In 2008, when I was home on a visit to Indiera Baja, my friend and elder Don Luis Ríos told me, with deep satisfaction, that he’d seen a pair of nesting Medio peso, the first in the 10 years since Hurricane Georges tore the cordillera apart. Don Luis knows this small piece of the planet like his own skin, knows the trees, the lizards, the weather, and especially the birds. He told me that as a young man he helped build the road that snakes up the mountains from Yauco, but he was fired because, finding himself in a narrow valley full of birds, he was so entranced that the whole morning slipped away as he watched them — striped tanagers and bullfinches, lizard-cuckoos and emerald hummingbirds, and the Medio peso, tiny green balls of feathers that croak like toads. The land and its life were slowly coming back.
Since Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, Puerto Rico has lost so much that it’s hard to wrap my mind, or heart, around it. With more than 95% of the wireless cell sites down, and roads impassable, information trickles out, all of it devastating. Along with 4 million other Puerto Ricans in the US, I hit the refresh button compulsively, waiting for Facebook messages from people I love. Each new set of images someone manages to post makes me gasp, because it keeps being as bad as I imagined, or worse. As the mayors of towns begin to report in, the shock grows. One after another, they say that 80% of the houses are gone, that they’re running out of food, fuel, water, medicine, that the streets are waist deep in water. “Can anybody hear us?” they cry.
I know the worst hit areas are in the southeast and along the coasts, but in the mountain town of Utuado, roads have caved in, and three elderly sisters died when the cement house they thought was the safest place to be collapsed, as rain-saturated earth gave way. I hear about these mountain towns, and I tremble for Indiera, for my community, for its houses perched on steep hillsides that could wash out from under them, and for the fragility of an economy that’s been chewed apart by predators, and which, like a termite-eaten beam, is cracking under this new weight. I worry about the Medio peso.
I grew up in Indiera Baja, Maricao, an impoverished coffee-growing community deep in the mountains, among the old cafetales, those forests of shade-grown coffee that flourished under a canopy of native hardwoods and trees brought from all over the world: Caribbean capá blanco, Venezuelan pomarrosa, West African tulip tree. When Don Luis was a boy, he was one of the children sent up those trunks to open the canopy and let in the sun when the coffee fruit was starting to ripen. Weeds would grow quickly in the brighter light, so just before the harvest there would be one great mowing, to let the coffee pickers move freely. Then, after the red berries were gathered, the canopy was allowed to close again, and on the shadowed slopes, the ground stayed clear, with only small ferns, wild berries, and banks of delicate impatiens growing.
When my best friend and I hunted for tiny, pale green orchids to bring home to our gardens, the sounds of birds were so much a part of the fabric of our lives that we barely heard them.
Our farm is a watershed with seven springs feeding streams that run all the way to the coast. We can afford to protect those 20 acres and that water because we don’t have to plant it with bananas, coffee, or citrus in order to eat. But most of our neighbors can’t.
Forty years ago, the government decided it would be more profitable to plant Brazilian varieties of sun-grown coffee. Small farmers are dependent on government subsidies — for the costs of fertilizer, pesticides, and labor at harvest time — so policies are easy to enforce. The mountainsides were clear-cut, and the living ecosystems of the cafetales became barren rows of bushes, with nowhere for birds to nest, berries to ripen, orchids to bloom. Because they grew in full sun, year-round, weeds had to be constantly fought back, only now with herbicides. Without the thick mat of roots holding it together, the soil washed away, silting the reservoirs and gouging furrows of erosion into the slopes. Now, when hurricane-driven rain has saturated the entire island, whole mountainsides give way, taking roads and houses with them.
“The rich ruin the poor,” my mother used to say, “and the poor ruin the land.” Struggling to eke a living from the land, our neighbors cut down trees to plant a few more rows of cash crops; they eye the thick forest we can afford to leave alone, and think we are wasting what we have. Poverty is its own slow storm.
I grew up on stories of San Felipe II, the great hurricane of 1928. Don Lencho Perez was a neighbor and friend who had helped build the house we lived in, and sometimes worked on our farm. I would follow him around as he cleared underbrush with the swing of his machete, and sit with him when he stopped for his coffee and bread. He told me that after San Felipe, when his family came out of their house, they didn’t know where they were. Every landmark was gone.
When Puerto Ricans give directions, we tell stories. Go past Doña Luisa’s house, the green one, with the tangerine tree by the porch, then there’s a dirt road going down to the spring, but don’t turn there, take the next left, just before you get to Paco’s place, the Paco who fixes trucks...
We store our memories in the landscape: the curve where Don Paco used to have a bakery and our mother would send us to wait for pan de agua fresh from the oven, the brucal tree near the school, where all the kids made whistles from its tubular orange blooms, Doña Sica’s wooden house on stilts, painted sky blue. When the landscape is violently uprooted, our memories become rootless, too.
Last week, Ivan Chaar-Lopez, a Puerto Rican doctoral candidate and colleague in Ann Arbor, Michigan, wrote on Facebook: “The next morning, the streets have no names.” He said that street signs blown from their places wander, confused. That people go searching for the memories they made at certain street corners, alleys, bookstores, cafés, trying to find themselves among broken branches and roofless buildings, carrying cell phones that don’t connect to anything. “They walk, and are drenched with everything that is gone.”
We’re not the only ones. The island’s bees are frantically searching for missing flowers, the nectar-filled blossoms having blown far out to sea. We’re taught how to make sugar syrup to leave out in little bowls — two parts sugar to one part water, dissolved, not boiled.
In September 1989, Hurricane Hugo devastated Puerto Rico’s island municipality of Vieques. I was packing to fly there and write about its impact, when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. It took hours to get to the airport, with the Bay Bridge partially collapsed, so that I flew from one wreckage to another. I hadn’t known until then that wind could take bites out of concrete. I stood amid acres of bare foundations with only the bolted down bases of toilets still in place, blue FEMA tarps flapping in the wind, the ruins of these anonymous houses indistinguishable from each other. I watched as the residents moved debris, stacked broken masonry, and took stock of their losses, and because I came from collapsed freeways and broken bridges, they were willing to talk with me.
A few days later, I was able to tour El Yunque, the Caribbean national forest located in a mountain range sacred to my Taíno ancestors. I saw giant mahogany trees twisted into splintered corkscrews, a terrain burnt as brown as New England in November. But it came back. We always come back.
Every Puerto Rican schoolchild of my generation, growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, learned Rafael Hernandez’s 1929 song “Lamento Borincano” (“Puerto Rican Mourning”) about a rural farmer heading hopefully to market and returning empty-handed because no one, in that time of economic collapse, could afford to buy his produce. He asks, “What will become of my Borinquen? ... Everything is deserted, and the people full of need.”
Now, while the bees search in vain for flowers, Puerto Rico faces a catastrophic loss of crops. Today, the farmer of the “Lamento” would have nothing to sell. The coffee, banana, and plantain harvests are completely gone, along with the plants that bore them. Chicken coops and dairy barns, fields of sweet peppers, squashes, and beans, and acres of coconut palms are now a wreckage of wind-burnt leaves and splintered wood. It looks like the aftermath of a war. And in many ways, it is.
Even before Hurricane Maria tore across my country, we were living in the wreckage of 119 years of US colonial rule. The legal shipping stranglehold of the Jones Act amounts to a century of extortion; predatory lending from US funds has deepened the island’s debt crisis; since last year, a US-appointed Fiscal Board of Control has forced the Puerto Rican government to close schools and hospitals, and sell off public assets.
Tax exemption for US companies; massive subsidies in free roads, electricity, and water; and poor enforcement of environmental protections have made the island extremely lucrative for US businesses, but have left us drained, impoverished, living in a crumbling infrastructure. Unemployment is high, and the poor end up living in low-lying coastal areas, perched on hillsides, in wooden houses roofed with tin. Puerto Rico imports over 80% of its food, overpriced because of Jones Act trade restrictions. We never had more than a couple of weeks’ worth of reserves, leaving us always teetering on the edge of famine.
Hurricanes have always been a part of Caribbean life, but human acts have helped unleash and amplify the particular ecological destruction of this storm, from treating fossil fuels as if they were both endless and harmless to the widespread destruction of the world’s carbon-anchoring, oxygen-producing forests. It isn’t simply a natural disaster: Climate scientists have long predicted that warming seas would bring more frequent and deadlier storms. Cutting down forests makes mudslides inevitable.
Over a century of extraction and neglect has torn at our social root systems, and left us just as vulnerable as our trees. These disruptions of our world climate, primarily created by overconsumption in wealthy countries of the global north — and felt hardest among the poor countries of the tropics — makes the super-hurricanes ripping through the Caribbean acts of climate violence. Their debts have been left to us to pay.
I haven’t been able to reach Don Luis or his family. Indiera Baja and the other highland barrios of Maricao have been completely cut off since the hurricane. I’ve seen a short video, taken 10 minutes from our farm, that looks like New England in November, leafless and brown. I’ve seen a picture of a church with holes in its walls, a house up to its eaves in red earth. A single desperate text plea from nearby Carrizales: We have no food! I don’t know how many of the trees I knew are gone, how many houses, which roads are buried in mud and broken branches, what people have to eat and drink. I’m worried about elders without their heart medicine, diabetics whose insulin has gone bad in the heat, asthmatics without their inhalers.
But among the photographs of flooded streets and shattered houses there are pictures of hope and defiance, flickering videos of neighbors jamming in the dark, banging on whatever they can use as drums, scraping sound from the carved gourds called güiros, and singing improvised verses about roofs that flew away, 10-hour lines for gas, and farms flattened into the mud, laughing as they join in on a chorus about how everything is good.
This is the strength we have always found ways to summon, from the first Taíno strategists gathering under a ceiba tree to plot their response to the Spanish invasion of their lands; through centuries of escapes from, sabotage of, and rebellion against slavery; through strikes, cooperatives, and draft resistance; through demands for bilingual education in US schools and affordable housing from Manatí to Manhattan. We gather, we sing, we organize. Already, voices are rising out of those ruins, insisting that the Jones Act be abolished altogether, insisting that we want more than debt relief; we want it canceled, not as aid but in reparation — not help to rebuild a colonial society, but support to regenerate our way to sovereignty.
In the Afro-Indigenous traditions of my people, the Taíno and Yoruba goddesses of storms also bring opportunities. They clear away the old and make room for the new. I am thinking about my neighbors, tied to a coffee economy that is dangerously dependent on disappearing cool mountain climates, unable to finance a transition to more stable crops. I’m thinking about plantations of bananas, row after row of exposed plants, without shelter.
But I’m thinking, too, about the growing movement of agroecologists who want to reverse our dependency on US food imports, and become a country that feeds itself, imagining a new future springing from this uprooting. We can plant windbreaks of flexible bamboo to shelter our fruit trees. We can plant new food forests in the highlands, bring back slow growing hardwoods, intercropped with trees that provide nourishment, medicine and fuel, with room for orchids and birds’ nests. We can seed the roadsides with nectar-bearing flowers for the bees, and repossess golf courses for gardens of medicinal herbs.
We are a people and a land adapted to surviving hurricanes, natural and social. We know that the broken makes way for the new, and at the eye of each storm there is a circle of calm, a place from which to see clear and far. ●
Aurora Levins Morales is a Jewish Puerto Rican writer, historian, and activist. She is the author of five books, and her work is widely taught and anthologized. Her podcast, Letters from Earth, is a poetic prose series about ecology and social justice. She was born in Indera Baja, Maricao, Puerto Rico, and lives in Tomales, California. She can be reached at www.auroralevinsmorales.com