Mayra Santos-Febres, Puerto Rican author, poet, novelist, professor of literature, essayist, and literary critic, is also founder and executive director of El Festival de la Palabra, a global literary festival held annually in Puerto Rico. Santos-Febres recently spoke with Nadia Celis, associate professor of Romance languages and director of Latin American studies, and her class A Body of One’s Own: Latina and Caribbean Women Writers. Santos-Febres discussed life in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and the new civil society emerging.
Nadia Celis: We read for today an interview with Professor Yarimar Bonilla about how natural disasters join social disasters in order to produce these long lasting effects but also ironically highlight the contradictions surrounding the current situation in Puerto Rico. I want to discuss the status of Puerto Rico and how you think that it has played a role in the way that you have experienced these natural disasters.
Mayra Santos-Febres: I read the article and I agree with most of the portrayal. I don’t agree that a change of political status will create a different relationship with the US. I don’t think this is a matter of a political status rearrangement. This is not a situation of national and international policies but it is a situation of neoliberal capitalism. The promesa [debt bailout bill] and the critical system that has happened in Puerto Rico before the two hurricanes, this kind of logic has happened before—it happened in Portugal, in Ghana, in Argentina, in cities like Detroit, it happened in many places. This is something that philosopher Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics, and it has been studied for a long time.
I don’t think that this is a matter of independence or statehood. I think that we are beyond that discussion. Even though I am a person who truly believes in social, community, and individual justice…I don’t even want to get into those discussions. It’s definitely something that we have to think about together [how to get] further away from 19th and 20th century fights about national determination. I think that [national determination] is important, but I also think that in the face of multinational globalization, and the space in which communities stand in that system, that that discussion will not solve the problem.
But I am not here to talk about politics. I am here to talk as a writer: literature, communities, and what I have seen in Puerto Rico as a human being, and what you haven’t seen in the news. Actually I didn’t see how we were being portrayed in the news because we have no electricity. We have been going for 33 or 34 days without electricity, cable, Internet, or access to TV. So reality becomes very interesting because it’s the reality you see with your own eyes. [The media has] portrayed us as victims, and we were victims of a natural disaster. Hurricane Maria was so strong that the island looked, looked, a month ago, as the scene of an atomic bombing. All the green, all the nature was brought down to the ground. Many roads and bridges collapsed. There was no water, there was no electricity, there was no Internet and therefore there was no system to buy anything. Also, there were an estimated 250,000 people who lost their jobs. It was something we were not prepared because we had a feeble economy and also because we have a particular situation on the island that is very complex.
When I came here [to the U.S.], I saw the same pictures and the same pietaje (footage) being run over and over and over and over through CNN and New York One. But it was a month ago and things are not the same because we have recovered in a very fast way due to the immediate response not of the US government, not of the US Army, not of FEMA, but of the civil society. So what you get right now is that the trees are starting to bloom, another thing that is happening is the cleanliness—they cleared out all the roads and there is more access, gasoline is more accessible, there are some special places in which there is a little tourism (the hotels). But especially banks and hospitals have electricity. 20 percent of the population right now has electricity, 80 percent doesn’t (and this is us civilians). But still, we have managed to create alliances because a lot of professional volunteers have jumped in to take care of nursing homes, of orphanages, of communities that are really distraught and everybody just jumped to give supplies to all these communities. So, we have been doing what the government and the official aid that came from the United States couldn’t do. The only thing that we couldn’t do was to fix the electric system, but I’m sure that if you give us the materials we can do it! There are places in the center of the island that are still having a hard time getting supplies. [Puerto Rico has had] a monopoly of energy companies and now that monopoly has been strengthened by a 300 million dollar contract to “White Fish,” a company from Ohio or Montana that just popped out of the blue and we suspect has connections with the Trump government. Those people came out of nowhere and did what Bonilla is signaling. But there are a lot of particular small initiatives and alliances that are being formed between grass roots communities in the States and also in Puerto Rico that have created a bigger and brighter scope. We’re moving forward very fast even without electricity (there is water) towards reconstruction and restoration. But it has fallen in the hands of the civilian community.
Celis: Can you talk a little bit more about and describe the role of the diaspora for Puerto Ricans outside of the island, in the mainland?
Santos-Febres: It has been a role of incredible protagonism and commitment. As soon [as] the third day we figured out that something wrong was happening with the supplies that were being sent that were not being distributed. What people did is that we just hit the streets but we couldn’t do that without the connection with the diaspora. Through Whatsapp and Facebook and all sorts of alternative communication, people were coming in or sending resources and money directly to people that could help distribute them. And also, we live in an untold embargo (you know, everyone talks about the Cuban embargo but no one talks about the Puerto Rican market embargo because people don’t understand the Jones Act of 1917 and the way in which it has completely cut us off from any representation in international forums such as the UN or even in the house of representatives in the states Puerto Rico has no vote). It was because of the diaspora of the Latino community and also because of the connections between Latinos and other groups of any ethnic religious background that we could get our point across to and get out of invisibility. Also because of this unequal and weird relationship that Puerto Rico has with the international community because we are a territory of the United States but we speak Spanish and we have very close ties to Latin America, there is a human bond and cultural connection with an international community.
For instance, El Festival de la Palabra is a cultural organization that visits schools—150 schools, 6,000 students. [El Festival] connected with all the main students on the island and with an international intellectual community abroad, with newspapers from Caracas, from Venezuela, from Cuba, from Colombia, from Spain. So once we got hit, everybody that was connected to us started asking how can we help. Nadia was one of them, but in many other places in the world and in the intellectual community. That is how we got here, and we need further help in order to create continuous connections to support us through our recuperation and restoration. As soon as we hit the shelters…people were asking for other people, people were asking for music, people were asking for books, and people were asking to tell their stories, to celebrate the fact that we were alive and also to create particular plans for the future: what do we do now? We have no light, we have no electricity—this is the assessment of our situation. Where do we move? And that is when we came in with the help of the diaspora with books, and with projection…we found this little projector that works with solar light and we started projecting images but also movies. And they told us stories and we could see what was the need in the community, we could identify all of us together what was needed and then create very concrete plans in order to get those needs fulfilled.
I don’t know if Nadia showed you what we did in Las Mareas in Salinas. We went there with food and water and everything and books and after we played and we talked and we ate together they said,
“We need water. Drinkable water,” and since the festival had vaster connections than we thought we had, we helped create an oasis of drinkable water in Las Mareas and people started talking to us and showing us the pictures—the beautiful pictures—that they took during the disaster—of Las Mareas before and after Maria because there were trained photographers, it was weird, in this community of fishermen that is very very poor. A lot of kids went through a photography camp, and so we have been organizing a photography book and exhibition with them that could create organizations that can be sustainable with education tourism.
One of the things that we have been talking about is to link that community with a university or a student organization that wants to help them get that photography exhibition out, that wants to come help rebuild the community. And that [school] can serve as a sister institution or sister community to that community to help them get stronger and create resilience This is what Festival de la Palabra wants to continue to create webs of support, community through community, in order to help them grow in ways that do not repeat cycles of dependency and isolation. And the diaspora is vital for that because we are isolated and we cannot do it unless we break the isolation and the embargo that we have. They keep portraying us as poor people that are desperate and that have to be rescued and I don’t think that that is what we are. We’ve never been, but that definitely has not been who we are in the face of Hurricane Maria.
Celis:: I have a few more questions but I’m going to leave the opportunity to everybody else to ask.
Santos-Febres: Don’t be shy. I can tell you stories! One of the things that we found is that there is an LGBTX community that, in the face of the hurricane, started working with us. One of the reasons they came is because this is a community that has been completely isolated from official connections. So we connected them with CONCRA [Puerto Rico Community Network for Clinical Research on AIDS]. We went to the community, we started doing [poetry] readings, and then somebody came by, very shy, and said, “look I don’t have money or ice in order to store my hormones.” And so we found that, you know, because people rushed in with water and camp goods and clothing as if that is what everybody needs, and that is not what everybody needs because we live in a very complex society. So, we started bringing things that were necessary—condoms, for instance—since people get very stressed during hurricanes, and you know that stress really releases happy hormones, and we want to make sure that we don’t have a whole generation of post-Maria unwanteds! Although, we highly recommend sex as a way to cope with post-traumatic anxiety! So, laughter is also something very important. When you are reduced to a victim, you cannot move that well, but all of a sudden if you find a way to continue being human and to look at this––I don’t [want] to say “brighter” because I think this is very complex––but in a healthier way or to see chances in the situation, then things start moving in a different path. And that is something we have done in Puerto Rico.
There’s a lot of young people your age that have decided to finish studying and buy land and start again to create agriculture independency and self-sufficiency and they’re doing urban markets with the crops that have survived in order to create other venues to get food and supplies than going to Wal-Mart or Costco. There are a lot of things that are happening. We need massive amounts of people that can come to the island to help the teachers that are burnt out because first they were serving the communities and now they have opened schools, so we need tutors, we need teachers, we need child psychologists to help the helpers. The helpers need to be helped because we are burnt out. I mean I had to get off the island for a little bit just to take a bath with hot water and see where I was bathing because there is no light. All we need is support and because the destruction was so big, we need a bigger amount of skilled people that can help us create those alliances with the communities and help create off-grid, more reliant communities and institutions.
Student: In your opinion, what’s the best way to help without coming in as outsiders and shutting down or over-powering the civil society? How do you help at a grassroots level without engaging in a kind of pseudo-colonialism from an outsider’s point of view?
Santos-Febres: Well…as humans! That has been happening already, and I think that we can support it, because we have many identities. We don’t have only two. If we see it as, oh you’re from US and I’m from the island and we’ve had a history of colonialism and “I’m not going to get you, you have to understand that I’m not going to…etc.” No, that’s not the only way that things can be done, because we have many shared communities. For instance, women that have a strong commitment to the resilience and the support of other women, I can get you in contact with “Taller Salud” which is a feminist organization in the island that will take their sisters in and help them with women’s issues and issues with surviving domestic violence. Also with “La Coalición de Mujeres Sin Hogar” (Coalition of Women Without Shelter), a coalition that works specifically with women and housing issues, and that is a connection that we have. I’m working very closely with a social community psychologist Alexia Suarez and we organized this coalition called “Hogar es más que una palabra,” (home is more than a word), and it’s an alliance between Festival de la Palabra and the Coalition of Women Without Shelter. And what we want to do is to create a web of feminist organizations or women’s organizations around the world in order to help sustain and support this community. I bet that there are a lot of people interested in ecology. There are two foundations, one of them is Estuario de San Juan and also Para la Naturaleza, and those two organizations work with volunteers that want to work with the re-forestation system and the creation of solar and off-the-grid water oases and system sin order to provide those alternative energy possibilities to other communities and citizens. We also have connections with people that are working for the reconstruction of children’s shelters and elderly populations shelters. So you see the web works in different ways. I mean, thank God that the only thing that defines us is not the US-Puerto Rico historical-political connection, because we have grown, more and more, into a global and yet multi-diversified society.
I must admit I have a problem with nationalisms. I think they are simple and stupid. And I don’t like identities that are fixed and pure and static—I’m Caribbean I move like salsa, and salsa is sauce and all the ingredients are mixed together—and one of the things that we have is a very diverse civil society that can come and help through many fronts: you can help as a Latino, you can help as a person from the LGBTX community, you can help as a person interested in feminism and gender issues, you can help as a person interested in earth and ecology, you can help as a person interested in the development of sustainable and socially responsible commerce and trade…There are so many ways! I mean, let’s jump [off] this stuff. I think that the “imperialist” thing… I know, I’m too tired…and it’s not the focus of what I want to do right now. That is there. Nobody is saying that the US hasn’t had that history of imperial imposition in many places in the world—in Guam, in many other places—we are not the exception. But it cannot be denied either––all the history of social justice that the US has contributed on and participated in with many other places in the world. I mean, carajo, let me say it in Spanish, if people had not been white and Jews and black and yellow and pink people and people from all different caminos in the states had not been so deeply committed to civil rights movements, I would have never left the island with the scholarships that I got in order to become the person that I am.
Celis: I think that the implicit distinction that you are drawing through all of what you have shared today is one between what governments can do and what people can do. You are showing us paths to intervene that are not sanctioned by particular or normative or governmental directions, but instead the ways that people can find their own interventions and claim what they care for and make those things work in the service of others. I have to tell you that, on a personal level this is very healing to me.
MSantos-Febres: I think I really needed it. I really needed to talk to people. Not to military or government people or people with all sorts of uniforms and metralletas (machine-guns) and papers and arms and “who are you” and “what do you stand for” and, you know, stop. People. I don’t believe institutions, I’m sorry. Not in institutions of power, of hierarchical power. I’ve lived enough to know that those things don’t work. And I think that for younger generations, that’s even more obvious than it was for us. What does work are commitment to social justice and connections that are true. And what is true? This is true. At least for me, I’m sorry, I’m not being very rational—and that’s another thing I’m not starting to believe in, in rationality. I think I believe more in creativity and…locura (craziness). You can really be very daring, and be very close to be doing really stupid and silly and unheard of things. And I think that we really, really need to be stupid and crazy and just say “look, you know, this touches me and I cannot stop it from touching me. I think that it is a natural human response to want to help the other.
I just want to leave you with this little cuento (story). The day after the hurricane hit us, we were outside clearing the branches and just trying to open ways, and we were just hugging each other in the middle of the street. People that you did not know were just hugging each other: “como estás? Are you okay?” And people were just hugging and hugging, and vecinos (neighbors) passing by would stop and ask, “Do you need something? Do you need water?” What is happening is very beautiful. Human solidarity has no race, it has no nationality, it has no gender—it’s just human. This might sound stupid or silly but I’m very grateful for Maria because I needed a wake-up call. And I hope that you come and experience this very humbling and wonderful situation. But also, you have to come with a lot of patience and a lot of insect repellent. Right now, what we need maybe more than water is insect repellent and stories. And people who can help us take photographs and documentaries and help kids to draw what they saw and what they learned and to practice English and to say, “where are you from” and to have conversations and to sit down and eat with us, whatever we have. Now, I think that in a couple of months we will be able to do that. Come to “coger una guitarra” (pick up a guitar), we just need to sing songs and to give hugs—that’s it—and to share books and stories—that’s it. I’m telling you that’s it and we will figure out what we need to do together.