For delegate fleeing poverty in Puerto Rico, DNC is a one-way trip

Gendy Tchuda, of Puerto Rico, cannot afford the trip home and has been unable to find work there because of the island's high unemployment rate.

Like thousands of other delegates to the Democratic National Convention this week, Gendy Tchuda made her way to Philadelphia by plane. Unlike most, the 25-year-old from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, bought a one-way ticket.

"There's no jobs in Puerto Rico right now," said Tchuda, who's been searching fruitlessly for work since graduating from the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras in May 2015. "If I can get an opportunity, I would stay here."

Tchuda is among 23 Bernie Sanders delegates from Puerto Rico, which sent 67 delegates altogether. While many Sanders delegates are speaking out on issues like campaign-finance reform and the role of superdelegates, the Puerto Ricans have more immediate concerns: The island's unemployment rate, 11.2 percent, is more than double the national average, the 45 percent poverty level is the highest in the nation, and about 38 percent of households use food stamps.

Because of the crushing economy, Puerto Ricans have been fleeing the island at a rate of 230 a day.

The situation became so dire this year that the government started a campaign to turn the tide, with a hashtag #YoNoMeQuito - roughly, "I don't quit."

Tchuda didn't initially intend to join that exodus. But, for the first-time delegate, even getting to the convention was a stretch. She was shocked when she learned that the hotel was $200 per night.

"We didn't expect the convention would be that expensive. I have zero savings," she said. She started fund-raising on the website GoFundMe. "But I didn't have the money for the return ticket."

Since she's here, she'll see if she can make the trip pay off. She plans to stay with a friend in New York and look for work, perhaps at the United Nations or a think tank. (She studied political science and international relations, and interned in Congress and the Puerto Rican Senate.)

Going home, Tchuda said, isn't much of an option. She's been living with her mother, who works in retail, but they're barely getting by.

"I can't help her financially. I'm actually squeezing her," she said.

For all delegates from Puerto Rico, the economy is top of mind.

Manny Rivera, 33, also of Bayamon, has held four jobs in three years, he said.

"I've been working for different pharmaceutical companies, and all of them are leaving Puerto Rico," he said.

Rafael Yulian, 43, who owns his own commercial diving business in San Juan, said the government - $70 billion in debt - also impacts his business. He used to rely on government contracts for work repairing piers and barges. Those dried up in 2012 or 2013, he said. "Because they have no money, they can't start projects. So nothing moves."

Tchuda said her peers who do have work are piecing together low-wage, part-time jobs. "How can you live like that? Many of us are living with our parents," she said.

She got involved with Sanders' campaign after he spoke at her college, emphasizing restructuring the Puerto Rican debt and giving residents control over the territory's fate.

"He said Puerto Rico is a colony. I haven't heard that word from any other president or nominee," she said. "When I heard those words, I said I have to sign up to be a volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign."

As for a President Hillary Clinton, what would she do for Puerto Rico?

"Nothing," Tchuda said. "She didn't even bother to come to the island during her campaign."

For now, Tchuda's hoping to make an impact at the convention where she can. It may be her only chance, since Puerto Rico residents can't vote in the general election.

smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053@samanthamelamed

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