On our first week in Puerto Rico, we spent the first few days orienting ourselves for the coming weeks. As we settled in we had the chance to appreciate the area we were staying in and later that week to visit Loiza to conduct our first few interviews. Something that really stuck out to me that week was Puerto Rico’s nature. Growing up in PR I always thought the island was beautiful, and when I visited for the first time after the Hurricane I was so sad when I saw how barren everything was. Going around Loiza and Miramar you can tell there is a lot of beauty in Puerto Rico, but that beauty is always a little broken.
Photo by Andrea Figueroa (2019)
I took a picture of the flamboyán tree in front of our apartment because I found it stunning, but further along that street you can see cracked sidewalks and abandoned houses. This is a common visual theme throughout the island. I remember I used to get angry when I saw all the broken trees because, even though they grew back all their leaves, they still had broken branches, exposed roots, and were leaning in strange angles. Two years after the hurricane these things no longer bother me. I think the juxtaposition of our beautiful nature and broken infrastructure speaks a story of the island’s resilience. To an outsider PR might look broken but to me it looks like an island bouncing back. The few locals I’ve had the chance to interview seem to echo this sentiment and I’m excited to see how the stories of the hurricane reflect this topic of resilience in our future interviews.
On our second week in Puerto Rico, we established a system of contacting the Emergency Management and Disaster Administration (MEAD in Spanish) department in each municipality we planned to visit, in order to better orient ourselves of the hurricane’s impact in that location and the local government’s response. When we visited the office in Bayamón, the employees there informed us that there will be a convention in Ponce for all the directors of each MEAD department in the island. Here we had the opportunity to interview the director of the department in Bayamón, who then was kind enough to introduce us to the directors of San Juan and Guaynabo.
Photo of Andrea and Christian interviewing an emergency manager at the conference in Ponce. Photo taken by Crystal Felima (2019)
After completing the first interview with the director of Bayamón, I was left with the sense that I had just treated with a politician trying to gain favor in the media. I felt as though he had rehearsed his answers, and was trying to give us the best impression of his department; hiding the departments shortcomings. I walked out of the interview content with the information we had gathered, but slightly bothered by the way he spoke so formally, almost dispassionately, about the situation. We then interviewed the directors of San Juan and Guaynabo together. This conversation went completely different, yet all together the same. The directors of San Juan and Guaynabo spoke about their connection to the people, the challenges of addressing such large municipalities, and the passion with which they performed their job. They said (in Spanish) that their department is “directly connected to the pain of the people.”
As a Puerto Rican who loves her island, I was swept away by my emotions, and became enamored with their stories. By the end of the interview I was thanking them for their service. After listening back at those interviews and reflecting on both, I realized those directors were playing the same political game. They were presenting their department in the best light, yet instead of using facts and statistics as the director of Bayamón had, the other directors used empathy and emotions to present their best case. I realized that they had won me over because of my positionality, and that once again this idea of remaining objective in anthropology isn’t realistic. These were both very similar interviews but at the moment my position as a Puerto Rican who’s family went through months without electricity, and who was able to see the impact of the hurricane shortly after it had occurred, had influenced my opinion of these interviews and directors.
At the end of the day I don’t doubt that any of these directors care about their jobs, care about their communities, and are trying to do the best they can (whether or not that is sufficient). These interviews were just an example of how we can criticize the idea that Anthropologist are ever capable of remaining fully objective. I think it would be more beneficial for future Anthropology students to be taught to understand their positionality, and learn how to constantly evaluate where their subjective views may be interfering. Of course we should always abide by the principles of cultural relativism, but we shouldn’t pretend our background and our heritage doesn’t play a role in all of our interactions.
Three weeks into this project it is clear to me that Puerto Ricans have a strong sense of pride and place immeasurable value in their community. The way the hurricane impacted each individual we interview could vary drastically simply between neighbors, but there is a persistent theme of communities and families helping one another throughout the island. At first this made my heart swell with pride to see how Puerto Ricans fought side by side to stay afloat, but this strong self-sufficiency has also revealed caustic trends in the island, primarily a growing mistrust in the local government.
It is clear that Puerto Rico was not prepared for the destruction that a category 5 hurricane would bring. Some of the major issues we have identified for the municipalities visited were lack of communication, resources, money, and man power. I used to believe that the local government was immensely incompetent in PR. However, the more people we interview, the more I start to believe that while yes, they are not the most competent in the world, the officials in charge of disaster response really never had the resources to respond to such a large disaster efficiently.
Photo taken at a pro-independence march in Old San Juan at the Plaza de Armas. Captured by Crystal Felima (2019.
While it is easy for me to concede this small victory to the local government, the locals themselves have a harder time understanding why three months after Maria they still don’t have power, why five days after Maria they’re still trapped off in the mountains due to landslides, or simply why food and water hasn’t been dropped off in their community yet. In response to these short comings, the people of Puerto Rico have come together to put up lamp post, clear debris from the streets, and cook for their neighbors. Time and time again we have heard how Maria forced communities to bond through mutual experiences of hardship. Although this community response may seem like a beautiful thing, it has left the people of Puerto Rico more mistrustful of the local government than ever before. This mistrust threatens the ability for the island to bounce back from both the disaster and economic recession, as it jeopardizes the cooperation and compliance of the citizens. In future disasters this might mean more people refuse to evacuate their homes against warnings from the local government. In reality, it threatens programs and policy in all spheres of governance, not only disasters, and without effective governance “Puerto Rico se levanta” simply isn’t possible.
On our last week in Puerto Rico, we had completed most of the interviews and began to focus on transcribing. These transcriptions lead to great discussions about the data at hand, and how the individual experiences say something about the collective. I realized that as in most anthropology projects, the focus of our study had shifted significantly from when we first set off. Four weeks into the project, we could tell that the political climate in Puerto Rico was very important to how people experienced the hurricane, but also to how they expressed themselves about the hurricane. We engaged in discussions about resilience and its implications, about the economic debt, about corruption at the state level, and how all of these affect the Puerto Rican people in the form of scarcity. By scarcity, I specifically mean a lack of resources to deal with disaster scenarios, such as a lack of supplies, money, and manpower.
Puerto Rico has had issues with debt and corruption for a long time, but Hurricane Maria lifted the veil that hid these ugly realities on the island. The response to the hurricane is undoubtedly affected by our charged political climate and strangled by the economic debt, yet two years later I sensed a lack of urgency in the people’s criticism of the response. I don’t know if participants were unwilling to share their stories with outsiders, or if two years was long enough for the vail to be placed back on Puerto Rico’s crisis. We heard many diverse opinions of the local, central, and federal government, but it genuinely concerns me to hear people speak so hopefully about Puerto Rico’s future in light of those earlier criticisms. I too wish that Puerto Rico will continue to recover from the hurricane. My heart is filled with pride when I see new businesses or beautiful art displays in Santurce- but when I hear people reply to my questions about the future of Puerto Rico with “Puerto Rico se levanta” (Puerto Rico gets back up) after speaking to me for twenty minutes about the lack of preparation in the island, I can’t help but think that anyone who seriously believes “Puerto Rico se levanta” is ignorant of the harsh realities that the island is facing. Puerto Rico has a long way to go before we can claim to have risen back up.
This research experience has not only helped me grow as a young researcher, but it has helped me come to terms with the difficult situation Puerto Rico finds itself in. In the past I have been guilty of ignoring the crisis, pretending everything is okay, and believing Puerto Rico is getting back up. I genuinely believe this experience has helped me become a more conscious citizen of Puerto Rico. Educating ourselves about the issues of our island is the first step to resolving its problems. I hope that what comes out of this project will reflect the need to educate the public and that these results can be a tool in doing so.