The devastation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria was far greater and long lasting than most had expected. When discussing the aftermath, immediately thoughts of destruction and survival surface to the forefront of the conversation. In the moments immediately after, that is what’s important. What was lost? Who was lost? Who is alive? Who is in need? What do they need? The focus is on helping survivors make it another day, and hopefully find normalization again. Rarely is it that simple, however, as reconstruction is never a one day fix. The question for Puerto Ricans would become, How do we fix something that was always broken?
As time went on, the aftermath of hurricane Maria exposed many systemic problems on the island. Many confuse Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States as a commonwealth as full statehood instead of a colony. Although Puerto Rican’s have citizenship they do not have the right to vote, nor do they have representation in Congress. The governor is responsible for vocalizing the needs of the island, and this was Ricardo Rossello at the time of the storm. With Donald Trump as our president, the media was looking at him for his response to the disaster.
Both Rossello and Trump took little action and a lot of credit for the aid in Puerto Rico. The lack of government aid throughout the island left people without homes, electricity, water, supplies, jobs, schools, and the list goes on. With everyone’s focus on survival and returning to normalcy, some aspects of life in Puerto Rico were forgotten about.
There are elements of a culture that become essential outlets of self expression and ritualistic lifestyle. Both art and sport are so universal but become unique and symbolic of one’s homeland in the context of a single nation. While these two elements are embedded in our everyday lives, they are categorized as a leisurely activity rather than a necessity. In times that prioritize survival, like hurricane disasters, non necessities get brushed to the side. A lot of time has passed since hurricane maria first hit the island, and locals have already begun considering taking steps back to these cultural aspects, but funds make it difficult to have a lasting impact. Fortunately, some celebrities have decided to respond to the lack of aid, and help rebuild themselves.
One celebrity making strides for Puerto Rico is Lin Manuel Miranda. Miranda is a composer, lyricist, singer, actor, and playwright best known for his works In the Heights and Hamilton, both widely successful Broadway musicals. On Fortune, Emily Price describes how Miranda has been using ticket sales from Hamilton to donate funds to the arts in Puerto Rico, raising over $14 million by February of 2019. Partnering with the Flamboyan Foundation, an organization dedicated to philanthropy, Miranda created the Flamboyan Fund for artists and art institutions throughout the island. The money raised has particularly gone to the rebuilding after Maria, but also to some recipients selected by the foundation’s board. Amongst the recipients include the Puerto Rico Art Museum, a theater company Y No Habia Luz, and Música pa’ Culebra.
More recently, the salsa and latin trap artists Marc Anthony and Bad Bunny have come together to contribute as well. Both singers are Puerto Rican born stars that dominate the music charts in and out of the Latin community. HOLA!’s Robert PeterPaul discusses how the two partnered with several organizations to form the “Play Ball Again” program, in which they will rebuild six baseball fields that were destroyed by the hurricane. The specific field are located in the cities of Vega Baja, Loiza, Isla Verde, Yabucoa, and Yauco. The grand opening is estimated to happen around December of 2019, and after that the program plans to expand on restoring more fields. These playing fields are geared towards children, and it is important to the singer’s that kids have a place to play.
Mental health is a topic that has been very taboo throughout the history of the latin community. Fortunately it is a topic that has been highlighted in recent years, especially in Puerto Rico after the island as a whole experiences trauma. In Alejandra Rosa & Patricia Mazzei’s article, “A Space Where You Could Be Free’: Puerto Rico’s L.G.B.T. Groups Rebuild After a Hurricane” they highlight the importance of a safe communal space for the gay community, and what having these spaces can do for these people. Human beings need to have outlets to rely on where they can express themselves and work out their emotions. Although the arts and sports are passed off as activities of leisure, people need places of leisure. It is important to provide them with a source of social interactions and community spaces, which these centers of leisure offer. Art and baseball are a huge part of Puerto Rican culture, and allowing citizens to continue aspiring in these fields provokes growth for the island. The foundations behind Lin Manuel Miranda, Marc Anthony, and Bad Bunny stress the idea of a safe space for both artists and children. Focusing on projects like these allow Puerto Ricans to access a healthy way of living and a strength to push forward.
In selections from Aftershocks of Disaster we learn about stories of resilience and rebuilding from residents of Puerto Rico. In Giovanni Roberto’s “Community Kitchens” he discusses his experience running a soup kitchen that becomes a center of community, but faces many problems from the local government and institutions. Stories like these remind us that Puerto Ricans have the willingness to work towards self recovery and regulation, but often face obstacles from outside forces. The aid of celebrities help to overcome these obstacles.
The wealth and popularity that comes with fame opens up many doors of opportunity that are closed off to the general public. More celebrities should use their positions of power as a non government official to contribute to the people’s causes. It is a wonderful thing what Lin Manuel Miranda, Marc Anthony and Bad Bunny are doing but there is still so much left to do. To this day Puerto Rico is fighting many battles such as lack of electricity, schools closing, and gender inequality. The people have been protesting and pushing back for a long time. With more help from celebrities providing resources and adding pressure through the media, the job will get done much faster and have a long lasting impact.
Hurricane Maria was an outlet that revealed many issues to Puerto Rican citizens. As Puerto Rico emerges in this state of revolution, little by little people are finding ways to answer the question, how do we fix our nation? For celebrities with a platform, people like Lin Manuel Miranda, Mark Anthony and Bad Bunny have chosen to organize the rebuilding themselves. It is not just in the money they provide, but the example they provide, of taking action into their own hands that makes these gestures so important. What I love most about Puerto Ricans like myself is the pride we have and the willingness to work for what we want. Moving further into this revolution, each day more and more Puerto Ricans are stepping into that mindset, and working towards rebuilding a nation for themselves. With more celebrities on the people’s side, it will be much easier for Puerto Ricans to achieve their goals in sustaining the island in ways that benefit them.
I interviewed my great aunt Virginia Rivera who was living in Caguas, Puerto Rico at the time of Hurricane Maria. Some of the things that stood out to me in her response were the aspects of the hurricanes outcomes that went unnoticed when discussing natural disaster in a greater context. When speaking about any type of disaster that impacts many people, it’s easier for the media to form a broader narrative so that the survivors may fit under a common story. News outlets may focus on larger angles such as physical damage and political action because it’s an easier narrative to tell. By doing this, many minor details that may seem irrelevant are left out, but these small parts of survivor’s lives are actually far from insignificant. For outsiders who are trying to grasp an understanding of disasters, this practice of generalizing detains them from truly learning the multitude of impact. There are certain outlooks of a disaster that the media often can’t portray. It was intriguing to speak with Virginia and learn some facts about Maria that were never brought to my attention beforehand.
Before the storm, Virginia lived a simple routine based life. She was retired and living with her mother, Zenaida. Her daily routine called for activities like grocery shopping, cooking, and being a caregiver to her mom. After the storm this routine was put on halt, and her primary concern became Zenaida’s health. At the time, her mother was just shy of her nineties. While Zenaida was not in critical condition beforehand, she did undergo some sickness that comes with old age. With lack of power, Zenaida struggled through a vulnerable state that became dangerous for her. “She fell and her arm was all black! It was bad,” Virginia exclaimed. While she felt okay about herself, Virginia knew for her mother, the storm would leave her severely ill. With lack of medicine and functioning hospitals, the darkening of Zenaida’s bruised skin was a negative sign for them.
Luckily, Virginia’s physical house wasn’t completely destroyed. This would leave Virginia and Zenaida in a slightly better circumstance than those who completely lost their properties. Virginia mentioned how she took in some people to live with her because their homes were destroyed, and she had many rooms to spare. She explained to me how the houses with cement ceilings had a slightly stronger infrastructure as opposed to the wooden ones. Virginia described the roof of her sisters house right next to hers, “Juanita had a wood ceiling. It was thin, and that just went!” Meanwhile, Virginia’s cement ceiling only received a few cracks as opposed to being completely gone like Juanita’s. Although, Virginia’s place became a shelter for another family, the house was far from perfect.
Virginia’s house received a lot of water damage that came in through the windows and doors, damaging the furniture and clothing. “We were up all night, fighting the water, sweeping the water,” she affirmed. Without clean water, it was hard for her to wash and dry everything that was soiled by the storm. On top of that, the electricity was cut out in her home for ten months. She explained how in Caguas the light’s wires were not underground like the telephone and cable wires were. Adding how the above ground wires caused problems in the past, where she would lose light once or twice a month. Those who came to repair the lights fixed it to exactly how it was before, so Virginia knew it would continue to cause problems in the future.
One interesting aspect to learn about was her inflatable pool on the side of her house. She turned it into a vessel to hold leftover rain and flood water that she would use to help clean things or flush the toilet. Basic plumbing is easily taken for granted until it’s not a luxury anymore. The idea of using unclean water to wash things or pour water into the toilet, just to get rid of human waste, is unnerving. Not to mention the never-ending swarms of mosquitoes. “They were bugging you, all day, all night,” she sighed. It is easy to never have to think about such things, until they happen. Nevertheless Virginia had standing walls for the people residing inside.
While her home’s structure was fairly okay, it was everything around her that crumbled. Virginia shared her story of persistence and community, although she would hardly call it that. She described how her neighbors came together with electric saws and machetes to clear away debris from the main road that they shared. Living in the mountains, they didn’t have alternative routes. Surprisingly, Virginia described how the salt water “burned” everything and moved around the trees and garbage. Together, her neighbors helped each other remove fallen trees and chunks of damage from the road, so that one or two cars would be able to pass. “Everybody putting in their weight… The road was clean within a week,” she said proudly. However, she doesn’t describe this sense of community as a newfound result from the storm. Virginia believes that everyone in Puerto Rico is super friendly, talking to each other all the time. “It’s because they’re nosy,” she jokes. Virginia acted as a cook for the neighbors who helped her and the family living with her. Her lights were not reliable, but at least she had a gas stove that didn’t require electricity. Again however, cooking for everyone wasn’t anything new for her. “Oh yeah! I always do that,” she laughed.
The impact Maria had on Virginia stretched beyond her home, and out towards other areas of Caguas. It is no secret that after the storm there was a desperation for necessities. Stores and gas stations had extremely long lines, with scarce amounts of supplies. Virgina says she had to travel pretty far to reach Walmart and gas stations, and spent about four to six hours waiting to buy water, gas and ice. She emphasized the need for ice because there was no electricity at all. One fact that surprised me was how there were number limits set up in these stores. Virginia described the experience saying they let in about twenty people at a time, and some parts of the store were so dark that employees carried flashlights. “People were with you in the section wherever you wanted to go. There was a restriction as to how many stuff you could buy,” Virginia accounted, “whatever it is, there was always a little piece of paper stating how many you could buy per person.” This is frustrating when considering how outsider donations were often withheld from the government. Then again, it was difficult for the people in charge to run a fair system of recovery throughout the island.
People like Virginia received no aid from the government. She explained the only form of aid was FEMA, and they denied her application because, again, her house was cement and most of the damage happened to wooden houses. She added, “They went out for the ones that were really bad, and I wasn’t one of them.” When asked about her expectations with aid she responded, “I did have some expectations!” She sounded almost shocked, almost. With no help from the government, Virginia’s family sent her a generator. Although she admitted the generator was costly, having to pay $25 a day to use it. Still, she considers herself one of the lucky ones.
The impact of Maria didn’t end within the borders of Puerto Rico. Displacement is a result for many survivors of a disaster who struggle to rebuild and regain control over their former life routines. While the personal narratives of many Puerto Rican’s send them to various other locations, Virginia’s story was pushed to New York. Fortunately this was quite alright to her. “I love my New York!” She laughed, explaining how she was raised there. Even though she was born in Puerto Rico, she lived her life going back and forth. This was just another one of those times, but for forced reasons.
Virginia had to bring her mother, Zenaida somewhere where she can be comfortable and monitored safely. With most of their family residing in New York, her sister Gladys’ home in the Bronx was the best answer. For Virginia this was just a pit stop on the road to recovery, but it would be far more serious for her mother. “She wanted to go back to Puerto Rico. She said it all the time.” She recalled the final days of Zenaida’s life, stuck in the living room of a cold inner city home, compared to her days in Puerto Rico. “She liked to go outside, look at the flowers, come back in, come back out. It’s different than being in a small apartment.” Zenaida passed away, still trapped in the living room of Gladys’ home in New York. Her flight back home was booked for just a few days after, but she would never make it back home.
It is important to consider Virginia as a voice of a survivor. Like many other survivors in Puerto Rico, Virginia often undermined her own struggles and story. She believed she didn’t fit into a certain category of victim-hood and felt she was offering disappointing answers. The fact is, I was not looking for specific answers. I was genuinely curious about my great aunt’s personal experience of Hurricane Maria. With Virginia, and many others like her, their truth is what drives hope through recovery. Speaking with her, I learned some characteristics about natural disasters that I was not able to comprehend beforehand. Bringing personal narratives into the foreground is an important practice when raising awareness for disasters. For Virginia, I wish to tell her story and have her recognized as a true survivor of Hurricane Maria.
When I first heard of Maria, the name given to the category 5 hurricane approaching Puerto Rico, I honestly didn’t think much of it. My grandparents and uncle had just returned from Puerto Rico after visiting my great grandmother. The house they stood in had been losing power, therefore they spent their last few days in a hotel to avoid the heat. The day before their return flight, hurricane Irma hit the island. The following day they arrived at an airport with no power, delaying their flight eight hours. Once they came home they told stories about hours of no light, no food, and no air conditioning, but everyone was okay, no harm done. That’s all that hurricane Irma was to me, and that’s how I thought María would go. It hadn’t occurred to me that the entire island would soon feel the effects of something much worse than a little power outage.
Maria hit the island only two weeks later, leaving so much more destruction behind that talk of Irma almost vanished. I learned about how much actual damage the hurricane inflicted on the island, and yet I still wasn’t able to grasp the scale of the crisis. Living within the confines of an inner city borough my entire life, I had never experienced a hurricane or any sort of natural disaster first hand. It was hard for me to imagine what it must feel like for the survivors because my own experiences were so detached. It wasn’t until my family moved my great grandmother from her home in Caguas to my aunts house in the Bronx, that I finally realized this was more than just a bunch of fallen trees after a storm. They explained that the conditions down there were too unbearable for her at her age, so she needed to come here to be taken care of since she was already sick for a long time. Far away from her true home, my great grandma, Zenaida passed soon after.
The hurricanes Irma and Maria happened almost back to back, leaving Puerto Rico with little time for action. Because the results of Irma were not as drastic, there was little reason to believe this next hurricane would call for more preparation. Besides, there was little that citizens could do about the already failing infrastructure. Recall how my aunt’s house was losing power weeks before the hurricanes arrived. After Maria, the list of destruction went on: no electricity, roofs torn away, roads blocked, streets flooded, no clean water. People were becoming unemployed and children were out of school because there were often no way of reaching these locations, and even if they could, often there was nothing there.
I blame part of my disconnect on the current political climate. Trump can be off putting, making the news less engaging. I didn’t care to sit and listen about paper towels, “ungrateful Puerto Ricans,” and the confusion regarding number of deaths. The news anchors seemed to be on our side, but everyone was more concerned with bashing Trump. Who was sending help? It definitely wasn’t me; I didn’t know how. In fact, like many Americans today, I got my information from social media when celebrities decided to take matters into their own hands. Stars such as Cardi B and Jennifer Lopez were sending out information on how individuals could donate. Around the same time my grandmother began sending help packages to our family as well as other families in need, with information she found on facebook. It felt rewarding to donate some personal items knowing that I was going to give to someone like myself. Suddenly the news was overrun with stories about donations being withheld, and I wondered if my grandmothers packages even made it. Professors at school were having open discussions about what we could do? Nothing, I thought. Not even donate.
Slowly, Puerto Ricans worked towards putting the island back together themselves, after being abandoned by the government they were forced into. On the second anniversary of Maria, there are still homes, no, humans going on without power. The lack of response feels surreal to me. A huge issue surrounding the lack of aid from the US government comes from the debate around Puerto Rico’s relationship with the US. Evidently, not many people are aware that Puerto Rico is a US territory and not a state. The idea of citizenship comes up as a reason to help Puerto Ricans, followed by retaliation explaining they aren’t citizens, thus help is not a necessity. I find this entire debate ridiculous considering the United States has a history of providing aid to foreigners whether they asked for the help or not. I cannot fathom why Puerto Rico should be any different.
Two years later the world goes on, and as many municipalities of Puerto Rico are forced to dwell on the past, another natural disaster hit Puerto Rico on the very week of Maria’s anniversary. First was an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.3, followed by tropical storm Karen. What does this mean for an island still recovering from destruction? It’s difficult to feel hopeful in a situation like this, yet I’ve learned many Puerto Ricans still are. Artists like Veronica Ortiz Calderon with her film Candlelight and singer Macha Colon with her performances, draw attention to an empowering dynamic of the Puerto Rican people continuing to push forward. The islands long term state outside the norm has allowed for a certain kind of freedom that brings the community together. With a shared devastation across the land, there is more room for communication, sympathy, and understanding amongst the community.
Upon reading personal accounts of people in Aftershocks of Disaster, I have a deeper understanding of the experiences that these survivors undergo. When thinking about survival it’s easy to forget all the elements of personal lives that get put on hold. It’s not just about finding food and fetching water. Sofia Galisa Muriente highlights this in her list, Gone with Maria. She lists things that Maria took away like, “the professional basketball and volleyball seasons” or “the expert witness in my mom’s robbery case”. I never really thought about the little things in people’s lives that make their individual narrative so unique. Certain things that were put on hold, altered, or gone all together. With a stronger awareness now, I feel better that I’m not so ignorant on the matter. Now I’ve been inspired to be more optimistic and hopeful towards the islands self recovery like many people in Puerto Rico are.