The Other Amer­ica


Smithsonian Magazine - - Contents - pho­tos and text by Erika P. Ro­dríguez

A year af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria struck Puerto Rico, its cit­i­zens are still feel­ing aban­doned by the rest of their coun­try

We’re very warm and out­go­ing. I had to adapt to a very dif­fer­ent chem­istry with the other stu­dents in Cal­i­for­nia. Some of my closer friends there were Mex­i­can, but I had to use a more neu­tral Span­ish when I spoke to them, with­out all my Caribbean slang. When I’d call home, my cousin would ask, “Why are you speak­ing so strangely?” I’d say, “I can’t speak Puerto Ri­can here!”

Once we grad­u­ated, my Latin Amer­i­can friends had to leave the coun­try. That was strange for me—that they couldn’t stay and I could. Yet I knew the his­tory of Puerto Rico and what that ad­van­tage had cost us.

In 1898, Puerto Rico was ac­quired by the United States as a “spoil” of the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War along with Guam and the Philip­pines. Un­til 1948, all our gov­er­nors were ap­pointed by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. Un­til 1957, our pa­tri­otic songs and other ex­pres­sions of na­tion­al­ism were out­lawed. Even to­day, our gov­ern­ment ex­ists un­der the dis­cre­tion of Congress—though we do not have a vot­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive in that body. Since 1967, there have been five ref­er­en­dums in Puerto Rico on state­hood, in­de­pen­dence or main­tain­ing the com­mon­wealth, but all have been non­bind­ing.

So we ex­ist in a con­fus­ing, kind of gray realm. We use U.S. dol­lars and U.S. postage stamps. We serve in the U.S. mil­i­tary and our bor­ders are mon­i­tored by U.S. Cus­toms. In my Cal­i­for­nia stu­dent days, I’d give my phone num­ber to friends and they would ask if it was an in­ter­na­tional call. I had to check with my tele­phone com­pany to find out (it isn’t). That’s Puerto Rico.

I’ve been doc­u­ment­ing this am­bi­gu­ity for the past six years, start­ing with an in­tern­ship at a Puerto Ri­can news­pa­per. I be­gan photographing ev­ery­day mo­ments: a salsa class at a bar, Mother’s Day with my fam­ily, fes­ti­vals and po­lit­i­cal events. I could be at a rally, where ev­ery­one was shout­ing. But the best photo would be the one where a woman hold­ing a sign was look­ing down and be­ing in­tro­spec­tive. You could feel her with­draw­ing into her own thoughts.

Af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria rav­aged every­thing in its path last year, there was a sense of unity among peo­ple of the ar­chi­pel­ago. Un­der com­plete dark­ness, with­out suf­fi­cient fuel, wa­ter or food, and largely with­out com­mu­ni­ca­tions, our sense of com­mu­nity changed. It was vis­i­ble in the young neigh­bor who col­lected and dis­tribut-

This is not the first time our pop­u­la­tion has ex­pe­ri­enced an ex­o­dus, but it is the largest one.

ed wa­ter for months af­ter the storm, and in the per­son with a power gen­er­a­tor who would pro­vide elec­tric­ity to other fam­i­lies through ex­ten­sion cords cross­ing from one home to an­other. It was vis­i­ble in the neigh­bors who cooked to­gether on the only work­ing gas stove on their street. Ten­sion and de­spair were real, but a new sol­i­dar­ity emerged.

Over a week af­ter the storm, I spot­ted a Puerto Ri­can flag flap­ping on the side of a fuel truck. More soon ap­peared on car an­ten­nas, store­fronts, home bal­conies, high­way bridges and street cor­ners. Our flag, once il­le­gal, could now be seen all over the is­land. It was a mes­sage: “We are here and we are stand­ing.”

But we’re still deal­ing with the af­ter­math. In San Juan, where I live, I reg­u­larly still see bro­ken elec­tri­cal posts, miss­ing traf­fic lights and blue plas­tic tarps cov­er­ing dam­aged rooftops. The power still goes out short term. Things are much worse in the moun­tain town of Utu­ado. Com­mu­ni­ties there have been with­out power since the hur­ri­cane, un­able to store food in their re­frig­er­a­tors, and many roads re­main A home on the storm-bat­tered south­east­ern coast. The words on the sign, “Yo voy a ti PR,” trans­late roughly to “I’m root

ing for you, Puerto Rico!”

ex­actly as they were back in Septem­ber. Elec­tri­cal ca­bles hang over­head and veg­e­ta­tion now grows in the mud­slides that cover en­tire lanes.

The phrase “Se fue pa’ afuera” —lit­er­ally, “he went out­side”—is an ex­pres­sion for a Puerto Ri­can who has left the is­land on a one-way flight. It has be­come far too com­mon. I’ve been to many tear­ful good­bye par­ties. My sis­ter left for Chicago and has no de­sire to ever re­turn; I was in­tro­duced to my new­born god­son over Skype. I con­tinue to see friends find bet­ter pos­si­bil­i­ties out­side.

We won’t know un­til the 2020 cen­sus how many peo­ple have al­ready left. Since the be­gin­ning of the re­ces­sion in 2006, Puerto Rico has lost around 635,000 res­i­dents, and an­other half mil­lion are ex­pected to leave by next year.

As a young Puerto Ri­can, I’m un­sure what lies ahead. That’s why I want to stay and con­tinue doc­u­ment­ing our com­plex dual iden­tity. I want to pho­to­graph Puerto Rico as we re­build, or fall apart. I just can’t look away. There’s no room in my mind or heart for any­thing else.

A touristy area of San Juan (right), the day af­ter Maria snapped a palm trunk in two in Con­dado. In Ai­bonito (far right), a moun­tain town, a pic­ture of Je­sus sat in a pile of de­bris, still par­tially buried by dirt, a few weeks af­ter the storm.

Work­ers clean a busi­ness that flooded in Toa Baja, on Puerto Rico’s north­ern coast (top). Bags of sup­plies (bot­tom) wait to be dis­trib­uted to fam­i­lies in Utu­ado. The Coca-Cola Puerto Rico Bot­tlers used their own trucks to de­liver the sup­plies. A...

The day af­ter the hur­ri­cane, res­i­dents and pub­lic work­ers nav­i­gated flooded streets to res­cue peo­ple.

Po­lice walk in for­ma­tion as demon­stra­tors protest planned aus­ter­ity mea­sures (top). A woman holds a sign (bot­tom) that says “A crime called ed­u­ca­tion.” The Univer­sity of Puerto Rico had an­nounced plans to in­crease its tu­ition and pos sibly close six...

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