A car winds up the hillside blasting Bad Bunny, reverberating through the valley. Looking out at the Jaicoa hilltops, palms glowing in golden light of a setting sun, their blades rustling like chequeres in the breeze, all seems peaceful. All seems good. But it has been over a month since these lands began to shake and nothing has been the same. I don’t even remember what “the same” was. I, never at a loss for words, have never found it more difficult to write. The weight of this reality grows heavier each day. 25 suicides in a month. What can one possibly say? Post-Maria I held it together by writing. It was my salve, my medicine. A full month of constant tremors, I have finally completed a blog post since the earthquakes began. I struggle to make sense of it and to offer something that makes sense. For now, I share some of my own intimate experiences of the past month, until I am able to offer something more.
Hurri-quake Part II
The sky glows lavender above a red horizon. The light quickly escapes from the landscape as we set out between mangroves. Their black silhouettes stand majestic against the early evening sky. Only stars are planets shining in the light of a sun already set. We set out into the water. Gabriel, our ten-year-old son leads the way with the oars. Heading west along the southern coast, we navigate the waters between Gilligan’s Island y las Pargueras. Through the water I see an assortment of bioluminescent coral aglow in a city of colors. A tinglar swims by. Its gigantic shell glows blue in the light of dinoflagellates. The creatures of these stirred waters all aglow, thriving in the growing darkness. I take it all in, savor and digest it as the spirits of these lands, these waters, have asked.
From my side of the futon, my eyes open to the darkness of dawn. The boys have already awakened and mami is sitting up in her fold-out bed. The living room is bustling with the activity of 5 family members and a doggie, all sharing this space by the double doors for an easy escape, since the earth began to shake.
“I finally allowed my body to fall asleep”, I said, “and I dreamt with the waters between Guanica and Lajas. They showed me the marine life, the bioluminescence and I understood I had to experience what was happening from the lens of the eco systems thriving there.”
Mom too had managed to dream in between our delirious, sleepless nights. Each of us keeping watch. I on a beach chair next to the boys the first few nights, sifting through the tremors, studying them to feel their length and strength. Weighing the options of whether it was best to awaken everyone and run outside or let them sleep. Most times I left them sleeping. Too painful during the day, leaving a set dinner table mid-bite to run outside. Sleep, I’ve learned, is a gift, a privilege that I must not take away.
This is us an hour away from the areas closest to the site that’s gone hyperactive. Victory in my day means managing to shower and dress before a tremor. A no tener que correr/ salir en pelota. Greater victory is managing to bathe the boys, dress them and return to the ground level of our home before a tremor. The biggest victory, though yet again displaced in our own home, is a still-standing structure with options to bathe and sleep in. I pause. I breathe… for all those who have lost this option, lost their home, their school, watched their community crumble.
I work to process the deep grief I hold for this Puerto Rico. The one that shakes every hour and waves, sways, pulses, taps, vibrates in between. I hold deep grief for the Puerto Rico of my mother’s dreams. The womb that held her when she was held in her own mother’s womb. The womb she was born from. The womb she was taken from at 21 months old. She waited 69 years to return here. Started each day with a barefoot walk por el patio. With the river as her witness, she’d hug the cluster of palm trees in gratitude for this gift, this serenity, this calm, this peace. But since the strong quake, she’s been breaking night in our living room. Taken away from the home she enjoyed for a month. No electricity, no phone service. No way to live alone. I feel deep grief for how her birthplace, the birthplace of each of her parents shake. Ponce y Peñuelas shaking more violently than anything we’ve felt here. Homes collapsing. Schools and churches crumbling. People camping out, their tents flooding with water that rains rivers across Guanica, Guayanilla, Yauco.
After two conversing faults in the Caribbean south, the Puerto Rico Trench, that apparently has been conversing with me since last May, has also decided to activate in the infamous Mona Canyon. Right off the coast from this corner of this island, of this archipelago, it is the site of the notorious 1918 earthquake and tsunami. A month in, the Caribbean plate has shaken between Cuba and Jamaica. Sinkholes opened across the Cayman Islands, reminding us again that our immediate relatives are not to the north but right next to us here in the Caribbean. I was paralyzed by the news that the Mona Canyon, off the coast of Aguadilla, site of the destructive 1918 earthquake and tsunami had shaken again. Second significant enough tremor to be felt this week. We are sandwiched between the Puerto Rico Trench, scary ass place, deepest part of the Atlantic, and some other shit called the Muertos Trough, or Trough of the Dead.
I keep calling the strong tremors of 5.8 and 6.4 hurricanes. Como si fuera la misma madre. Sort of is but isn’t. I now understand why my neighbor said somewhere between Irma and Maria that she prefers hurricanes to earthquakes. Her reasoning was that hurricanes are tracked, announced. We know they are coming. We can stock up on supplies, prepare ourselves, our families, our homes as much as possible. But the uncertain ambush of quakes is some fucked up shit. (My emphasis, not hers)
Strike one: first strong earthquake (after a week of tremors) hit on Three Kings Day morning while the boys were opening their gifts on the sofa. It was strong enough to shake everything, rattle glass but we stood where we were till it was over. A few hours later, Moca came alive with the sound of parrandas, live music. I watched the line of carrosas and cars spiraling through the hills across the valley from my window, admired her for her beauty, her festivities, for her danger. Deciding to move forward like everyone around us, we went to the Three Kings celebration in Isabela.
That night I went to bed with my intuition warning me to pack an emergency mochila for the family, but I was too tired. Instead I just left a cooler filled with snacks. On the way to the bedroom, I saw that my studio door leading outside was blocked with stuff, boxes, a large painting. Why was that exit blocked? my intuition asked. But I was too tired, too wired and nervous and went to bed anyway. Soon as I touched the pillow, intuition said, don’t lie there thinking about everything like you usually do, get the fuck to sleep. Some other energy took over and in no time I was out.
Strike Two: Next thing my conscious memory could recall is waking up to the bed shaking violently, all sounding like a freight train was charging through the bedroom. The image that keeps returning to my head is the overloaded washing machine that kicks into spin cycle, bangs, clanks, shakes violently from side to side. That is how I felt. Ivan jumped out of bed and though I was too groggy to know what to do, I knew exactly what was happening and knew that it would happen. We couldn’t run for an exit, we had to run further down the hall to the boys, help Gabriel down from the top bunk. By the time we made it to the ground level it had stopped. They say you shouldn’t run till it stops. But you can’t say that to parents when their kids sleep down the hall away from any exit. We run to get them out with a whole level of house above where we sleep.
Once upstairs with them, reality hit: Mom is in an apartment down the hill, alone, no lights. We must get her. But what if the ground shakes again? I tried calling, no answer. No cell service. No lights. 4:30am.
We agreed that I would stay with the boys at home and Ivan would navigate the drive down to mom and bring her back. When he got there, she was outside with the dog and her neighbors. They were waiting with her till someone came for her.
In between strikes two and three was a week of constant vibrations, wakes, shakes and countless tremors, aftershocks. In between were reports of the fallen homes, families sleeping outdoors, collapsed schools. In between was checking with family and friends in the south. In between is bringing my newly rematriated mom whose life-long-dream-turned-nightmare has her feeling every movement. In between is recognizing that though we moved the boys into the safest room in the house post-Maria, those rooms, post-earthquake swarm, are the most compromised. In between are the bags we keep by the door filled with snacks, solar lamps, and changes of clothing for everyone. In between are dizzy spells and vertigo bouts, that I don’t know if they’re coming from the constant movement of the earth that got me feeling like I’m on a boat or if I’m hallucinating and near fainting from having slept four hours in a week. And though it may be a rematriation crisis for mami, she still maintains that she’s here to stay.
Two times we got comfortable. Thought they were slowing down. Took long showers. Chilled. Relaxed. Went on with life. Two times we were caught off guard. This brings me to strike three. It takes all the courage and strength in the world to, despite the knowledge that schools have fallen, many are not compliant and a visual inspection is not enough to know for sure if it is structurally sound, drop off your children at school. I knew sitting, waiting for the next one or the big one was making us all sick to our stomachs. I knew when we got active, concentrated on some task, we barely felt the waves beneath our feet like Albizu saw radiation waves of light flowing above his head in his prison cell. So after seeing the certification from an engineer, and discussing how one month of no school had the boys bored and irritated and how we needed to get back to work, and interrogating the teachers and the school director, we decide to suppress all fears, trust the universe and drop the boys at school. Sitting at mom’s table, I felt the tremble then heard the building shake but the boys were in school.
It is impossible to describe the complexity of emotions knowing the risks and choosing to drop off your children at school anyway. Many of us have compromised homes that we must fix or move from. Some of us have no homes at all. We thought that routines and classmates and play would actually be good for our children (versus sitting afraid waiting for the next temblor) and then some of us ran from wherever we were to get them after this last temblor. As I picked up my children, what I saw was the anxiety and concern in their teacher’s eyes. As I drove away with my children who were ok, I realized their teachers were not ok. Many of the folks we see out there serving everyone else have left their own children in some other not so sound place to care for the children of others.
One month in only 20% of Puerto Rico’s public schools have opened. After the government shut down hundreds of schools that sit empty, thousands of children sit outside waiting for their schools to be inspected before they can determine if and when they will reopen. All seems suspended in the colony, a waiting game the government likes to make its people play. So we partially think that our little escuelita is lucky for having the option to reopen. Nervous, parents mostly pick up their children half day, every day. We haven’t returned to a usual schedule. Fall behind on work as the children fall behind on lessons.
Yesterday as my 7-year-old and I waited for his brother to exit his classroom, he bounced up and down chatting about his day. I was squinting from the Aguada rooftops twinkling in the sunlit hills across the valley. As he bounced, the whistle around his neck jumped along with him. He’s worn that whistle since classes started late after the earthquakes. Like any little boy who would find a whistle mesmerizing. I am both warmed by his innocence and mortified by the implications of that whistle. Wondered if he realized the gravity of all it meant. That whistles can alert others in the event you are trapped under a collapsed building.
This morning, Gabriel, before heading out the door to school, stood before me, arms stretched out like Jesus. “Spray me!” he yelled.
I had forgotten. I probably needed to spray myself. On an irritable, sentimental, too-many-quakes, too much uncertainty, too much bullshit in this world scream fest all morning. I got the bottle I prepared as per an ancestor’s suggestion, Florida water and lavender. They both stand, arms out and I spray them down, front and back, offering blessings of guidance and protection, asking the same from our ancestors and guides.
In post-Maria darkness, shooting stars were a common sight among fireflies. Amidst the quakes, the shooting star came by day as a violent fireball, combusting as it entered this atmosphere, burning down like the colony shall to reveal a resilient, smooth, polished nation rising from the ashes.