José by Tamara Cedre

Jose has hope in his own people and faith in their struggle for self-determination. Always gracious with his time, he teaches anyone who is open to listen. The first time I met José in Puerto Rico, he shared the history of Vieques with me. He was one of many activists that were arrested for protesting the U.S. Navy's occupation there. He told me of the families that were ravaged by disease from arms testing, and how the dumping of heavy metals and toxic chemicals seeped into the soil and water. 

Our water is our life...everything flows from it. Jose knows about water and the ecosystems surrounding them. A resident and community partner of Caño Martín Peña, he spends his days educating people on the challenges neighborhoods like his face systemically and ecologically. 

The Martín Peña Channel was once a waterway that ran through the middle of San Juan. In the thirties, thousands of families migrated from the mountains to the city to find work, transforming Puerto Rico's economy from rural agriculture to manufacturing as the sugar cane monoculture collapsed. This influx of residents and lack of city planning created squalid living conditions near the city and surrounding waterways. By the midcentury, those settlements along the channel, nicknamed "El Fanguito", were pushed out as the government tried to build a water system for transporting goods. Jose's father was one of many farmers that moved, lived in those slums and later purchased a home along the north of the waterway after government initiatives left families displaced. This is the home Jose lives in now.

Along the channel, eight neighborhoods that started as informal settlements now make up Jose's community. The current threat to area residents is that the water is not flowing in the channel and the stagnation is contaminating everything around it.

In 2002, the government proposed a new project to dredge and clean the channel. While this was a much needed proposal, locals were concerned that the improvements would drive up property values and gentrify the area, like so many other places in proximity to the city. Before they could fight to clean up the channel, they had to ensure their survival to avoid displacement. For over three years, organizers knocked on doors and got the buy in of residents to develop a community land trust, where the rights of the locals could be exercised over outside investors so everyone could have rights to the land.  

While the success of this model inspired international acclaim, the G-8, or eight communities of Caño Martín Peña, are still fighting to clean their water system. After the hurricanes, the situation has become even more dire, as a third of the communities lack a sewer system, and the storm water system has collapsed. Recent federal allocations for flood control and recovery, managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, were withheld from funding the channel dredging project. They categorized the campaign as an ecological project with flood benefits instead of flood mitigation. 

The struggle for environmental justice continues as Jose and his neighbors fight for their survival against higher prioritized rebuilding efforts.

Mayra by Tamara Cedre

Mayra lives in the barrio of Puerto Nuevo with her mother and brother, who are ill and bedridden. Mayra is the sole caregiver in the home. Once a month, she pays a registered nurse $200 to watch her family for the day while she runs into town to take care of errands like grocery shopping and getting medical supplies. This is when she leaves the four walls of her home and is able to have time to herself. During the week, she sells sodas from her house to those who knock on her door passing through.

This life was difficult before Maria, but now has become nearly impossible. The hurricane's damage to the top floor of her home was so bad that she had to move everything to the bottom floor. Her rotting roof has not been seen yet by insurance companies as she waits under a pile of claims. Her electricity goes in and out from the precarious rooftop wiring that has also not been fixed.  Every time she loses power, her mother's medical bed made of air deflates, causing a danger of bedsores and great discomfort. 

Though she said she doesn't want people to think of Puerto Rico and only think of the recent hurricanes, she told me this moment is a critical part of our history, too.  People in the coastal communities have lost everything, but communities right in the metro areas of San Juan are also suffering. "We used to help each other in my neighborhood, but the feeling of community went away when people were forced to find ways to survive. Times are changing. I feel alone here now."  She informed us of several other families living on the same street who are also struggling. 


 

Mapping by Tamara Cedre

"The weight of words, the shock of photos, the hunt for more dramatic, drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value...  Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be an impertinent, if not inappropriate, response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways we might prefer not to imagine—be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.” 
― Susan Sontag

In the midst of disaster, the residents of Puerto Rico have become subjects of catastrophe. More often than not, photographs of them are monolithic depictions of resigned spirits against the backdrop of their cities turned to rubble. Over the course of four years, during my summer visits, I would try to work against this aesthetic; to transcribe the stories of everyday people and attempt to show a more nuanced observation of an incredibly complex place.  After the hurricanes, I came to realize that this was difficult for me as both a photographer and a Diasporican— whose identity oscillated in between the locus of a place I only visited and an imaginary drawn from my family's memory. Most of the images that flooded the public after the storms, centered the voices of outsiders, mediating and co-opting the experiences of those living on the island. Though I feel it is critical to speak out about Puerto Rico, the only photographs I am able to make are ones that come from my lived experience in the landscape, the people I know and the things I see which have been a continuing education. If there is power in the reproducible image, it is not in its authority. It is in its ability to continue; to transcend its temporality, into present conversations.

I set off one weekend to drive up the eastern coast of the island, through Humacao, Yabucoa and into Salinas. Friends of mine had a family member who had recently passed away, and I wanted to visit their former hometown as a way of paying respect. The only reference I had for what I would see made me recall the first time I walked through a street in Baltimore that wasn't near my safe, well-appointed college dorm room.  Passing stoops that were neighborhood meeting places, concrete steps that once ushered local gatherings, sidewalks that were once teeming with families...empty...as if a bomb had gone off in the middle of the city.

To visit Yabucoa in the summer of 2016 but, then to return in 2018 after the storms, felt similarly eerie. The quiet ruin was not one of dystopian sublime, but one of state violence and neglect; where the furniture that belonged to former residents in destroyed homes now served as markers to the properties soon to be purchased by developers. Where the palm trees that once stood tall with fronds above the lapping waves, were stripped bare to remind us that storms, both man-made and natural, decide what lives and die in their grasp. 

 

Rubén, Mayra y Amanda by Tamara Cedre

Rubén and I are related distantly on my Dad's side. Our family hails from Arecibo. Many moved to the US during the great waves of migration but, some of us remained in Puerto Rico. Rubén remembers leaving on a plane for Florida when he was very young and arriving in a swampy area of Miami that received an influx of immigrants from neighboring islands. It's hard not to smile as he shares his story through the mind of a six year old: My mother dressed me in my best suitNo one showered on that plane. It smelled to high heaven. One of the first meals I ate in the U.S. was a 'hot dog'. I thought, do these people in the states eat dogs? 

He lived for many years in El Barrio, in the same areas around Lexington where my father grew up. But, hardships and homesickness led him to return back to Puerto Rico as a young adult. He has lived in Bayamón ever since, where he married and raised his family. 

I went to visit Rubén on Father's Day. He took me through the neighborhood, several months after the storm. Insurance companies hadn't addressed many houses that were damaged and electrical lines were still down in the streets where people walk. Flat tires are a monthly occurrence as roads remain unfixed and are filled temporarily. He informs me of the politics on the island and the crumbling infrastructure that began decades before Maria in the form of rigged local elections and empty promises from political parties that never delivered. 

His daughters have a grace and sense of humor about all of it— qualities that they've refined after living through this disappointment their whole lives. Mayra works in a restaurant and Amanda just began working with FEMA. Single mothers, they are a close pair that have raised their own children, put them through private school and prepared them for university. Mayra gives me a tour of her backyard garden where she shares some recao seeds with me. Both of them have the "jibara thumb" and try to grow their own veggies and herbs as the weather and their schedules allow. Over dinner, we talked about job opportunities they looked into in the states in between bitefulls of crispy chicharrón.

A few hours into dinner, the electricity goes out. This is a regular occurrence they greet with cheers—as if they just heard their favorite song at a club. Ready with emergency lamps and candles from their pantry, they light some around the table and the rest of our visit feels like we are on a family camping trip; jokes and stories as shadows dance across the walls. 

Leslie by Tamara Cedre

Leslie and I met at a rally a few years back as Puerto Rico's bankruptcy loomed and local leaders were beginning to organize. As someone who only visited the island in the summers, I asked him what some of the needs were in his area and what I could do to help. Dressed in a super hero shirt, he told me, empathy leads to radical transformation.

Educated in psychology and business, Leslie left his corporate job to start an initiative called Resuelve Comunitario to give resources to the most needy in his community. Without a single dollar exchanging hands, he meets the needs of his neighbors——many elderly, some who are bedridden, immobile or just lacking in resources to survive day to day. With the closure of hospitals and the lack of public services, many feel invisible. Leslie distributes donated medical/ hygiene supplies and connects them with long term support. This could take the form of making calls for them or finding them legal aid, but often times, it's just a friendly face to check in on them.

The relationships he develops are consistent and close. He visits the same people within a 10 mile radius by bicycle. Most of his job, he says, is listening and letting people know that someones cares about them and that they are "seen." Since we have become friends, he often checks in on me with the same care through a long distance text or a note. 

He told me if I wanted to create change...to "see" the people with need in my own life...in my own 10 mile radius. 

Josué y Iris by Tamara Cedre

Josué & Iris run their family owned bike shop in San Juan. They care for Iris’ sick parents and her younger sister while trying to keep the business alive. They have two children. Their youngest daughter was born right before the hurricanes. 

With no other choice, they rode out the storms last year in shelters just days after Iris gave birth. Due to poor city planning, they were moved from shelter to shelter. During this time, Iris’s father suffered a stroke, her mother’s diabetes was out of control and Iris lost her ability to breast feed because of a lack of water and stress to her body. Medical personnel were spread too thin to attend to evacuees, and there was no medical care or medicine available to them for much of their stay. It was Iris’s strength and Josué’s calm thinking, and previous training as a nurse, that kept their family alive.

After months in the shelter, they returned to a destroyed apartment, so they had to live in a motel off of a FEMA voucher until power was restored in January. While the bike shop had no electricity, they ran the business in a tent outside. Insurance companies continue to take their money, but have not made good on their policies to help. 

They say they feel lucky to be together, because they didn’t suffer a death or the loss of a family property like so many they know. But, everything they have is invested into their store in an economy that has seen wages plummet and job security vanish for Boricuas as private investors profit off the disaster.

Leyda by Tamara Cedre

283 schools are shutting their doors in Puerto Rico. 
I met Leyda, a security guard at the site of the abandoned Escuela de la Comunidad Dr. Isaac Gonzalez Martinez. She took this job after the school closed, because her granddaughter used to attend there and her family still feels very connected to this place. She showed me pictures on her phone of children playing and happy memories of students learning from teachers who lived in the same community of Caparra Terrace. I toured the facility that is now being repurposed into land to be sold to private developers. 

Leyda shared that the neighborhood started going downhill shortly after the closure of the school. Since law enforcement precincts could not afford to operate, private security contractors have replaced community police, and are given special permission to guard their investment properties. Hurricane damage was merely salt to a wound of neglect that festered in these inner city areas over the last 50 years.

The school used to be an institution of learning but, also a safe meeting place for families.  Leyda said, “Cuando cierras una escuela, toda la comunidad sufre.” When you close a school, the whole community suffers.

Sarai y Esteban by Tamara Cedre

Sarai and her brother Esteban were part of the mass exodus that migrated from the island after Hurricane Maria. The siblings have left their family in Trujillo Alto to try to build a life in the states to send money back home to their family. With help from the organization Latino Leadership, based in Central Florida, they were able to receive assistance starting over in Orlando.

For most of his life, Esteban was a a water treatment technician working for the government. When the public utilities in Puerto Rico went bankrupt, his salary was reduced to a figure that made it difficult to survive with no chance of retirement. After his home was destroyed from the hurricanes, his health began to deteriorate. He was out of options.

Sarai made the move to look after her older brother. She told me she had worked as a massage therapist in San Juan. After Maria, business in the area took a nose dive. She showed us pictures on her phone of her own destroyed home and neighborhood still under construction. 

A giant American flag greeted them upon their arrival to the Orlando International Airport, but a small Puerto Rican flag is hung in their little kitchen, where they offer us some of the dinner they've prepared for themselves. Next to the inflatable mattress Sarai sleeps on in the living room, Esteban explains what it is like to leave home and lose everything. He blames the government corruption on the island.

I asked Sarai if she would ever return to Puerto Rico, and holding back emotion, she told me " I don't know. Day by day."