The last time I had any contact with my family in Puerto Rico was Tuesday night, September 19. I spent the day calling and texting them to make sure they had taken all the steps possible to prepare. My nephew had yet to put gas in his car so I hounded him until he did. Later that evening, I called my brother who informed me that my nephew had gone to a neighboring town to visit his girlfriend, and I, of course, texted him to go home. Maria had not begun pounding the island, but I was concerned for his safety. His last text to me came at 9:34 pm on Tuesday. His response was brief, “home now.” That’s the last time I had any contact with them.
As soon as I woke up the next morning I sent my nephew and brother a text. Silence followed. Then the images started rolling in. Maria was assaulting our isla del encanto with no consideration for life. My cousin sent me pictures and videos she had received from her father Wednesday morning as the hurricane moved in. It was early on and already the rivers were overflowing and vegetation was strewn across the roads. This would be the last communication she would have with her beloveds.
By Wednesday night, I was desperate. Full of anxiety. And gripped by fear. I spent time texting my brother who lives in Jersey City, just a few blocks from me. He too was starting to worry although he had the resolve to be faithful and believed that a higher power would protect them. I was too worried to think about the spirit when the material space my family was trapped had been destroyed.
I could not move from my computer screen on Thursday morning. I needed to consume as much information as possible in an attempt to know about the well-being of my mother, who has Alzheimer’s, and who we moved to Puerto Rico in December of 2016 in order to increase her quality of life. The irony is not lost on me; it tortures me. Did we put her in harm’s way? Before Maria, the move proved to be in her best interest, as she was thriving with my brother, sister-in-law and nephew. They threw themselves into creating the environment that would sustain her health and creating the life she needed given her health conditions.
I logged into Facebook and listened to the information coming out of Zello. This magical app connected all of the Puerto Ricans in the diaspora desperate for news. It sounds like a walkie talkie so my 3-year old was very annoyed when I incessantly inundated our home with the sound. People talked about where in the town of Salinas their families were located. They talked about their plans to go to the island to support the recovery. They prayed and lifted each other up. I don’t know any of these people, but I love them as if we have known one another all of our lives. Puerto Ricans possess a welcoming spirit and that is what has been keeping us going.
Friday night at about 9 p.m., we received a bit of light. My cousin who is a police sergeant had traveled through Salinas to check on her mom and spotted my mother as she drove by my brother’s house. I received the message on Facebook and instantly I teared up with joy. The weekend seems to be a blur. Whenever I ate something, I thought about my family and their limited access to food. I thought obsessively about my mother possibly dehydrating and how that would exacerbate her mental state. All the while, images continue to stream on social media showing the devastation and fueling my desperation to take care of my loved ones. But I did not having the ability to do so.
A full week of disconnection….
At this point, the stress is manifesting itself in physical ailments; panic attacks, high blood pressure, pinched nerves, migraines, and a loss of appetite. We are suffering. We just want to take care of our loved ones. We just want to be sure they have food, water, medication and a roof over their heads, but we cannot.
One thing we haven’t heard and the silence speaks volumes, is how the executive office of this country is responding to this disaster. 45 spent the weekend tweeting about the NFL while people suffered in Puerto Rico. I have no delusions about how this country feels about our island people. We have never been treated with respect, but I expected that during a humanitarian crisis that we would see an investment in the wellbeing of humans.
What we have seen is 45 taking to Twitter to state that the island is in terrible shape and that we owe billions of dollars to Wall Street. There are little words that accurately capture my rage. A rage informed by a history of colonialism, discrimination and an array of abuse at the hands of colonizing white supremacists. This rage was not sparked by the idiot-in-chief’s tweet, it has been fomented across generations of neglect, since 1898 when the US invaded Puerto Rico. Our expectations as a people must be measured by that historical context. And we must lift ourselves up through our own efforts, ingenuity and spirit.
I do not know when I will hear from my family and it is painful to think about any suffering they are experiencing. I pay taxes in this country, and this country cannot meet the needs of my people on the island it governs.
I demand that those in delicate medical states be evacuated, I demand that medicine, water, food and supplies be transported to the island. I demand that this emergency be taken seriously and the response be of proportionate measure by every agency of the federal government.
The rebuilding of Puerto Rico will need a sustained and extensive plan. We must build to ensure safety in the future as we face an increase in natural disasters. Our people deserve it and future generations do as well.
And if we do not receive the responses we deserve, mainland Puerto Ricans need to leverage our political power to undo power, resist oppression and build our homeland anew. Pa’lante mi gente!
Lillian Rivera is a Jersey Rican, lesbian mom who loves her latin@ people.