Sebastian Junger wrote a book called “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging”. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it. One of the points he makes is how trauma unifies people. How when something terrible happens to a group of people, they are unified by the feeling of tribalism that is present in all humans. He supports this with evolutionary theory, sociology, psychology, and just personal anecdotes from his time spent in war zones. The classic example is New York after 9/11; how crime rates dropped and how the city became warmer. On 9/11/01 I was living on an Army base in Germany and I experienced this first hand. Americans, especially those with military ties, were treated with a deference that was hard to describe. TSA agents in airports would thank me for my service and sacrifice (I was then a Military wife). I saw the memorials in Paris and in different German towns where the locals were pouring out to show their support. It was overwhelming. Still, the experience was removed from me. I experienced it on TV like most of the world did.
This past week we have experienced, and are still going through, something remarkable that has truly brought home the meaning of Tribe to me. Hurricane Maria has devastated my island of Puerto Rico. Everyone who has Facebook or watches the news knows that. But what we are going through is hard to put into words and I am trying to. Desperately so, because I feel like I will choke on the emotion if I do not get it off my chest. I apologize in advance if some of this comes off as a stream of consciousness exercise but I have been living in two languages for a long time and my brain gets confused.
When Irma came and went and left our Island a little hurt and flooded we moved on pretty quickly. Yes, we were all scared. Who wasn’t? That storm was the biggest in modern history. Cue the memes showing how the hand of God (or Yukiyu) protected our Island paradise yet again. We have grown up hearing about San Felipe and all the horrible storms that have hurt us through history so we take it pretty seriously. We were spared. We felt blessed. We started organizing to help those who weren’t. Taking in refugees from the lesser Antilles (a term I kind of hate) and did what we could for them. You would see it online over and over “Have a lot of supplies that you stocked up on and don’t need? Bring them to x shelter for those who weren’t so lucky.”
So when Maria was coming, we were a little complacent. At least in the US, I know I was. I was worried. My mom sent me a message saying “They are saying it could be as bad as San Felipe” and I got the pit of my stomach feeling you get when danger is near. But we all hoped it would be like Irma, a little damage. How bad can it be. We got this.
On the Island though, people take it seriously: always. When they say “Evacuate” people evacuate. My brother and his family went to my parents and “hunkered down”. My sister in law brought her mom. My niece brought the dog. That’s what they do. We will be together. Sure, its close quarters but you never know. Better safe than sorry. Tuesday evening around 6 pm I spoke with my mother. She said they still had power. They ate dinner early in case the power left. Same old same old. Bye. Love you. I’ll call you in the morning. I actually said to her “Weather.com says the wind won’t pick up to above 25 mph until after 7 am.” She said “OK. Call me after 7 am and I will let you know. Ha ha.” I tried. In fact I have been trying since Wednesday after 7 am and have not been able to speak to my mother yet.
The first time I called and got the fast busy signal I was alarmed. I kept my cool and went to work. My parents survived a Category 3 in 1998 and the eye went over their house – but the phone still worked. What has followed has been agony. I mean…how can I describe this to someone who has not been through it? Can anyone really imagine what it is like to go days without talking to their love ones while watching the footage on TV of everything you know being washed away? I am not exaggerating when I say I have called them over 500 times. I know this, because I can see the “recently dialed” listing on my cell phone. Day in and day out. No communication. Nothing. Landlines, cellphones, emails, whatsapp, text messages, facebook.
Facebook. That first morning when the whole island blacked out and you did not see any communication from anyone on the Island. I have over 500 friends who are from Puerto Rico on my facebook feed all the time. I no longer feel them. My mother likes and shares everything I put on facebook. She was silent. My 17 year old niece lives there. Nothing. Instagram was empty. We all found ourselves, as my dear friend Glianny put it, with our “immigrant guilt” reading the news that the place was falling apart, being washed away by the storm surge or the river flooding. And here we sat. In our air conditioned homes watching our news programs from our DVR while our family sat in total darkness.
Here is when the Tribe starts to make a difference. I have been in constant contact with people I have barely spoken to in years. High school friends. College Friends. That guy who grew up in my neighborhood but happens to be a cousin of a dear friend. My aunt and godmother in New York City. Former neighbors. All calling, texting, sharing information. We are one. We all are together in this diaspora of Puerto Rican-ness sharing words of comfort, repeating the same thing over and over: I can’t sleep, I can’t focus, I’m sure your family is fine, I have this whole in my chest, I feel hopeless, I am desperate for information. Desperation. That is what I felt and saw over and over again. But the willingness to help. The feeling of “Don’t worry, I am here for you” is something that cannot be fully described.
I want you to think of your mom or dad, or both (in my case). Or whomever that someone else who most shaped you into the person you are today. You are most grateful for these people. There is no way to repay them for all they have done for you and you love them beyond measure. You are sitting in first world comfort watching on the news how devastated the place they are is – and yet you do not know if they are even alive or dead. You look around and talk to others who know someone near them and they say “I haven’t talked to anyone yet.” And that goes on for days. No news. Can you imagine the heartache? Going to bed at night thinking “I hope my brothers are fine. My friend of 35 years lives pretty close to the coast. Oh God, my nieces! Mom and Dad!”…thank you Tylenol PM for allowing me some rest.
And you still have to get up in the morning and brush your kids’ hair for school. And remember that check for so and so. And get a birthday present for your husband, and that little boy who’s invited us to his party, and talk to customers on the phone, and employees face to face. And all the well-meaning people who ask “Have you heard from your folks?” and for the 100th time that day you have to say “No. Not yet.” It hurts so bad, but your kids are 4 and 6 and blissfully unaware that their Island paradise where they go every year to see abuela and the cousins is barely holding it together. So you put on a brave face and you carry on because you can’t let your children see you cry unless there is no other option.
Just when your hope is almost gone you hear from your oldest friend that she and her family are fine. Then you see your cousin marked herself “safe” on facebook. Then, you big brother manages to send a text that says “We are alive and have a roof.” And you cry your little heart out because you have been building it up inside so long. Slowly the good news starts to happen, but the ugly stuff still comes in. Your favorite restaurant is gone. They say there is water running down the streets of your subdivision like a river. Still, you cling to your tribe. You keep seeing the text message and the facebook posts of this person or that person. You reestablish bonds you thought were gone. You feel their warmth and their love when they say“God Bless you” or “we will get through this” because you know they mean it. It’s not some platitude people repeat. It is yet another case of trying to put the energy into words that can never fully express what is being felt.
Today I finally got a message from my niece saying they were all fine. The neighborhood is good. The neighbors are fine. No, my dad has not killed the dog. Yes, they are OK. They are together. She is still a giggly 17 year-old. You breathe a sigh of relief. You keep calling the numbers. All of them because he has an android and she has an Iphone and maybe one has a signal and the other doesn’t? You call your mother landline and it rings for the first time in a week and you hear her voice saying “Hello?” on the other side before the static happens and you can’t talk. But you heard her voice! Ever so briefly and so we are finally going to be OK. Your mama’s voice. After a few minutes I called back and talked for a bit. I didn’t hear anything but I just talked, just in case she could hear me, so she knows we are thinking of them.
As of right now, I have yet to speak to one of my brothers, or my parents. The only person I have had an actual conversation with was my big brother in the capital and that was just 5 minutes. Many of my friends still have no word from their loved ones, desperately clinging to that hope that today will be the day they will speak. I saw on the news that 40% of the island has running water and I hear my parents are in that group. That means 60% does not. Most of the island, still in the dark. My bestie says the line for gasoline is hours long for $20 max. There is still a curfew at night. The big Guajataca dam is on the verge of breaking. The people who had the misfortune to be on vacation down there when this happened are stranded in the airport. One of the towers was destroyed by the hurricane, so they are not functioning at full capacity. The list goes on and on.
I have been jabbering on and on, and I still can’t put it into words. I want to say thank you to those in my tribe who have reached out and helped. I want to say thank you to those who tried and couldn’t get me an answer. We are in this together and I love you all. And to those on the island that found a way to communicate early on, you will never know the hope you brought us. Lastly, I want to thank all those people who took time to call and write an ask how I was, thanks for your thoughts, thanks for the prayers, thanks for making me feel like you cared. Honestly it means a lot to me and I know it will mean a lot to my family when they know.
I want to say one last thing, regardless of politics and what you may or may not know of my island, we are American citizens. We have been (for better or worse) a part of the US since 1898 and citizens since 1917. Puerto Ricans have served in every branch of government and the military, have died in every war. The Puerto Rican diaspora is strong… they say 3.4 million on the island, 5.5 off it. We are one. We will rebuild. We have come together like never before and we will get through this. It is the worse experience of my life, and I was not even there. Love your Tribe, they will be there for you when the chips are down. And whether you like it or not we are a part of this American Tribe too. We need you. We are not just place you go on vacation. Someone in your tribe is hurting, send help!