On the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, I lit a candle for the dead. And also for the living.
Puerto Rico continues to endure hardship. A brutal colonial power did not make it easy in the aftermath of the most devastating hurricane in 100 years. There are no studies on PTSD on the effects of Hurricane Maria, yet, but people here are obviously going through it, still. The US President’s denial of the dead, in particular, is hitting people hard. How could a government lie in the face of insurmountable evidence–the bodies, the testimonies. He has desecrated the sacred because he holds nothing sacred.
Life in a colony ain’t easy on the body, on the spirit, and in the heart. And when two hurricanes hit the island back to back, Irma and Maria, last September two weeks apart, life became a little harder.
Every 26 hours a Puerto Rican commits suicide according to the latest statistics of the Department of Health. Depression. Loss of unemployment Bankruptcy. And loss of hope is driving the attempted suicide rate to thirty percent.
I was born in Ponce and raised in Peñuelas. At ten I was taken to the US. But each summer I returned to see my grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. And the one thing that I have always experienced here is joy! And traveling and listening to stories, I’ve never seen sadness so profound masked by a spirit that moves forward.
Colonial life might also explain the high rates of alcohol consumption. I aint judging, ‘chuparse el abuso del imperio en seco es duro. Naturally, if you don’t have a coping mechanim to endure poverty and abuse, people will self-medicate.
Life. Is. Hard. For. People. Here.
Puerto Rico is a Banana Republic mixed with a colony and a weird system that sounds lovely and makes no sense–a commonwealth. It was all created by US government. The island is a Fourth World — ripe with shadows but divine, divine, divine goodness that rises in spite of all of the impossible odds to succeed. This island is Macondo with a Puerto Rican accent. Gabriel Garcia Marquez would agree.
There are things here that would make you go crazy if you really start to believe them.
I haven’t taken a survey, but I think that 90 % of people in Puerto Rico believe that the island has a winter. As in cold, snowy weather that happens in Vermont, New York and Wisconsin. Accordingly, here, you see women wearing Uggs, and faux fur vests bought at Marshalls or TJ Maxx in 90-degree weather. Many people here believe there is Puerto Rican winter and don’t go to the beach or rivers from September to June “porque es invierno… y hace frio! And it’s 80 degrees!
The crazy of a colony is real. Propaganda has done its job. Well.
Invierno is so close to infierno!
One thing I noticed is how the debt is squeezing every cent out of everything in Puerto Rico. My 74-year old mom says soon they will start selling us to clear the $78 billion dollar debt.. “But they have mami,” I say.” Remember the time when Puerto Rican women were the guinea pigs for the contraceptive pills in the 1960’s? Or the time that dad enlisted in the Army at 16 and came from a war that was not his with eight fingers because two were blown out in Korea? He never used his Veteran benefits before he died.” Mom agrees. Puerto Rico is being sold and screwed for pennies on the dollar.
You know that saying by a former New York City mayoral candidate, “The Rent is Too Damn High?” Well, Everything in Puerto Rico is Too Damn Fucking High.” Toilet paper, tampons, water, condoms, plantains, and especially, coffee. A bag of Cafe Bustelo that costs $3.50 in the States is $7.48 plus IVU, which is a third tax on top of the other two sales and store taxes that every Boricua pays. (Unless you shop with cash, but that is an entirely other conversation.)
But this expensive as San Francisco island is thanks to the Jones Act which forces for example our Dominican neighbor to ship his aguacates to Jacksonville, Florida, 90 miles away. Then those same avocados are taken off the Dominican ship put on American vessels and brought to San Juan. The DR is thisclose to PR. Dominicanos can hear radio stations from Mayaguez. If you want to handle climate change, lets talk about that consumption and uncesseary waste of fuel. A platano that usually costs 50 cents is now a dollar! And plantains are a Puerto Rican staple!
The old Mercantile Law continues to screw the island’s economy. But it works. It keeps many Americanos in Florida and elsewhere gainly employed, which is the point of a colony–to extract as much as it can for the profit of the colonizer.
It is only a matter of time. Puerto Ricans will be hitting the streets en mass. I sense the frustration, the indignation… the growing anger, and the desperation… no hay mal que no dure 600 años…
This is happening as the culture dies–180,000 Puerto Ricans immigrated to the US mainland since Hurricane Maria. (It is intentional to use immigrated and not emigrated because I maintain that Puerto Rico is a nation and Boricuas experience the same experience in adjusting to a new culture as many other immigrants to the US because our cultura is different. If you move from Massachusetts to New Hampshire, you emigrate, but you also don’t have to learn a new language or culture to adjust. And certainly, you don’t face discrimination and othering.
My point is that almost 200,000 families left to the US mainland since Hurricane Maria according to a new study by El Centro de Studios Puertorriqueños in CUNY. All those Boricuas, adjusting to a new way of existing in a strange new land run by a government that abuses and denies their right to be free. A land that is vastly different than the image they read in books, saw on TV, or films. That was me in 1973. Frehly off the Eastern Airlines plane to New Jersey. We didn’t flee in a hurricane crisis; we left because of a never ending economic crisis that comes every two decades or so. I know the journey they are about to take.
It. Aint. Easy. Being. A. Latina Immigrant. In. The. US.
Each day I add another line to an essay I started since I arrived in July titled, “How Many Ways Can you Screw The Citizens of Puerto Rico.”
Today I learned that lines to solicit a car inspection, car registration, driver’s license, food stamps, or really anything government related and especially anything that will help feed your children’s hunger and take care of their health—begin forming a day or two before and snake around the building by the time the office opens at 8:30 am. Most offices usually assist the first 10 or perhaps if they are feeling merciful, 15 people. Y el resto que se jodan because they are poor and vagos and probably have a BMW in their caserio garage. Come back mañana they say.
The lines are worse than the worse DMV line in New York City that you can imagine.
Because here, they call you lazy for wanting to get the Federal Government to help you feed your kids while billionaires are helped evade paying taxes. But lets not talk about corporate welfare. These billionaires are here to boost the economy Facts: there are more Walgreens, Wal-Mart and franchise eateries per square mile in PR than in another state. And big pharma? Six out of ten pills are made in PR. And all the profits leave the island.
On isle nine at the Econo supermarket there are bags and bags of corn fructose syrup for sale. The same chemical banned in Europe because it is linked to cancer and of course, diabetes. The powder that is cancer for the body is sold next to Domino Sugar, another toxin, and a throwback to the early plantation days.
Naturally people here have diabetes, hypertension, many are on dialysis. And they sell cancer insurance. Cancer is big business here.
Puerto Rico. Is. A. Heath. Shit. Show.
Doctors have left. There are very few specialists, and the ones that stayed are overbooked. Meanwhile people’s health deteriorates.
In Tallaboa, a municipality in the southern region, cancer and asthma rates are the highest on the land–one out of two people! This is the town where toxic ashes are deposited on an open landfill near homes, and where the chemicals of an abandoned petro chemical company leech toxins into the earth. A superfund site waiting for clean up.
Back to the “How Many Ways Can you Screw The Citizens of Puerto Rico.”
One of my cousins who lost his house left for the local FEMA office at 11 pm one balmy October night after a full day of work. He left a day before hoping to fill out a form for help to rebuild a home destroyed by Hurricane Maria. The line was so long when he arrived he said he waited 24 hours–he had to pee and shit outside and sleep and wake to get some relief.
The disdain for the poor in Puerto Rico is epic. But then again, we are living in a colony. Mercy.
Many of the people I have had the pleasure of meeting are descendants of either Taino natives or Africans stolen from the Motherland. They are not the white Ricans. And so this makes my mind play tricks on me–I’m tripping. I walk around feeling the oppression in the air and see with my own eyes that Puerto Rico is a plantation. And there are Puerto Ricans who work in the master’s house keeping it nice and lovely.
We all all born free but here, on this precious island, but it is hard exercising that freedom.
There is land grabbing. One man told me that FEMA workers and other volunteers bought from desperate people lovely humble houses on coastlines, or in fertile valleys, and beautiful mountains for pennies on the dollar. There is a name for that –crass, or immoral.
Soon the entire island will be like Rincøn, the surfing town on the western coast where most residents speak English, and the majority of the population is non-native. Because when Americanos come here they don’t want to embrace Boricua culture. They impose their foreign one. Rincøn I proof positive. And so is Hawaii.
I know that some people here are ok, better than ok, after Hurricane Maria. But I also know a lot more are not well, thousands of people who live under blue tarps a year after the storm, people who live below poverty line, especially women head of households which is near 60 percent. Women and children are very much struggling and suffering. Public Schools have closed robbing children of a sound education.
And yet despite the gross human rights abuses, one thing is clear. The spirit of the people here is filled with joy and profound grace, even in the midst of sadness. People here say buen provecho when they walk past you and you’re eating coconut ice cream from los chinos en la Plaza de Ponce. They will give you directions that both perplex and fill you with hearty laughs. They will even, because they are so kind, take you to sacred watering holes where you can swim and be blessed by goddesses Ochun and Atabey.
Those are my people. Humble people. And I love them deeply. And no human should ever be treated the way the current President and his administration, in DC and also, here on the island, has and continues to treat them.
This abuse post Hurricane Maria has been televised, tweeted, instagrammed and Facebooked. It was also CNN’d and NBC’d And CBS’ed and MSNBC’d. Government officials can tweet lies all they want, but the world knows that Puerto Rico is a colony and that is was crassly and viciously mistreated. And now what?
Maria did create the space to finally and honestly talk about the colonial status. On grocery lines. In taxi cabs. At bars. In schools. In beauty salons. In barbershops. in Plazas. Around dominos tables. In cuchifrito joints. On the radio. On TV. On social media people are critically thinking, talking about oppressive laws. Even soldiers are talking about the colony.
Puerto Ricans have persevered the Spanish Royal Crown’s greed, slavery of the native and African population, 100+ years of violent US imperialism. I remember the President of the Cuban Congress who told me in 2007 when we met by chance an at arts event in La Habana, “Puerto Ricans are brave and the strongest of all the Latin American nations.” Looking directly at my eyes, he says. “Your people have the beast inside your stomachs and have not been consumed but it. Look at how strong your culture is!” Facts!
But also, they, we, I am human. And life in a colony ain’t easy on the body, on the spirit, and in the heart.
On this meditative day, a year after two hurricanes back to back ravaged the Caribbean people are filled with harsh memories but also good ones, of community building, of love for each other. One man told me the two weeks in the dark, before FEMA arrives, before there was any outside help, for the first time in his 32 years, he felt like he lived in a free nation.
My prayer goes out for all the humans of the world because after all, climate change is real and Puerto Rico, Dominica, St Thomas, St Johns, and the smaller Caribbean Islands that suffered the wrath of global warming, Hurricanes Maria and Irma, are proof positive of this scary future.
I send prayers and love to the survivors who still hear the howling winds and shiver when there is a weather system forming off the coast of Africa, the ones who fear the rain because they live under blue tarps. I pray for the ones who still feel the pain of not having food, clean water, losing homes, businesses, lives and helping bury neighbors, pets, farm animals.
I pray for the ones who had to bury their loved ones in the patios of their homes, for the ones mourning three sisters buried in a landslide, and the same town that buried 69 more. And still, the president had the audacity to disrespect a people by saying the numbers are fake. In one town alone they buried 78 people.
Desecrating the sacred is what is happening when they lie about such things.
To the good people of world who are not Puerto Rican, stand with Puerto Rico as the island continues to search to live free, in peace, with a clean environment with justice, and in dignity in native lands that first were stolen and exploited by the Spanish Crown, and now by this modern day nation USA, purportedly a beacon of Democracy that denies the isle of Puerto Rico its freedom.
To the people of the world. let us find connections, and spaces to come together in solidarity.
Climate change is real. And this US Democracy and commonwealth is not.