My mom on the beach at Arroyo this past spring.
A friend recently went to visit the island for the first time.
Southern side of La Cordillera, the island’s central mountain range. I always called them MY mountains.
Sent by my Aunt Mari a couple of months ago.
Photos were posted to social media, but most of them were selfies and of the drinks had during the trip. And I despaired a little because, while I was thrilled that my friend was having a good time, a part of me kept thinking, “But I want to see the island. I want to see the island itself through your eyes. I want to see the land, the people, the buildings. I want to know that it is healing, that it is still beautiful to someone that has never seen it before in person.” And while thinking this, I realized it was a “me” problem: while posts on social media do have repercussions on the viewers whether you want them to or not, the takeaway for me was this: I need to go back and see it myself. I need to stop trying to see it through other people’s perspectives and just see it with my own eyes.
If you’ve seen my car, you know I have a bumper sticker that says “Rincón 413: Surfer’s Road to Paradise.” Road 413 will take you to all the big surf beaches in Rincón. Photo by moi from our last trip to the island some 10 years ago.
In the process, I realized how little gets posted online by my friends back home about the way the island looks now in everyday life.
Historic ceiba tree on Carretera #2, which runs from east to west along the northern coast of the island. It’s one of those sights that you look for as a local. Pic also by me.
Because recently one of the doctors at work went to PR. He has friends there and visits regularly. He told me that he was going, and when he returned, he took me aside. “It’s not good,” he said quietly. A big part of Old San Juan closed permanently. Despite it being the island’s capital, the local government was furious over the San Juan mayor’s fight against both island and US bureaucracy in getting supplies to where they needed to go (she was doing it herself!) and so they retaliated by leaving San Juan without power until almost Christmas. (This was well-known at the local level. Of course it didn’t make headlines here because nobody cares about island politics.) Many of the local shops and businesses had to close, their owners leaving for the mainland if they could afford to relocate.
Gorgeous bamboo grove in Guajataca. That’s me in the pic; photo is by Carlos.
The more I write about it, the more the island becomes this mythological, larger-than-life thing in my mind. As of 2015, I have spent more time on the mainland than I ever did on the island. 18 years...I lived for 18 years in PR, from the time I was 7 years old until I turned 25. During my lifetime, Ihave spent a grand total of 21 years in the continental US...it is funny to me now, in hindsight, that 2015 was the year that I fiercely decided to embrace my identity for the first time, to identify myself as Latina, as Puerto Rican, as an islander, when 2015 was the same year that marked the beginning of my living in the States longer. I’ve become a classic ex-pat that argues about the beauty of the land she once knew, about its awesomeness and wonder, about its changes and where it’s going, while rabidly defending the memories of something that used to be close to magical, that now seems more magical than ever before precisely because of the current circumstances...despite not having set a foot on the island in over 10 years.
Walking down to the beach with bodyboard in tow during a stay in Arroyo. You can see the typical beach villas that can be found in seaside communities around the island.
I talk to my mom on the phone, and know that the day that I return to visit, it will be unrecognizable. It’s been 8 months since Maria hit, and only now are people trying to truly reconstruct. They have been in survival mode until now: fixing what they needed in order to make their circumstances livable again. Just now they are starting to be concerned about maybe trying to make the once-roofless house look pretty again, about re-planting their gardens and painting their fences, and starting to pay attention to the details that were previously unimportant because they were just trying to survive.
The Red Baron Pub in Mayagüez is iconic: it is within walking distance of the Mayagüez campus of the University of Puerto Rico and is well-known for its uber-cheap happy hours (I’m talking 25 cent beers, guys...) “Mayores de 8 años solamente” = “Only older than 8 years of age.”
The legal drinking age in PR is 18, so you know the “1” was removed on that sign...but the local joke is that you can ask for alcohol if you can peek over the bar. No one cares. (Fun fact: wanna know WHO took that “1” off? Carlos and his friends, circa 1995-1996! They whited it out with Liquid Paper! We took this photo in 2006.
The bar never put the “1” back up! 🤣)
But even before the storm, the island would have been unrecognizable because of so much that had changed: so many new buildings, restaurants and neighborhoods. And so much lying abandoned, uninhabited, since before the storm due to Puerto Rico’s long, drawn-out economic crisis.
Plaza de Armas in Old San Juan dressed up for Christmas. Photo from our honeymoon cruise in 2008, which made a stop in PR.
I promise you this, though: the day that I return to visit there will be selfies, yes. But just like I do with the photos of my hometown, I will point the camera outward so I can flood you with photos of the island itself. Of its people, of its beaches, of its trees and flowers and fruit, of its once-volcanic mountains, of the feral dogs in the mountains and the stray cat colony that lives in Old San Juan and is fed by the city citizens, of its roads and buildings, of the food and the restaurants and the drinks, of the dancing and the will to survive.
Beaches and mountains. I took this photo and later turned it into a painting that has hung above our bed for the last 12 years.
There will be pictures, so many pictures, because I am going to capture the island’s soul so I can show it to you all. So I can show you, the outside world, what Puerto Rico is truly made of.
Mark my words. 😉
Mark my words. 😉
Rain over the mountains while driving around the island.