Witnessing Puerto Rico, Recognition, and Feeling in the Wake of Hurricane Maria

As the plane descended to land in San Juan’s Airport in August 2018, almost a year after Hurricane Maria jolted Puerto Ricans on the island and elsewhere, I looked out the window. As my ears began to pop, I pushed the window shade and looked out. I saw water and greenery as I searched for imprints of Maria from up high. But, instead my eyes noticed large areas of blue. These blue blurs were not water. I decided almost instantly they must be solar panels, as I had read in my research that Puerto Ricans were starting to consider solar power after the six-month blackout. I soon realized, pulling into my grandparent’s neighborhood, that these blue blurs were Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tarps being used as makeshift roofing until owners could afford the repairs. 

This moment might have been the first in which I recognized myself, in the way that Jacqui Alexander notes in Pedagogies of Crossing. Alexander discusses remembering, witnessing, and recognition as an embodied, individual, yet collective act through their experience as a Caribbean woman on a college campus and their positionality within the Black diaspora but still different than Black American women. I bore witness to my separation from Hurricane Maria, in a way that was unfathomable before. Graduate students of color that attempt to find answers to questions that not only are for a dissertation, but are intimate for them and their families are pointed to Lila Abu-Lughod (1991) and Kirin Narayan’s work (1993) on the near native anthropologist to understand that their anthropological training makes them different, that their position will make them an other. During graduate school, no doubt as a result of being raised in Chicago, I always thought that Puerto Ricanness was something that transcends oceans and time zones, something that would undoubtedly ring true no matter the amount of training I received. But in the moment when I thought tarps were solar panels, I felt the water between the island and the United States. It was an affective moment that leads me to wonder, What is the emotional dexterity required of those of us who are insider-outsider ethnographers? Or what are the feelings required of those of us living in diaspora? 

Diasporic communities gathered together and showed their solidarity all around the world. It was a moment of tentative hope, righteous anger, and weaponizing joy.

It was a feeling reminiscent of wondering what occurred to family members after Irma and Maria hit in 2017; weeks of distance, of salt water burning our throats, or tears on our lips reminding Boricuas in the States that we were different. We witnessed ourselves as different as we searched for relatives through Facebook posts and Twitter timelines. Our digital spheres became intimate publics, affective spaces that were counter to dominant narratives that minimized the devastation and death counts (see Berlant 2018 on intimate publics). These social media platforms became emotion-drenched in part due to the distance between Puerto Ricans in the states and their loved ones on the islands. Media platforms foregrounded devastation, as Hilda Lloren (2018) has observed, eliding Puerto Ricans’ emotional dexterity as they attempted to transfigure the disorder of disaster (see for example, Hoffman 2002) into a moment of reorganization.

I returned to Puerto Rico in July 2019 to finalize things before my extended field research. Since my last visit there had been debates on social media covering Puerto Ricans’ dissatisfaction with Netflix’s After Maria documentary and also discontentment that Miss Puerto Rico did not speak Spanish. While the island had just experienced one of the largest exoduses in its long history of migration, it seemed that the Puerto Ricans in the States and on the island were feeling the waves of ocean between them and crashing into each other on timelines. Who was more Puerto Rican? Why did Netflix choose to show people who left when there were so many who stayed? Are you American or Puerto Rican? I thought about all of the questions and qualifications for Puerto Ricanness that I had seen on one social media platform or the other, and my plane was landing. Once again, I saw them; the tarps were still covering roofs. 

Almost as soon as we touched down, Secretary of Education Julia Kehler was indicted for money laundering. Kehler was appointed by the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, and is responsible for the closing of over 400 Puerto Rican public schools. This indictment was a result of leaked text messages from a group chat that included the governor, members of his cabinet, and non-officials. There were disrespectful remarks about the dead Puerto Ricans that no one seemed to have an official count of, homophobic comments, and sexist comments. Not only was it disrespectful, but several people admitted guilt, prompting further investigations of corruption in Puerto Rico’s cabinet. What was intended as a short trip to secure lodging and library access, became a witnessing of the largest demonstrations in Puerto Rico’s history. 

Timelines that were once filled with Puerto Ricans in the States and on the island circling each other, collapsing into each other every which way, became unified in Puerto Rico’s objective of getting Rossello to resign. There was an overwhelming amount of cohesiveness across platforms, water, and birthplace as Puerto Ricans showed up en masse to not only protest but be seen. The protests in San Juan were monumental and record breaking as demonstrations continued to span across two weeks. After sitting in blackout for almost six months, Puerto Rico was lit up with determination. And they were not alone. Diasporic communities gathered together and showed their solidarity all around the world. It was a moment of tentative hope, righteous anger, and weaponizing joy.

I remember being in awe as I joined the demonstrations Wednesday, July 17, in San Juan. I observed the bomba practitioners as they sang and danced, reverencing Puerto Rico’s strong history of resistance. I joined in as Puerto Rican women chanted with anger, pride, and aspiration when Rossello refused. I watched as Puerto Ricans did the electric slide on the expressway, shutting down Puerto Rico’s largest mall, and as they danced in defiance. I felt the pull of wanting to be one of the many that rushed and bought expensive last minute tickets to join in yet another historical moment. It was a prideful longing I associated with the Puerto Rican diaspora. It was the longing and pride I witnessed time and time again on the internet as Puerto Ricans disagreed, interrogated, and defended their Puerto Rico or Ricanness. This prideful longing is what, in my opinion, ultimately united Puerto Ricans. I watched Rossello resign on a projector in Humboldt Park in Chicago, surrounded by some people who had to leave the island after Hurricane Maria, some who were born Chicago Boricuas. But, I wouldn’t have traded it for being in San Juan. I was in Chicago as the world watched the power of what a unified Puerto Rican could do, a city that long knew the island’s potential and  power.

What is the emotional dexterity that makes up diaspora?

I felt the taut tension of distance slip away as I let screams of celebration vibrate off of me and left wondering, What is the emotional dexterity that makes up diaspora? These digital moments leading up to the leaked text messages and afterwards offer insightful knowledge of the affective experience of diaspora. Is it this feeling of diaspora that set the stage for all the world to see Puerto Rico succeed in their social movement? These are questions that I am not ready to answer yet, but I am keeping close during my field research and welcome others to do so. 

Sarah Bruno is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in cultural anthropology. Her dissertation looks at affect and emotional dexterity through performance within Afro-Puerto Rican women. 

We welcome contributions to this section news column from ABA members! They can be submitted to ABA contributing editors Michelle Munyikwa ([email protected]) and Amelia Herbert ([email protected]) for review.

Cite as: Bruno, Sarah. 2019. “Witnessing Puerto Rico, Recognition, and Feeling in the Wake of Hurricane Maria.” Anthropology News website, October 3, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1272

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