On Saturday, May 25, I, along with Dr. Felima, Fernando and Andrea, arrived to our shared apartment in the Miramar district of San Juan, Puerto Rico. After settling in, on Monday we spoke to the purpose of our Puerto Rico research; on Tuesday, we mapped the sites-of-interest and calendar to follow; on Wednesday, we agreed to the questions we would ask of our participants. We then, on Thursday and on Friday, began interviewing islanders on their invaluable lived experiences surviving Hurricane Maria. First, a pair of women in the Old City of San Juan shared.
To me, their worry for the less privileged on the Island reminded me of the unwavering community of Puerto Rico – one critical to the rebuilding of Puerto Rico during and after Maria. Then, we engaged with local emergency officials in Loiza. “During Maria, hard decisions were made to ensure we maintained some control of the catastrophe,” they solemnly commented, explaining the flood and dam systems, as well as hurricane response protocol. A commitment to public service in time of trial and tribulation, as was theirs, left an impression of gratitude I still feel toward them.
Above, Loiza emergency responders describing the flood and dam systems. Photo by Christian Tirado (2019).
Now, with more time in Puerto Rico, the Island begins to unearth her even more painful truths. Monday ushered a visit to Toa Alta, a small municipality tucked in the north-eastern border of the Cordillera Central; as consequence of significant rainfall during Maria, the entire Toa region suffered devastating landslides and high mortality figures. There I met a middle-aged woman with two children, at the foot of a humble wooden house. After she heard of the ungodly Maria and community warnings, she took refuge at a local shelter with her family. As the hurricane passed, her boys pointed to the windows, “Look, mama, that’s a hurricane! Teacher taught us about them last week.” The kids would not return to school until December, around the same time officials helped collect remains of their home to build a new one.
Before I collected myself, she thanked God and her community for her well-being – no stormy clouds would block her sun. Twenty months later after it, and many stories are filled with hope with oneself.
Photo: Above, stands her wooden home draped in a blue tarp. Photography taken at the ‘Invasion Corridor’ of Galateo, Toa Alta. Captured by Christian Tirado (2019).
On September 23, 1868, abolitionists and freeman gathered in Lares, Puerto Rico to declare the Island as a new Republic, free from Spanish colonial rule. Although a failure, Grito de Lares, this cry for liberty, laid bare Islander dissatisfaction with their incompetent, immoral overseers.
Maria left a devastating legacy in Lares. Throughout the small, mountainous municipio, prevalence of landslides, home destruction and deaths were among the highest in Puerto Rico.
In our first interview, the emergency management director confirmed the casualties – and the cause of it. “Disorganization of the federal and state government led to Lares’ fall,” he declared solemnly, “And folks, especially in La Torre, are still suffering, after 20 months.”
Here, in Los Quemados, La Torre, the reckoning was clear. The 28-home hillside community still revealed mountains broken open by violent landslides and devastated infrastructure dotting the area. This area, according to Lares and state government analysis, is no longer stable living grounds due to high chance of consequential landslides. Although the issue is known, the government has not produced acceptable solutions to homeowners, after 20 months past Maria and nearly 3 hurricane seasons.
Above, stands a vulnerable home nearby a Hurricane Maria landslide. Photography taken at Los Quemados, Lares by Christian Tirado (2019).
We began hearing from the residents: ‘We have nowhere to go.’ ‘We do not have money.’ ‘We wish to work with the government, but I feel they do not feel the same.’ I felt saddened about the real crisis faced by the members of Quemados. By no choice of their own and with no good solution offered, these members stood at the whim of any future hurricanes – a certified loss of their home, in the case of Caribbean islands, like Puerto Rico.
Safe and affordable housing remains integral to one’s self-determination. Preserving and expanding it is a necessity for liberty.
Our task now is to transcribe and translate the diverse set of interviews we collected over the past 20 days. We uploaded and titled the recordings, arranged our transcription program, readied to take notes with pen and paper and lent a careful ear to the whole of the Island story.
“I did not prepare for Her. I did not believe She would come.”
“El pueblo – not the government – supported me and others through this trial, as always.”
“We do not need to rise up, because we have never fallen.”
The hope of the people is a pervasive theme in the interviews. A damning colonial status, a decade of economic recession, a plunder by corrupt government, a fleeting, aging population, among even worse symptoms of Puerto Rican terminality, would seem to erode any spirit. And in la Isla del Encanto, I feel it has. Many of our storytellers stated government unpreparedness as cause of the mass casualty, expressing little faith in much changing. They expect better and their patience is waning, understandably.
However, most people do hold unwavering hope in the ability and future of their fellow Islanders. Very few denied Puerto Rico, as a people, would rise to this occasion of the current trial and tribulation facing them all. Although they conceded to government help easing this process of growth, the Puerto Rican believed that they, as a collective of individuals, will overcome. Perhaps continued injustice or belief in the unseen strengthen this resilience, but this audacious hope for change is hard to dismiss. And I fully believe in this cure, too.