Puerto Ricans Organize to Survive During Blackout


Earlier this month, I entered the Oakland coliseum for Bad Bunny’s anticipated “Un Verano Sin Ti” concert. The lights shut off and he began to perform “El Apagon” (The Blackout), Puerto Rico’s reggaeton anthem. In the sea of light blue flags and bodies jumping, we screamed “Puerto Rico ta bien cabron!” (Puerto Rico is f—ng great!) The beat split and a hypnotic voice sang, “Esta es mi playa, esta mi sol, esta es mi Tierra, esta soy yo.” (This is my beach, this is my sun, this is my land, this is who I am.)

Two days later, Bad Bunny dropped the 22 minute “El Apagon’” visual featuring “People Live Here,” a short documentary led by Puerto Rican journalist Bianca Grailu. In the doc, Grailu reveals how Puerto Rico’s standing as a U.S. colony has allowed for mass gentrification and the privatization of an already vulnerable public power grid.

On Sept. 18, Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico. 

For us in the diaspora, our protocol began. We called our loved ones on the island, donated what we could and then waited. In limbo, we waded through social media posts and grappled with the reality of an island drowning. My Titi’s (aunt’s) text, sent from her home in Bayamon, read, “it’s lonesome and scary but [we’re] doing fine.” 

By 1 p.m. the same day, el apagon had begun.

Hurricane Fiona, predicted to be ranked a Category 3, or a major storm, triggers painful memories of Hurricane Maria — the Category 5 hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. Between then and now, Puerto Ricans have learned that we depend on each other for survival. 

In the months following Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans were left to battle 90 degree heat with no electricity. Bedridden people lacked access to medical treatment and many elders on oxygen passed away. Puerto Rico’s government undercounted deaths from Hurricane Maria and announced the death toll at 64 people in December 2017.

One year later, researchers at Harvard, accompanied by Puerto Rican colleagues, revealed an estimated death toll of 4,645 — making Maria one of the most deadly natural disasters in U.S. history

In October 2017, former President Trump visited the island for a press trip. He stopped at Calvary Chapel in Guaynabo, threw paper towels at the crowd, and later belittled the rising death toll when he said, “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.” A subsequent investigation revealed that the Trump Administration had purposely blocked aid and delayed $20 billion dollars in relief to Puerto Rico.

Two years later, Puerto Rico’s own government abandoned its people. On the heels of the FBI arresting top government officials for corruption, The Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism exposed 889 pages of sexist, homophobic, ableist, and racist messages between Puerto Rico’s former Governor Ricardo Rossello and cabinet members in what became known as “chat gate.” 

In the 14 days after, half a million Puerto Ricans took to the streets and successfully demanded Rossello’s resignation. Bad Bunny and Residente led the protests in song with “Afilando los Cuchillos” (Sharpening the Knives).

In absence of leadership following Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican people on the island and in the diaspora stepped up. Countless community orgs distributed aid and the Puerto Rican Psychiatric Association provided mental health care as well as physical aid to isolated communities in rural Puerto Rico. 

To help with reconstruction, I traveled to visit my family and volunteer in Yabucoa for the two summers after Maria. As we worked, our conversations with neighbors revealed the level of care it took to keep the community afloat. 

Despite the joy of returning to Puerto Rico, the island’s reality confronted us. At the 2018 San Juan Pride Parade, my mom and I weaved through a sea of Puerto Rican independence flags and rainbow flags. But dozens of pairs of empty shoes also lined the parade’s plaza, Parque del Indio, their presence symbolizing the lives lost to Maria.

The only difference Puerto Rico now faces resides in the U.S. decision last year to privatize Puerto Rico’s power grid under LUMA Energy, a company with U.S. and Canadian background. In a conversation with Politico reporter Carlos Polanco, environmental attorney Ruth Santiago said: “History is repeating itself but now we don’t have Hurricane Maria, but Hurricane LUMA.”

A historic number of blackouts have occurred under LUMA, sparking mass protests throughout this summer in San Juan. Echoing the people’s demands this week, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress questioned why the 15-year LUMA contract should be fulfilled when the country is seeing longer outages than before. 

As of Sept. 26, 900,000 Puerto Ricans remain without power and 20 out of 68 hospitals in Puerto Rico are without power. Along with mass flooding and the loss of homes, Hurricane Fiona has created a multi-billion dollar economic disaster, further crippling an economy already buried in colonial debt. 

Organizations on the ground are working and living within this reality. Taller Salud, Techos Pa’ Mi Gente, and more have tirelessly distributed aid across the island this last week. From the diaspora, grassroots groups like North Carolina for Puerto Rico have organized fundraising events.

At my home in San Francisco, my family donates, we pray and we plan our trip home to work in the reconstruction efforts once more. 

In these times, Puerto Ricans shouldn’t have to be resilient, we shouldn’t have to solely rely on ourselves in lieu of U.S. imperialism, structural failure, and corruption. Nonetheless we organize out of necessity, and we organize out of love. In light or darkness, Puerto Rico is our island and Puerto Rico is who we are.

“Esta es mi playa, está mi sol, esta es mi tierra, esta soy yo.”


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