From San Juan’s neighborhoods to Afro-Puerto Rican coastal hub Loiza and all the way to Culebra and Vieques, I saw a lot more of Puerto Rico than I did during my first visit over a decade ago with college friends.
Within the first few days, seeing the crowds of tourists buzzing in Old San Juan or on Culebra on July 4 — alongside locals — I realized that Puerto Rico has reappeared on Americans’ radar in a big way. Of course, it’s due largely to the media coverage post-hurricane and a renewed realization from mainland US residents that this is indeed US territory.
Throughout my week in Puerto Rico, conversations with locals often included “before Maria” and “after Maria.” Most times it was voluntarily mentioned and other moments it came up when I asked about it, respectfully and in context. Some Puerto Ricans I met said they’d personally recovered moderately enough over the last two years and that the island was doing better, with businesses emerging or reopening. An Uber driver mentioned that some are still suffering from PTSD.
I heard about day to day life post-Maria, vivid memories shared of months without electricity from September 2017 until two days before Christmas. Of finding gas to drive every two days to the water distribution line and eating out of MRE’s or “meal ready-to-eat” boxes from the US Army. And those are the fortunate ones, whose families had resources.
Small hotel owners spoke of housing FEMA staff and volunteers and opening doors to folks for the use of Wi-Fi and a safe space, creating pockets of communities. My driver to the ferry terminal for my trip to Culebra told me about coming across fellow resilient Puerto Ricans, like a 70-year old lady whose roof was half blown away and said “well I have half of it left, at least now there’s more breeze coming in.”
Nearly two years post-Maria, however, there are communities that remain marginalized and without proper roofs. Serendipitously, I met a mission group from Middle Collegiate Church in New York with leaders and students who’d returned to Puerto Rico multiple times a year since Maria to help restore homes and install cisterns in one of the hardest hit communities in the mountains of Puerto Rico known as Miraflores. They also help them find ways to create a sustainable income, through crafts and the sale of food. Along the way, student volunteers learn about Afro-Puerto Rican culture in Loiza — more on that soon — and about the importance of narrative in breaking the cycle of racism, poverty and crime.
With all disasters also come opportunists. Gentrification is happening in San Juan neighborhoods like Santurce, as government incentives attract investors by the droves and entire blocks are being sold to foreigners. Government aid has been sparse and likely as a result, the boricua mindset has shifted across la isla since Maria.
Post-Maria outer and inner transformations continue, thanks in great part to the Puerto Rican diaspora, good hearted travelers looking to make a difference in the right way, a wave of dynamic young Puerto Ricans who have returned in place of those who had to leave, and local entrepreneurs invested in helping community tourism succeed (I’ll be sharing more about that soon as well).
As such, a more sustainable, equitable kind of tourism is spreading across Puerto Rico. The kind where activities are designed by communities and created for communities. Experiences like farm stays and Afro-Puerto Rican history and cultural immersion, boutique lodges with a wellness bent and an ever-growing organic food and restaurant scene.
On the resident side, in turn, a consciousness to source local as much as possible has taken root — from coffee beans to vegetables, while farms and plantations slowly recover.
As for nature, as one of the young boricua women I met said to me, “it’s as if Maria hit the reset button.” I witnessed this, from El Yunque to Vieques’ wild beaches and nature reserves.
On my walk through Old San Juan last week, I came across a musician performing beside a campaign message and hashtag created in 2016 to inspire and uplift Puerto Ricans through a then-looming financial crisis: #yonomequito – I won’t give up.
It’s a message that still holds true among Puerto Ricans on the island today, just as much as it did three years ago before Maria.
I’ll begin processing my images and working on my Puerto Rico articles over the coming weeks. Subscribe to be the first to receive new posts.
Have you been to Puerto Rico recently?