The Unchanged Puerto Rican Spirit Post Hurricane Maria

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 peeringIMG_0992 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.

I Am More Than My Municipality

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Each municipality in Puerto Rico has its own distinct flavor and feel. Already a small island, many Puerto Ricans derive a sense of identity from the particular municipality they are from. There is the idea that people from a certain municipality look a certain way and are of a certain ilk. When I say I am from California, I often see people treating me differently, as if they are using where I am from as a personality indicator. People tend to make certain assumptions about me and tend to ascribe traits of mine as being a result of my California roots. The same goes for my roots in Puerto Rico. When speaking with other Puerto Ricans, I have been conditioned to say that my family is from Bayamon, because I know at some point that question is going to be asked. Where your roots are in Puerto Rico is not only a source of pride, but it is also a way in which others make certain assumptions about you. Visiting different municipalities as a #UBLawResponds student attorney in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic so far on this trip further confirms this notion.

Santurce, where I am currently staying, is a large and populated district. There is a lot available within walking distance. Quebradillas, where I went to offer assistance with FEMA appeals, is in between a larger district and a rural one. Businesses are more spread out, but they are at least a drivable distance. In rural Arroyo, where I assisted with a humanitarian distribution effort, businesses are very spread out and travel was not as easy as it is in Santurce. Loíza, where I went on a second legal assistance brigade, was similar to Arroyo in that respect. However, the difference in appearance between each district is far more noticeable in these different districts.

Puerto Ricans come in all different shades, since we are a mix of Taino, Spanish, and African heritage. Some people look like an even mix of all three, some people look like a mix of two of the three, and some people look largely like one of the three. Even though Puerto Ricans come in many different varieties, some Puerto Ricans swear that they can usually recognize a fellow Puerto Rican by their distinct facial features. Some Puerto Ricans also swear that they can rule out which municipalities you are from, based on what you look like. If you are darker skinned, then the assumption is often made that you are not from a large, more metropolitan district. If you are lighter skinned, then the assumption is often made that you are not from a rural area. Those assumptions are very telling and paint a picture about the seldom discussed race issue in Puerto Rico.

Race issues in Puerto Rico are like embarrassing family members that you try to distance yourself from, but everyone knows are related to you anyway. As one explores the island, it becomes apparent that wealth is spread largely among people who look a certain way and poverty is among people who look another way. This, however, will be a problem for a long time so long as Puerto Ricans refuse to acknowledge the differences in race on the island.

 

Love The Culture and The People

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Growing up as a woman of Puerto Rican descent, I experienced firsthand the fascination with the Puerto Rican mystique on behalf of non-Puerto Ricans. From comments about the desirable appearance of Puerto Ricans to assumptions about expert dancing skills, there is an immediate and persistent intrigue when Puerto Ricans makes their ethnicity known.

However, I have come to learn that embracing a culture does not equate to embracing the people of that culture. The view of Puerto Ricans being exotic can be a harmless manifestation of intrigue, but it is also a manifestation of the way United States mainlanders often view Puerto Ricans: as outsiders. This view is evinced in many of the United States Federal government’s policies pertaining to Puerto Rico.

I wrote the poem that appears below, entitled “Why Don’t You Love Me?,” as I was preparing to travel to the Island as a #UBLawResponds student attorney in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. The poem speaks to the long, unique relationship between the United States Mainland and Puerto Rico, a relationship marked with both adulation and indifference.

Why Don’t You Love Me?

I’m everywhere                       

And nowhere at the same time

I’m exotic, I’m “spicy,” I’m cool

Mesmerized by me

Like Ali by Iris

So why don’t you love me?

I toiled for hundreds of years

Your hands manipulating me

I let you inject me, radiate me

Use me and disregard me

I let you murder my insurrection

And suppress my hope

I did everything you asked of me

So why don’t you love me?