I’ve seen poverty. Poverty is indiscriminate.
Growing up in West Virginia I identified poverty as only a White issue, despite the stories I had heard from my neighbors and images on TV. The only Black families I knew were my own and we didn’t live in poverty. We weren’t rich either, but I knew poor and I knew poverty–neither was my family.
I had peers in high school who didn’t have money for food. Our school lunch program was almost unusually nonexistent. Many classmates begged for leftovers in the lunchroom with a sense of humility. Specifically, I recall classmates asking, “Are you going to eat that?” as they nodded their heads toward leftover pizza crust laying on a sheet of grease-stained wax paper. Even still, I never perceived them as living in poverty or even poor. I was naive and just assumed that many of these individuals’ parents just forgot to give them money for lunch or pack them something to eat. I was blinded by the truth and lived in my own reality. Also, it took me years to see people who looked like me, Black, without food, without proper housing, and without things that I had. Moving to NYC opened my eyes up to that. That was when I realized that poverty was indiscriminate.
I’ve never experienced true hunger, true poverty, true thirst. I’ve never been homeless, despite the notion that I was on the verge of being without housing due to a job loss, perhaps. But, I’ve always had options if I fell into an unfortunate circumstance.
Hurricane Maria came to Puerto Rico, gang-raping it of all resources and dignity. People who had nothing, now had less than nothing; and I was left with guilt.
The only things I lost were clients to work. I was without work simply because I could not produce with no electricity. Even considering that my street was flooded with mid-chest deep water, my apartment and my car were completely flooded–I lost nothing. My car recovered and my apartment (after 17 hours) was cleaned. I only lost clients, my opportunity to work. I felt guilty to complain.
People lost their homes, families, food, clothing, and employment. People lost their medications, their opportunity to have dialysis, the opportunity to have clean water. And many, the opportunities to live.
I only lost my clients.
Puerto Rico nourishes my soul. Puerto Rico came to me in one of my darkest moments and soothed me like no other person or place. Puerto Rico welcomed me in every aspect despite a language barrier, despite a culture that was not mine, despite any socioeconomic issues the island and her people were enduring. I moved on feeling. There was nothing logical about moving to Puerto Rico. And, to many, it was a spur of the moment idea, though I strategically planned it three years in advance.
Puerto Rico became home. It was home. It is home. I knew I was safe here. I felt safe. I felt secure. I felt calm.
With my eagerness to learn the island so much, I was able to visit places that even the locals had never visited. This brought me happiness. My goal was to help others fall in love with the island again, like I did. Despite its size of 100×35 miles, I found so many new things on the island to explore. It was amazing to know that I could drive a few hours south and be in the dry forest with a forest of cacti or simply drive east of San Juan and be under a canopy of trees in El Yunque rainforest. And again, Despite the island’s size, the terrain and ecosystem changed quickly. I enjoyed sharing this.
Then Hurricane Irma and Maria came, destroying a haven and disconnecting us from the entire world as electricity left, taking resources, and exposing the island’s poverty even more than I imagined. I saw helplessness, I saw hopelessness. I saw despair. I saw thirst. I saw hunger. I felt guilty I had resources to leave the island for a month, in an attempt to regain a client and an attempt to regain sanity. I felt guilty. Guilt led to depression. I had resources to leave; many of the other gringos did too. Many of them never returned. I chose to.
After a month away from the island, I was without clients and could not work. I had time on my hands. More time than I needed. Time that I knew would be well spent on helping the island I called home.
I saw things indescribable. I saw homes without roofs. I saw people who just wanted to stay in their homes in tents, though every time it rained, their belongings would get wet. I met people who just wanted a broom to clean for a sense of normalcy. I saw resiliance and individuals who were simply tired of crying and lost all emotion. I saw and realized this will be the new life. This will be the new normal.
During this moment I realized something critical, something special. This new home for me, Puerto Rico, reminded me of home in West Virginia. Beyond the lush palm trees and beaches there was indeed, the real Puerto Rico nestled beyond the beachfront homes; hidden by caves with Taino Indian carvings; blanketed in the real countryside not tainted by Starbucks. In the real Puerto Rico, I felt at-home.
Folks stateside never want to see poverty if its in their own backyard. We’re conditioned to feel it never exists though we walk past it on a daily basis. Poverty isn’t a US situation. It’s a THEM problem–this is how we’re conditioned to think. When traveling abroad, many American citizens point out the struggles of the locals, but claim to have never experienced it stateside. We are blinded. Again, I know poverty. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in many US States. When people travel to NYC, to Times Square–they will experience poverty just like I saw it in West Virginia. Poverty comes in many forms, many race, classes and genders, but we tend to shun it if it’s in our own home. We tend to pretend everything is okay simply as a defense mechanism. If you pretend things are okay and we aren’t living in poverty, no one will judge you, we tend to think; and, why complain about your struggle when no one wants to hear it, we think.
So when natural disasters happen like hurricanes, the last thing someone wants to hear is that it’s a problem that the locals could have avoided it. The last thing someone enduring these circumstances wants to do is truly complain–because their situation isn’t unique. Their neighbors are enduring the same thing.
One of the things I could have done, growing up, in West Virginia in my high school during lunch was, perhaps, purchase someone lunch who needed it. I was blinded. As a child, I wasn’t thinking ‘poverty’ was the issue, though it was. As an adult I can see it from afar. I needed to correct this. I needed to help those who needed help, but too modest to really ask for assistance. Sometimes, it’s hard to determine when someone is struggling except for a look in their eyes when they tell you, “I’m okay”.