Monday, October 23, 2017
Brenda Tirado Torres - SECCAM
We are all familiar with the situation that the people of Puerto Rico face after hurricanes Irma and Maria.
There is no doubt that the island faces one of the most difficult times in its history. If the island's recovery was already complicated by the multimillion debt with its creditors, the hurricanes exacerbated the situation in terms of not only reconstruction and infrastructure, but the physical, mental and emotional health of the people, as well. Many stories not reported by the media are beginning to surface as relief teams and journalists reach the most remote areas.
Some have described the noise produced by hurricane Maria as a rabid beast determined to destroy everything in its path. From now on, thunder, a gust of wind, or a heavy rain will cause anxiety and even panic in many. To forget will be very difficult, if not impossible.
We know the reactions and responses of politicians and officials at both the federal and local levels. However, no one can hide the reality that the U.S. government has not treated the people of Puerto Rico as promptly or with the same respect that residents of other states – and even other countries – received during similar emergencies, whether recently or in the past.
Puerto Ricans have been American citizens since 1917. We received citizenship before the states of Alaska and Hawaii, admitted to the American union in 1959. The response to this crisis is not just about politics but also about dignity. It is unheard of that hundreds of shipping containers with supplies were in the Port of San Juan, but there was no one to coordinate and oversee their distribution. Meanwhile, entire municipalities have gone without drinking water and medical attention for weeks. In addition to diseases caused by mosquitoes and contaminated water, there is a risk for the resurgence of diseases eradicated decades ago.
In terms of communication, we had to settle for a simple, "We're doing well, thank God!" from our relatives and friends on the island when they were able to send us a text message. We trust God to keep them well through this whole ordeal.
On the other hand, seeing how my beloved people retain their sense of humor, humility and joy, while looking for light among the shadows, has helped me deal with my own sorrow over what happened to them. That is how faith delivers us when we feel overwhelmed by darkness. As a Puerto Rican, my heart insists on emphasizing the beauty that has emerged in the heart of the people in the midst of this tragedy.
Contrary to what President Donald Trump expressed in a tweet, Puerto Ricans do not “want everything to be done for them.” Soon after the weather cleared, people took matters into their own hands and began doing their best to rebuild the island. They cleaned out downed and broken trees that blocked access to their neighborhoods; visited the homes of their neighbors to see how they were doing; created simple censuses to know how many elderly, children, and sick or disabled persons lived in their surroundings in order to be aware of their needs, and help them. They shared the water and food they had stocked to survive the hurricanes; and, according to their possibilities, raised money (“serruchos,” as we call it in Borinquen, Puerto Rico’s original taíno name) and traveled to buy food and provisions for their communities. Boricuas (the taíno word for Puerto Ricans) cleaned up debris from their streets, from their homes and the homes of others to remind the world that they are a people with dignity. Since financial institutions only allowed a very limited withdrawal of cash, many shared their own money even with strangers. The island may be small, but the generosity of the people is beyond measure. No hurricane will ever destroy that.
That cover of acceptance, where each one went their own way seeking only to help himself and their immediate family, was hiding a people that probably were unaware of their need for the “fresh air” of renewal. When the hurricanes blew the cover away, the population felt the need to share, to help others, to engage and be aware of each other’s needs, and to find ways to provide for their neighbor and the stranger among them.
Among Puerto Ricans who have decided to stay on the island, there is a growing number of people willing to demand that the government rebuild neighborhoods with renewable energy, given that there is so much that practically must begin "from scratch." It happened in the city of Greensburg, Kansas, after it was destroyed by a category EF5 tornado in 2007. The option has gathered greater acceptance after a renewed respect for the force of nature, appreciation accentuated by the clear song of the coquí and the beauty of the starry sky that they had not seen after decades of light pollution.
Irma and Maria achieved what others could not. Gone were the electronic tablets and "smart" phones that cannot work without electricity. Unable to use their video games, children and teenagers now exercise and play with others in the streets. Their parents, who until the eve of Maria only left their homes for work and to run errands, have now joined their neighbors as they gather often to cook and share a common meal, conversing about their families and the future of their communities. Calls to help others abound on social media:
- Those who need water can come to my house!
- Remember that Mass is now at 10 a.m.!
- Let me know if you need a ride to the post office to pick up your letters, so we can go together!
- I have electricity and water, so come here to wash your clothes!
The hurricanes destroyed the already crumbling infrastructure of the island, but there is no doubt that they restored something much more solid and durable: the unity of the community.
Irma and Maria reminded Puerto Rico about its location in the path of future storms, many of which will result from differences in thought and ideology. It is up to the people to demand creative and effective solutions from government officials; to let them know that it is not acceptable to waste people’s time in sterile fights that only wear down their spirit and threaten to undermine their recently acquired desire for renewal.
It will not happen overnight, but Puerto Rico will rise. And every night, after an intense journey of cleaning, reconstruction and helping others, my people will lift their eyes to heaven and, along with the strong, determined and lively song of the coquí, will ask strength from our Creator to move forward.
Father Pedro Ortiz, a Puerto Rican priest in Naguabo, said in a prayer:
"Today, even in the midst of the difficulties that I have after the weather system, I am open to receive what you, my Lord, want to give me at this time. I often experience moments of crisis and I become restless for different reasons. I am constantly thinking and analyzing so many personal situations and situations in my island, but amid all, I feel encouraged to trust the power of prayer. Every day I place before you, Lord, everything that worries me; and I appreciate what I receive from your liberating grace because you promise me that you will answer my prayers. That helps me understand that your presence among us will bring us peace. I thank you for that."
And the people of God, embracing the people of Puerto Rico, respond, “Amen!”