I’m flying back to NYC from visiting my home country, Puerto Rico, on January 14th, 2020. Exactly seven days after a swarm of earthquakes have impacted the southwestern region of the island. Seven sleepless nights. Checking my notifications for details of the latest quakes. Fearing that any moment, a higher magnitude earthquake would hit. Worrying about my loved ones, that I would be leaving them behind as they struggle with this new-onset anxiety. Nevertheless, I can count myself lucky that my family lives on the northeastern side of the Island. There, we only felt the strongest movements. But the fear of something stronger hitting at any given moment is still very real.
Being in NYC has kept me away from most of the Island’s struggles. I suffered Hurricane Maria as well as the recent strikes to oust the governor only from afar. This time, however, I was able to experience what my countryfolk were living along their side. In spite of it all, the most wonderful thing was to see first hand a new side of Puerto Rico I never experienced before. From Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans learned that they cannot trust the government to help them when they are at their lowest. The #RickyRenuncia movement was the very first sign of all Puerto Ricans getting together for one cause. After the earthquakes, what I witnessed was the greatest show of solidarity and kindness I’ve ever seen. The people have takent it into their own hands to deliver the needed aid.
Puerto Ricans from all over the Island have been rallying and fundraising in order to help those in need, forgeting their own fear and anxiety. On January 12th, 2020 I had the opportunity to document a brigade of doctors and health providers. The brigade was organized by the group Naturopatía sin Fronteras and Michelle G. Piereschi. We traveled to the Rucio community in Peñuelas, PR to provide wellness services as well as to bring supplies to evacuees. My father, Dr. Carlos Robles and my stepsister Carla, were part the brigade. I was an incredibly proud moment to be able to share such a moment with them.
Here is the story of how that day unfolded:
The night before, my niece, Fabiola, wanted to bake carrot cupcakes for the evacuees. She asked me to deliver the cupcakes and make sure to read them her message, a prayer.
The next morning, I woke up at 5am and had a round of respiratory therapy as I had been suffering from chest congestion for several days.
I met the brigade by the side of the highway at 6:30am. My father is the gentleman on the right side of the frame wearing a white shirt.
The sun rose as we drove down to Peñuelas. The highway was full of different brigades traveling to different points on the southwest to bring aid and services. Blinking lights from the various brigades merged all the way into infinity.
We arrived around 8am at the Rucio community in Peñuelas. This community is part of the Tallaboa region where a lot of the sismic activity has registered. The group gathered up to receive instructions and started to set up shop.
As I walked around, I discovered makeshift tents in between cars. This is the new reality for the folks living in this region.
Outside one of the tents, I noticed a few toys laying on the ground. I looked under the tent and found two young girls playing cards.
On the other side of the tent, I met their parents and sat down to speak with them for a while.
Herminia, the matriarch, told me they were about 25 of them sleeping under the same tent, all relatives. Some of them lost their homes, others were too afraid to sleep inside of their homes fearing an even greater event would cause harm to them or their children. The blue tarp on the floor they found discarded on a nearby river. They washed it on the river and used it to protect themselves from the dew as they had been mainly sleeping on the grass. According to them, only two days prior to our visit, they received a donation of the tent and the military beds you now see. The family was happy when I informed them there was a psychologist on-site as part of the brigade. They expressed to me how one of their family members had been waking up every night with night terrors since the earthquakes.
I met this lovely family of four, part of a bigger family also sleeping outdoors. Their story was very similar. Ada, the mother was mostly worried about her youngest daughter, 3 years old. Since the first event, her daughter is frightened and refuses to even come inside of their home.
Once the brigade was settled, they started offering health and wellness services to the community. My father was providing acupuncture therapy. Later that day he revealed to me that the most common issues he treated were anxiety and stress management. Massage, Reiki, chiropractic adjustments and psychology consults were other of the services provided.
The brigade provided wellness services for pets. Across the board, I heard several stories from the community about the importance to have their pets well-cared. According to many of them, their dogs would alert them of coming earthquakes before they happened at times even helping them cope with the stress.
During the day, several trucks unloaded supplies.
Games were part of the day as well. Adults and children from the community took part. It seemed to be a much-welcomed distraction.
Wellness can take form in many different ways. Self-esteem can play a huge role in how you perceive traumatic situations. A team of hairstylists lovingly brushed and coifed women and men from the community.
Clothing donations were sorted out at a nearby basketball court. Throughout the day, community members served themselves.
Pork was roasted on-site as part of hot meal donations for the community.
As the day closed, I found myself immersed in mixed feelings. Feelings that are not necessarily contradictory but rather complemented each other in interesting ways. I felt the weight and suffering of the families I talked to. Struggling physically and emotionally. At the same time felt enormous pride. Proud to see my father at 71 years old still looking out for others. Proud to see my people helping each other at any cost even while putting themselves at risk. Proud to be part of that. Proud to be Puerto Rican. Proud to see a nation that even when the authorities failed them, they would not fail each other.
P.S. Cupcake update…they were gone really fast. Several of the evacuees cried when I told them my 12 years old niece had baked them for them.
If you’d like to donate to help evacuees here are two of the organizations I’ve vetted and donated to:
All images and text ©2020 Omar Z Robles (unless otherwise stated). All Rights Reserved. Do not copy or use without written consent from Omar Z Robles.