On She Goes

After Maria: Puerto Rico, Diaspora & Rebuilding an Island

Sending love and more to the ‘island of enchantment.’

Nicole Capo
Nicole Capo
November 1, 2017
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My community—my entire nation—is living a new reality in Puerto Rico. For some, that means hours-long lines for basic needs like water, gas, and money. It includes parking on the sides of highways or standing outside buildings and hoping for the slimmest chance to get in touch with family and friends. It involves crafting makeshift trolleys out of clotheslines and baskets where bridges have collapsed so that the communities who are cut off from the rest of the island are able to shuttle in supplies as they begin rebuilding. And for many it means sharing every last can of food, bottle of water, or dollar in their pockets with those whose need is greater than theirs.

For me, this new reality includes sleepless battles under the bedsheets that end when I admit defeat and spend hours staring at the phone, searching for news from the media, from the government, from my loved ones. It involves an endless pain in my chest and the constant threat of tears over what’s happening in my home, my beautiful Puerto Rico. Known as the “Island of Enchantment,” many who visit will remember seeing the historic castles in the Old San Juan, the lush paradise that is our rainforest, or the iconic surfers’ destinations where the waves roll in all day. But there’s another thing visitors recall in every story of the island: the warmth of the people who call this incredible destination their home.

Nicole enjoying a summer trip to Puerto Rico to visit her grandparents, circa 1992.
photo by Nicole Capo

Despite the distance, stateside Puerto Ricans as well as the diaspora spread across the corners of the globe still call it “back home” because it’s the land that raised us, that molded us into the people we are. We’re people who care about our friends and neighbors, who despite adversity will still offer a cafecito and a smile to anyone who visits our homes. Those lessons don’t leave us just because we leave the island; if anything, they become more apparent in the communities we build abroad. In the month since Category 4 Hurricane Maria touched down in Puerto Rico and wrought the worst destruction the island’s seen in decades, those of us abroad—the diasporriqueños—have leaned on each other for news from home, messages of love and hope, and strength that comes from a community with shared traditions and values. Puerto Rico is, for many of us, a living flame that only burns stronger in times of need.

Those of us abroad—the diasporriqueños—have leaned on each other for news from home, messages of love and hope, and strength that comes from a community.

I spoke to Mariana Vicéns Rodríguez, a Puerto Rican who left her hometown of Humacao to move to Arlington, Virginia, 10 years ago. Though her stateside community is made up of folks from all kinds of backgrounds, she considers the Puerto Ricans in her friend circle to be her extended family. They use every opportunity as an excuse to gather and celebrate, Puerto Rican style. These fêtes are more than parties; they’re a way to celebrate our culture through food (which must always be copious), music (which must always be loud), and a shared language (which any Latinx could immediately identify as Puerto Rican Spanglish). The hurricane has forced these interactions to become much more frequent as Mariana helps organize donation drop-off sites in Virginia. The constant gathering of strangers who understand her pain and her need to feel close to home fuel her longing for that sense of community even more. “After the hurricane,” she says, “I can tell you that I feel more Boricua than ever.”

But living in the diaspora can play tricks on our ideas about personal identity. After such an extended period of time abroad, Mariana sometimes feels like a tourist when she travels to Puerto Rico despite a deep, lifelong connection with her roots. It’s the feeling of being trapped between two worlds and two different cultures, which is common among those who leave their home countries. The first time I read Nigerian poet Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s “Diaspora Blues,” the accuracy of her words made me ache:

here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
never enough for both.”

My home disappeared for the first time when I was a child. Born on the island but raised stateside, at seven years old I suddenly found myself transplanted to a fantastical land that, in my mind, didn’t exist outside of breaks from school when we would visit. It was the first time I understood what it meant to be split in two. On the one hand, I was a McDonald’s-eating, comic book–loving gringa nerd who had more in common with The Baby-Sitters Club than Esmeralda Santiago. On the other hand, I was now among my family. My parents had moved us back to Puerto Rico where the rest of our family lived: grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—the people who had housed me and showered me with love every summer and winter, who had given me a taste for tostones and bacalao. Visitors of Puerto Rico like to talk about the coast, but my memories remain in the spine: the mountains that cross the center of the island east to west, where my grandparents have lived my entire life. Driving through them is like skimming a blanket of green, a canopy that bends and sways in the breeze. My grandparents’ property is high up on one of those mountains, and my grandmother’s outdoor kitchen—her fogón—was always fired up during every childhood visit, the air heavy with the smell of wood smoke and pork fat. At night the air is pure magic, the sound of the coquí frogs a sweet lullaby in the cool humidity.

Lush Puerto Rican plant life, pre-Maria.
photo by Nicole Capo

That sense of being an outsider only grew stronger when I left for college in Washington, DC, a decade ago. Still “other,” still “different,” it took almost 10 years for me to finally understand my relationship with my homeland. The sense of urgency and the gathering of diasporriqueños both online and in person since the hurricane struck has only made that understanding stronger. I’m not alone in feeling that way. “Being with so many good people has helped me appreciate my homeland, the love we have for each other, the charisma,” Mariana says. “That’s not something you see everywhere!”

Social media networks like Facebook have become crucial for the Puerto Rican diaspora since Maria, and the creation of groups dedicated to disseminating information has in turn led to the formation of online communities that offer each other support in other ways as well. In the last weeks, it hasn’t been uncommon to scroll through Facebook and find not only news links but also messages of hope: “If you believe the island will rise up stronger than before, let me get a ‘¡Wepa!’” I’ve seen messages thanking the community for its help in locating family members. I’ve seen people bare their souls on the internet, sharing the sad news of loved ones passing or asking for help for family members who desperately need aid. And I’ve seen dozens, sometimes hundreds, of replies from complete strangers, all offering “wepas,” digital hugs, and whatever support they’re able to provide.

“Being with so many good people has helped me appreciate my homeland, the love we have for each other.”

Patricia Pichardo has had a front-row seat to this show of solidarity. A native of Caguas, PR, who’s lived in Atlanta for 19 years, Patricia started the Facebook group Puerto Rico Maria Updates the very day the storm hit the island. When I asked her about it, she explained that it’s changed her ideas about her communities, both online and in real life. “Originally I thought it would be just news and connectedness, but it has turned into quite a bit more,” she says. “My sense of community has deepened and broadened.” Her days have, in turn, become an endless effort to administrate the group and do work for the island. “It has basically become my me time. I try to disconnect some, but it is hard not to be thinking and doing for Puerto Rico.”

Across the ocean, Natalia Marín Jiménez has spent endless hours poring over news updates and sharing them with her online and in-person networks as well. Natalia arrived in Madrid from San Juan on September 3 to begin a master’s program and is still settling into her temporary new home. She explained that life has changed drastically since the storm. Her family in Puerto Rico now relies on her to keep them updated with information from the government, from disaster relief organizations like FEMA, and even about what’s happening in the rest of the world, since communication between people on the island has become increasingly difficult due to damaged phone towers, lack of electricity, and damages to radio and news outlets that have not allowed several of them to continue working. “Right after the hurricane hit, I was [my family’s] only source of information and that was the only way I felt I was helping out, so it was crucial for me to talk to them,” she told me. Folks back home relay her messages by word of mouth to those in areas that are still without telecommunications. “I haven’t spoken to my grandparents since I got to Madrid, and that kills me.”

Family that lives on and off the island enjoying a Puerto Rican vacation in 2014.
photo by Nicole Capo

For Natalia, the ties to her homeland are clear and unwavering despite the physical distance and the fact that the Puerto Rican government declared a form of bankruptcy earlier this year. “Puerto Rico is my home,” she says. “Even when I felt asphyxiated with the difficult situation [in which] we were living before Maria and wanted to get out, I was in love with my island and wanted to fight for it. I didn’t want to be another young professional that left.”

Perhaps the most unique part of the Puerto Rican culture—and what we’re known for throughout the world—is the fact that these strong bloodlines exist even for those who weren’t born on the island or who didn’t grow up there. Athena Guice, a doula, community organizer, and activist who was born and raised in Florida but whose mother hails from Puerto Rico tells me that this connection is a huge part of her identity: “I love to think of my family’s island, ‘La Isla del Encanto,’ as my home-in-spirit. Puerto Rico, its culture, its history, and my people fill my spirit and heart with such pride. To see how diverse, resilient, and powerful we are as a people reminds that that even though PR is a small island . . . we truly have the ability to shake the world—especially when we come together.” This connection pushed her to take action after the hurricane, and she’s been collecting aid supplies in Florida and delivering them to communities in need on the island.

It’s difficult being so far from our families during times of crisis, but the constant reminder that echoes throughout the Puerto Rican community these days is that those of us who are abroad are here for a reason: to help the island by mobilizing our extended families and communities to action, and by using the connections we’ve forged to ensure that our small but mighty island is rebuilt stronger and more beautiful than ever before. There is a much-loved song by composer Noel Estrada that Puerto Ricans who leave their island keep closely in their hearts:

Una tarde me fuí
hacia extraña nación
pues lo quiso el destino.
Pero mi corazón
se quedó frente al mar
en mi viejo San Juan…

One afternoon I left
towards a foreign nation
because destiny wanted it so.
But my heart
stayed by the sea
in my old San Juan…

Borikén, your children have always sung your songs proudly wherever they’ve traveled across the globe, and we sing those songs even louder now in your time of need.