BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. And you’re listening to a verse written by the group Bomba P’al Pueblo about how Hurricane Maria blew in and out and turned the island backward, inside out. The Category 4 hurricane hit with such force that trees were stripped of their leaves. The salt water burned the green off the grass, as if blasted by a bomb.
WOMAN: On the plane, one of the first things we noticed when we were landing was just the acres and acres of trees that were just brown.
MAN: I’ll tell you [LAUGHS], it’s just gone, it’s all gone, and all the trees, it’s just -- a lot of trees are down but the trees that stayed up don’t have any leaves at all.
WOMAN: We’ve been driving around Puerto Rico and it’s incredible to see that a paradise island was reduced to this. Everything you see is dead trees, downed power lines and endless queues to get gas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A paradise island? Not quite. What our producer, Alana Casanova-Burgess, saw in Puerto Rico was an island that found itself exposed, its secrets suddenly visible, not just to itself but to the rest of us, too.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: I met Benjamin Torres Gotay in a park in San Juan recently. He’s a columnist and editor for Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Día.
BENJAMIN TORRES GOTAY: I had not been here since the hurricane. I find it very different. It had a lot of trees, a lot of palms.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: The green has mostly come back to Puerto Rico but the trees that lost branches look surreal, like green Q-tips with tufts of leaves coming out of the top. It's still unsettling.
BENJAMIN TORRES GOTAY: As you can see now, it's almost naked.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: A few weeks earlier, Gotay had written that Maria had ripped the skin off the island, revealing its skeleton and its flesh. “We are left,” he wrote, “looking at ourselves in a warped mirror, confronted with the hardest realities of our collective life.”
BENJAMIN TORRES GOTAY: We’ve been living a long time under the assumption that we are a rich or developed country, but the truth is that we have an enormous portion of our population living on poverty or near poverty, a lot of people living in rundown houses, in houses not prepared to receive the force of a hurricane.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Before the storm, Puerto Rico's poverty rate was at nearly 45 percent. For context, Mississippi, the state with the highest poverty rate, is at 21 percent.
BENJAMIN TORRES GOTAY: I use the image that it peeled the skin off Puerto Rico because I see it almost as a literal thing. You see a lot of communities that were covered by trees and vegetation, after the hurricane they were revealed as what they really are.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: One of the landscape’s dominant features, aside from swaying palms and sparkling beaches, are shopping malls and big-box stores. The island has the highest density of Walmarts and Walgreens in the world. Most towns have a public square or a plaza but in San Juan when people say they’re going to plaza, they mean Plaza Las Americas, the mega-mall that serves as the city’s main meeting place. And generally, that assumed that most people had the money to spend. Inequality wasn’t front of mind. But that’s changed.
This week, a UN envoy on extreme poverty and human rights toured Puerto Rico on a fact-finding trip. A study from the University of Puerto Rico found that the storm likely pushed the poverty rate up to 52 percent.
In the town of Utuado in the mountains, high school students were decorating the square ahead of a Christmas celebration. Walter Ronald Gonzalez Gonzalez was there, too. He’s the director of Art, Culture and Tourism for the region, one of the most rural hardest-hit areas of Puerto Rico.
INTERPRETER FOR MR. GONZALEZ GONZALEZ: We have seen poverty that was covered up because now there are some people who have said, I haven’t had electricity in my home for this many years, or I don’t have tap water and I have to use water from the river.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: The story has long been overlooked by the local news shows because they prefer to focus on the coverage of sensational crimes, rather than the steady state of deep poverty. But with so many trees gone, some facts are just too visible to be ignored.
INTERPRETER FOR MR. GONZALEZ GONZALEZ: For example, in the metropolitan area, there is a young guy who lives under a bridge. He has lived there for years but now he can be seen. And over that bridge travel thousands of metro area residents. How is it possible that now, because a tree moved, they can see him for the first time.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Now, TV programs show critical aid getting to remote homes in the countryside, homes many didn't realize were always so isolated.
INTERPRETER FOR MR. GONZALEZ GONZALEZ: Unfortunately, they waited until Maria to do it, but it should have been done before. And that’s the reality that Puerto Ricans didn’t want to accept or even see.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Puerto Ricans have also been confronted with their place in the Caribbean.
YARIMAR BONILLA: Puerto Ricans don’t often imagine themselves as one of the little islands, [LAUGHS] even though we are, right?
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Yarimar Bonilla is an anthropologist at Rutgers University, now working on a book about the crisis. She says that as bad as things got in Puerto Rico during its 10-year recession, the relationship with the US always set the island apart from the rest of the Caribbean.
YARIMAR BONILLA: We always have thought of ourselves as better off than our Dominican neighbors and our Cuban neighbors, and so right now Cuba, they were able to recover from Irma quickly, they got their power back and they’re doing good. The Dominican Republic, they’re sending us aid and everything we’re eating is from over there.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Besides, the US sent more American troops and helicopters to Haiti in the days after the 2010 earthquake than we sent to Puerto Rico.
YARIMAR BONILLA: So it’s really forcing Puerto Ricans to come to terms with that reality. I don't know where that will lead, politically.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: All discussions inevitably lead to the issue of the island's political status, and here we. But first, an observation. In my first week in Puerto Rico, 50 days after the storm hit, I began to notice a pattern. Even after telling me that washing laundry by hand made their skin raw or that reading by candlelight was straining their eyes, people would also tell me they had gotten used to a new normal. They had grown accustomed, acostumbrados.
[CONVERSATION IN SPANISH]
No two disasters are alike but would Floridians or Texans just get used to not having electricity for two months, now going on three? Puerto Ricans have settled into a kind of extended coping limbo. Community groups were activated to help but restoring the full electric grid could take months. Again, Yarimar Bonilla of Rutgers.
YARIMAR BONILLA: So like when I ask people like, why don’t you protest or how does this make you feel about the government, one guy said [SPANISH]. [LAUGHS] You know?
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: What does that mean?
YARIMAR BONILLA: What am I gonna do? I’m not gonna shoot myself in the head. It’s a phrase that people use here. I think it speaks to the lack of options that people imagine, so it's either, I accept it or I leave or I take my own life.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: So a lack of perceived options, and yet, one of the words you hear a lot in Puerto Rico is “resilience.”
ALFREDO CORRASQUILLO: Resilience is a human capacity to deal with tenacity when confronted with traumatic and difficult situations.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Alfredo Corrasquillo is a psychoanalyst and an expert on leadership at the University of the Sacred Heart in San Juan.
ALFREDO CORRASQUILLO: But resilience is not resignation, eh? Resilience implies being stronger to handle things and when things are not fair and not just, you confront them. So I’m not that sure if what we are seeing in many people in Puerto Rico is resilience or resignation. Resilience has political potential. Resignation has no political potential.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: I first met Corrasquillo in June, while reporting a piece for On the Media about the use of the word “colony” to describe Puerto Rico's relationship to the mainland. For decades, Puerto Ricans used euphemisms like “commonwealth” or “associated free state” but many had begun to use a label they felt was more honest, albeit painful. Corrasquillo uses “colony” and he says it’s essential to understanding why Puerto Ricans don't protest more.
ALFREDO CORRASQUILLO: It doesn't surprise me. What surprises me is our inability as a people to respond with anger to indignity. That resignation is impressive.
SANDRA RODRIGUEZ COTTO: I will say that people are afraid, more than resi-- are afraid.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Sandra Rodriguez Cotto, host of that nightly call-in show on WAPA Radio, hears constantly from callers about how hard it is just to get by and how they fear losing what little they have.
SANDRA RODRIGUEZ COTTO: If you ask people, people don't want to be separated from the United States. We feel American. Even though we might think we’re Puerto Rican culturally, that's a dichotomy. that's a contradiction that we have, and I think it’s because of so many years of being a colony.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: There's a history of protesters being persecuted on the island, especially those in the independence movement. Entire families were blacklisted by the government. In the ‘50s, a gag law banned public speech about independence and even outlawed displaying the Puerto Rican flag. Now, says Cotto, Maria has exposed the island's real status as a US colony, no more euphemisms. Americans, some of them, anyway, are finally paying attention.
SANDRA RODRIGUEZ COTTO: I think the American public, for the first time ever, is seeing Puerto Rico for what it is. I mean, we’ve been on the forefront of the news, so now people are saying, wow, we have some people dying and we’re doing in Puerto Rico what we have been criticizing in other places. They might feel a little bit embarrassed for what they are seeing in Puerto Rico.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: The columnist Benjamin Torres Gotay thinks that that if this were anywhere else, there would be major protests in the streets, people demanding more government help and a faster recovery. But after more than a hundred years of US colonial rule, Puerto Ricans are used to waiting and fending for themselves.
ALFREDO CORRASQUILLO: People here protest by immigrating, so that is a fact of life in Puerto Rico, that is a characteristic of the people of Puerto Rico, basically, resignation, yeah. People here are not used to stand up to power.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: I asked him, how do you solve that?
ALFREDO CORRASQUILLO: Well, I don't have an answer. Colonialism is a two-way problem, and the colonial power is the United States. They have to speak clearly, and they have not done that in over a hundred years.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: In a colonial situation, there’s also the matter of who is really in charge, who you can appeal to. Investigative reporter Omaya Sosa Pascual.
OMAYA SOSA PASCUAL: Who are they going to protest, the governor? The governor here doesn’t have a lot of power. You’re gonna hop on a plane and go protest in Washington? Nobody here has the money to do that.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: There actually have been a handful of marches this week, small ones but there are more every day. One town even hired retired electrical workers to do repairs because they were tired of waiting. On the afternoon I met Gotay, I showed him a news clip of a march in Aguada, a town in the northeast. He said there must have been a really effective community leader there. But it was a good sign.
BENJAMIN TORRES GOTAY: We are not going to have the same country. Puerto Rico was not a great country before Maria and I don’t know how it’s going to be, but it’s going to be different, that’s for sure.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: He says the storm also revealed how weak Puerto Rico's institutions really are. For 72 hours after the hurricane, it was as though it didn't have a government at all, and the chaos that has followed shows the pitfalls of appointing officials on the basis of connections, rather than experience.
On Wednesday of this week, Sandra Rodriguez Cotto invited a couple of newly-minted activists on her show. They had organized San Juan neighborhoods for a march. Here’s one.
[WOMAN SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
INTERPRETER FOR FEMALE ACTIVIST: We feel impotent, she said, because we don’t know anything. The government doesn't have a plan and they’re winging it, and it feels like they’re telling us a lie all the time.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Over 200,000 have already left for Florida since Maria, but Laura in the mountains of Utuado finds that very strange.
[LAURA SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
I love it more, she said. Leaving here? No, on the contrary. We have to deal with this and keep going.
INTERPRETER FOR ANNA CASANOVA: It was as though it opened our eyes. We looked around and we saw our neighbors. These were people who never said hello. That’s what Maria revealed to us.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: That’s my aunt, Anna Casanova, who lives in the mountains in Ciales. Her roosters, for some reason, crow even at night.
And now that the vegetation has grown back around her house, we could barely see her neighbors’ lights powered by generators.
[WOMAN SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
YARIMAR BONILLA: I said the other day, [SPANISH]. You know, nature is faster than man.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Yarimar Bonilla of Rutgers.
YARIMAR BONILLA: And so, nature is already recuperating from the storm and the leaves are coming back. And so, I worry that what was uncovered for a minute, like, is already fading again from view.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: One of her students in Puerto Rico told her that without cell signal he had time for long conversations dissecting what was really happening, observations about politics and the future. But then the cell service returned and he and his girlfriend turned back to their iPads and their cell phones.
YARIMAR BONILLA: I want to think that the kinds of conversations that they had during the storm are going to have a long-term impact on the kind of things that were revealed.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS: Older generations have survived hurricanes, none as bad as Maria, but still. Now, a whole new generation, those who were already struggling with a decade-long fiscal crisis, have looked in the mirror.
YARIMAR BONILLA: I look at the young people like my students, and I, I tell them they are, they’re strong like, like my grandmother is strong. I, I want to retain hope that this is going to impact those young people and that they are going to live differently and create something different for us here.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
People know what's on the other side of the trees now, even if they can’t see them through the leaves, necessarily.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, sharing a disaster creates a special kind of humor. But, as they say, you had to be there.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.