Return to Puerto Rico

  • As the flight approaches San Juan, the scope of the impact is more evident than in an earlier trip, with hundreds of blue tarps covering damaged roofs. (Photo by Wanda Lopez)
Maite Junco, editor of Voices of NY from 2012-13, recently returned to Puerto Rico with her partner Wanda and son Liam to visit relatives and friends and transport goods to distribute. (Read her account of an earlier visit here.)

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The first sign of trouble was bright blue.

As our half-full Delta flight approached San Juan, the first shock came from the hundreds of damaged roofs covered with the shiny blue FEMA tarps. They have become one of many symbols of FEMA’s bungled job in Puerto Rico – but as we made landing and the sea of blue dots grew larger, we were overwhelmed not with rage but with sadness.

Just over two months after Hurricane Maria’s fury engulfed the island, the reminders of its deadly force seem even more visible. Many of the fallen trees and debris we had seen in the metro area during our visit in early October have been cleared, a few traffic lights are working and even the tree stumps managed to grow leaves, giving them the air of giant Chia pets. But there are many signs of how little has improved. Commercial areas in San Juan remain dark, businesses are boarded up, how and when to leave the island remains a recurring topic of conversation. Power remains elusive. My mom, my brother and my in-laws still don’t have power. In the mountains, no one seems to have energy. Roads remain closed due to mudslides, and relief efforts seem to have passed people by. Puerto Ricans have found some sort of routine in this chaos but they have a hard time finding the words to explain how this continuing debacle is even possible.

Like so many, we arrived packed with donations. An impromptu fundraiser at home in New York two weeks earlier had yielded almost $4,000 and dozens of needed goods from generous friends and others wanting to help. With part of the cash we bought more items and as we departed we were moved by the bounty: solar-powered light bulbs, non-GMO seeds, battery-operated fans, tablets to treat contaminated water, insect repellent, mosquito bed nets, batteries, flashlights, over-the-counter meds, bedding, adult pads, diapers. We tapped into our friends in Puerto Rico who are also trying to help, to identify grassroots groups needing support and people with specific needs.

This has to be one of silver linings of Maria: The solidarity that has grown between the Boricua diaspora across the U.S., FOPs (Friends of Puerto Ricans) of all backgrounds and Puerto Ricans on the island who fared better and have been helping since day one. In the States, the diaspora has been unrelenting with relief efforts big and small. From the brilliant idea behind the grassroots team at Eco Kit Puerto Rico in New York, which coordinates with travelers to the island so they can take a bag of environmentally friendly items that their volunteers pick up at the airport over there, to Kalamazoo Loves Puerto Rico, a fundraising project started by a college professor in Michigan, to the large-scale efforts of national non-profits with Puerto Rican roots like the Hispanic Federation, the diaspora has stepped up with unprecedented generosity, finally building a bridge between Puerto Ricans everywhere. The donations we have in our eight suitcases are not much compared to the need and the millions of dollars that are being raised, but like so many people visiting Puerto Rico we can’t imagine arriving empty handed.


 At the popular Cafeteria España, our usual spot for lunch and quesitos arriving or leaving the island, business is booming – as always, but now the mix of customers is different. Half a dozen uniformed Houston Police officers arrive as we sit to eat; they have been deployed here and are taking a coffee break like everyone else. It’s at España that we first noticed the flags. Every worker seems to have a new T-shirt with an embroidered PR flag and a slogan. The staff at España have them with the ubiquitous #PuertoRicoselevanta (Puerto Rico rising), two guys eating lunch have tiny flags on the sleeves of their navy blue t-shirts from Global Aluminum Factory. Across the island we see the red, blue and white single-star flag everywhere we look, on highways, on hilltops, outside homes and businesses, attached to car antennas. It reminds me of the pride in the days leading to the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York. The Delta workers have their own, #SJUProud, drawing on the airport code of San Juan. At Krispy Kreme a few days later their t-shirt may be the winner of this new creative patriotic vibe: “No hay viento que pueda con nuestra alma Boricua.” (There’s no wind than can blow away our Boricua soul.)

Thanksgiving  post-María is a welcomed communal affair. My brother Jorge and his wife Margarita generously opened their home and a lot of families who normally celebrate separately come together: Wanda’s parents and her sister, my mom, my sister-in-law’s brothers and their families and assorted friends.  We are all united by the power of one working generator that allows the group to spend the late afternoon playing dominoes and eating a hot, homemade meal under the cool breeze of an air conditioner. Everyone is grateful for all they have in a country where so many have lost so much.

The next day we head out to Dorado, where we first make a small stop to make a donation at a church, and from there we head to Adjuntas in the center of the island. The drive up the Cordillera Central is a combination of oohs and oys. Nature is making a spectacular comeback. The brown leafless tree sticks we saw all around in October are gone. The grass, the hills seem greener than even, a brand new green that is almost emerald. The tree trunks have little green afros, moñitos, all over, they look different for sure. Most don’t have branches – yet – so they offer little shade, but they seem very alive.

Still, surrounding the hopeful greenery is the devastation of homes and properties. Buildings are missing roofs, walls, windows. Intersection poles have no traffic lights. We drive over downed power and telecommunication lines, four inch-wide cables with colorful smashed wires inside. We see piles of ruined possessions, mattresses, couches, appliances sitting on the side of rural roads. We wonder if they will ever be picked up.

Our friend Marga and her daughter Laura join us and lead us to Casa Pueblo, a non-profit that has long been doing environmental work in Adjuntas and the surrounding towns of Utuado, Jayuya and Lares. Entering the spacious historic colonial house that serves as Casa Pueblo’s base we are instantly filled with hope for the future of Puerto Rico. The place is powered by solar energy, has a hydroponic system, a butterfly garden and radio station. Here people from the community are charging electronics – and an elderly woman powers a nebulizer to treat her asthma.

We meet Tinti, one of the founders of Casa Pueblo nearly 40 years ago when the community got organized against plans to develop mining in this area. She explains they have been distributing thousands of solar-powered bulbs to homes and she has been moved seeing the little squares being charged outside homes all along the roads during the day. We are ready to leave her everything but Tinti is selective and measured. She takes what she thinks the community needs the most, urges us to bring the rest to others. She favors solar-powered bulbs, seeds, mosquito netting, fans, hand sanitizer. She stays away from too many batteries and aerosol cans, she has the environment in mind. I’m please to see her commitment, we need more Tintis.

“Amigos del Barrio”

 She makes a note of our visit in a notebook, “Amigos del Barrio,” we end up being called. She says people need personal hygiene products. We promise to ship them, then decide it’s better to support local businesses and make the purchase at a pharmacy right in the plaza with cash we still have from the donations. We make our way down the mountain. It’s raining, and the water washes down the mud that still covers many roads.

On Saturday, we join a caravan of Puerto Rican volunteers who are cooking a paella and bringing donations to a community in Morovis, another mountain town. The place is so remote we have to be lead there. As we start climbing we can’t believe the beauty. The narrow road at one point is no longer on the mountainside as usual but on the top of the mountain. We are so high the cordillera is below us, the ocean visible in the distance. We are again in oh and oy territory. Eventually we arrive at the Barrio Vaga in Sector 3 of Morovis to a cement house where the group will set up and cook outdoors and prepare the paella over a gas-powered BBQ. We are surrounded by the kikiriki of roosters, young horses galloping and the smell of simmering pork, chicken and sausage in the largest paella pot I have ever seen. Here, in this paradise close to the sky, Maria was unforgiving. One neighbor says the winds clocked at 217 mph on his hand held wind meter.

We walk up a small hill to what is left of a home. A man holding his granddaughter stands on a tiled floor, the grand expanse of the countryside taking the place of the former walls. He matter of factly explains how he watched from the house below as Maria slowly took away his year old house. He’s a physical education teacher and says FEMA first told him that since he was employed he only qualified for a loan. “I’m still paying the loan on the house I built,” he explained. He’s now waiting for a second opinion from FEMA.

Paella and a bar hop

 Neighbors start to gather as the giant paella finishes cooking. The volunteer chefs make sure to decorate it with the traditional white asparagus and peas before declaring it ready to serve. “Ah, calientito,” said a woman holding a steaming plate as she lets out a sigh. Warm home-cooked food has become a rare commodity in a world where most refrigerators and stoves haven’t been powered since Sept. 20. A group of about 10 children sits on the floor diving with gusto into the yellow rice. We put out all the donations we have left along with the donations the caravan has brought, canned foods, rice, more mosquito netting, fans and batteries for the residents to take along with big servings of paella to go. They couldn’t be more grateful and graceful to our group. We are grateful for the opportunity to help.

My son Liam didn’t come on our first trip after María but he visited Puerto Rico often in his 16 years and can easily tell all that is off. For him seeing all the flattened trees, destroyed billboards and other damage in the San Juan area is “heartbreaking,” but is in the countryside that his young eyes finds “utter devastation” that even he worries will take years to recover. The long road ahead is in all our minds, particularly after seeing how little has improved in between our two visits. All of which makes me think that #PRselevanta may be the official post-Maria rallying cry but we don’t need Puerto Rico back where it was, we need bold, transforming change. The only way out of this mess is to transform, and it’s also the only way to one day be able to look back and say that the pain and endurance of so many was worth it – as it ushered a new, better era for Puerto Rico.

We wrap up in Morovis and this being Puerto Rico it’s time to chincorrear, bar hop in el campo. The community leader who guided us up the hill in Morovis now leads the group to his favorite hangouts on the way down. The first place we stop at has glorious views – but the owner says he can’t serve us drinks because he has no ice. No worries, we have leftover ice. He doesn’t want to charge us for the drinks, but we insist.

Across from his small bar, Barra de Don Guillo, a house has been leveled, a double yellow kitchen sink standing sideways all that’s distinguishable amid the collapsed walls. He owned the house and rented it out. The house he lives in next door fared better. In the distance we can see a large section of road missing, taken down by a mudslide. Next we stop at El Rincón del Jinete, an outdoor bar in Orocovis with an equine motif that seems  from another era. The outdoor bathroom took a beating and all that’s left of it is a mesh of aluminum panels and wood. We are taking in the scene when a customer arrives by horse, his cowboy boots and hat adding to the dramatic entrance. He ties the animal in a small tree and steps in for a drink. The chinchorreo is continuing but we are exhausted and head home to San Juan.

On the way back we stop in Dorado, a beach town on the north coast west of San Juan where my parents bought a beach house before Dorado became overrun with housing. I wanted to check on the house. We don’t have keys with us but go inside the gated community to at least see it from the outside. Palm trees are downed everywhere in the complex, a cement wall is collapsed at various points, the community pool is greenish and access to the beach padlocked. The place seems abandoned – it’s hard to tell if anyone is even living there. A security guard who looks too young is guarding the entrance. The sun has not set but it must be a scary post to guard in the dark.

The next day is Sunday and we are headed home to New York. We had planned to take back our luggage empty and collapsed but as the exodus continues we are asked if we can take stuff for others. We bring a bag packed for my nephew Jorge Luis who is moving to New York and traveling on a later flight that day and two for Laura who is moving with her boyfriend later this winter. My mother, tired at last of the daily hustle with her generator, finally says OK to leaving and is on a flight the next day to Miami where we have family. My brother Jorge is not going anywhere but will take a break and instead of having his two other children travel home from college for the holidays, he’s traveling to New York and they are all meeting here. My mother will do the same.

And so, we will all gather this coming Sunday for Christmas Eve, along with friends, at least two of whom also have their parents visiting from Puerto Rico, in a reversal of the annual ritual of flying home for the holidays. Yet I have no doubt that despite the familiar meal of pernil, pasteles and coquito, Puerto Rico and its future will be in everybody’s mind – and hearts.

Maite Junco is currently a senior advisor at the NYC Department of Education. She traveled to Puerto Rico in a personal capacity and these are her own views.

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