No Longer a Headline: Salvaged Stories from Puerto Rico

Ignacio Fletcher, MCAS ’20, hasn’t seen his home in five months.

The world he left may be lost to him forever.

Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico last September as a Category 4 hurricane. It spent the next 24 hours wreaking unfathomable destruction on the island. Infrastructure was wiped out. Damage estimates top nearly $100 billion, making it not only one of the costliest storms in U.S. history, but a human catastrophe.

The students here at Boston College, an ocean apart from their home, can only watch from afar as life in Puerto Rico trudges on without them. Family and friends are migrating to the mainland as the recovery effort, has not made the meaningful strides that had been promised by U.S. leadership. Nearly half a year into the rebuild, many remain without a reliable source of drinking water. Roughly 40 percent remain without electricity.

The process is simply not moving quickly enough.

It’s easier for many to pick up whatever survived the storm, gather their families, and move to the mainland rather than rebuild at home.

Aside from occasional visits, many will never return to live there again.

“I’m kind of a little bit scared of going back home, because obviously I’ll see my family, and they’re OK, but not seeing my friends, not seeing where I grew up the same,” Fletcher said.

“It was just in a day that everything changed. Just a day.”

Born only days before the landfall of Hurricane George in 1998, he finds a sort of cruel irony in his recent absence from the island as it faces its greatest crisis. Obviously he couldn’t help when he was only a newborn, but he was there. He suffered with them.

“It’s shocking because I was not even there, to be with my family,” he said. “Sometimes you say I prefer to be there with them and suffer with them, rather than to be here in a safe space, to be here, OK.”

Many Puerto Rican families send their children to the United States because of its opportunities, economic and otherwise. They are U.S. citizens in name, but go without meaningful congressional representation. They do not have senators or representatives. Puerto Ricans cannot vote in federal elections unless they claim residence on the mainland. At the national level, they largely go without a seat at the table. Some of the Puerto Rican students at BC consider their home’s place within the country as utterly imperial, and divisions of opinion regarding self-determination run deep.

“People have joined together to move forward, but I don’t think that is enough,” said Mariela Casellas, MCAS ’18.

To illustrate her political leanings, she points to a prominent mural splashing a wall in the Old San Juan section of the capital. It reads, “Welcome to the Oldest Colony.”  

Casellas’ frustration is common.

“Politically, it’s very divided,” said Gabe Emanuelli, CSOM ’20. “And our leaders have not been up to the standard.”

Puerto Rico’s current situation—American, but not a state; desperately in-need of funds to rebuild, yet massively in debt—could hardly be less conducive to rebuilding in the wake of historic disaster.

Fletcher considers it part of their job here at BC. Not to scold their classmates, but to wake them up. If people can’t be bothered to learn about Puerto Rico and its ills, how can they be expected to make the meaningful decisions regarding its determination?

He asks not that you harass diners at Lower for donations, or that you petition your state representatives or even the administration here at BC, but only that when you have a decision to make with possible ramifications for Puerto Rico and those toiling to rebuild it, that you make it consciously. Also, that you consider from time to time, whether you’re jogging the track in the Plex, ascending the Million Dollar Stairs, or taking the bus back from Agoro’s, that you stop to consider what’s happening in Puerto Rico.

“You just want other people to know what’s happening to your home,” Fletcher said.

The roads were ravaged in the days after. News from the far reaches of the island came slowly. Some students waited longer than a week to hear from family members. Andrés would tag friends in videos on social media, hopefully giving them small glimpses into the conditions their families might be facing in those darkened regions.

Carolina Tiru, MCAS ’20, couldn’t verify her parents’ safety until seven days after the storm. It was another 72 days until her mother had power. Even then, Tiru could only communicate with them via landline. When she returned for Thanksgiving, it was apparent that the slow stream of aid to the island had barely trickled South.

Each day’s first task was finding water.

“We couldn’t even cook,” Tiru said. “You would go to McDonald’s and wait in line for two hours to be told ‘Sorry, we only have chicken nuggets.’ So it was hard.”

But things looked better when she returned for Christmas. She spent New Year’s at her grandmother’s home in the coastal mountains of Ponce, P.R. She had been miraculously spared much of the carnage dealt to rural homes.

It was on New Year’s Eve that Tiru and her family looked upward and watched as fireworks lit up a night sky that had been, for lack of electricity, dark for months.

For the first time during those weeks that she had been back, Tiru felt enveloped by the old Puertorriqueño spirit that had been missing amidst the destruction dealt by Maria.

It was a small but significant blessing.

Even as much of the island was still without power, those with it compensated by adorning their homes with even more festive lights than would normally mark the month-long Christmas celebration from December to February. Those without power simply fired rockets into the sky.

Despite the challenges of the present and those that lie ahead, Tiru and other students have found a thread of optimism and grasped it tightly, proving that hope exists among the still-empty shelves, bare palm trees, and obsolete traffic lights of their communities.

The grave issues besetting Puerto Rico, however, are varied.

Devastating as its effects were, Hurricane Maria exposed the island’s many vulnerabilities: its egregious lack of federal representation, its general lack of opportunity, and its glaring infrastructural concerns, including an energy authority not only massively in debt, but plagued with corruption. Just as it so callously leveled many of the island’s institutions, it exposed those which were rotten to the core at the outset.

Andrés De La Cruz, CSOM ’20, wears a black hat, its logo a stylized, vertical gold icon of the Puerto Rican flag. He is, foremost, a realist.

According to De La Cruz, the cost of the recovery effort coupled with the island’s massive debt —$74 billion—has the island “between a rock and a hard place.” It needs a strong leader now more than ever.

“This is a time we need someone to step up,” De La Cruz said. “Someone we can point out and say, ‘That guy helped us move forward.’”

It remains to be seen, however, if the challenges facing Puerto Rico at home, as well as in Washington, D.C., will prove surmountable. For the help it needs, Puerto Rico will likely have to look within to move forward, and Tiru, Fletcher, and their classmates’ sights remain fixed on a brighter future for the island that was crippled so indifferently.

“You can’t look at the past, and look at home, like, this is how it was in the past, you have to look at the future and how you see your home brighter than it ever was before,” Fletcher said.

Featured Image by Sam Zhai