special projects

Holy & Wild: Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria

THE POWER OF NARRATIVE 

One of the most potent ways to combat erasure is to exercise the power of your own narrative, both on a personal and communal level  

 

Holy & Wild: Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria is a series of intimate portraits of survivors of Hurricane Maria, one of the most devastating climate change disasters of modern times.

Learning about the mounting food insecurity–one hundred percent of the farms were destroyed on an island that imported 80 percent of its food before the hurricane– I traveled with two million non-GMO seeds I raised in donations from a small group of friends. I was accompanied by friend and television host, Rebecca Gitana Torres, who had gone on an earlier relief mission a month after the hurricane roared through the island. It was an organic collaboration with Rebecca–whoever had the camera in hand took the photograph or set up for the video interviews. We asked questions. Mostly, however, we listened.

Ruben Ramos, a coffee and banana farmer from the mountain town of Utuado, volunteered to be our driver. His kindness, compassion, and patience continues to inspire months after the project. He would make sure we had breakfast by the time we woke, fresh clean water, and anything else we needed as we trekked the island on his truck. It is remarkable that although his farm and his town were totaled, and that he had no electricity in his home, Ruben volunteered his days to travel with us and listened to the traumatic stories of survival even as he privately was recovering from personal loss.

We drove for two weeks from San Juan to Condado to Luquillo and Fajardo.  We took the ferry to Vieques for a day then returned to drive  to Patillas, Maunabo, Yabucoa, Guayanilla, Peñuelas, Ponce, Utuado, and La Perla. Armed with an iPhone 8, packets of the donated non-GMO seeds, and our compassionate hearts we met some of the most graceful humans on the planet. In the backdrop of all this was the natural splendor of the island which was blossoming at a rapid pace and served as an inspiration for people suffering the trauma of the storm and the aftershocks of government neglect, incompetence, and corruption.

People to people visits and donations played a crucial role in saving lives. Many of the people we met along the way said that it was those human to human donations that helped saved them from starvation, and some said, even death. This was a self-financed journey– a project that I wanted to produce because I wanted to see with my own eyes the devastation I was watching from hundreds of miles away.

I wanted to bear witness to survivors. With no electricity and access to clean water and little to no food for months, people were eating canned goods or military packets. If they were lucky they fueled generators with diesel fuel which spewed toxins in the air elevating the number of asthma cases on an already burdened populace. Fresh food then, and now, continues to be a challenge for the citizens of the island so planting and harvesting on small community scales makes a dramatic difference on the daily lives of many. The bulk of our  seeds were donated to an urban permaculture farmer who runs a community garden in La Perla. With our initial donations she founded twenty ecological community gardens in schools where today, children and families harvest everything from beans to basil. We left seeds everywhere. (We are still raising funds for buy seeds.)

There has been so much erasure of stories, traditions, and rituals of indigenous people around the world, and on the island of Puerto Rico, so much gas lighting on its history, and what was happening on the ground that this was the kind of story that I could not only consume through the lens of social media or news outlets. I wanted to see and report with my own eyes.

Preserving cultures is a powerful form of resistance in a world that wants to gentrify everything. And one of the most potent ways to combat erasure is to exercise the power of your own narrative, both on a personal and communal level. Considering the way the citizens of Puerto Rico have been treated by national and Federal government in the US, the narrative created from the highest offices in state capitols, Washington DC and San Juan, islanders have shown elegance and heart and they persevere and defend their right to live in peace and with dignity.

These are intimate portraits of sixteen humans who survived one of the most devastating climate change disasters the modern day has seen. They are some of the most graceful people I have ever met in my three decade career. I hope you are as inspired by their resilience, grace, and heart as I was.

Photos: Sandra Guzmán & Rebecca Gitana Torres