By now, we’ve all seen pictures and video clips of the destruction Hurricane Maria left behind in Puerto Rico last week. Homes have been completely ravished. People are left with little to no food and water, while most of the island has been cut off from communicating with the world. One week later, people are still trapped in their homes due to their roads being completely inaccessible. Hospitals are running on generators with little fuel, planning their next moves so they don’t lose any lives. Airports are crammed with restless Americans who have no idea of when they’ll go home. Now the expected collapse of the Guajataca Dam in the northwest part of the island that could cause a flood, threatening tens of thousands of people.
I, like many other Puerto Ricans on the mainland and all over the world, am really saddened to see that Puerto Rico isn’t getting the political attention and support that Texas and Florida received in the recent weeks. Yesterday, San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz pleaded with Washington saying, “I know that leaders aren’t supposed to cry…But we are having a humanitarian crisis here.” It’s often neglected that the 3.4 million residents in Puerto Rico are in fact American, as it is a commonwealth of the United States. But lately it feels that’s not good enough. If you’re reading this you may be wondering why people have been left to fend with little food, water, and supplies for almost a week now. I won’t get into it in this post, but here is a simple breakdown of the situation.
This crisis affects me differently than all the travesties going on in the world right now. Why? Because I’m Puerto Rican.
Growing up I’ve always felt like I wasn’t Puerto Rican enough. Everyone who was anyone in my life spoke English, so I never had a reason to speak Spanish. I was raised in a Spanish speaking church where many of my peers would call me “white girl”, especially because I was too shy to speak the language. Oh yeah, the fact that I’m very fair skinned and covered in freckles probably set me up for that name too. Kids at school never believed me when I said, “I’m Puerto Rican.” I grew up in a development highly populated with African Americans, Dominicans, South Americans, and Puerto Ricans. Though it be close minded, you could typically tell where someone came from just by the way they talked, and sometimes by the way they looked. For some time, I even hated my last name because I felt too “white” for it. I always felt I couldn’t live up to my Puerto Rican heritage. So when I graduated university, I decided it was time to discover this beautiful island that I’d always heard about but never seen. The best part: I saw it with my brother and sisters. We stayed at my aunt’s house in San Sebastián, the one that took nearly 10 years to build. We fell asleep to the sound of coquis and woke up to the sound of the rooster. I experienced my first cup of coffee (not really but all other coffees before that didn’t count). We visited my aunts who were splitting images of my late grandmother. Seeing them helped us remember her, what she was like, and the sound of her voice. We tasted the street food and drank fresh lemonade. We were finally able to swim the island’s beautiful beaches. I walked the streets of old San Juan and imagined my late grandfather walking it’s streets, tipping his hat to every beautiful woman throughout the city. I experienced the panic attack that happens when you’re driving up or down any road in San Sebastián (can’t leave that out or my siblings will roast me in the comments section).
Now I live in England, where surprisingly “Despacito” played on the radio every 10 minutes this past summer. Only here it sounds different, a bit unappreciated, though I get even if the lyrics could be understood, they aren’t exactly the most charming. It takes almost everything I have in me to not sing along very loudly (not just the “despacito” part) followed up by a “¡Yeah, Boricua soy! This past week I’ve been reflecting on my identity as a Puerto Rican, and I realize it’s always been a part of me, long before I was 24 and touched down at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. Puerto Rico shaped my great-grandparents, my grandparents, my parents, my aunts and uncles, my cousins. I may have been too shy to speak Spanish when I was younger, but I was never too shy to understand the jokes being told around me or to belt out La India’s Mi Mayor Venganza as my mom drove us to the park in the summer. You couldn’t pay me $100 dollars to finish my viandas con bacalao, but you could be sure Saturday night I’d be inhaling abuelita’s sorullos served with chocolate milk (cafecito for the adults). Don Francisco’s charisma and jokes were never in vain as we watched through my abuelita Piri’s brown television set from the 80’s.
My wedding guests consisted mostly of Brazilian and Asian Adventists, but you can be sure we all danced to Suavemente and I love that. I’m so proud to be Puerto Rican, white, freckled and all! By the way, like every other race on this planet, we come in all colors and shapes, so my hope is that everyone can embrace their culture, even if they feel they don’t fit the mold.
If you’re feeling far from home or completely helpless know that there are many reliable organizations to donate to and no amount is too small. Here are just a few:
- Fondos Unidos de Puerto Rico
- Puerto Ricans in Action
- Puerto Rican Hurricane Relief Fund
- Friends of Puerto Rico
- The Center for Popular Democracy
- The Food Bank (Banco de Alimentos) of Puerto Rico
- Feeding America
- Hispanic Federation
I’d love to know what some of your favorite memories from Puerto Rico are, Puerto Rican or not! The island and culture has always been enjoyed by people from all over.