Puerto Rico 2020

“Trauma on trauma”: A pandemic and back-to-back natural disasters leave Puerto Ricans devastated

By Shreya Bansal
Medill Reports

Starting in late December, a series of earthquakes devastated southern Puerto Rico, forcing thousands to take shelter on the streets, in their cars and in government tents as their homes were destroyed. The situation left people on the island traumatized. At the time, many Puerto Ricans were still trying to recover from the shock of Hurricane Maria, a category five hurricane in September 2017.

When Maria hit, the island was already in the midst of an economic crisis, drowned in $70 billion of public debt. On top of that, the long history of living as a U.S. colony has worsened the natural disasters’ psychological impact. One disaster after another, along with the lack of mental health facilities, has led people to depression, committing suicide or drugs, according to leaders from various non-profit organizations who stepped up to help Puerto Ricans in lieu of adequate government measures.

COVID-19 has only added to the trauma, as the elderly population with a high proportion of underlying health issues lives in fear of getting the virus while also dealing with the economic impacts of the pandemic. Virus precautions have also made  seeking both mental health care and community support networks more difficult and complicated.

“It’s trembling every day, every night.”

The largest earthquake that struck Puerto Rico’s southern coast on Jan. 7 registered as a 6.4 magnitude and was followed by a 5.6 magnitude aftershock a few hours after. According to the Puerto Rico Seismic Network, the island has not seen this level of seismic activity since 1918.

Health and Human Services secretary Alex M. Azar II declared a public health emergency for Puerto Rico on Jan. 8 because of the quakes.

Earthquake shelters in Puerto Rico
Thousand of Puerto Ricans were stuck in government shelters even after earthquakes (Joel Jacobs/MEDILL)

“Having seen your home and knowing that you can’t physically go in there is very traumatizing. You’re physically, emotionally, and mentally tired, and it’s trembling every day, every night,” said Helga Maldonado, regional director of the nonprofit ESCAPE, an organization that stepped up to help affected areas after the earthquake.

Maldonado, along with members of her organization, went door to door to find out how they could help. Mental health services were the top necessity people reported, she said. ESCAPE, along with the Association of Puerto Rican Psychologists and other non-profit organizations, provides free psychological services to the survivors of natural disasters.

“It’s trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma,” said Maldonado. The lack of action from the government left people anxious and helpless, she said. “After all natural disasters, all the societal issues are exposed and it’s basically like you’re undressing the country.”

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Blackness in Puerto Rico

By Grace Asiegbu
Medill Reports

Driving down the winding roads of Piñones, cars are greeted with green leaves and bold flowers. Between barrios, roads are marked with bright, lively signs informing drivers of their current location. Soon the view shifts from natural vegetation to sights and smells of restaurants lining the strip.

People are buzzing in and out of the markets, visiting friends or buying groceries. Our vans turn into a lot, and we walk into a space lined all over with chestnut wood. The colonial Puerto Rican flag hangs next to the red, green and yellow flag of Loíza. The gaze of a vejigante mask follows us around the room, and a portrait of Puerto Rican laureate Arturo Schomberg frozen in perpetuity is framed on the wall.

Maricruz Clemente Rivera greets us with a wide smile as we walk into her space, a space that’s colorful and breezy. We are there to learn the art of bomba.

Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican style of music and dance that stretches back centuries. It’s rumored bomba was created in 1501, but the first documentation of the dance was in 1787. Like many things in Latin American countries, it emerged as a means of survival for enslaved Africans during the transatlantic slave trade. Bomba originated in Loíza, the Capital of Tradition in Puerto Rico. Bomba is a percussive style of dance largely marked by the dancer and drummer having a conversation through the steps. It is a challenge between the drummer and the dancer, in which the drummer has to follow the dancer’s steps and anticipate their next step.

Clemente teaches bomba as a means of reconnecting to Puerto Ricans’ African heritage.

Maricruz Clemente gives historical context and racial analysis of bomba music and dance before the lesson begins. (Alison Saldanha/MEDILL)

“People don’t want to talk about slavery. We started with the music because it’s not as…scary,” Clemente said.

For Clemente, bomba is a symbol of African Puerto Rican history and it’s a way to celebrate a heritage some do not acknowledge. Loíza has Puerto Rico’s largest population of Black people, a number that sat around 6% in the 2010 Census. Yet according to Clemente, too many Loízans deny their Blackness.
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Reflections from Puerto Rico: Rebuilding, Resilience and Resistance

By the Medill Explores Puerto Rico Team 
Medill Reports

In February 2020, Medill MSJ students reported across Puerto Rico about the impacts of the island’s colonial status and debt crisis; recent earthquakes and 2017 hurricanes Maria and Irma; environmental injustice; and the island’s imperiled infrastructure and electrical grid. Throughout the reporting, the resilience and resourcefulness of Puerto Rican people shone through. Here are some reflections from their reporting.

The view from El Fortín Conde de Mirasol in Vieques. (Maddie Burakoff/MEDILL)

La Isla Nena

By Maddie Burakoff 

La Isla de Vieques — a short ferry ride away from mainland Puerto Rico — is a tiny slice of an island, only 21 miles long by five wide, with a population just shy of 10,000. In Isabel Segunda, its relatively bustling capital, low-lying pastel buildings sprawl out around a small plaza; people on horseback trot alongside the trickle of cars winding through the narrow roads. Tourists seek out the island for its stunning natural scenery: secluded beaches, dramatic limestone cliffs, a bioluminescent bay whose tiny organisms light up the night with a magical blue glow.

Another of the island’s attractions is El Fortín Conde de Mirasol, the stout Spanish fort that has overlooked Vieques since 1845. Its hilltop location, which once offered a strategic advantage for colonial military forces, now provides panoramic views for visitors to the historic site. On this clear February day, the sun illuminates a landscape of lush greenery and vibrant houses, bordered on all sides by brilliant sapphire sea. 

But however idyllic the scene might appear, there’s a great deal of conflict pulling at the seams of the seeming island paradise. 

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Over a month after deadly quakes, a Puerto Rican town is still reeling

By Joel Jacobs
Medill Reports

The town of Guánica in southern Puerto Rico is still reeling from a series of earthquakes that began in late December.

The largest — a devastating 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck around 4:24 a.m. on Jan. 7 — was followed by a 5.6-magnitude aftershock a few hours after, and a 5.9 temblor later in the week.

The quake knocked out power across the island. At least one person was killed and thousands slept outside their homes in Guánica and the surrounding municipalities on Puerto Rico’s southern coast.

Guánica is one of the hardest hit areas. Over a month after the Jan. 7 quake, the streets of the town remained nearly empty, and damaged homes could be seen on almost every block.

“You can tell on the faces of the municipal employees [in Guánica] that they are not well,” said Helga Maldonado, regional director of the nonprofit ESCAPE.

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