Local businesswoman becomes Puerto Rico’s Voice

“Hello. I am Grisel Puig-Snider and I live in San Luis Obispo, California. I am calling because our American citizens in Puerto Rico are trapped and dying of thirst, hunger and lack of medical care due to costly government delay and inefficiency in the face of crisis. There are not words strong enough to express our horror at the way our Puerto Rican citizens are being put on hold with no access to resources and relief.”

These were the words of Los Osos resident and local entrepreneur, Grisel Puig-Snider, who organized the “Phone Banking for Puerto Rican Aid” event held in downtown San Luis Obispo on Oct. 17. She was aided by the women of the San Luis Obispo Women’s March as well as other local citizens. The script above, prepared by Puig-Snider, was read to elected U.S. representatives: Paul Ryan, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican National Committee, the Democratic National Committee, Representative Salud Carbajal, Representative Nancy Pelosi, Senator Kamala Harris and Governor Jerry Brown by each volunteer at the phone bank campaign that day.

Puig-Snider moved to the United States in 1997, leaving behind her family, her friends and her beloved hometown of Dorado, Puerto Rico. Today, she lives in constant fear that those parts of her life may be gone forever. Yet instead of sitting back and simply awaiting the outcome of her people, she has taken it upon herself to put pressure on government officials to change the White House’s response to Hurricane Maria.

“The best way that we can help our families is to make sure that we are the voice that they don’t have,” Puig-Snider said. “They can’t ask [for help]. We are the only ones that can help them get back into a place where they can survive and rebuild again.”

“For those 10 days it was pure agony not knowing where they were. Were they eating? Were they dead?”

Puerto Rico is considered an unincorporated territory by U.S. law, meaning that although residents are considered U.S. citizens and are governed by the White House, they are not awarded the same constitutional rights, including the right to vote for the U.S. president. In their calls to U.S. representatives, Puig-Snider and her volunteers requested specific courses of action to be taken by the government. The requests ranged from approving emergency relief funding to sending additional military support to aid in the disbursement of supplies. Additionally they asked for a resolution or budget package that includes funding of infrastructure and relief, and extending the suspension of or completely abolishing the Jones Act.

The Jones Act, or the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, states that only U.S. ships that are owned, made and manned by Americans can carry goods from one U.S. port to another U.S. port without having to pay fees. This act has appeared to serve as a barrier in the wake of the hurricane to many neighboring countries that may want to help but cannot send aid that will successfully reach residents.

Ninety-five percent of Puig-Snider’s extended family remain residents of the island of Puerto Rico. For 10 days following Hurricane Maria’s landfall on Sept. 20, she was left with radio silence.

“For those 10 days it was pure agony not knowing where they were,” she said. “Were they eating? Were they dead?”

In the days and weeks that followed this initial silence, Puig-Snider engaged in broken communication with select relatives that had the privilege of occasional electricity.  Although it is nearly impossible to leave the island, Puig-Snider’s aunt was able to escape for a few days and bring her grandchildren to safety in Dallas, Texas before returning to aid in the hospitals of Puerto Rico. Once in Dallas, she was able to communicate with Puig-Snider about the conditions on the island.

“My aunt [told me] that if people don’t leave that island they will die there,’” Puig-Snider said. “Each family receives a snack bag with one slice of white bread and whatever else they can fit into that snack bag. They [are given] one bottle of water per family. [The people] are bathing, cooking and washing clothes with water that is contaminated with dead animals floating in it because they have nothing else to use. The hospitals right now are completely packed with people due to bacteria and disease. The funeral homes are so packed with dead bodies [that] they’re giving each hospital metal containers, like those cylinder trucks that transport food, to put the dead bodies in because there is no other place to put them.”

Puig-Snider adjusted her hands around her mug and looked around the coffee shop where she sat.  “I feel like I am living two different realities,” she said. “I am sitting here having my warm tea. I have my jacket. I have my cellphone. In the meantime, I know that all my family is tired and starving.”

I feel like I am living two different realities. I am sitting here having my warm tea. I have my jacket. I have my cellphone. In the meantime, I know that all my family is tired and starving.

Puig-Snider is no stranger to being part of two different worlds. In Puerto Rico, she grew up as the granddaughter of a medicine woman. Her home was the destination for anyone and everyone in her coastal town seeking relief from pain or illness in the form of her grandmother’s concoctions. As an involved community member in her teenage years, Puig-Snider volunteered in homeless shelters, orphanages and with HIV youth patients. After accepting a proposal from an American man she met in Puerto Rico, she took a leap of faith and became the first member of her family to make the move from her small island in the Atlantic Ocean to the U.S. mainland.

Eleven years, two children and a divorce later, Puig-Snider embarked on a year-long journey of self-discovery to find herself in this still somewhat foreign place.

“When you move from a different place I almost feel like you start losing your roots and who you are,” she said. “I no longer [listened] to Puerto Rican music, I didn’t cook any more Puerto Rican food. So I totally immersed myself into discovering who I was, and my grandmother kept coming into my mind. I took a year of journaling, involving myself in herbs and plants and teas and that’s how my business started.”

Her company, Sacred Earth Remedies, provides hand-crafted natural skincare products made from herbs outsourced from her garden or other local farmers. Her products can be found on the shelves of small businesses around San Luis Obispo County.

Continuing her passion for community involvement, she consistently meshes her line of work with interactive workshops for women and teenagers. “We talk about what’s happening in the world that we live in and the things that, as young kids, they’re being exposed to and how to be truthful to yourself,” Puig-Snider said. “Then, we make lip balms and creams and they all take them home.”

Additionally, she aids other local Hispanic women through personalized business consulting, helping them find the strength to pursue their own passions. “As a woman we are meant to support each other,” Puig-Snider said. “I focus on Hispanic females because they don’t think they’re allowed to do that. I want them to believe that they can do whatever they want.”

Today, Grisel Puig-Snider is not just a mother or a business owner or an immigrant or an active community member. Today, she embodies the voice of her Puerto Rican people and is determined to use it to make change.

“The way I see it my job right now is to save my people, to save our fellow American citizens, to save our sisters and brothers,” she said. “We are not exempt from what Puerto Rico is going through right now. We are our brothers and sisters keepers. It is our responsibility to take care of one another.”

So Puig-Snider will continue to organize phone banks and she will continue to take a stand.

“I pick up the phone and I say ‘Hello, my name is Grisel. I am an American citizen and this is what I am requesting.’ There is something empowering in that.”