To say that it’ been rough for the jibaros who live in the mountains of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria is an understatement. In fact, nine months after the storm, the people of the town of Utuado and surrounding municipalities still don’t have electricity. Ruben’s farm is still in critical condition. Like many of the small farmers in the region, he doesn’t have the equipment or staff to clear out the paths and clean up the littered land. Government, local, or federal has been slow to help.
Jibaros, as country people are called here, clocked Hurricane Maria’s winds at 205 miles per hour. During the most intense moment of the storm, Ruben remembers feeling that his two story yellow wood-frame house perched on one of the many tall mountains along central part of the island called La Cordilera Central, was going to be uprooted. It was not. When it was over, he says the municipality and farms were unrecognizable.
Many of the images of a devastated Puerto Rico post hurricane in the media were images of Utuado, a town whose original indigeous Taino name is Otoao, which means between mountains. As poet Martin Espada said during a reading Poet for Puerto Rico fundraiser at Poets House last November, for the first time the town of Utuado made it to the New Yorker magazine. Trees down. Bridges broken. Rivers overflowed. Life stock drowned. Residents were cut off from the rest of the island. Without food, access to clean water, and electrical power, many families in desperation, wrote SOS on the roofs of their homes and sidewalks, resembling desperate images of New Orleans residents post Hurricane Katrina. Residents had to fend for themselves in a way that the farmer says, they will never forget.
They don’t want a repeat of what happened weeks after the hurricane he says. Days after the hurricane friends, family, and strangers from the US, had organized donations of food, clothing, water, and other life saving medical supplies but national government officials and FEMA would not gurantee that the supplies would make it to the town of thirty thousand residents. Officials alleged there was no way to get to the mountains.
“We kept hearing that FEMA and the Governor’s people took all the donations that arrived and not send them to the intended destinations. No one knows what happened to supplies.” But residents of the region pressured local officials who pressured San Juan officials, and FEMA and protested until they were ensured life saving supplies. These donations Ruben says helped save lives.
Still, many were lives were lost according to Ruben, His neighbor committed suicide, and he heard that others in the community died because of lack of medical care and medicines.
Some people have lost hope its been so rough but many others have not. Ruben and his neighbors have rebuilt bridges by hand and with whatever supplies they could muster using their funds. They are pooling money and getting solar panels. He says that the experience of being abandoned by government has inspired the jibaros to consider where they get their energy. Now families are installing solar power.
Maria’s lessons have been profound but the most powerful one this farmer says has to do with the Puerto Rican Diaspora.
“I feel so much gratitude. Even though they live over there, or they were born elsewhere, their hearts are in Puerto Rico. That has been an unforgettable experience. It has been a beautiful experience for Puerto Ricans here to see our brothers and sisters over there so preoccupied for us and willing to help. If the Hurricane had a purpose, it’s for all Puerto Ricans and for the Diaspora, the ones who have immigrated looking for a better future for their kids and themselves and the children who were born over there, to see that they have never forgotten that this is their motherland, that their roots are here.
Ruben was also our driver and guardian during the reporting of this Holy & Wild project. His help, knowledge of the island, and wisdom was incredibly helpful and continues to be a source of inspiration.
Words: Sandra Guzman
Photos: Sandra Guzman & Rebecca Gitana Torres