Affirming, sharing, most of all releasing from our bodies, minds, our spirits, what we saw and lived, these are some thoughts and some of my images from right here at home, pre/ post Maria….
I miss family albums. As a little girl I would pull out stacks of family albums from cabinets and draws, intensely thumbing through the crinkly plastic sheets, yellowing pages, faded snapshots with rounded edges. They are what connected me to Puerto Rico, a place I had visited at the ages of 3, 10 and 12. My memories, mostly faded, except for the ones held in place by those photos. One album had a sea of tall palms on the cover. Whenever I drive through coastal towns, like el Maní en Mayaguez or the long stretches of sea and palm en la 187 en route to Loíza, I’m taken back to that image. That image that told my little girl self that that was Puerto Rico.
Millennium technology has replaced the point and shoot. The cranking of the camera to advance to the next shot. Only 24 chances on a 110 film cartridge that we eagerly took to develop at the 1-hour photo store. Or maybe you had fewer opportunities, 12 shots. I thought it was a luxury to study photography in high school and get 35mm film with a whopping 36 photos! Photo albums have given way to social media cyber versions. Our family memories uploaded, shared, commented, liked before being pushed way below on someone’s newsfeed and forgotten. Facebook knows how well it has conditioned our brains by creating the memory feature. How many times are we presented with a memory we had already forgotten or a picture we hadn’t thought about in ages? Our capacity to live in the present seems to have become just as fleeting as our memories. We live, we forget.
This new cyber social conditioning wreaked havoc on many of us when we lost all communication post-Hurricane Maria. Having most of my family in New York, I longed for a way to write, to call, to text. To post a photo so they would know I was okay. In fact, the first photo of our family to circulate on social media, was when our friend Mary drove from Mayaguez to our home, taken through all sorts of desvíos, dodging derrumbes. My son was the first to spot her car. She got out with some loaves of bread and cookies for the boys and I cried. I think it was 2 or 3 weeks after the storm. Quien sabe? The only way to know if someone was ok was to trek it on foot, bicycle or car and see for yourself. There were no texts or calls or private messages or emails. Since Mayaguez pueblo had light and cell service, she was able to upload the photo to Facebook before heading back up her monte, also dark, communication-less. That was the first image my family was able to see of us. I felt like a child on a milk carton who had been missing. A whole social media conversation happened around the photo, without me, without us.
I, who average a thousand photos on my cell any given month, documented all this beast of an experience. But there was no way to share. No one to comment or like, respond with encouragement. It was just us. Our experiences. Our present. Our emotions. The land. The struggle. The profound joy for all the seeming insurmountable tasks that we managed to accomplish day to day.
Then, while doing something else on your computer, you come across the photos. You forget how ripped apart everything was because you try to set your sights on all the green mangoes growing bigger and juicier on trees, or the magenta bursts of trinitarias that now cover your balcón. You see the photos and, more than a sense of doom, more than “Oh shit, that’s right, that happened, we live through that” is exactly that latter part. We lived through that! Through it! Came out on the other side. Were changed forever. Have learned lessons no other teacher could deliver. We lived on minimal water and too many Snapples and other sugary shit to save the drinking water for our nenes. (I won’t go into what it did to our bodies.)
I wake up each day with my heart hurting over how Puerto Rico continues to lose Puerto Ricans, how Puerto Ricans continue to lose Puerto Rico. I recently posted about how nothing is ever normal in a colony; about the melancholy that ironically arrives with the light after months of darkness; about the water that comes and goes. Light does too. Most moments of my day I’m trying to figure out a plan to acquire my own piece of land, to make my lifestyle completely sustainable, to embody the liberation that I strive to practice daily until we can acquire it fully. But sometimes the spirit needs to stop and look at the photos. Honor the moments, the memories, the lessons. Sometimes we are too caught up in minutia, we nitpick and fight over small shit, then a child comes along and makes toys out of escombros with a joy to light up the darkness. Sometimes you find yourself sobbing through a blown window over the neigbhor’s fallen aguacate tree. And then months later you find yourself marveling at how the aguacate tree fell over, leaving some roots firmly planted, now sprouting branches perpendicular to its horizontal trunk, new aguacates already dangling. Sometimes you need the babies and the land to remind you not to cave to the bullshit; to be as fearless and fierce, full of light, full of love, as we were always meant to be. You know, the invincibility they hope we forget as our memories get pushed way down in the newsfeed by articles to convince us we are broken, to distract us while they steal the land right from under us.