Puerto Rico is birthing a new heart

Sight from Mariana, in Humacao — all trees gone.

Day 13: Life has turned into a pre and post Maria dichotomy. I don’t know the dates and I rarely know the time (who, owns a low-tech watch these days?) but I know exactly how many days it has been since Maria. My days are a cocktail of remembering the rarity of ice or meat and the luxury of choice, of preferences (like Netflix or coffee type), while welcoming the stars and moon that now shine brighter, turning our streets silver, and the vast unobstructed ocean views — all trees and foliage that took decades to develop, gone in hours… Accepting a new way of living and making ourselves useful in a nation whose poverty is now conspicuous, the trees that covered so much inequity, like curtains, have collapsed. Truth revealed.

We have been born anew — Puerto Ricans, borinqueños. Naked and confused and crying for food, and water and help — we were abruptly extracted from comfort, overnight.

And while the warning signs were everywhere, it felt sudden, unexpected. Shaken, some of us still extend our hands demanding our past circumstances return. Our delicate psyches refusing to accept reality. Slowly we breathe. Inhale and exhale as we realize that this birthing, unlike that of a newborn, requires us to activate ourselves in new and unexpected ways. And just like a newborn, necessitates immediate fundamentals — warmth of belonging, sustenance, a bed.

This era is birthing a new heart* for a nation as that for decades has been asking for a change. One day in Puerto Rico “pre Maria” and you would be hard-press to find someone at peace with the situation on the island. The bitter plot twist inciting all sorts of “be careful what you wish for” platitudes is this hurricane that has utterly destroyed our infrastructure and left us with everything and nothing.

And so, here we are, “forgotten but unshaken” as Julia de Burgos said in her last poem*. We are simmering in the forgetfulness of what Puerto Rico was — a necessary and painful farewell for the new to emerge. But let us not forget that in the last 13 days we have experienced the fragility of technology, of fossil fuel dependance, and of our communication infrastructure. Let us not forget the warning of all dystopian future tales — centralized communication control is dangerous. Overnight Puerto Ricans have lost their ability to not only communicate with each other, but to communicate with the world, and for the world to communicate with us. Millions of people at the mercy of one, I repeat, one radio station. People calling the station to announce their status and asking about their loved ones. Calling. The. Radio. One. At. A. Time. Giving their phone numbers so their family members listening on the other side of the island may find a way to get to a phone with reception and call back. Let us not forget it. Let us not forget that on day 13 there are mayors that still don’t have communication with the governor. They leave their towns and drive for hours to ask for the assistance they need, leaving behind interminable to-dos, and are turned away with little help. Let us not forget that even if this changes, it has been two weeks of holding our breaths. The revelation, while crude, is now stark naked — the masses, Puerto Ricans abroad and on the island, and friends of Puerto Rico from around the world in all their power and wisdom are ultimately not in control of how help arrives and how it gets distributed, and when or where. Because when all systems collapse, we have time to think who did we give this power to, and when? Blinking into the silence we are wondering, how did we communicate and organize before there were cellphones and high-speed internet? How do we do it now. Not tomorrow. Now.

All doors and windows are wide open calling the evening cool air — and to me they seem to welcome a new possible. We learn that the true meaning of community resilience is not how quickly we can get oil for the generator or restock up on food and water, but how quickly we get out of our comfort to find where we can be of service. We remember that history is not what is written in books, but our steps and actions at this juncture. Puerto Rico is birthing a new heart — it hurts, it is scary. It requires each and every one of us to walk out of our homes. Hug. Cry. Let the fear move us in the direction of action. How fortunate we are to be able to share in what we are capable of — a birthing of a new nation. We retire our old ideas of who we were and image anew. We emerge, Puerto Rico.

*From Julia de Burgo’s poem, Farewell from Welfare Island.

**To use Silvio Rodriguez’s song La era está pariendo un corazón.