Due to Hurricane Maria’s powerful presence on Puerto Rico, it felt like the power went off (literally and figuratively) from the peoples’ spirits. I tend to define Puerto Ricans as resilient, hardworking, patriotic (or at least most are), festive, and good neighbors. Yet, as you hear about stories of how people as well the government (both federal and local) were treating each other during the aftermath, you could feel hope dwindle every day from inside each Puerto Rican’s home. Dennis Rivera’s photo essay, Life in Puerto Rico Months After Hurricane Maria, made me change my perspective on the aftermath with this amazing display of digital storytelling.
Some of these pictures show the devastating blow that the Category 5 hurricane left on the island. You can see houses without roofs, people waiting in line for hours at a gas station to help power their cars and homes, and people crossing rivers to get to their destinations. The colorful trees that adorned the mountains were stripped of the different tones of green in their leaves, but that wasn’t the only thing Maria stripped away.
She also removed the veil of poverty on the island. Having lived in the capital since birth, seeing the countryside was more of an activity to do with your friends during the weekend while drinking beer since it was much cheaper. Our mindset tends to be on what is happening in the metro area instead of island-wide. We used to see modest houses with people who worked blue-collar jobs or even two to make ends meet. But as Erika Rodriguez, a freelancer for The New York Times, explains, “Maria removed the veil of being a part of the US and not being a third world country. It made us see we are very poor.” (David González, 2017). The photo essay demonstrates people living in shelters that have no power or water, others cleaning up the leftovers of their houses, cinder blocks of what used to be houses, and whole communities underwater. Seeing all this suffering can destroy the human spirit. Though Rivera’s photo essay encapsulates the despair people lived and are still experiencing back home, he also surrounds some of the pictures with a sense of hope.
There is one particular picture that is the turning point of the whole essay and demonstrates that hope lies in its people, not waiting for Superman. In what looks to be a destroyed house, we see a fence with the Puerto Rican flag waving, and behind it, we see a mural of people dancing bomba and plena. After this picture, we stop seeing the desperation. Mothers, fathers, children, friends, neighbors, the old, and the young are seen helping one another put the island back on track. People cleaning houses, charging their phones to call loved ones and tell them that they’re okay, musicians lifting the spirits of its citizens, teachers aligning themselves with their students to see how to resume the school year, and mothers working to clean the school from debris.
There is a story from José Luis González called “The Night We Became People Again” where a man in New York is about to have a baby but he cannot get there because of unforeseen circumstances, so he starts to despair (as well as have suicidal thoughts) while the whole city has no power. However, he gets to see his son’s birth, and his neighbors and close ones throw him an impromptu party to demonstrate the close-knit community they have. This story perfectly encapsulates Rivera’s photo essay. In their lowest moments, the Islanders took it upon themselves to lift the spirits of others to keep pushing forward. They showed that where there is desperation, there is also hope.