Friday, October 6, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz: "We Are Dying Here"

After wading through floodwaters when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz ended up knee-deep in a tweet storm by U.S. President Donald Trump. The president accused Cruz of "poor leadership" and acting "nasty" after she delivered a blunt assessment of the hurricane recovery efforts led by his administration.

"We are dying here," she said simply in her short speech to the media, delivered in a t-shirt and boots in front of a pallet of privately-donated supplies, "and I cannot fathom the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out the logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles. So, mayday, we are in trouble."

Cruz made a direct plea to the president in her speech, asking him to "take charge" of the federal assistance plans for the island, after Cruz had listened to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke describe the federal response as "a good news story." The situation on the ground was dire, Cruz insisted, and not under control.

In her speech, she says that she is "begging" for help. What Cruz got instead was a rebuke by the U.S. commander in chief for not being as "complimentary" toward him as she was at the start of the crisis. And while that particular take on the speech was not entirely unexpected from the president, the response to Cruz illustrates a common obstacle that women speakers face: women who express anger are seen as less credible than men who do the same.

Unfortunately, Cruz's speech illustrates a few other challenges as well:
  • "Sometimes you can't play nice." In a 2014 interview, Cruz said that "politics is a rough game, and sometimes as females we are taught that you have to play nice. Sometimes you can't play nice." Her speech was blunt and forceful and deliberate, in an attempt to rouse the federal government from what she perceived as bureaucratic sluggishness. By being straightforward and "mad as hell," as she put it, she knows she is breaking a taboo about how women are allowed to act as politicians. ("So I am done being polite. I am done being politically correct," she notes.) President Trump also attempted to shame Cruz for not conforming to the niceness expected of women in public by calling her "nasty," as he did to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential debates.
  • If your speech is emotional, its content may be dismissed. It's fair to say that this is an emotional speech, in both content and delivery. There's nothing wrong with that, and Cruz's words are consistent with being a first-hand witness to literal life-and-death crises unfolding in Puerto Rico. But the coverage of Cruz's speech has leaned heavily on describing it as "emotional" or "passionate" without engaging with the content of it. It makes it all too easy for people like political consultant Alex Castellanos to describe Cruz as "desperate" and a "panicky swimmer" rather than address whether her facts about the relief effort are correct. It also makes it easier for Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to characterize the speech as "an attack" on the president, rather than a call for leadership and support.
  • You may need to put the focus back on the speech, and not the speaker. It would have been simple for Cruz to fall into a back-and-forth with the president after his tweets, making the story more about his outburst than conditions in Puerto Rico. But Cruz has maintained a remarkable single-mindedness about why she gave the speech. In nearly every interview and on her very active Twitter feed, Cruz repeats the same refrain: we have one goal here, saving lives. By keeping her focus on her constituents, Cruz has managed to wrest back her speech from a political scorekeeping narrative.
You can read a transcript of the speech here, and the video below contains most of the speech as well:

(Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this Famous Speech Friday post)

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