Part 1 of a series: En Flama
By Christian Wolpert Gaztambide
September 20, 2018 marked the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s barrelling Puerto Rico. It was the first time in a century that a storm brought this amount of destruction to the island, already ailing from fiscal and economic maelstroms. The storm was horrific, a sight straight out of the “Night on Bald Mountain” scene from Disney’s iconic Fantasia. The people who lived through the storm and its consequences will tell you that it was like living in Hell for months on end. After the storm, Puerto Rico looked like it had gone through nuclear armageddon. The trees were still leafless when I went back home in December, just like in the pictures I had been seeing online for months. It seemed as though winter had finally come to the “Island of Enchantment.”
The human suffering is palpable. Houses are still roofless. People are still jobless. And many dead have still not been named . It took almost a year for the Commonwealth’s governor to accept the fact that about 3,000 people died as a consequence of the hurricane. And I won’t even get into the President, who failed to coin the storm a “catastrophe” even two weeks after it had touched down on the island. Residents tear up and their voices break when talking about the hurricane. In their minds, they are revisiting hell.
Photo taken at El Yunque National Rainforest following the storm
The Hurricane did force people, within and outside of Puerto Rico, to think and reflect on the political, economic and humanitarian situation of the island. For people on the US mainland, the storm presented an opportunity to show charity and care for fellow citizens. Many seized the opportunity, as massive amounts of aid made its way to Puerto Rico in the form of material resources, but also in human capital and service. People from all over the United States have been coming and going to Puerto Rico to help reestablish the crippled electrical grid, to build homes for those who lost them, to treat those who needed medical attention. In other words, there has been an outpouring of generosity, a deluge of love.
Hurricane María sparked political conversations on the US mainland about the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status. To those on the US mainland, the storm showed the inherent inequalities between residents of the 50 states, and the residents of Puerto Rico. And they would not stay quiet. Given the lackluster performance of President Donald J. Trump during his visit, as well as the Trump administration’s weak response to calls for greater involvement in the recovery efforts (not to say that they did not do anything, FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers are still on the island), boricuas in the diaspora as well as others have since called for greater Puerto Rican participation in federal politics. If Puerto Rico will not be granted statehood, they argue that the 3.5 million American citizens on the island be given greater sovereignty.
These conversations are not happening on the mainland alone. While the local government continues to operate in a state of disarray, the people of Puerto Rico have begun looking for alternatives to the island’s current political status. Calls for a new political and economic model have grown louder since the hurricane. The Center for a New Economy, for instance, has broadened the scope of its activities after the hurricane, advocating for a new and sustainable economic model on the island. Others, including prominent professors like Angel Collado-Schwarz and Roberto Cox Alomar, have published articles calling for and suggesting a new political model for Puerto Rico, as the fiscal and natural crises have shown the inefficiencies of the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican government and its supporters continue to demand statehood, as they seek to put Puerto Rico on equal political footing with the 50 states. And, as shown on May 1, 2018 during a general strike, the people of Puerto Rico want to change their colonial situation as well, using the paper towels the President threw at a crowd during his visit as one of the most heinous acts of indifference to the suffering of the people on the island.
Most importantly, however, the country’s response to the hurricane has proven the resilience of the Puerto Rican people. Communities have come together to rebuild a broken nation. Employers have done their best to accomodate the needs of their employees. Neighbors, who had not seen each other in years, began to cook as a community. Bakers, like those at Panadería Ortiz in Yabucoa – where the eye of the storm first made landfall- would get up before the crack of dawn and make bread to sell for next to nothing even the day after the storm while food distribution was almost impossible.
Such a spirit has been captured in the cultural products of the island after the Hurricane. Songs like “Isla Bendita” and “Hijos del Cañaveral” sing to the power of Puerto Rican heritage and how, regardless of the odds, the people of Puerto Rico can and will overcome any obstacle. While the scars of the Hurricane are still felt, many people still do not have power and the island still struggles economically, the people of the Isla del Encanto have committed themselves to rebuilding and starting again. As we have come to learn in this year, in her wake, we can rise from the ashes stronger still. There is a lot of work yet to be done, but Puerto Rico se levanta!
I hope you enjoyed this first post of En Flama. While this week I decided to aim closer to home (after all, Puerto Rico is foreign in a domestic sense), I will be writing about issues occurring in Latin America, mostly aimed at political changes and struggles, as well as some posts on art and culture. I have chosen this topic because I think that it is often overlooked in topics of international affairs even though politically and culturally there is a lot going on in Latin America. I also have a personal attachment, having been born in raised in Puerto Rico, to the topics that affect people of a similar heritage and I hope to share some of the conversations happening there, as well as the greatness and variety of my own culture.
Christian is a junior in JE. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.