The last time I went to Puerto Rico in 2011 things were noticeably different than when I went to Puerto Rico in January of 2018 as a Student Attorney in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. The changes were very apparent in the more rural areas, like in Arroyo.
One of the first things I noticed were the boarded-up windows in occupied dwellings, even in upscale buildings. We stayed in Santurce, surrounded by many of these types of dwellings. On our first night there I glanced out of my window as I was preparing for bed. I noticed that many of the windows of the multi-level building across the street appeared to be boarded up. I thought nothing of it until the next morning when I looked out of my window and saw occupants in that same building. One man was peering through his window, looking down at the street as I went about my morning routine. In my naivety, I was shocked that any amount of windows of an occupied building were boarded up. I am used to seeing a building with boarded-up windows and instantly understanding that the building is vacant. So to see a man calmly peering out of his window in a building with boarded-up windows was a sight that made me momentarily suspend my morning routine and survey what I was seeing.
It was not so much the sight of occupants in a boarded up building, it was the tranquility with which the male occupant stared out of his window, as if nothing was amiss. I wondered how long it took him to get accustomed to the sight of boarded-up occupied dwellings on the island. I wondered how long it would take me to get accustomed to that sight if I were in his situation. I wondered if this was the new normal or a temporary transitional phase. I wondered even if one gets used to drastic changes, is one still subconsciously being negatively affected by the changes? It took me about two days to get used to the sight of seeing boarded up windows. Then, I began to not even notice them anymore.
Another change that I observed were all the abandoned homes. On a #UBLawResponds humanitarian brigade, I spoke at length with a resident of Arroyo. As we walked together, she pointed to all the homes on her street that had been abandoned by families seeking a better quality of life on the mainland. Watching her repeatedly point her figure, saying “this family left, that family left,” was a lot to take in. I read about the thousands of Puerto Ricans fleeing the island after Hurricane Maria, but to actually see all the homes left behind by these fleeing people was something else. I looked at these beautiful abandoned homes and imagined living in such a home and making the difficult decision to leave it because life had become unbearable.
The upbeat spirit of Puerto Rico, however, has not wavered. There is a certain carefreeness and zest that many people comment on when they visit Puerto Rico for the first time. I previously thought this attitude was the spirit of the island … but after this post-Maria trip, I now see that is the spirt of the people on the island. I have faith that the indomitable spirit of the Puerto Rican people will ultimately uplift the island from the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria and keep it thriving.