“Preciosa te llaman lo bardos que cantan tu historia, no importa el tirano te trate con negra maldad…” – Rafael Hernández
I just made it back from visiting my home country of Puerto Rico. It is the first time I get to visit since hurricane María swept through, almost exactly 5 months after. It was an incredibly emotional and difficult trip. I found myself fighting the tears more times than I can recall. Five months after the hurricane and my island, my people, my family still carry open wounds from that horrendous day.
During my visit I gathered so many terrifying stories from my friends and relatives about their experiences during and after the hurricane. They told me about how they stayed up all night holding doors and windows for hours as the wind was about to burst into their homes. About how the extreme heat wave that took over right after as not one single tree was spared. The shortage of supplies and food and the lack of traffic lights caused chaos and hysteria in the streets. A cloud of smog that built up in the atmosphere due to the widespread usage of power generators. Stories about standing in line for over 12 hours to get gasoline and over 6 hours just to buy ice or food.
One of the first places I visited was the Caño Martín Peña community, one of the most underserved sectors in the San Juan municipality which was strongly affected. I was welcomed by Karla Victoria from Proyecto Enlace, a project aimed to protect the rights of the 8 communities that make up the Caño Martín Peña. I witnessed as their streets are still flooding at the minimal rainfall as sewers remain clogged with debris. Neighbors had to wake up to their flooded homes and start flushing water out with buckets (may I remind you, this is 5 months after). When my friend Sal D’Alia brought up his drone, Karla saw for the first time the real amount of blue tarps that now cover the area, was in shock. Our last stop there was at Don Moncho’s house, a 70 years old Vietnam veteran who lost his home. I saw his house passing by and he kindly let us inside of its remains to photograph and document the damages. Sadly as his defunct father was the title holder of the home, FEMA has refused to provide Don Moncho with a tarp. (You can help Don Moncho and others like him by donating here: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/from-tarps-to-roofs-hurricane-maria-puerto-rico/)
I also visited the town of Humacao on the east coast of the island, where the hurricane made landfall. I’ve never seen such a level of destruction in my lifetime. Bare bones only remain where the beautiful Punta Santiago pier once was. On one side of the road, where there used to be a magnificent barrier of palm trees now looks like a monumental graveyard of trees. Many of them completely on the ground while the rest stand with barely a few branches left. On the other side, slanted electrical posts menace drivers as they pass under fearing that one might fall down at any given moment. An iron basketball roof was completely brought down to the ground as if it had melted. As we left the town after finishing our session and the night fell, a pitch dark atmosphere took over the streets as a large part of the town still remains without electricity.
Lastly, we went to the town of Arecibo on the northwest shore of the island. Arecibo, as many other smaller towns, is starting to feel a bit like a ghost town. Driving through the old town square I couldn’t believe the amount of deserted buildings I was seeing. Beautiful colonial architectural works, completely neglected. It is estimated that over 200,000 Puerto Ricans have fled the island since the hurricane with another 500,000 leaving prior to the event due to the economic crisis. This has left many homes and business abandoned. Local artists have taken upon themselves to embellish some of the abandoned structures in an effort to breath some new life into their neighborhoods. That night we drove back once again on pitch black roads.
Coming back, I’ve spent days attempting to find some normalcy while settling back in NYC. As I sat down to write this post I found myself struggling to find the words to share my feelings and experiences. Sometimes it is harder to talk about the things that are more personal in nature, but partly also because it has been hard to imagine a light at the end of this dark tunnel. The truth is that the future of my country looks grim and it is hard to face that fact. However whenever I write, I often seek inspiration in music. That’s when I stumbled upon the quote I referenced at the top of this text. It is from a song called Preciosa written in 1937 by Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernandez. It is a freedom anthem and love song to the island:
“Preciosa te llaman lo bardos que cantan tu historia, no importa el tirano te trate con negra maldad…” (“The poets that sing your history call you Precious, even when the tyrant may bring you down …”)
Upon listening that verse I was immediately reminded of the glow my nieces faces when they saw me arrive. I remembered the quiet times I spent with friends overlooking El Morro sunsets. I remembered my withering grandmother’s eyes lighting up as she successfully recognized my face. My father’s hug.
I remembered all those things that make my Puerto Rico so special, beautiful and precious to me. Even if my island’s current appearance is a little roughed up, she is still the same Preciosa that held me in her arms as a child. In all the stories I heard, there was one constant phrase from everyone, like a mantra “pero al menos estamos vivos y eso es lo importante” (at least we are alive, which is what really matters). Even Don Moncho, who lost every single one of his belongings joined the chorus of voices singing that refrain… “estamos vivos”…Puerto Rico you are still here, you are still mine, and that matters.
Puerto Rico, you are not just beautiful architecture, or mountains. Nor just the beach or the smell of salt water in the air. Not just song of the coqui. Or “Medallas frías a dolar”. You are no just “el flamboyán” o “la palma”. You are not just that “bonita bandera mono-estrellada”.
Puerto Rico, you are the Taíno, African and Spaniard blood that runs through my veins. You are the voice the mothers saying “que no te coja el sereno”. You are the swing in my hips and everything inside of me. You are salsa, you are bomba, you are plena. Y aquí estamos, vivos, here we are, still sanding but never standing still. That is who you are, mi Puerto Rico.
I conclude with another quote from a song:
“…Y así le grito al villano yo sería borincano aunque naciera en la luna ” -Juan Antonio Corretjer
(“and so I shout to the villain: I would still be Puerto Rican if I was born on the moon”)
For the complete gallery and prints visit: https://www.omarzrobles.com/Prints/Puerto-Rico-Still-Preciosa/
All images and text ©2018 Omar Z Robles (unless otherwise stated). All Rights Reserved. Do not copy or use with out written consent from Omar Z Robles.