Fighting for Home | Sojourners

Fighting for Home

What the ‘Longest Blackout in American History’ Tells Us About U.S. Priorities
Cars drive under a partially collapsed utility pole, after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria in September, in Naguabo, Puerto Rico October 20, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez/File Photo

“Christina, can we go to Puerto Rico?” my abuela asks me. It’s October 2017. It hasn’t yet been a month since Hurricane Maria made landfall, sending the island into a state of emergency. “Mom,” my dad says leaning across the breakfast table to ensure that she can hear him, “Don’t you remember? There was a hurricane.”

My abuela remembers the island. She can trace with her finger in the air the dirt road that led up the mountain and to the one-room schoolhouse where she taught. She laughs when she talks of the live chicken she received from a student’s family as a “thank you” gift. She tells me that when her teacher at the Catholic high school chided her for her short skirt, she skipped school and went to the beach.

Over the past two years, my abuela’s short-term memory has been deteriorating. She doesn’t remember the hurricane.

She was born in 1928, the same year the hurricane San Felipe Segundo hit Puerto Rico, killing more than 300 and devastating the island. Hundreds of thousands of homes were permanently destroyed and the island lost an estimated $50 million in damages. She doesn’t remember that hurricane either, though heavy thunderstorms send her into a panic to this day.

It’s been over four months now since Maria hit the island, and 1.36 million Puerto Ricans are still without power in what is being called the “longest and largest blackout in American history.” While they wait in literal darkness, my abuela sits in a memory one.

As time has passed, it has begun to feel as though she is not the only one who has forgotten. At the end of January, media outlets reported that on Jan. 31, FEMA would end food and water aid for Puerto Rico. While FEMA contested this claim saying that they’re merely “winding down” aid, it signaled to many Puerto Ricans what they already felt was true — that they are, and will remain, second-class citizens.

In September 2017, Morning Consult published a poll that affirmed this. They asked if people born in Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States and discovered that 22 percent think they are not and that 24 percent don’t know. 

Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act. While the state-versus-territory debate has been an ongoing struggle, Puerto Ricans have kept their relationship with the mainland, even serving in the U.S. military despite their ineligibility to vote for its president while they reside on the island.

This makes the United States denial of requested debt relief all the more devastating. Without it, Puerto Rico has little chance of making a recovery. A 10-year recession has already taken a heavy toll on the island, and the government has been unable to adequately finance health and education services for years.

My abuela left Puerto Rico when she was 21, following my abuelo to the mainland after he was drafted for the Korean War. As they moved from Oklahoma, to Germany, to Maryland, to California, to Nebraska, to Colorado, they made sure to pass through the island between each move. She raised three sons, taught Spanish to generals in the Panama Canal Zone, and at one point translated five languages for the NSA. She returned to the island after my abuelo retired, finally finishing the degree that she had begun before the draft, just months before her eldest son graduated himself.

She made her last visit to the island in the 1990s, not knowing that her husband’s death in Florida soon after would mark the end of their moves as a couple. Today, she lives in Virginia. When she prepares tostones, arroz con pollo, and café con leche, it triggers memories of the family still living on the Caribbean island of her birth.

While the rest of the world appears to move on, those on the island continue to fight for their home. In Coamo, a town of 40,000 in the mountains of southern Puerto Rico, residents have begun to restore power themselves, salvaging what remains of power lines and digging the holes for posts. Despite complaints from PREPA, a group of municipal workers, retired company workers, and volunteers in San Sebastian have restored power to nearly 2,000 homes.

In an interview with America Magazine, Father José Colón of Nuestra Señora del Carmen said, “We’ve so often heard, ‘Puerto Rico will pick itself up.’ But Puerto Rico will only pick itself up when we can do so on our own. We’re not asking for handouts. We’re asking for the tools to be able to work. We’ve simply stumbled and fallen. Now we will pick ourselves up and keep walking. We just need a push.”

President Donald Trump has excused the United States slow response by stating that Puerto Rico is an “island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water.” But Romans 8:39 reminds us that, “nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” Sitting with my abuela, I am reminded of just how crucial it is that I continue to remember and advocate for Puerto Rico — for my abuela who cannot, and for those who have chosen not to.