I moved to the United States mainland in 1994 to attend college. When I first left my home in Puerto Rico, I thought for sure that my move would be temporary. Yet here I am, in Chicago, a Boricua in the diaspora. While separated by distance, I remain forever attached by my roots to Puerto Rico. I’ve raised my children to be proud of their heritage. They both play the national instrument, the Cuatro. They are fluent in Spanish. They look forward to our trips to Puerto Rico to see their grandparents and explore historical landmarks and natural wonders of “La Isla.” I remember with pride my oldest son’s response to the question “where are you from?” asked by another child when we were visiting another country, and he answered “I live in Chicago, but I am from Puerto Rico”.
My connection with friends and family in Puerto Rico has kept me painfully aware of the economic and political turmoil resulting from an ill-defined relationship with the United States. It is often a topic of discussion during family reunions, both when I visit Puerto Rico and when I visit my geographically scattered family in the United States mainland. It was rarely a conversation topic with my non-Puerto Rican friends. And it has rarely been a part of the public discourse of these United States.
Until September 20, 2017: the day when category 4 hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico has suffered through many hurricanes over the years. Just two weeks before Maria, on September 6, 2017, Irma had skirted the island leaving 65% of Puerto Ricans without power. Despite the significant damage to the island’s infrastructure, Puerto Rico was a source of relief for the neighboring Virgin Islands, sharing resources and providing shelter for people displaced by Irma. Yet, Puerto Rico remained absent from the public discourse on mainland USA and instead the focus was on the states that had been affected by Irma.
The already crumbling infrastructure and economic turmoil that has kept so many in the diaspora from returning to Puerto Rico was more fragile when Maria made landfall than during any of the hurricanes that I remember from my youth. Puerto Rico was powerless. And I feared for my family’s safety. I felt hopeless as I went from being able to pick up my phone and calling my mom for the most frivolous reasons, to a torture of silence imposed by the tragic collision of a natural and political disaster.
I took comfort in the wise words of Mr. Rogers: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people helping.” In those days of fear, sadness, anger, frustration at seemingly nonexistent relief efforts, I turned to my brothers and sisters in the diaspora as my source of strength and hope. I reconnected with colleagues and old friends and estranged family members, and made new connections. I was encouraged to see Puerto Ricans from all walks of life setting aside philosophical and political differences with the common goal to rebuild Puerto Rico. We raised money, made needs assessments, and organized to send supplies and volunteers to rescue, provide relief, and rebuild.
For one week, I didn’t have any news from my family in Puerto Rico. But I was lucky, because when I finally connected with them, I learned that they were okay. My mom remained without power until January 6 (coincidentally while I was visiting home for the holidays). But she remained healthy, had access to food and water. She had access to transportation in the case of an emergency. Her house was made of concrete with steel reinforcements and had suffered no damage from the hurricane.
Many more were not so lucky. Interruption of medical care was the primary cause of sustained high mortality rates in the months after the hurricane. Infrastructure and health-care deficiencies in the aftermath of the storm disproportionately affected lower-income areas and lead to a 60% higher death rate compared to baseline after the storm. Lack of basic services such as potable water, electricity, and transportation resulted in a death toll of close to 3000 people.
Amidst tragedy, inspiring leaders from within the island and from the diaspora are rising to rebuild Puerto Rico. It has brought Puerto Rico into the public discourse and activated Puerto Ricans everywhere to engage with local and national political issues. Chicago’s Puerto Rican community has raised enough funds through mostly small donations to provide relief to 40 out of the 78 municipalities of the island. Electricians from one of the rural towns in Puerto Rico got together to restore power to 2000 homes. Women’s creativity and entrepreneurship is flourishing: Affordable housing that can withstand hurricanes is being built out of shipping containers. Puerto Rico’s farming industry is increasing the local food supply to decrease dependence on US food imports. Community leaders are investing in solar power microgrids. This unfortunate event has opened opportunities to transform the island to be a strong, safe, and a collective enterprise.
Despair has led to the rise of social movements everywhere: #metoo, #thisisourlane, #PuertoRicoRises, and so many more. When the loudest voices seem to speak of hatred and negativity, I remind you that we are the majority. Good, kind, loving people who are looking out for each other. Our collective actions are rebuilding broken communities and leveraging our assets to make this world a better place. To quote Dr. Martin Luther King: “the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
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