The San Juan-New York Connection

by John Marino

November 16, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. San Juan is in a New York state of mind again this week, as the crash of an American Airlines jet just after take-off from Kennedy Airport hit close to home here.

Gov. Calderón and administration officials wrote moving condolences to Dominican and New York officials, and San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini, New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera’s second in command, participated in a homage to the victims in the heart of Puerto Rico’s Dominican community, Barrio Obrero.

The feeling is genuine. Puerto Ricans see in the broadcasts of grieving Dominicans — the anguish at the loss of children, the pained expressions of those who have lost several members of their family — an image much like their own. At least six island residents — five Dominicans and one Puerto Rican — counted kin among the victims of the crash.

The Dominican community in Puerto Rico is a vibrant one, with as many as 300,000 residents believed living here. Indeed, Puerto Rico is a main site of both legal and illegal entry for Dominicans coming to the United States, and their presence, from merengue music to their ubiquitous open-air eateries, is evident
throughout San Juan.

The neighboring islands are also tied by a large tourist and commercial exchange, and the new U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic is Hans Hertell, a Puerto Rican.

And when New York hurts, Puerto Rico hurts — as Sept. 11 has aptly shown. It’s not just that many Puerto Ricans lost their lives in the attacks (the administration has said there are 800 or more). San Juan has been tethered to New York by a cycle of immigration dating back to the 1940s, and in most towns on the island, most people have an uncle or a cousin living in the Big Apple, if not a brother or sister.

Despite the rise of Central Florida, Miami, and other areas as attractive sites for Puerto Ricans from the island, as well as the Tri-State area, the New York-Puerto Rico connection runs deep.

I moved from the City to San Juan nearly a decade ago, and when I return to my former home, I run into more people there from here than people I knew from before.

An old friend — who for years divided his time between Greenwich Village and Old San Juan, used to joke: "I don’t understand why Puerto Rico wants to be a state when it’s already a Borough of the greatest city in the world."

"Nuyoricans" who have moved to the island fret that there are more venues for salsa in New York than in San Juan. Even the Windows on the World restaurant instituted a salsa night months before the attack that brought it down.

Sure there’s the status tie. But as Monday’s crash shows, the New York-Puerto Rico connection runs deeper. Like their Dominican neighbors, Puerto Ricans will continue to fly to New York City regardless of local politics, and whatever changes they may bring in the U.S.-Puerto Rico political relationship.

The crash, however, also exposed the potential hazards of being a people in the air, whose family and friends sometimes may only be seen at the end of a trip in an airliner.

Some items are trivial: try to find one of the "post Sept. 11 bargains" on the San Juan-New York routes promised by the airlines. Or a vacant seat on a flight plying the well-traveled route .

Even the proposed specials from San Juan to other Caribbean destinations have been inflated out of the budget category by unadvertised taxes. More importantly, however, but for a few details, the great sorrow brought on by the crash could have been borne by the Puerto Rican, instead of the Dominican, people.

At the time of the crash, no doubt there was the same model American Airlines jet ready to lift off from Kennedy to San Juan. And just like Santo Domingo’s international airport, San Juan’s is always filled with family and friends awaiting passengers on flights bound for the island from the East Coast.

The very plane that crashed in Queens this week was involved in an incident on a San Juan-Barbados flight that forced an emergency landing in San Juan back in 1994.

An aviation expert told the Associated Press that the plane could have suffered structural damage in the incident, when the plane underwent severe turbulence in clear weather. Some 47 people were injured.

The plane model — the European-made Airbus 300 — is frequently used by American in the Caribbean, where it is a dominant force. According to the Puerto Rico Ports Authority, 20 percent of American flights to San Juan use this model.

There have been six incidents over the last decade involving the Airbus 300 model registered at the San Juan airport over the last decade, according to National Transportation Safety Board records.

Two local passengers claim they were also on American Airbus 300 flights from San Juan to the East Coast that were involved in "major incidents" which NTSB officials say they are supposed to report but whose experiences are not reflected on agency records, the San Juan Star reported Thursday.

They wonder how many other incidents may not have been reported.

Conspiracy theory?

Not quite.

But in these times of new threats, this week’s crash points out that the dangers of air travel stem as much from mechanical failure as from terrorism. And that the government agencies charged with guarding against both dangers are not as infallible as we once thought.

But if you live in Puerto Rico, it won’t stop you flying. It can’t.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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