Everyone should visit Puerto Rico. Not for its beaches or fancy hotels – though those are nice – but for its people and its complicated existence as a US territory. The history of these islands is fascinating and relevant and it helps frame much of what we hope to get at with our points of conflict and attempts at integrated work. We have a lot still to share on our blog but for now I will just share a few stories.
First, our service work. Each of us learned a lot about ourselves and people impacted by the devastation of the hurricane in September. Each of us contributed dozens of hours of meaningful work. All Hands is a powerful organization and it was really meaningful to be part of their efforts.
For me, the moment that stood out was on the first day. Avery, Katie and I worked on the roof of a large house shared by a mother and grown son. Their house was surrounded by and filled with signs of devastation. Their pets chained and depressed. Both of the residents had the gaunt faces of people who have suffered through real trauma. In just eight hours we were able to fix their roof (for now, at least). And it wasn’t a moment of celebration. It didn’t lift the weight from their shoulders. It just helped. It made the days and nights a bit easier so they could maybe imagine a future without constant reminders of what happened. That future is far away but it will come because of the momentum we helped create. It will come because the people here are resilient. We felt that – in the power of what we did as much as in the scenes of struggle we did not impact. It was amazing.
The food of Puerto Rico is also delicious and provides a great window into history and culture. They have unique dishes and perfect adaptations of dishes we eat frequently back home. The group stumbled on a little corner store that nailed local food and made the best Cuban sandwiches ever. We went as often as we could and introduced the restaurant to everyone we met. Each visit was delicious but also educational. We met police officers, farmers, two guys who hold road signs, and an assortment of people who have lived in Yabucoa for their entire lives. Each one helped us understand the place a little better. Most of us would eat there everyday if we could.
Most of us got to visit an abandoned sugar cane plant during our time here. It was impressive in size – big enough to rank as the region’s largest when it was operational. It used to employ most men in the Yabucoa valley. It brought money and an economy to a previously neglected part of the island. When America began sending food stamps and aid to the island, though, the cost of labor rose. People needed real wages because they suddenly qualified for aid worth more than they could afford with their existing salaries. So the company paid them more until one day they found land in Colombia, where labor remains cheap (below international standards) and just shuttered their Puerto Rico factory. The local economy was devastated. And slowly the plants have started taking over. And the storms have taken the toll, the most recent one bending metal like grass. It’s a crazy place to visit. Complex. It reminded me of the sugar plantations that had brought slaves to Puerto Rico after mainland America made the trade of slaves across borders illegal. It reminded me of slaves with bleeding hands working under the Puerto Rican sun. It reminded me of our connection. It reminded me of the story of this place. It also left me with countless questions to explore after we get back to America.
Finally, today, a few of us were lucky enough to find the local swimming hole and basketball court. Both were amazing. Beautiful, unique. Both were so Puerto Rico. And that’s what’s amazing about this place maybe more than anything else. It’s familiar but so different. It challenges assumptions.