It was during the Fall of 2016 that I decided to work on the Mis Raíces project. I wanted to explore the land and culture my parents left behind in search of greener grass. With a photography exhibition booked for the end of the summer of 2017, I started planning and working on a body of work that would unexpectedly become my strongest collection thus far. Throughout 10 months that followed I took two separate trips to Puerto Rico, one in January and one in June, spending a total of 3 weeks there. By the time my exhibition came around (September 1st) I had fallen deeply in love with my history. I had learned so much about myself and those who came before me. You couldn't imagine how excited I was to present my work to the public.
THE SHOW, THE STORM
The month began with my opening ceremony. 22 images beautifully hung on the walls of the gallery while close to a hundred people filled the space with love and support. Classical Puerto Rican live music played in the background while the guest shared stories among each other. It was a magical night. I even sold a few pieces off the wall. It was a photographer's dream come true. I was in awe with the amount of love I received that night. Everything was truly perfect. I walked on clouds for a few weeks until things took a turn.
One afternoon I received news of Hurricane Irma making it's way towards Borinken. This was enough to stress me out because my grandmother was there, in Trujillo Alto, all alone in the same concrete house her mother raised her in. A powerful tropical storm literally rained havoc down on the land as the category 5 hurricane passed by, missing the north east of the island by miles. I remember checking my Facebook feed every 5 minutes. Hours after the hurricane was cleared, the government of Puerto Rico announced that it's power grid was severely damaged. As a result of this, many citizens would be left without power for at least 2-3 months. Over 1 million people to be exact, including my grandmother. My aunt wasted no time bringing my grandmother up north to Boston. It was days after her arrival that we first heard about Hurricane Maria. We knew it was going to be bad, but I don't think anyone truly understood what exactly was about to happen.
I was doing my best to stay on top of the storm. I remember being a few hours into my morning when it first struck the shores of Maunabo. It was difficult trying to act normal knowing a category 4 hurricane was slicing through Puerto Rico's central cities like a hot knife through butter. Considering the damage that was already done, I had a really bad feeling about what was to come. It was impossible to communicate with anyone on the island because all the communication towers were destroyed. Eventually images and videos began to leak through the news outlets. I could not recognize my homeland. This started a wave of concern amongst the Puerto Rican community living in the states. We all just wanted to know... Are our families ok? Are they even alive? Do their homes still stand? After a few days of radio silence most of us just wanted to hear from our relatives. We just needed to know that they were alive. It took a few days before the residents of Puerto Rico were able to share their own videos and stories. That's when I realized just how bad the island was hit.
The next few days consisted of my Facebook feed being flooded with posts of people asking for help locating loved ones and others asking for help with basic necessities. I wish I could say things have gotten better since then but I would be lying. It's been over two weeks since they declared it a disaster zone and there is still towns that have not yet received any help from any government agency, or anyone for that matter. I can count in one hand the days I've gone without crying to myself. It's heartbreaking to see my people struggle with food and water, while I sit at home debating between a home cooked meal or my favorite dish from a local food spot. It bothers me to know some of my family members have no access to clean running water, as I prepare a warm bath before bed. It's during times like these that you realize how blessed you are. I knew I had to do something to help, but what?
Even after donating money and/or shipping materials over sea, it didn't feel like I did enough. It's become a waiting game. Waiting to see what the POTUS and his administration is going to do to help. Waiting to hear from those who have yet to communicate with the outside world. Waiting to hear the Governor of Puerto Rico release an official body count. Waiting to see my cousins pop up on my newsfeed again, just like before, when things were "normal". But the truth is that things will never be normal again. My people, and our government, have a lot of rebuilding to do. There is a lot of conversations that we need to have- with our government and with ourselves. I want to end this post by reminding all of you, who have been touched by this event, that you are stronger than you know. This will one day be a memory in our past. Make sure that when the time comes for you to look back at this moment in time you'll be able to assure yourself that you did all you could to help. You might not be Puerto Rican, but I'm sure you know someone who is. Even a simple "how are you?" to a friend in pain can go a long way. Move forward with love my people! Stay strong. Puerto Rico se levanta!