Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. La Brega is a podcast covering stories of the Puerto Rican experience. It's produced by WNYC Studios, which also produces The Takeaway. I recently sat down with La Brega's host.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: My name is Alana Casanova-Burgess. I'm the host of the La Brega podcast.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Since Hurricane Fiona knocked out electricity to more than a million people in Puerto Rico, Alana, and her team have been collecting Desahogos or vents.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: We want to hear from people about how they're doing. Whether you live on the island, whether you live here. Just let us know how you're doing. Also, one of the questions in our crowdsource is how do you imagine a better Puerto Rico?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Alana told us a bit about what she's learned talking with folks calling in from Puerto Rico.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Most people don't have power. Most people don't have running water, which means that on a day like we've had this week, where it feels like temperature has gotten up to 110 degrees, it is really hard to be without power. A lot of communities in the south and southwest of the island, which saw a direct hit from the Hurricane, are still digging out. Roads are closed off. If you can imagine, it's now been about five days, almost six days. We're getting to the point where it just feels really desperate. If you have a power generator, maybe that's starting to run out of fuel, maybe they're breaking down.
Certainly, cars are running out of gasoline and we're seeing long lines like we did after Maria. People waiting for drinking water, waiting for gasoline. The other thing is that the governor and the government are saying that the power is going to come back any day now. We heard this week a promise that it would be back by the next day. Of course, it's really hard to manage your expectations in an emergency like that when you're told that it's going to get better any second, and then it doesn't.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to listen to a call that you received from Adriana, who is Puerto Rican, but living right now in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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Adriana: [Spanish language]
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Melissa Harris-Perry: Alana, Adriana here is talking about the pain of being away from her country and her distress that Puerto Ricans must rely on each other because the government cannot be trusted. Talk to me about living in Massachusetts but still experiencing distress from this storm.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Well, we say that Puerto Rico is anywhere where Puerto Ricans are. There are actually more Puerto Ricans in the states than there are on the Island or as we say in the archipelago. What we're hearing from Adriana here is a bit of survivor's guilt. Why am I not experiencing this with my family? Why are they struggling and I'm here with power and running water?
Also, just intense distrust in government. The sense that we know how this went after Maria, we know how this went after the earthquakes a couple of years ago, which horribly have also hit the exact same area of Puerto Rico that we're talking about today with Fiona. How can we help each other? How can we be there for our family members, for our friends, even when we live here? That's the distress that I think you're hearing in her voice.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about that analysis you just gave us and the very title of your podcast, La Brega. What does that mean? How is it connected?
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Well, La Brega means sort of a very specific word, which is why we used it. It's sort of a struggle. It's a way to find a solution, even when you can't find the ultimate solution to a problem. The example we gave in the podcast in the first episode is about potholes. There are tons of potholes in PR because there's just not the infrastructure to fix the infrastructure.
In an austerity crisis, what people do is they sometimes draw a paint or a graffiti around in white paint a pothole to allow other people to see it. That's not going to fix the pothole, but it lets other people know, hey, here's a scotch-taped, improvised solution to this issue. You can avoid the pothole, and we hope that it gets fixed. We see that also with disaster response. I saw a video this morning of a community that was digging out a river. Fiona had basically washed it into the road, and they were waiting for diggers to come from the government.
Actually, maybe I shouldn't say waiting because they were just doing it themselves. That's La Brega that's that kind of Brega. Another example is the town of Utuado. You might have heard that there was a bridge in the town of Utuado which was washed away during Fiona this week. That temporary bridge was actually replacing a bridge that was washed away during Maria, and that was also a temporary bridge.
You just have all these temporary solutions to these deep problems in Puerto Rico. We're not saying that Bregas are good. In an ideal world, we would not have to Brega Do Tanto. We wouldn't have to find these temporary solutions to these deep societal issues.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It reminds me of this language of resilience, thinking of communities finding a way in the context of both ongoing systemic disasters and the moments of disaster like a hurricane or an earthquake, and saying, oh, well, these are resilient communities. Resilience itself rests on the idea of constant both threat of an experience of these kinds of traumas.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Exactly. We really chafe against that word. Resilience is something you're supposed to have as a stopgap measure until better help arrives. There's too much resilience being asked of people, and you really hear the frustration in people's voice when they're asked by the government to be resilient. We want our infrastructure to be that way. We don't want to ask that of real human beings.
My great fear is that people who aren't familiar with Puerto Rico will have been hearing for five years now since Maria that people are still recovering. That the lights go out all the time. That there are frequent power outages. That there are all these disasters all the time and that must mean that this is more of same. That just gets everybody accustomed to a kind of mediocrity of government response. What I would say to that is, what if that happen to your community?
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to play another call, one that you brought to us that is about the Puerto Rican pop star Bad Bunny. Let's take a listen.
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Monica: [Spanish language]
[end of audio playback]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Monica is explaining here how this song by megapop star Bad Bunny captures the complexity and contradictions of Puerto Rican life and how people are unable, she says, to have a dignified life because they have to settle for survival. Still, in a moment like Fiona, Monica is telling us the people come together to care for one another. Can you speak on this, Alana?
Alana Casanova-Burgess: Benito put out a whole album a few months ago that instantly rocketed to number one on Spotify. One of the tracks on that is El apagón, which means the blackout. It starts out talking about what it's like to experience a blackout like, ah, another one in Puerto Rico. Basically, what he says is it is really hard to live in Puerto Rico. It is very difficult but also, Puerto Rico is great. It is awesome and we love it. He has really been the soundtrack of the last few months and in many ways, his songs have been the soundtrack of the last five years.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There is something about the collective post-traumatic stress that occurs in the context of these disasters. I'm just wondering also about the ongoing mental health and emotional distress associated with each and every one of these traumas in Puerto Rico.
Alana Casanova-Burgess: That's a great question because I think the mental health crisis on the island is both something that we talk about all the time but we don't talk about enough. There have been other really bad rainstorms in the last few years. Every time that happens, people do get really anxious. A friend of mine was telling me last week that even just the word hurricane was setting her mom on edge.
We know that this was a category one storm Fiona but the damage is flooding on the island in places that had never seen flooding before. It's really hard to know what to expect. It's hard to know even about a tropical storm. There was a video that went viral earlier this week of a woman who was asked by a news station, "Do you think they're going to be blackouts when Fiona comes," and she laughed and said, "There are going to be blackouts even when you blow out your birthday candles in this country?"
It's hard to know what your expectation is. Also, after Maria, people were without power for months, my aunt was without power for almost a year. Can you imagine that, Melissa, can you actually imagine what it would be like to not have electricity in your home for a year? I'm talking about not with an external power source, not with like you have a generator running for a year, I'm saying you have to figure out how to feed yourself without a refrigerator every day for a year, it's just too much. I think that's what people are expecting this time, is that there are going to be communities that are going to go through that again and that only Puerto Ricans help each other.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Alana Casanova-Burgess is host of La Brega podcast. Alana, as always, thanks so much for your time.
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