It has been six weeks since the hurricane, and 70 percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million American citizens are still without power. About 25 percent are without fresh drinking water—people are drinking from streams and other contaminated sources. They are burning their dead. This is, of course, unthinkable. And grotesque. It is also true.
But things on these lovely islands filled with great food, incredible music, wonderful people who’ve given so much to their country—served its military, been such a vital part of our collective culture—were already tragically absurd. A state of financial limbo, political paralysis, and powerlessness that defies both decency and belief. A Kafkaesque situation that was already bleeding them out.
We visited Puerto Rico with our cameras in April, five months before Maria. We, of course, found the beautiful place we expected: turquoise and gin clear seas, bright greens, colorful and delicious things to eat, a painful history—and a complicated and ambivalent relationship with the rest of a nation who once took them by force, and has held onto them since.
How American is Puerto Rico? How American do they want to be?
And how does the rest of America feel about Puerto Rico? How much responsibility are we willing to take for their aspirations, their well-being, their basic rights as humans, as citizens? The answer to that last question appears to be: not much.
I ask these questions again and again of Puerto Ricans who have stayed and fought and persisted. Who have tried to build up, or at least hold on, to the basic things and services, the very land in the place of their birth. Teachers; doctors; ordinary people who are proud of the work they do, in spite of the fact that their resources, their funding, even their pensions seem to be draining inexorably and hopelessly away.
And this was before the catastrophe.
I hope people watch this episode and get a sense of who we are talking about when we talk about Puerto Rico—and what they have lost.