I write amidst a chorus of coquís and diesel-powered generators. Tiny blood-suckers cling to my computer screen, being the only light source nearby that isn’t a candle. Yes, I am actually writing this by candlelight, as Hostos and Betances must have done over a century ago.
I am getting ahead of myself, but so be it.
At night there are few lights in El Conquistador. Mostly, however, the nightlife is pitch black. Everyone keeps telling me about the curfew. “You gotta get home before dark,” they say. “No one’s out after that, because it’s so black out, you can’t even see your own hand in front of your face.” A colorful description, to be sure, but one not so far from reality. Some stars twinkling faintly and the grayish hint of clouds separate sky from everything else. And always, from sundown straight through till early morning, there is the everpresent singing of the generators.
Night shrouds the many scars of those twin unnatural disasters named colonialism and capitalism. (Puerto Rico is a colony, but one for the 21st century.) No one wants to be reminded of the church roofs ripped off and the once mighty tree trunks now bent at right angles. Except for the traffic, much of Puerto Rico looks absolutely apocalyptic; but instead of zombies, the only still standing that won’t die is colonialism. That and the unconquerable spirit of the Puerto Rican people.
The people are bowed, but not broken. Puerto Rico indeed se levanta.
Today [Friday] was a special day, because today I was in Puerto Rico. That’s the first time I have ever been able to say that. After dreaming and reading and writing and thinking about a place for so long, finally I can see it, hear it, breathe it and speak to it, too. I am thrilled by how much of it I recognized from secondhand memory, as well as heartbroken by so much more I never imagined. (The grounds of El Morro are so much greener and more sprawling than I ever knew.) Even at her ugliest, Puerto Rico is still beautiful to me, and that, too, shatters me. I am tortured by the thought of what this twisted paradise must have been before María showed up and ruined it all.
But how dare I blame a hurricane for this devastation? You can’t blame a storm for the dark desperation of Puerto Rico any more than you can condemn Chicago’s brutally cold winters for the number of deaths by hypothermia tallied there every December through February. A man crossing the desert doesn’t die of thirst; he dies from lack of preparation.
Which begs the question—two, in fact: how was the island of Puerto Rico—which, for those who may not know, lies in the blue-green heart of hurricane alley—not prepared for a storm the likes of María? And, more important, why was Puerto Rico—which, for those who choose to forget, is ruled by the richest, smartest, most powerful empire the world has ever known—not able to assuage its recovery?
I am sure I know the answers to those questions, and I am sure many others know them, too. All this has been known for a hundred years, and if God has no mercy, it will continue to be the common, unspoken knowledge of Puerto Rico for another century.
But I didn’t come to Puerto Rico to point fingers at people. I came to find a path forward. The head of that path begins with every Puerto Rican, on this island and abroad. Los boricuas are the saviors they seek.
Puerto Rico rises, every day.