Follow us on a photographic journey through the island of Puerto Rico
By Bareerah Zafar
Photos by Lupe Partida and Bareerah Zafar, UO Ethnic Studies students, November 2017
I was struck by the natural beauty of this island every second my eyes were open. But I think we encountered the best representation of this beauty at our first stop at Loiza Beach. The thought of the calm waters and the light, slightly chilly breeze soothes me to this day. The water was rhythmically lapping at the beach. The sky and clouds were a beautiful hue of orange and pink and lavender. Ducks bobbed up and down with the waves. We stopped here first to pay our respects to the island. Professor Reyes-Santos, a Yoruba elder, offered tobacco to the sea to reassure the island that we have not forgotten about it. She then recited a prayer, informing the land of our presence and our intentions, and asking it to keep us safe.
While preparing for this trip, I was under the impression that we would be living under the worst of conditions. We were warned that we would most likely not have access to electricity or clean water. We were told to pack as much food as possible for our hosts might not have enough to feed themselves. I was prepared to survive solely on what I packed myself. So when we drove through the gates of a community called Montehidra and pulled up at a big, beautiful house, I was confused. Our first night, we were given a feast. Our hostess, Deborah, even went out of her way to cut fruit for me when she realized I don’t eat meat. There was plenty of electricity to light the house, and I was able to FaceTime my family because we had cellular service. I was taken aback by how easy our first day at been. I even felt a little guilty when I thought about the people affected by the hurricanes, who did not have the luxuries I had.
I soon learned that the illusion of comfort had been created for us, and Deborah was struggling herself. She was recently widowed, unemployed, and in danger of losing her house. The feast that she threw for us was a collective effort from the community as a welcome for us, their guests. On top of all this, she has to provide constant care for her bedridden mother. I also learned that the day after we left, she lost electricity once again. Though Deborah was struggling in many ways, she was strong for her guests. She gave us inspiration to be strong for the people we would interview and distribute supplies to.
Professor Reyes-Santos created homemade natural medicinal remedies to distribute to those who needed them. These included aspirin, rosewater, despacito (for anxiety, depression, and stress), pulmonazo (for lungs), and bug repellant. Reyes-Santos reasoned that natural remedies are more beneficial than western medicine because western medicine contains chemicals, and when the medicine is disposed of, the chemicals get into the water supply and contaminate it. Every measure we took to provide aid to Puerto Ricans was with respect towards the island.
When I stepped out of the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, the first thing I thought was, “Wow, this feels like Pakistan.” The air was humid, and families were waiting outside to receive their loved ones. As we drove through San Jaun, everything from the buildings to the beaches to the people reminded me of home. So when we encountered heavy traffic at a four-way intersection, with no stop signs or traffic directors, where cars were clumped in the middle trying to get through, I thought it was normal. There is a lot of poorly regulated traffic in Pakistan too. But then I looked up, and saw a traffic light that wasn’t working. Then it hit me that most of the island did not have electricity, so of course traffic lights would not be operative. Traffic guards were supposed to be stationed to direct cars, but there were too few of them to cover all the places that needed directing.
Damage done to houses in San Juan.
The floods produced by the hurricanes damaged furniture, and at times even emptied houses of all of their inhabitants’ personal belongings. Isla de Cabra, San Juan.
Torn down power lines restrict communication between family and friends in Cataño.
Artwork in Santurce, nearby Centro de la Mujer Dominicana.
With Corillo 100 x 35, UO student delegation delivered donations to a church in Utuado that acts as a distribution hub for clothes, food, and baby products.
The church also provides shelter to those in need.
Mudslides throughout the highlands of Morovis, Utuado, Jayuya and Orocovis make the roads leading to rural towns inaccessible and dangerous, discouraging families from taking their children to school or going to work, and making communication and relief efforts difficult.
Faulty infrastructure and sloppy architectural planning are some of Puerto Rico’s internal problems. The severity of these issues became apparent too late when the hurricanes destroyed roads and bridges, like the ones in the rural regions of Morovis and Utuado. Now, these towns can only be reached through alternate routes consisting of 2-hour detours, making the transportation of people and supplies difficult, and at times impossible. Education is also put on a halt because teachers are unable to reach their schools.
These families lost everything in Utuado.
The Brigada Solidaria del Oeste, Western Solidarity Brigade, is an organization made up of smaller groups, including scientists, artists, musicians, and activists. They go to families who receive little to no assistance from the government, ask them specifically what they need, and then collect and distribute materials to those families. They use this dance studio in Mayaguez to store supplies that have been donated to them from the community. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Puerto Ricans in need of help, but there are very few resources available to meet everyone’s needs.
Professor Reyes-Santos and her students team up with the Brigada Solidaria del Oeste to distribute food, water, and baby products at Escuela De La Comunidad Mariana Bracetti in Maricao.
Brigada Solidaria demonstrates how to use water filtration systems. Clean drinking water is a scarce resource.
This family had to walk for two hours through a mountain road full of debris a month ago to get water and food supplies the one time FEMA appeared in the region. Neighbors opened the road recently. And whoever can drive brings donations and aid from a local church and individual donors to those who need it the most: those who lost everything, children, the elderly, chronically ill people, and people with disabilities, such as a deaf and hard of hearing family without barely any ASL education and no interpretation services.
In Utuado, their grandmother lost her house and all her personal belongings. Now she stays with them and their parents, with their chronically ill grandfather who uses a wheelchair for mobility in a house with stairs and two small bedrooms. Their neighbors help bring medicines and other staples. No government official has visited them.
Loss is not something new to many of the people we met, including this elderly woman, Doña Clarisa, who had lost everything many times over. She lived in her small house in Maricao for decades. When the hurricane hit, it tore apart her roof, allowing rain to flood her house, and forcing her to move out. Though devastated, Doña Clarisa did not waste time feeling sorry for herself, and instead accepted her loss, and started working on making her situation better. The Brigada Solidaria del Oeste brought her tarps to patch up her roof and keep the rain out. Her neighbors have collaborated to provide her with food and other basic supplies.
Stories of loss are connect the diverse people of Puerto Rico. Many of them lost everything when they had very little to begin with. It is a pain that no one deserves, but it is also a pain that makes them stronger, and brings them closer together.
When newborn Isaac’s mom’s water broke in the midst of the hurricane, all her neighbors came together to clear the roads as quickly as they could to ensure a safe child birth at the closest hospital. A common theme among the stories of Puerto Ricans was that of community. In times of devastation and loss, friend, neighbors, and strangers come together to help one another.