Puerto Rico Episode IV: A New Hope

There isn’t a moment now in my life where I am not reminded of the air, the December sun cutting the humidity in two as you walk through it. Or the rapid fire vernacular that bounces through your eardrum, creating compositions that correlate with the blaring salsa or trap music-a sign of the generational preferences. Young and old, female, male, gender-trancesending, flora and fauna-I see all of it in everything I do now. 

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-Bahia Sucia, Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico.

When I first ventured to Puerto Rico in 2012, I like many people with a soul fell instantly in love with its weather, nature and culture. The mixing of people from here and there created a true “melting pot” of ethnicities and cultures that America claims to possess but in action fails to execute. Puerto Rico delivers on its values to give its visitors an unforgettable experience, and gives more than you expect. It’s in their DNA to use their passion for country in exerting their identity, and if you let it-let it make an imprint on you.

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-Viejo San Juan.

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-Mofongo, Puerto Rico’s national dish @ Barrachina Restaurant. One of the two disputed birthplaces of the Pina Colada.

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-and here’s a Pina Colada.

-me, my love Desirée, her brother Nelson, and his love Lorena. Cabo Rojo.

I had always heard from POC that Puerto Rico is a perfect place for people like me who don’t fit the mold of American identity, especially those who align with the black experience in America. People like me who in spite of our mixed heritage feel a connection to both-but due to the cultural limitations and traditions of said mixed groups, find themselves endearing to one side more so than the other. I didn’t ask for my El Salvadoran culture in America to not take me seriously because I didn’t know Spanish, or because my father is African-American. But since they decided and me being at a point that I should not have to prove my “Salvadoraness” to said people who claim to know a big deal but in fact have no grasp on the history of their homelands to begin with-I turned to the deep seeded roots of Black America that have made this country their home for nearly 400 years, regardless of the barbaric nature they were brought in. And it is there where I felt I belonged. The same feeling came for Puerto Rico when I arrived the first time. Nobody assumed I was an other from the get go, and when they found out I didn’t know Spanish-I wasn’t judged from a deep seeded resentment of having Latin blood yet black roots (something Latin America has an issue with, but that is another topic). I was instead encouraged to learn and be a better speaker. I had never felt more inclusive in a culture more than in my entire life. It’s a perfect place for me to finally feel challenged yet included in learning more about Latin culture. It’s affection for the African presence and acknowledgment of Africans to Puerto Rican culture gives me a safe space to become acquainted with a side that I always felt like I belonged to, but missed the key to open the door.

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-On the banks of Esperanza Beach, Vieques Island, 2012.

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-Flamenco Beach on Culebra Island, ranked one of the top beaches in the world via TripAdvisor. Taken 2015

-outside a waterfall in El Yunque National Rainforest. 2012.

-and atop it 4,600 feet above sea level. 2015.

It just so happened that this haven was the homeland for my life partner Desiree-an embodiment of all that is true and passionate in my heart. She speaks to me when I am unable to talk, and loves me at my worst. I was just lucky enough to have her hail from such a majestic place. It was an honor to venture to the land she was birthed from, and I did it two more times (two of them in one year!). I celebrated Christmas and New Years there. I witnessed how the Puerto Rican people put it down for the holiday season and I ate it all up (literally). Went from house to house as part of a parranda or basically a moving party. I embarked on a four day binge of drinking, partying and screaming at the San Sebastian Street Festival. I bathed in nearly any form of water I could touch and felt healed in the beaches of Culebra and Vieques. I went to the panaderia in the morning and drank the only coffee I did more than once with a Pan de Sobao, ran errands in the day, and went grocery shopping at night like a local. Drove around the island and saw pieces of my soulmate’s history come together for a better understanding of her identity. Saw a couple movies with Spanish subtitles and found incredible amusement in the thirty minute long commercials/previews. I hiked through beautiful rainforests and screamed at the tops of mountains. I fell asleep every night to the sounds of blaring fans overpowered by the sounds of the Coqui and rose to the sound of chickens clucking.

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-Churrasco (skirt steak) with side Mofongo at Casa Dante, Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. Now closed.

-all hype at the San Sebastián Street Festival, a MUST for all traveling to PR in January. 2015

-the Zombie cocktail. Blue Curaçao Liqueur is a prominent thing here. @ Océano in Ocean Park. 2016.

I had been to Puerto Rico more times in five years than I had seen my own family back in DC and in Tennessee. That’s how close I had become to it.

So you can imagine how I felt when Hurricane Maria hit the island last September.

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The dreaded anticipation to the Category 5’s hurricane’s landfall had Desiree, I, and the small but growing Puerto Rican diaspora in the Pacific Time Zone awake at 2am when most of Los Angeles was asleep. We watched in horror on social media the very few videos that managed to post before the inevitable power outage. Floods in roads. Downed power lines. Broken windows. Turned over cars. All we feared from a natural disaster all coming to reality. And when it was all over, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.

After the storm passed, media began showing to the whole world the extent of all the damage: broken windows and toppled houses. Hours-long lines for gasoline and to withdraw cash from ATMs. Families in rural areas resorting to cleaning their clothes on rivers, and taking their water from them. And of course, the most damaging contribution: the blackout.

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Nearly 3.5. million people lost their power and the day to day tasks became daunting. People not only began to perish during the hurricane, but in the aftermath came deaths due to lack of power. The elderly, sick and disabled were no longer able to keep the equipment that stabilized their health, and slowly ceased to exist. People around the globe had their opinions. The government was lackluster in the response and the situation became politicized (expected when you study the history of Puerto Rico).

For Desiree and I, it saw our families’ life being significantly altered. A lot of them became jobless, some like many Puerto Ricans fled to the United States. They lived what turned from weeks to months without power, and initial aid that we supplied them took forever to arrive due to the underwhelming logistics in the supply lines. As the time passed and the deaths rose and murmurs of mismanagement by the local and federal government (presidents and paper towels), we found ourselves compelled to be a part of the moment where we believed Puerto Rico was not going to recover due to the powers that be: but due to the work, dedication and belief of the collective; of the people.

Cue our contribution the movement: our GoFundMe called “Empower Up, Puerto Rico!”

Launched a week after the hurricane, our main desire was to raise enough money to buy electrical generators. We quickly realized the prices to buy these generators were far too steep to help a lot of people, so we turned to the precise needs of communities. We saw we could use our funds best by buying batteries, small flashlights, clothes, eco straws to clean water, and seeds to grow fruit and vegetable gardens. As we raised the funds, we made contact with actual people on the ground who were working with of grassroots organizations. Desiree and I were able to provide local Angelenos in our social circles and some of our friends on the east coast a safe trustworthy alternate to the mainstream foundations asking for charity. Nelson, Desiree’s brother, did an amazing job organizing and planning where we were to spend our donations. Lorena provided an outreach for her local collegiate market to assist.

By December we had gone from $200 to $4,000-not bad for four people who had jobs and had a moderate social media following. We received funds from all points of the country, to Europe and as far as Tahiti. We set our sights on New Year’s Day, the time the four of us could be together to donate our supplies.

Desiree and I arrived a couple of days earlier to be with her family through the Christmas holiday. Upon our arrival, the change was immediate. Three months had passed and for the most part San Juan had began reconstruction, but there were several downed power lines, traffic lights and intersections were a nightmare, the already lack of paved roads became amplified and thousands upon thousands of wooded up houses and blue tarped roofs that we saw by the many on our descent into the airport.

-in response to the deaths from contracting leptospirosis by drinking contaminated water, many businesses entertaining tourists had to put these notices to assure tourists (and locals alike) that the water was safe to drink.

“Be glad you weren’t here when it hit”, many of Desiree’s family members said. The tales of long lines for gas, ice and rations running out. Her father just getting power three days before our arrival. How the populous turned to desperation and some began to loot and rob. That people would watch for weeks as the trailers containing food stayed on the airport tarmacs-going absolutely nowhere. This was only the tip of the iceberg of many Puerto Rican’s problems, and it was already sounding grim.

Once the new year passed and Nelson and Lorena arrived in Puerto Rico, we set out on our first destination. We ventured to Lares, a rural mountain city on the midwestern center of the island. It is illustrated with a quaint, humble city center with buildings dating back to pre colonial Spanish occupation, and mementos of the Lares flag-the Republic of Puerto Rico flag first raised when Lares became the first city to revolt the Spanish Empire in 1868. Surrounding the town square are rugged winding roads hugging the fertile soil, lush green filling in where the sky does not. We were connected with the community of Bartolo, where a local community organizer had taken an closed school and turned it into a distribution center. Bartolo was a rural community of Lares, placed high in the valley. Getting there usually would have taken an hour and a half-but the venture took nearly four hours.

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atop the mountains of Lares, Puerto Rico.

The GPS obviously not updated from the hurricane damage (how would it know), had us travel north on tight, unpaved, altered winding roads, dodging potholes, tight parked cars and downed trees. Suddenly half way in our drive we encountered something we had seen on television, but when seen in person made the struggles of the populous all too real..

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Here lied a road, completely destroyed due to a mudslide, the broken pavement lost within the red mud that had hardened in the weeks since the hurricane. You had locals sitting there trying to determine on how they were finally going to begin reconstruction-themselves, without the help of any federal government or local establishment. We sat in awe at the power of nature; an uncompromising force that lets you know how it feels whenever it wants, wherever it wants. After being rerouted, we made it to the school right as the sun was setting.

When we began removing the supplies and clothes, locals from the community began walking out their homes and staring in silence as we came to give. We were brought inside the former school grounds, where one room was dedicated to keeping clothes. The other was for shoes, where the bathroom stood they made a makeshift pantry where they kept toiletries, canned food, and other necessary day to day goods. The connect, Maria aided us in our donations.

(Some of these photos were unable to be rotated on the desktop. They are aligned when viewed on mobile. Sorry!)

She had a 8 year old son and took time to speak about her time on the hurricane. The storm ripped off the roof of her house, her power wasn’t restored, and FEMA did not offer her money because they determined her conditions weren’t enough to justify compensation for emergency aid. However her next door neighbor who also had her roof removed received compensation and got a tarp.

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-the abandoned school reopened on limited hours, with most students only attending one of two hours for only twice to three times a week.

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-every weekend the neighborhood residents lined up and retrieved what they needed to get by the upcoming week until the next weekend.

Hearing her story really put into perspective the lack of contact they had received in the last 12 weeks, and being able to vent her frustrations at her living situation to complete strangers made her struggle to keep composure a lot more solidified. The sole fact that FEMA informed them not to clean their damaged home until they returned to “fix it”-of which they did not-and that if they did they would be disqualified from any consideration for repairs….is a key to understanding the federal government’s unwillingness to help citizens they do not hold in high regard: and the historical context that must be understood to see the bigger picture.

We left Lares completely changed, having grasped the quiet desperation the rural populous felt covered by the boil of the blood from the passionate unity the Puerto Rican people began to further develop in the weeks they did not receive help.

The days continued to pass, and we mixed in time with Desiree’s family with days to donate supplies to various areas within the island. A quiet thanks wasn’t as needed as the need to talk, to speak, to let out the events that have shaped their life for the next few years. A PTSD that was felt throughout yet seldom spoken on.

Our final donation came to a grassroots organization named Defend Puerto Rico, a group dedicated to igniting social change by channeling community focus to advance decolonization for the island-a country that can provide for its own needs and stability without any colonial overseer. Seeing their focus was on the tiny rural community of Comerio, we felt this was a perfect opportunity to donate. You can check them out here.

One particular project they were working on was rebuilding a home for a family. Johanna and Chino’s house was completely obliterated by the hurricane, with the majority of the house being built of wood. With everything destroyed and no support from the federal government, this family of five-with one child special needs-needed thousands to get the rebuilding process. See below:

Defend PR managed to get the bulk of the donations, and we were able to satisfy the final $900 needed to begin reconstruction of her home by bringing the money in person to three reps of Defend PR. Shout out to Ellie (@fistuptv) and Mikey Cordero (@conscioushustler) for meeting us and making this happen.

Before we knew it, the time came for our trip to end. The days had passed so fast and regardless of all we had accomplished, the feeling of knowing there was so much to be done still went through our minds. And as the time passed from our service trip, we saw the politics on the island begin to unravel. The head electrical company on the island PREPA, being put into the process of privatization. The US government appointed fiscal control board keeping the people out of their affairs to make deals with hedge fund vultures. Crypto billionaires and their disciples making their mark into buying abandoned real estate to create their “Puertopia”. The island’s governor using the events for the hurricane to further his far-fetched pursuit of statehood, wasting taxpayer money on leisure trips to the World Cup and appearing on neoliberal talk shows to promote an agenda.

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Then came the topper: 4,645. The Harvard University study total of the people dead due to the effects of the hurricane-far superseding the U.S. government’s death toll at 64 (it is said to even go beyond the 4,600). It was what all on the ground and with common sense all knew. And with the newfound announcement it made all of our efforts to assist the recovery of the island more imperative.

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via Patch.Com

We are approaching a year since last September 20th. We are now in the middle of another hurricane season and certain areas have been receptive to flooding. Parts of the island still do not have power (see Utuado and Yabucoa for example). People are still leaving the island. Corporations and capitalists continue to profit. And the Puerto Rican people remain resilient as ever.

The idea that this saga in Puerto Rican history as the latest trend of “resisting” Trumpism and establishment populism defeats the purpose of making a true, impactful change. If you haven’t seen the media lately (and if you really haven’t, then good for you..sorta) then the hurricane coverage has come and gone. The majority of Americans feel that they’ve done their parts; donating to the big charities, watching the concerts, retweeting coverage by scratching surface reporters. You cannot help but think if the system designs it that way. And I would hope that if you sit there and feel your time spent on a grassroots effort isn’t enough because of the feeling of a designed system-then why can’t we as a collective be courageous enough to change it, especially when the spotlights are down and the need to be validated in a social media world isn’t present?

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The more we focus on the dark places society purposefully darkens, the more we can bring them to light. Our work in Puerto Rico is not over. It is our intent to return to the island this winter to help out with other organizations still on the ground. If you’ve enjoyed my insight on my first service trip, I politely ask you for assistance to return. With your donation we will plan coordination with people on the island and assist with whatever we can provide monetarily.

Please go to our GoFundMe to make a donation today.

We appreciate all those who consider my story to make one, and even if you cannot-a small share of this article would suffice.

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My fourth experience on this majestic land was one of grand perspective. One that reminds you that your worst day is someone’s best; that one should give thanks for the life they are given especially if you have even the slightest of privilege. Within this life we’re given one chance to do it right. This doesn’t occur without mistakes as they are a part of making existence worthwhile. So many people across this world have considerably less and give everything. The people of Puerto Rico have considerably less than they’ve ever had. But that doesn’t stop them from trying to build a better future. One that ushers in their self determination. One that grants independence as an unified people. One that has them believing in themselves.

And for all the ones who are individuals at heart, that’s something we can believe in, too.

love,

your colored outsider looking in,

earl.

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