Story by Jhoni Jackson. Photo Essay by Jose Juan Garcia Camacho.
Shanti Lalita was asleep when Hurricane Maria nearly ripped off the bedroom window of her fourth-floor apartment in the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce. It was 5:00 a.m., and the 27-year-old cellist and composer was napping between bouts of vigilance as the category-five storm that ravaged the island with wind speeds reaching up to 155 miles per hour. Lalita screamed, she recalls, then sprung into action to save her instruments and other belongings.
“We had to go to the balcony in the middle of the hurricane, and grab the window, and shove it into place,” she says. “Then, the door started opening and closing; we had to tie the window to the door and pray that both of them wouldn’t fly away.”
Lalita had some help in that scramble to barricade her bedroom window. Her mother and sister, their cat, and her brother and girlfriend and their four cats, all took shelter in the apartment she shares with three roommates (and more cats). Later, they had to work together to stop the flooding while rain relentlessly poured into her living room, where her brother had been sleeping on a mat on the floor and awoke abruptly, realizing he was soaking wet.
Lalita and her family, pets included, are safe now, and she is grateful. A total of 16 deaths have been confirmed, but experts believe the count is much higher, and that it will continue to increase. (People who rely on oxygen, dialysis and other life-saving measures that require electricity are not being considered by officials.)
Still, things are by no means easy; what’s happening in Puerto Rico is a serious, full-fledged humanitarian crisis.
The lines to enter grocery stores are often hours long, and most are limiting purchases to ration supply. Queues for gas are absurd, and ATMs are frequently out of service. Water has been restored to Lalita’s area, but without electricity, it can’t reach apartments above the ground floor. Buying gallons for showering, toilet flushing, and drinking isn’t a reliable option — the island has mostly run out. Even individual bottles are extremely difficult to find.
One San Juan bar and music venue, however, has transformed itself into an oasis of help and support. El Local has been a boon to the area’s independent music and art scene for years, but now they’re also resource for people in need: They’re serving meals in a volunteer-run community kitchen, open from morning until evening and closing up just before the government-instated 9:00 p.m. curfew. A food bank filled with mostly non-perishables is continually replenished by donations.
“It’s not only been the normal people that would go there, like the alternative people, but people from the community from around El Local have started to go,” Lalita says. “Even my mom went to get a meal there because we have no way of preparing hot meals.”
Musicians and community members sing together at El Local.
Not only is the venue feeding folks, but it’s also providing an opportunity for connections and comfort, and maybe a moment of transcendence from the anxiety and stress of a harsh, uncomfortable, and tragic reality.
“It’s really a ray of light. Just to be able to go there and see friends come in that you haven’t heard from or been in communication with, like, it’s such a relief to know you’re OK and you’re here and you have a place with food,” she says. “If I hadn’t gone to El Local this last week, I would be super, super hungry, and probably super depressed. It’s not only about the food and meeting people, it’s having that little space where it’s comfortable, and we take our instruments, and we jam out, and we play board games, and we have conversations, and we hug each other. It’s much more than a community kitchen; it’s making the whole corillo [Spanish for “community of friends”] feel better about the whole situation.”
It is important to note that, while there was significant damage in San Juan, it’s not as severe as that of the municipalities on the west coast, many of which FEMA has declared disaster areas. But that does not make the hardships of Puerto Ricans living in other areas any less legitimate; a disaster of this scale brings immediate tragedies, but is also complex and far-reaching in its lasting complications.
For one, the ramifications of the island-wide power outage — on the heels of power outages wrought by Hurricane Irma, some of which had yet to be dealt with — will cause inescapable problems for every single person in Puerto Rico, albeit in varying degrees.
For Lalita, a trained cellist, she is without work indefinitely and running out of money quickly as she shares all resources with family and friends in need. Sunday night, only hours after cooking at El Local, she suffered a panic attack, she says, which led her to make an agonizingly difficult decision.
She has to leave Puerto Rico.
“My family, we’re all musicians, we’re all artists, and my brother and sister, they usually make money by juggling at the stoplights or busking in Old San Juan,” she says. “And if there’s no stoplights left because they were all torn down in the hurricane, that means they don’t have their usual spot, and in Old San Juan, it’s not like any tourists are going to come to a disaster island. That is not something that we can count on.”
Restaurants, weddings, and self-organized events are how Lalita generates most of her income. With no electricity, none of that is possible. The release show for her new EP, El Grito, was postponed because of Irma, and the continued power outage has halted all promotion. The artist residency she was slated to begin in Miami this month is off, too; she needs the travel funds instead for a one-way ticket to New York. Lalita needs to earn money — for her own survival, of course, but also to care for those at home who need help now and will still be in need for months to come.
“I’ve been holding on here for so long, and it’s such a struggle. Like, normal life is a struggle,” she says. “I was barely making the money I needed to get by, and all of a sudden, that’s gone, and now it’s like, well, I guess this is what I’m supposed to do right now. It hurts me because I know there’s a lot of work to be done here, and the artists community has lost so many funds already this year, and it’s just been going downhill and downhill and downhill, and I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore.”
There’s been an exodus of Puerto Ricans are fleeing the island for some time:
Unemployment is still rampant (10.4% as of July), and PROMESA, a much-contested law passed in 2016 that promised to stabilize the island’s economy, has wrought austerity measures, from cuts to services and pensions, to controversial labor reforms and the threat of significantly slashing the budget for the University of Puerto Rico.
Recovery after Maria needs to be viewed in the context of all this, including the island’s position as a colony that’s under full control of the US, often with unsympathetic and oppressive consequences.
Lalita says she’s seen a lot of criticism of people leaving during this very critical time. But for her, the best way to help — now and in the long term — is from outside. Not everyone can afford to leave the island, and many will choose to stay to help rebuild, regardless of their financial situation.
You can donate directly to El Local through PayPal at [email protected] to help keep its community kitchen serving hot meals daily.
The people of Puerto Rico have been working — the people themselves — since the moment the hurricane passed to help clear neighborhoods and roads of debris, and doing the work necessary to rebuild. They’ve been sharing and pooling resources and helping each other. If you’re able to donate, consider the options below that fund efforts which directly support the people and the process of recovery.
How you can help these independent bands and artists raise funds for Puerto Rico:
1. New York-born Boricua Princess Nokia has created a GoFundMe to finance relief missions to help Puerto Ricans on the island directly.
2. Slovenly Records, an international imprint, is raising funds for both Puerto Rico and Mexico. On the island, donations go to El Departamento de la Comida. They’re working to rebuild their restaurant space as well as support several sustainable food projects. (Hurricane Maria wiped out 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s agricultural production.) Donations of $10 or more qualify for the chance to win passes to various festivals.
3. All sales of this T-shirt sold via Atlanta band Little Tybee’s online shop will go to UNICEF’s recovery efforts on the island.
4. Amanda Palmer has released a new song dedicated to Puerto Rico: “Small Hands, Small Heart.” All digital sales on Bandcamp this month will go directly to the Hurricane Maria Community Recovery Fund, which supports local grassroots organizations that work directly with low-income communities of color. Read more here, or go straight to Bandcamp to hear and purchase.
5. Bandcamp sales of these two new Forest Swords songs will go toward United for Puerto Rico.
Jhoni Jackson is an Atlanta-born writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She covers Latinx music and culture for Remezcla, runs a monthly queer party, and also organizes a recurring pop-up feminist bazaar. Until last year, she co-owned a mid-size venue; right now, she’s plotting a new venture. Follow her on Twitter for links to her stories or on Instagram for (mostly) pictures of her cats.