how do you solve a problem like Maria?
We were lucky, but it was six days before we heard from my family in Puerto Rico after the hurricane passed through almost 2 years ago. We heard their voices for fifteen seconds before the line went dead.
Dread turned to relief, however brief.
Over the following weeks, we began to hear and see more snippets of life across the island. The gorgeous mountains where our family dwelled looked more like a patchwork quilt from above; flattened trees and palm fronds, rivers of mud and rainwater breaking through asphalt and bridges, blue tarps covering what were left of roofs. The memory of summer nights looking at the house lights speckled throughout the mountains like Christmas were tainted with the blackness of night and the uncommon hum of a generator. Those who were lucky to hear that sound at night had them chained to concrete columns of their homes. It didn’t stop desperate thieves from trying. Family and friends who lost rain barrel water resorted to creeks and rivers where the bodies of livestock dissolved back into the earth.
Relief soon turned to worry; worry of the long terms effects of the devastation. Our island had broken in two, and all we could do was watch. Watch and wait while the silence created rifts in our spirits.
As the island slowly began to recover, the lights began to flicker back on, the phones began to ring again. Water became clean. Roads and buildings were being rebuilt. Faith in our government wavered, but the support and pride in each other never did.
Pride had a strange taste in my mouth.
When I first came to the main land, I was immediately taught English. Speaking Spanish marked you for bullying – the words like vipers coming from your mouth, best to avoid them at all costs or attack. Instead of adding, I subtracted. I lost my first language. Getting it back thirty years later is still a struggle. I was taught that our gold jewelry and thick hair was laughable, shameful. It needed to be tucked away. There were plenty of us that were brown, yet somehow we couldn’t be all that came with it.
It didn’t occur to me until I was much older what these micro-aggressions were. I had always thought it was me. Shame turned into guilt, but soon turned into something more. Maria destroyed many things, but it never destroyed the heart of our people. Where mud and debris once was, new grass and trees have sprouted. Where fear once was – fear in who I was, who society thought I was, fear in what I could or couldn’t do to change those views – pride washed away.
My community, my peers, my fellow Latinx from around the world began to rebuild my spirit I thought was once lost all those years ago. They taught me that home was not necessarily a place, but its people. Storms come and go, but you can’t replace the people who fight back against them. So here we are now, at the beginning of something years in the making that I didn’t realize I needed. It’s a tribute to my island, my family, my friends who showed me it was more than okay to be me, that my voice was, and is, important. Maybe it will help others to find their voice too, to show that they matter. No shame, no guilt. Just another place to call home.