The gasp that went around the world. That’s what it felt like. the gasp in the airplane. All three hundred of its passengers, upon seeing Puerto Rico- desde que se vio la puntita del morro. The brown foliage (usually green), the rubble, the profound sadness, the dirt like the room of someone in depression. An entire island depressed. Oppressed. In shock. 8 days after Hurricane Maria’s rage ripped the island in shreds. Ollie and I traveled there. To help.
My heart had ripped open with every wind gust as heard through the internet radio. Digging a trench-hole in my friend’s apartment where I was staying in from all the pacing. The downstairs neighbor tried to bring me back with the stubby bangs of her broom stick- but it was too late. The island was drowning- and I couldn’t breathe.
Lili your apartment will always be the place I was in when Hurricane Maria hit- encasing itself in bullet proof memory. Por los siglos de los siglos, amen.
The plane gasped. I still haven’t gotten my breath back. It’s gone. Swallowed up by the corporations and the shady deals made in dark alleys- I mean, conference rooms- that have since taken ownership of the island. They don’t even allow us to keep our breaths.
We rented a car, using the old school telephone to the credit card company method. Money still made. Numbers erasing in one screen and appearing in the other. This is what life is all about. Numbers in a screen. How is that reality? If there are no screens because there is no power- are we in a dream? Analog sheep.
I went straight to my grandmother’s house. Phones didn’t work. Cell phone towers had lost power so service was spotty and unreliable. “Me oyes? Me oyes?” Should’ve been a song, everyone knew the lyrics. So I drove straight to her house. She was sitting in the balcony with Padrino. Surprised to see us, she gave me a tight hug. She was ok. She had food and water and water service. No power. She went out to lunch everyday. She didn’t really understand the scope of what had happened. Her privilege was a dagger.
We didn’t even have a place to stay, and that magically materialized. I pulled over the side of the road where a bunch of cars had also pulled over. Apocalyptic style. It meant cell phone signal. I got on airbnb- made a reservation- got a call back. The place has no power. We can work it out amongst ourselves. Ok. En la Calle Loiza- on a third floor- it seemed like a palace. Right next to the To-Go that were out of bottled water but not Coca-Cola. We resisted until we couldn’t.
The collective gasp is tattooed on my wrists.
I drove to different nursing homes and asked the administration how they were doing on food. Two of them had zero supplies. Zero. The government usually brought them food every day but they hadn’t started working yet since the storm hit nine days ago, so they were left without food. Forgotten. We agreed to bring them food every day. Later we would be nicknamed “Las niñas de las habichuelas”- we all took turns crying.
I took supplies to everyone I knew. I had brought so much food in my luggage. Four 50lb bags- all that I was legally allowed by the airline. I had filled up a cart in a big box store a few days ago. Batteries, bug spray, power banks, bags of rice, cans of vegetables and beans. Everything I could buy. Everything I could take. To Cindy of Veganizalo, I asked, where we could cook. And she had gotten permission to cook at the parking lot of Mercado Libre. So we cooked in the parking lot.
That day I arrived at her house. She had gathered three friends to help us. She left her baby with her husband. We started by searching for firewood, branches of trees that were strewn about. Debri hadn’t been picked up yet. It took months for it to be cleared away. It was scattered throughout the sidewalks. Trunks and branches, and small ones for kindling. We found some zinc boards and used that to protect the ground, and to block the wind. We found cinder blocks and a piece of an iron fence- to build the “stove”. We cleaned our hands with baby wipes, and chopped veggies, and filled pots and under the punishing sun, we cooked for hours. Hours. A lawyer, a student, a doctor, a chef, Ollie and me.
It was hot. And the fire wasn’t going strong enough. I ventured to the gas station but they had no water bottles, only sodas. I bought some for everyone. The disaster gave us diabetes if it didn’t starve us. I hesitate to say “the storm gave us” because the storm didn’t do any of this. Incompetent government, colonial legislation that didn’t allow for international aid to reach us, thank you Jones Act, poor infrastructure, thanks corruption. THIS KILLED US. THIS. CAPITALISM KILLED US. 4,645 of us. Capitalism continues to kill us. Some die slower deaths than others.
I gave my heart. I gave all I had. In two months we served 10,000 meals. Sounds like nothing, but consider the kitchens this came out of. That no one had a salary. That we had to scrounge up the nickels and dimes to allow us to do this. I have so many stories that are still squirreled away for later. Stories and images and feelings that are still hidden in the cells in my body, waiting for their turn, waiting for the air to exit my lungs, waiting for the exhale- like my soul waited for my return from the diaspora… And we’re still here- still serving food- still trying to get our breath back- meeting more and more folks as they are displaced from their homes, their communities, their island… Before Maria, and After Maria: a new timeline.
For more information on what we do, visit www.chilisonwheels.org/Puerto-rico