I Left Puerto Rico After Maria — a Year Later, Will it Feel Like Home?

Puerto Rican Christmas has got to be the longest holiday celebration in the world. Christmas gets going the day after Thanksgiving and continues through the New Year —  Día de Los Reyes Magos is on Jan. 6, and Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián run through Jan. 20, serving as an official closing celebration to nearly two months of festivities.

Point being, Puerto Ricans are serious about Christmas.

This year will be the second Christmas I’ll fly home to Puerto Rico to spend time with my parents. It’s also the second Christmas after category five Hurricane María ravaged the island in September 2017. In the days after, my family and I stood in line for hours to get gas, food, and water. Even in the metropolitan area of the island where I lived — in the municipality of Carolina — the road conditions were not the safest, and driving too far out was impossible due to trees and debris that littered the roads. The haunting noises I heard from the hurricane and her 175 mile per hour winds destroying my home were nothing compared to the pleas of people who stood in line with me, waiting despite the news reports that food, water, and basic necessities were running low.

And to this day, just over a year later, Puerto Rico is still suffering the fallout of Maria. One of our municipalities, Vieques, a smaller island off the east coast of Puerto Rico is still trying to rebuild itself after being practically abandoned by our government. We don’t know exactly how many people died as a consequence of Hurricane María, but the latest figure is nearly 3,000. It’s not just deaths from the storm, either: Suicide rates spiked because people didn’t know how to deal with the aftermath; with their homes or workplaces being destroyed, their family displaced.

The thing is, I haven’t been there to deal with any of it. I was one of the 500,000 people who left after the storm —  just two weeks after Maria hit, I took a job in New York City. I had been living at home for a year after graduating college in 2016. I had come back into my parents’ lives after being gone for almost six years, and we had fallen into a steady routine. My mom was no longer cooking just for my dad, she was happily taking care of me, too, while I worked at a local magazine. On Saturdays, my mother and I went to the mall and to lunch. Sundays were family days, and my mother, father and I went out for breakfast and then picked a new place to visit. I was spending more quality time with my parents than my teenaged self could have ever imagined enjoying.

Courtesy Sophia Caraballo

I still remember when my parents took me to the airport after the hurricane. We sat together, holding hands — although I tried to keep it light and happy between us, my mom couldn’t hold back her tears. My father is the typical show-no-emotion type of guy, but that day, he cried as he hugged me for last time before I made my move. Leaving was one of the most painful things I had ever done, and part of that has to do with the fact that it was just after the storm, and just before the holidays. Like I said: For Puerto Ricans, Christmas is everything.

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While I was away, I spoke to my parents often, or at least tried to. Half the conversations were a back-and-forth of “I can’t hear you!” and “Can you hear me now?” My mom told me about my father’s ventures to get gas early in the morning, and about the hours-long lines to get into Costco to buy water. I tried to help from a distance. Really, the most I could do was ask them if they needed something I could send over from Amazon. The only time they accepted was when they needed a new gas stove top — their old one was running through one gas tank a day. It took two months for Amazon to deliver it and by that time, my parents had spent hundreds of dollars getting takeout and buying gas.

Before going back for Christmas, I spent my three months in NYC sitting in my living room, reliving my Hurricane Maria experiences with my housemate, who’d also left her family after the storm. Our parents encouraged us to just worry about ourselves, but all we could think about was home. We found some peace by roaming the streets of Spanish Harlem and admiring the Puerto Rican presence in the area. We also made it our mission to create awareness of the situation back home, talking about it to anyone who would listen.

When I think of what my Christmases in Puerto Rico used to look like, I remember helping my mom pick out the most fabulous pine tree from the lot, a seven-foot monster that my father would have to trim, simply to get into the house — the same one that Hurricane Maria would later do her worst on. I wasn’t surprised when I got home for Christmas in 2017, and nothing felt the same.

I didn’t see Christmas trees in windows like I had for my entire life. All I saw were the blue-tarp roofs on homes that had yet to be repaired. Stores — the ones where my parents would normally do their holiday shopping — were destroyed. The electrical grid was so weak that some families would spend Christmas in the dark. My parents and I couldn’t go to our usual holiday spots because they simply were not there anymore. The lechoneras — a go-to for Christmas food — were inaccessible because the roads were yet to be cleared; beaches were contaminated, and the National Rainforest, El Yunque, was impenetrable. Family and friends still got together, but everyone went home early because road conditions made it dangerous to stay out late in the dark.

When I left Puerto Rico for the second time, I felt guilty. I felt as if I was cheating my family by leaving. Before last Christmas, I’d been away for a couple of months, and in that time, I didn’t have to worry about my lights shutting off, or a weak phone signal, or literally running out of food to eat. Throughout that holiday visit, I was distracted knowing I would be leaving a few days after — and I wouldn’t have to take any of Puerto Rico’s problems with me.

One year later, I’m preparing myself to visit again. Infrastructure in the country has stabilized: The lights won’t shut off every week anymore, maybe just once a month. My parents have gone back to enjoying their retirement without having to worry that the roof will start to leak and our home will be flooded from rains. They go for a spin, go out for lunch, and take care of Napoleon, the family dog. My parents and I can hit the mall down the street, because it finally has a roof, and black mold is no longer spreading across the food court. Basic necessities — medicine, food, water — aren’t quite as hard to come by, and some of the prices have even come down.

But it’s more than that. This year, when I go home for Christmas, I get the sense that some level of familiarity will have returned. Stores will be open, trees will find themselves back in windows, and the impossibly festive, incredibly long holiday season that Puerto Rico is known for seems to be returning. In fact, I know it is. Just recently, my mother was complaining that October wasn’t even over and she was already seeing every store decorated for the holiday. Hearing her say that let me know that returning to Puerto Rico this year will actually feel like going home.

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