Puerto Rico Uprooted: The story of mi gente y la suya

Written By Natalie Zwerger


Today marks 75 days since Hurricane Maria hit my home island of Puerto Rico. I just returned last night from visiting and much of the island looks as if the storm hit yesterday, while other parts appear relatively untouched. The devastation began to hit me as the plane landed, and I saw a sea of blue roofs, or tarps, covering damaged buildings and homes. I saw piles of rubble where some structures crumbled and quite starkly, I saw empty beaches and few people on the shoreline.

Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are healing. Rebuilding. Recovering. Making tough choices. The airports are emotional places where goodbyes seem to linger longer than usual and faces seem blanketed with worry and anxiety. I drove from the capital of San Juan to my town of Cabo Rojo in the Southwest of the island and one of the images that stood out the most to me were the uprooted trees.

The island looks lush and green—much more so than when I was last there in July when there were signs of drought. However, when one looks closely, one sees how many of those green trees are uprooted out of the ground, leaning over, fallen, and in many cases entangled in power lines. Highway signs unearthed from the ground—cement foundations intact—toppled over and mangled. Their metal looks like a crumpled piece of paper. It was 67 days before my family got power back. Then on day 68 we lost it again. It returned day 70. We anticipate this will continue moving forward as the power grid was already unstable pre-storm. The water is some of the most toxic in the country, and you must be very careful not to drink it or let it contact open cuts and wounds.

On the highway there was a sign that said, “El dolor de hoy será la fuerza de mañana.” Today’s pain will be the strength of tomorrow. This rings so true for my people and yours, the people of Puerto Rico, our fellow American citizens. Despite the inequitable distribution of resources by our federal government, the lack of attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and the racist, colonized relationship through which American blames Puerto Ricans for financial troubles fueled by its positionality as a commonwealth (read: possession) of this country, mi gente are resilient. They remain positive and hopeful.

Yet despite that positivity and hope, tough decisions must be made. Some 200,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island for Florida alone. I suspect that number is exceedingly hard to track. Many island schools still operate despite no power and they, like the grid itself, were struggling mightily pre-storm. Several hundred had closed. When I worked there years ago, classes on the same grade level would rotate one set of textbooks—a set that in most cases was decades outdated. I now work with several schools and districts here in New York who are receiving Puerto Rican students and families uprooted from our island.

What does it mean to be culturally responsive in this moment to our Puerto Rican students, families, and colleagues? Well, first for those who were on the island during the hurricane, there is the trauma they endured due to the storm and its aftermath. Weeks without being able to communicate or have running water. Little access to food and medical care. Deep feelings of abandonment and isolation.

It was 2 weeks before I was able to communicate with my mami and my abuelita. The first call I received was the call I always wanted and the call I never wanted to get. They were ok, but had no water. No running water or water to drink. They had seen no aid from the federal government, volunteers, or the municipality, nor did they for the first month.

Our family, friends, and many of my colleagues mobilized to send water and food, flashlights, lanterns, and medical supplies. Storm survivors continue to navigate all of that trauma each time there is news that it will rain heavily, each time the power goes back out, and as they begin to see more and more images of the depth of devastation island-wide.

For those of us who live in the mainland and have familia on the island, the trauma of feeling helpless and the fear of losing contact again remains ever present. Sometimes there are days when the landline is down, the cell signal is out, and there is no word. Many Puerto Ricans will be celebrating the holiday season in the coming weeks, but all of our familia might not be around the same table. Some have lost family members. Some have lost family members who are not even counted in the “official toll” of lives lost in the storm. This season will feel different. I am thankful that I had the means to travel to the island and be with my family, but, that too, was emotionally triggering given the island where I grew up no longer looks like I remember.

I navigate a range of emotions that I can only imagine are manifesting, and will continue to manifest, in our Puerto Rican students—feelings of anger, frustration, abandonment, sadness, fear. Sometimes just seeing the American flag can be triggering or hearing someone talk about “how much we have done for the island” or how “these people need to pick themselves up and rebuild.” We can and we are. But, let’s not forget this history we are writing now will one day show how inequitably we have treated our own citizens in both Puerto Rico and the USVI. We will have to explain to our children why.

If you are thinking about what you can do, consider: (1) what it means to be culturally responsive to students, families, and staff still enduring this crisis in perpetuity, (2) how you can forefront the lived experiences and narratives of our people and the inequities they are enduring, and (3) how you can contribute to the local island economies because they are open for business! The first cruise ships arrived in Viejo San Juan last week.

If you do visit the islands, tell your children and families the real story of colonization and how it impacts Puerto Rico and the USVI’s abilities to thrive. But, most importantly, no nos olvides. Don’t forget us.

¡Puerto Rico se levanta!

Natalie Zwerger is the director of The Center for Strategic Solutions at The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University. She can be reached by email at: nz11@nyu.edu.