SAN JUAN, P.R. — When Carmen Yulín Cruz was a long-shot candidate for mayor here in 2012, she cast herself as a “pitirre,” a small bird known for fearlessly attacking larger ones.
Now in her second term as mayor of San Juan, the capital of this storm-ravaged island, Ms. Cruz, 54, finds herself in a high-profile altercation, having publicly criticized the Trump administration for its response to the damage wrought by Hurricane Maria and getting plenty of reproach from Mr. Trump on Saturday in return.
In Puerto Rico, her outspokenness has come as little surprise. Before the hurricane Ms. Cruz was known for a left-leaning populist streak and a tendency to speak in blunt and emotional terms.
“We are dying here,” she said in a news conference Friday, her eyes filling with tears, as she issued a verbal distress signal. “Mayday.”
Ms. Cruz even went to evacuate residents of an assisted living facility after a fire broke out there. Asked why she did so herself, when it could come across as showboating, she was quick with her response.
“That is my job,” she said Saturday in an hourlong interview at her command center, after answering, in strong language, that she did not care how her efforts were perceived. “My job is to make life better for people, and you cannot make life better if you are in a helicopter. You can’t make life better for them if you can’t touch them.”
Ms. Cruz said she had no time for petty politics when there were lives to save. “Sometimes you have to shake the tree in order to make things happen,” she said. “And if that has a political cost, I will take it, as long as it saves lives.”
Her post-hurricane style has been at stark odds with that of Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló, who praised the Trump administration’s response this week. “Whenever we have an ask for this effort, they have delivered,” said Mr. Rosselló, a member of the New Progressive Party, which favors Puerto Rican statehood.
It may be that Mr. Rosselló, a first-term governor, has little choice but to sing the administration’s praises because criticizing the unpredictable president could affect the delivery of aid to the island.
That has left Ms. Cruz to play the role of Puerto Rico’s chief critic of the recovery effort.
Censuring Trump certainly jibes with Ms. Cruz’s liberal worldview, but in some ways the mayor can seem as complex and contradictory as the neither-fish-nor-fowl United States commonwealth she calls home.
She is a product of both the island and the mainland, a former star in the blue-chip world of corporate America who is beloved in the poorest barrios of the Puerto Rican capital. She is also an unapologetic supporter of Oscar López Rivera, the Puerto Rican militant associated with a group that carried out a deadly campaign of bombings in New York and other cities in the 1970s and 1980s.
Ms. Cruz, according to a biography on the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce website, was an honor student and track-and-field star on the island who went on to receive degrees from Boston University and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. She later worked as a human resources director for companies including Colgate-Palmolive, Banco Popular and Scotiabank, as well as the Treasury Department.
She returned to the island in 1992, working as an adviser to a previous San Juan mayor, and was elected to the Puerto Rico House of Representatives in 2008.
She was hardly a well-known figure when she ran for mayor in 2012 against a 12-year incumbent, Jorge Santini, who misjudged the threat and seemed to belittle her by calling her “esa señora,” or that woman. He also characterized her as a Venezuelan-style socialist. Ms. Cruz, meanwhile, stitched together a coalition of students; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups; and people simply fed up with the status quo, and won. She was re-elected handily in 2016 against a lackluster opponent.
Ms. Cruz is a member of the Popular Democratic Party, which supports maintaining the island’s commonwealth status, rather than statehood. While it is in the minority in both state houses, it includes centrist and center-right members. But Ms. Cruz is firmly ensconced in the party’s small left wing. She allowed for the unionization of San Juan government health workers, and this year she supported a strike led by university students who opposed strict austerity measures after the island, staggering under $74 billion in debt, was forced to declare a form of bankruptcy.
In June, Ms. Cruz explained her opposition to statehood to a reporter from The Guardian. “You don’t fight injustice by asking to become part of the system that committed the injustice against you in the first place,” she told the paper. “That’s like a freed slave striving to become a slave owner.”
This year, the mayor offered Mr. López, the militant nationalist, a job with the city of San Juan after he was freed from prison in May, after 35 years behind bars. Mr. López said he would not take the job, but the news spurred heated criticism of the mayor on talk radio and elsewhere.
Critics say that the quality of life has not improved much under Ms. Cruz. “The first four years she didn’t do anything,” said Irene Junco, 65, a San Juan pizzeria owner. The mayor’s emotional criticism of Mr. Trump, Ms. Junco said, seemed to her like a way to ramp up a run for governor.
“I think she’s taking advantage of the moment, like all politicians, for her own benefit,” Ms. Junco said.
Some in the streets of San Juan had not even heard of the spat between their mayor and the president, given the hobbled communications on the island. But a few said they were proud of her for voicing their frustrations.
“She’s done what she can under the circumstances, and the circumstances are difficult,” said Hugo Figueroa, 28, a systems engineer. “We understand that it is hard to get aid because we’re on an island. But there’s been a lack of rapid action from the government.”
Ms. Cruz’s command center is in the Roberto Clemente Coliseum, where she, her husband, her stepdaughter and 689 others waited for the storm to pass. She said she was terrified. At one point, the roof started to wobble.
On Saturday, Ms. Cruz read a text from another city mayor that read “total desperation.” He had no water.
“Some of the mayors that I have been able to reach or have reached me are scared of voicing their concern, because they are concerned if they do, they won’t even get a bottle of water,” she said. “That is a sad situation in a democratic society when fear takes a hold of people, then you know something isn’t working.”
Now, she said, was not the time for “political calculation” or even “political correctness.”
“If President Trump were to say, ‘I’m going to go to San Juan to see that nasty mayor,’ I would receive him with open arms, because democracy is larger than me,” she said. “He was democratically elected. He represents the United States of North America and he deserves all the respect that office brings with it.”
Lizette Alvarez contributed reporting from Miami.