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'You are not forgotten': Lin-Manuel Miranda, thousands march for Puerto Rico recovery help

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Rita Moreno were among the thousands who marched from the Capitol to the National Mall to demand more recovery help for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
"Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was one of thousands who marched and held a rally in D.C. on Sunday, Nov. 19 to call attention to Puerto Rico's plight two months after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
"Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was one of thousands who marched and held a rally in D.C. on Sunday, Nov. 19 to call attention to Puerto Rico's plight two months after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.Suzanne Gamboa, NBC News

WASHINGTON -- Several thousand people, including award-winning playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, streamed from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial Sunday shouting "Puerto Rico Se Levanta" (Puerto Rico Is Rising) to protest how Congress and the Trump administration have handled the island's nearly two-month-old hurricane recovery and to pressure them to step things up.

"We knew it was very important for the U.S. to know we are citizens and this is what citizens look like," Angela Gonzalez-Walker, 59, said to explain why she drove to Washington, D.C. from Ivyland, Pennsylvania, starting out at 5 a.m. for the march. "The plight of the island is very dire."

Monday is the two-month mark since Hurricane Maria blasted through Puerto Rico. As of Friday, significant portions of the island still lacked electricity and potable water. Families lack housing and the economy, already crippled by its multibillion-dollar debt crisis, has further suffered as businesses have been unable to open without electricity or Internet and with tourism taking a major hit.

The flag of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, was in abundance in the lively, upbeat march and rally. Marchers chanted in Spanish and English and occasionally broke out in song. Marchers carried signs that said "Make Puerto Rico Great Again," "Lucha," and "Stop the Jones Act," as well as "Puerto Ricans are Dying."

Miranda, marching with his father and mother, carried a Hispanic Federation banner reading "Fight For Puerto Rico" leading the latter half of the thousands of marchers. He joined in with the call and response chant of "Puerto Rico, Presente" (Puerto Rico is present) and in shouting a few drawn out "¡Weeepaaas! The term "wepa," sort of like "yowza," is a popular expression in Puerto Rico.

The "Hamilton" creator has made a number of efforts to raise money and bring aid to Puerto Ricans. He has brought together artists to produce the single "Almost Like Praying." Sales of the single have raised $500,000 for the island, Miranda announced at the Lincoln Memorial rally.

He plans to return to the "Hamilton" cast to perform in the award-winning play in Puerto Rico, selling $10 tickets for islanders and other packages to help draw tourists.

Miranda told marchers that the Hispanic Federation, which his father founded, has raised $20 million for Puerto Rico relief coming from more than 100,000 contributions from all 50 states and 23 countries.

"So Puerto Rico, you are not forgotten. The compassion of the American people is real and it is still here," Miranda said from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. "If the government would meet us where we already are, that would be a really incredible thing. We could keep raising money, but it's not going to do any good if the government doesn't help us."

Legendary actress Rita Moreno also rallied the crowd, and others present included celebrity chef Jose Andrés, who has spent a large part of the last two months cooking and spearheading food delivery efforts in Puerto Rico.

Despite having one of the most popular celebrities at the forefront, organizers of the rally emphasized that the march and rally were intended to be a "people's march."

"This advocacy we needed had to come from the people," said Evelyn Mejil, who launched the Unity March. "We needed to find a voice within the community and the community needed to unite in order for voice to be powerful and heard in Congress."

Mejil, who is a communications consultant and runs a non-profit that does humanitarian work around the world, said she wanted to be sure the march was a grassroots march and not one organized by groups or community leaders. Doing so, she said, showed that "we do have a voice, we have power."

Sisters Enid Tallmer, 55, and Ivette Rivas, 53, made the trip from Raleigh, N.C. They said it was only after they had booked their hotel and planned their trip that they learned through his appearance on "Ellen" that Miranda would be marching with them.

"We care about the people that are there the most," Rivas said.

Diana Calderón-Torres and her husband Dr. Richard Torres, both 50, came with their dog Diego from Monroe, Connecticut to the rally and march. She and her husband, an internal medicine physician, had made a medical mission trip to Pueto Rico, taking antibiotics and other medical supplies.

Calderón-Torres said she has moved her 24-year-old niece and her 3-year-old baby to the mainland because of the conditions on the island.

"It was just frustrating to fly in, it was very emotional to come through the airport and see the devastation, to experience first hand what our families, our loved ones, our people are experiencing. It's horrendous. We thought it would be a good idea to come down (to the rally) and do what we can," Calderon-Torres said.

There is limited political recourse for Puerto Ricans on the island when it comes to the federal government. It is a territory - many islanders say colony is a better label - of the United States. Its citizens are represented in Congress by Jenniffer Gonzalez. But she has no vote in Congress.

Puerto Ricans do have a say in picking who will be on the ballot in presidential primaries, but they can't vote for U.S. president in the general elections.

As the economy has worsened over the years, the population of Puerto Ricans who have relocated to the mainland has grown by the hundreds of thousands. Because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they only need to register to vote in the state where they relocate in order to vote. This has made Puerto Ricans a growing part of the electorate, big enough to have some sway in elections in the pivotal state of Florida.

"That there are more Puerto Ricans that have moved to Florida now, a number that dwarfs the Mariel Boat Lift?, said David Ferreria, a principal at Ferreira Strategies consulting firm. "That's impressive and that obviously weighs on the minds of people in terms of the political impact of voters in the Puerto Rican community."

Sunday's march and rally followed a day-long summit on Saturday in D.C. organized by several groups of stateside and island Puerto Rican policy makers and activists. Panels included a discussion on tactics for community organizing as well as long-term strategies for economic redevelopment.

Mari Carmen Aponte, former secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere under the Obama administration and now a consultant, said politicians need to know that Puerto Ricans can change the political landscape.

"There comes a time in history when you say aquí se acabó. (enough is enough)," said Aponte. "This is not about surviving. This is about making Puerto Rico thrive and the only way we can do this is to do it together, do it in unity and to be present."

Miranda added his own warning to lawmakers at Sunday's rally.

"Congress, if you can hear me, Puerto Ricans are coming to the United States in record numbers, they are your newest voting bloc," he said to loud cheers that had Moreno throwing her hands in the air.

"When you vote for relief for Puerto Rico. When you vote for forgiveness of this debt, when you vote for a relief package, it's not just the sane thing to do, it's not just the humane thing to do — it's good politics."

Additional reporting from NBC Latino contributor Patricia Guadalupe.