Learning pride and community from Puerto Rican town devastated by storm

None of us knew what to expect as we boarded the plane to Mariana, Puerto Rico. Looming uncertainties about the people we would meet, the projects we would work on, whether we packed enough soap and sunscreen, and most importantly, what the food would be like, obscured the view through our muddy Pelham lenses. Putting down our lacrosse sticks and leaving our schedules of ACT tutors and water polo lessons behind, we turned our attention to something far larger than ourselves—the devastation of Maria. 

You may have heard of Hurricane Maria. The storm flooded the news for about a week—and then got buried under the sediment of celebrity breakups and quizzes that determine what type of soup you are. It was not possible to fully know the devastation of the hurricane until you visited the island yourself, but it was also not possible to leave Mariana without a sense of hope. A strengthened grasp on what it truly means to be a community. 

The morning after the hurricane, the people of Puerto Rico looked out at their beautiful island, sullied by fallen trees, flooded roads and the destruction of once proudly standing buildings. There was no electricity; there was no water. But that was no matter to a small town located about an hour’s drive from San Juan. The people of Mariana didn’t have a plan, but they had passion, pride and community. The owner of Kennedy’s, a popular local convenience store that sold everything from snacks to bucket hats, explained that he could not predict the magnitude of this hurricane. He spoke about emergency actions such as freezing the store’s water supply or recording everyone’s purchases, hoping they would pay him back, but understanding that in this time, it was not always possible.

Zhuli, a resident of the island and employee for ARECMA, a community organization for Mariana, was not a stranger to Maria’s harsh hand either. Having lost power for months, she was passionate for change. The week we arrived at the campus, just an hour away, protests against the corrupt governor who watched the island suffer in silence were underway. Zhuli was one of the protestors. In the morning, she showed us scratches on her chest, caused by panic induced by gas hurled at her and others by police. She spoke about the people near her, and how quickly a peaceful protest turned into a feeling of doom—but how she would do it again, in order to defend her island. 

On the plane home, we reflected on the trip. The pure kindness and love we received spoke loudly enough. But the sense of pride and community that we learned, felt new, felt refreshing. 

If a Maria 2.0 were to hit our community, I don’t know how we would react. If we would come together, or keep to ourselves. But if we have half the strength Mariana has, then we should make it through.

Katja Fair was a member of the Huguenot Memorial Church’s mission trip to Puerto Rico last summer.