“I didn’t have power for 4 months. My daughter got lice because we couldn’t bathe properly; with my long hair, I got them too when I picked them out for her. We washed our clothes by hand. During those months, some areas started to get power and I was able to bring my big items (like bedding) to a laundromat. I lived in a place where I wasn’t allowed to have a generator. But even the rich people with generators didn’t have power because you need gas to run generators and we didn’t have that. I couldn’t keep food all that time because my fridge didn’t work. It was hard… So, I think we all have a little PTSD when it comes to hurricane season,” a Puerto Rican said, recalling her experience during Hurricane Maria. She’d just given me a tour of San Juan’s primary hospital campus, including pointing out the street where they used to have shipping containers lined up to hold corpses during Hurricane Maria because they couldn’t identify them fast enough.
“It was bad. Help didn’t come or it was delayed,” she said. I remembered this; it was all over the news. Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017. You might remember the politics of the US then; there was a lot of news about the hurricane’s effects and how the US government delayed or didn’t send aid. Perhaps 3,000 Puerto Ricans died, but we’re not exactly sure of the true number. Many more lost their homes.
I remember someone asking me if Puerto Rico had been rebuilt since Hurricane Maria when I left for Puerto Rico. At the time, I found the question odd because it’s been 6 years since that hurricane struck. But I have an answer now and have come to realize that it was a good question. The answer is: yes and no. If you visited Puerto Rico today, your first impression would be that it’s a tropical paradise and you might fall in love with the place. There’s a reason why Puerto Ricans are so proud of their home. As a tourist you’ll enjoy both friendly hosts and living accommodations equivalent to those in the continental US. But if you dig deeper than the average tourist experience, you’ll discover that the island has challenges. Despite the beauty of the island and its strong identity people are leaving Puerto Rico. This Washington Post article describes the situation of Puerto Rican’s leaving their home (and people leaving other US territories too).
If you explore beyond San Juan (Puerto Rico’s capital and biggest city), you will see shadows of Puerto Rico’s complicated situation. In the town where I’m staying (and all throughout the island), you find deserted houses on most blocks. A coworker explained that sometimes people just leave their homes and move, often to the continental US. The pay here is lower than in the continental US (often in general) but especially in industries of interest to me such as healthcare. Infrastructure throughout the island, like healthcare, is much like in rural regions of the continental US, which is to say that many people don’t have easy access to the healthcare they need.
My husband and I visited a small island just off Puerto Rico’s coast called Vieques. It’s where the brightest of the 3 bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico is and that’s why we visited. Being me, I had us walk the 5ish miles from the ferry to the town in which we were staying. Again, being me, I googled to see if there was a hospital on Vieques and the number of beds it has (as I do everywhere I go) just in case I wanted to move there and work. I learned that Vieques doesn’t have a hospital because it wasn’t rebuilt after being destroyed in Hurricane Maria. I also noticed signs demanding that the hospital be rebuilt on a chain-link fence as we walked across the island. On our walk back to the ferry from our Airbnb, a local stopped to offer us a ride because it was hot. We accepted. I can’t remember if I asked about the hospital or if it came up naturally in conversation, but the local explained that the hospital hadn’t been rebuilt and it was a point of political tension. Further, in 2020, a teenage girl died because there wasn’t available transport to San Juan when she needed it and Vieques didn’t have a ventilator to help her breathe. According to the local, even the family of the girl helped manually give her breaths (with a bag-mouth mask which is what EMTs use on ambulances until they get to the hospital), but she died anyway.
From these conversations, I’ve learned that Puerto Rico has a complexity that can be overlooked as a tourist. Living here a few weeks has not made me an expert (or even a novice) in Puerto Rican anything…except maybe dengue because I’m doing an internship about it and fruit juices because they are delicious. But my time here has allowed me to see that beyond the beautiful beaches, blended frozen beverages, and seafood Puerto Rico has a historical, political, and economic reality. Puerto Rico reminded me of the confusion I had while living in DC: It is odd to me that there are territories that are part of the US where the inhabitants aren’t granted the right to vote and to have congressional representation because it seems rather undemocratic. I don’t know if it would change anything in Puerto Rico if they were represented in US congress or participated in US presidential elections. I also I don’t know if that is something Puerto Ricans want. But, at the very least, I’ve come to see that I have a lot to learn about Puerto Rico’s history, its current governance, and its relationship with the US before I can fully unpack my experience living here.