This series is a meditation on the resilience of the human spirit told through the stories of sixteen survivors of one of the deadliest natural disasters the world has experienced. The project, Holy & Wild: Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, is the result of a two-week journey to the island of my birth last December, three months after the devastating storm.
Nine months since Hurricane Maria’s landfall and tomorrow, June 1st, the first day of the hurricane season, I launch the series of small profiles. Each day for the next two weeks I invite you to return and meet a new Puerto Rican. These are small, quiet stories, and richly layered portraits.
I landed on the island of my birth seventy-nine days after the hurricane made landfall. I wanted to check in on relatives and friends. I wanted to bring relief. I wanted to touch, hug, love the island and see with my own eyes the devastation I was watching from hundreds of miles away on the news and social media. I wanted to bear witness to those who survived.
Learning about the mounting food insecurity–one hundred percent of the farms were destroyed on an island that already 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 traveled with a 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 and easy collaborative effort of photographing, interviewing, and mostly, listening. Whoever had the camera in hand took the shot, or set up for the video interview.
We were accompanied by Ruben Ramos, a coffee farmer from the mountain town of Utuado, who drove us, and when we forgot to eat, made sure we had food. He was an angel, and considering that he and his town had been devastated by the storm, he listened to the trauma of other survivors, which on most days made us cry, and others, laugh to tears.
We drove for two weeks from San Juan, Luquillo, took the ferry to Vieques and then traveled to Patillas, Maunabo, Guayanilla, Peñuelas, Ponce, Utuado, and La Perla. We listened to stories of survival, of love, beauty and of fear, rage, hopes, and dreams. We gave away seeds.
Armed with an iPhone 8, packets of 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 serving as an inspiration for humans still suffering the trauma of the storm and the after shocks of government neglect, incompetence, and corruption.
People to people visits and donations played a crucial role in saving lives. And many people we met on the journey said that they were able to eat and drink safe water thanks to the hundreds of thousands of people who sent or traveled with donations. Like many of those trips, mine was a self-financed journey– a project that I produced and wrote because I had to.
The bulk of the seeds were donated to Mara Nieves an urban permaculture farmer who runs a community garden in La Perla and who is part of the series. Thanks to our donations she was able to start twenty eco community gardens in schools where kids and families today harvest everything from beans to basil. We left seeds everywhere. We are still raising seeds to plant, to feed, and to free. If you are interested in joining this effort shoot me an email. If you want to help or travel to the island on a philanthropic visit, shoot me an email. The island, its people and creatures, small and large, could use your love and support.
I believe preserving cultures — traditions, rituals, customs, language, music, art — is the most powerful form of resistance in a world that wants to gentrify everything. There has been so much erasure of traditions, history, and rituals of indigenous people around the world, so much gas lighting on the past and the truth, that the Puerto Rico story could not be ignored. It must continue to be told. This the kind of story that we should not just get through the lens of social media or news outlets. Dig deeper. One of the most powerful ways to feel whole is to exercise the power of your own narrative, both on a personal and also, communal level.
This is my contribution to this effort.
Puerto Ricans showed much elegance and heart considering the foul way in which they were treated and continue to be treated by the Federal and local governments. They deserve better.
The Puerto Ricans featured in the series are some of the most graceful people I have ever met. I hope you are touched by them as much as we were touched.