and uniting the disenfranchised communities,

Yulin would finally be sworn in as mayor of San Juan,

realizing the dream she had in her heart since childhood.

But success never comes easily in politics,

and Yulin would still face incredible opposition,

even from those in her own party.

- I have gone many times against my party.

Saying, you're doing the wrong thing, this is not

what you're supposed to do, this is not what I see

in the streets.

- Some people don't want her to say

that our party has to change.

She insists in telling the truth.

- [Carmen] I don't let the politics of the party

define who I am.

- So you talk about being yourself,

but I imagine it's not always easy

in Puerto Rican politics, given, maybe,

some of the machismo.

For those who don't know what machismo means...

- [Carmen] Well it means that, uh, men are better.

They're more intelligent.

They have control of the social environment.

- [Carlos] And that's, that's not just something

that used to be true 20 years ago, it's true today.

- No, no, it's very strong.

You know, if a man raises their voice in congress,

oh, he's being vocal.

You are being hysterical.

- You have now a liberal woman

in a machismo society.

Of course that has consequences.

- There is a radio/TV host that calls me a whore

and a bitch.

- Here in Puerto-- - Here in Puerto Rico.

- Continuously. - [Carlos] On the air?

- On the air.

- The situation in Puerto Rico

there is a certain amount of machismo culture.

There is really some double standards frankly.

What's perceived as kind of assertive

and being a go-getter for a man,

is often perceived as being either bitchy

or being overly aggressive or bossy for a woman.

There is the challenge of, you know, trying to really

lead the people in a way that is both attentive

to the needs of the Puerto Rican people,

but also speaks truth to power

when it comes to the island politics.

- [Carlos] While still learning to navigate

the unwelcoming political culture,

catastrophic disaster

would soon put Yulin's leadership to the test.

(sirens wail)

Did everything happen suddenly or was it over

the course of a couple of days?

- 16 very long hours.

Very long hours.

Look, you can see that, that's how the entire park was.

We couldn't do anything.

I've never seen so much devastation,

and I distinctly remember the people's eyes being glazed.

- Our governor was telling everybody that

everything was fine.

While people was without electricity,

without water, without food, without services,

without healthcare, without all the basic needs.

- We're pumping air into people's lungs, literally,

pumping it while we're having surgery.

- Those weeks after the hurricane,

everybody had a chance to see her exactly as she is.

No makeup, no public relations officers,

just a real person doing her job.

- She never went out of the shelter.

She had a mattress on the floor,

and she worked from there, she lived there.

- [Carlos] With shortages of food, water, and power,

and US Federal Aid slow to make its way to the island,

Yulin decided she would need to speak out for her people

and make a personal plea for help.

- I have very little voice, but whatever voice I have left

I am going to use to make sure

that people don't die in Puerto Rico.

While the Trump administration was saying everything's okay,

people were coming here and seeing with their eyes

that everything was not okay.

So I played nice for a couple of weeks

and stopped being politically correct.

- She decided to challenge the establishment frontally.

What is the problem? Well, the federal government

is not doing their job.

Okay, I'm going to tell the world

that the federal government is not doing their job.

- We are dying here, and I cannot fathom

that the greatest nation in the world

cannot figure out logistics for a small island.

- It's been incredible, the results that we've had

with respect to loss of life.

People can't believe how successful that has been.

- The world knows that the president of the

United States has Yulin as his target just because she,

a small Puerto Rican woman, defied him.

- He was insulting to the people of Puerto Rico.

He minimized our suffering here by saying that

Katrina was a real disaster.

- Yulin helped Puerto Rico to raise the level of concern

about the severity of the damages.

She manages to put the issue of Puerto Rico

on top of everybody's agenda.

Nobody in the US that is paying attention to political media

will tell you that they don't know who she is.

She obtained, very successfully,

a well-defined space into political discussions

in the US, to become relevant,

to not only Puerto Rican politics,

but to the issues that worries Puerto Ricans in the mainland.

- [Carlos] Despite her success in drawing

national attention to the crisis on her island,

not everyone in Puerto Rico was supportive of her efforts.

- The local politicians said that I was putting in danger

any bit of aid that the United States

could send to Puerto Rico.

Six months later, now, they're saying,

oh, we, you know, we weren't treated right.

Well, hell, what the heck did you think I was screaming?

- Yulin is a politician that takes a lot of risks.

That's not usual.

She defies the rule every single day.

Sometimes I'm the one that has to call her and say,

listen, I don't think that's the right way to do that.

And she says, well, you gotta trust me on this one.

- He kind of minimized our...

I knew the minute those words came out of my mouth

that attention would be paid.

Some of it has not been good.

I've been widely criticized.

Because, oh, she used her platform

to bring attention to herself.

But hell yes.

Because people were dying.

- The New Harvard study found that 4,645 people died

as a result of the hurricane.

It calls the governments official toll of 64 deaths

a substantial underestimate of the true burden of mortality.

- [Carlos] Yulin Cruz has been defying the odds

and the naysayers her entire life.

She did it to become mayor,

and she did it to help save lives as mayor.

And though she's journeyed through a fire storm

of criticism, she's kept her eye on a singular goal.

Moving Puerto Rico and its people forward.

What would you like Puerto Rico to be 20 years from now?

- We need to move to a universal healthcare system.

Some people call it socialized medicine.

Well, you know, that just means making it right and fair.

Our educational system, we need to ensure

that the public school system is reinforced,

and that it does not only provide to people an education,

but that the community itself is moved around

the educational system.

I fell in love with being the mayor

because the government is a platform for equalizing,

for getting everyone to the starting line

at the same time with the same skills.

Now what you do in the race, that's up to you.

This morning I asked somebody,

why would they want to interview me?

Honest to God.

I mean, I'm happy you're here,

but I didn't do anything special.

I screamed for help when we needed it.

I didn't look the other way when people were dying.

That shouldn't be special.

That should be what people do.

- This is my trailer park.

This is my daughter, Marina.

- [Carlos] Pittsburgh born, huh?

- Yeah. - Okay.

- And this is my Fire Rescue helmet, but it's pink.

- [Carlos] Oh nice, breast cancer awareness, huh? - Yeah.

- This is the correct Puerto Rican flag

with the light blue collar.

Rumor has it when the US came,

they changed it to the dark blue color so that it matched the US.

And then children can come here, and I give them gifts.


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