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After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican Flags Fly In Support

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Some residents of Puerto Rico are displaying a flag as a way of expressing how they feel about hurricane recovery. But just which flag Puerto Ricans choose to fly is a source of ongoing debate. Luis Trelles, a reporter with NPR's Radio Ambulante, brings us that story.

(SOUNDBITE OF GENERATOR RUNNING)

LUIS TRELLES, BYLINE: This is the most welcome sound in Puerto Rico right now. If you hear it coming down the street, it means that the electrical trucks have finally arrived and that the lights are about to come on for the first time since September. These trucks and work crews come from all over the United States, but most of them, you'll find a Puerto Rican flag.

TRAY CROSBY: The one I picked up look like one that flew off someone's antenna or something like that.

TRELLES: Tray Crosby is a lineman from South Carolina. He arrived in Puerto Rico in mid-November to help restore the power grid. His Puerto Rican flag hangs from the bucket of his cherry picker. He says the flag is one way the electrical workers are bonding with the Puerto Rican community.

CROSBY: That's why we have the flags because they support us. And we're trying to help them, you know, for having us over here to help them.

TRELLES: There's been an explosion of flags on the island after Hurricane Maria. Made up of a single white star over a blue triangle with red and white bars, the banner can even be seen hanging from the dead electrical cables - also on cellphone covers, beach towels and hanging from TV dishes and roofs and balconies - and flying over the front lawn of Lourdes Soto’s house in San Juan.

LOURDES SOTO: We needed to pull our flag up very high just to remind us and the neighborhood and everybody that Puerto Ricans can stand by themselves.

TRELLES: Soto is 1 of 5 people in her street who put up a Puerto Rican flag after the hurricane.

How tall would you say that flag pole is?

SOTO: I think it could be 20 feet, easily.

TRELLES: Soto told me that the pole was a piece of debris. It hit her house like a spear during the hurricane.

SOTO: It was brought to us by Maria. So nobody claimed it. So we used it as our flagpole.

TRELLES: Although it can now be found almost anywhere, that wasn't always the case with the island's flag. It was seen as a symbol of Puerto Rico's nationalist movement, which was outlawed in the 1940s and '50s. Later, Puerto Rico gained greater autonomy from the United States. And the so-called gag law was repealed, and the flag flew again. But not all Puerto Rican flags are created equal. They all have the same elements, but look closely and different shades of blue start to appear. And the shade, explains Collazo, conveys an important political message.

SOTO: For us independentistas, the light blue is our official flag. So it's called a celeste, and that's the one we use.

TRELLES: It's a sky blue. Celeste is sky...

SOTO: Yes, sky blue. And that's the color we use.

TRELLES: Light blue, independentistas are for Puerto Rican independence. The other option is dark blue. That's the flag used by supporters of the island's current territorial status and by some advocates for statehood. And now there's a third flag that's been added to the mix - the U.S. stars and stripes.

ADRIAN JORDAN: (Speaking Spanish).

TRELLES: Adrian Jordan lives down the block from Collazo and her light blue Puerto Rican flag. He says that before the hurricane, he rarely saw the American flag, but now it's showing up everywhere in the island. Jordan has one in front of his house. He tells me that it's his way of thanking the United States for helping Puerto Rico through this time of need.

JORDAN: (Speaking Spanish). Thank you, USA.

TRELLES: Puerto Rican banners still outnumber the U.S. flag, at least on this street. But neighbors Collazo and Jordan agree that as long as the recovery effort keeps going, they will keep their chosen flags flying high. For NPR News, I'm Luis Trelles in San Juan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.