Samaris is one of our lovely interns at Atelier Doré. When we first met her and heard her story of not only surviving Hurricane Maria, but eventually making her way to New York, and thriving, we knew we wanted to put a spotlight on this woman whose demeanour is so kind and energetic. She puts a smile on our face every time she walks into the studio.
Twenty days had passed and I felt myself going a bit crazy.
Not because I’d been living in complete darkness with zero communication whatsoever and no water for the past several few weeks due to ghostly winds and perpetual rain…but, because I didn’t know if my beautiful island would see an end to this torture.
We were losing whatever little hope we had left. And I was devastated and heartbroken. I felt neglected by my government, and even more so by the US government. I felt forgotten and hurt. And so did the millions of “boricuas” who experienced this horror.
These were the thoughts running through my head during one of the most impactful moments of my life. To be completely real, no one was ever going to be 100% ready for the natural disaster that was coming our way. Hurricane Irma came in and did very little damage. So, we felt confident that Hurricane Maria would change route.
That wasn’t the case. And Puerto Rico, to this day–nearly eighteen months after said disaster–is still struggling.
I confess that I am the “look on the bright side” type of gal. And, I do have to admit that it wasn’t all negative, at least from my part. I re-read all of my favorite books from high school; almost all of them involved vampires because hey, that was the trend. I managed to download Ozark on my old iPad before we disappeared off the radar; binge watched it in a few hours because there was obviously no school or work for me to do. I would go outside my balcony almost every afternoon with my mom. We’d chat about life and how we were going to tackle tomorrow–making a plan for everything from food and laundry, to showering. We also had to strategically plan who was going to do the 12 hour queue to get gas for our cars and mini generator, and who was going to do the 4-6 hour line at the grocery store to get bottled water and canned goods. Again, trying to be positive about it all, I would have the most hilarious and endearing conversations with other people…because we were all going through the same thing. While waiting in line, the catharsis was welcome. We all needed the time to vent about our struggles, to say hello to our new normal.
It also helped that, during those times that I would sit on the balcony with my mom, we experienced some amazing sunsets with cotton candy skies and fluffy clouds. We would watch the neighborhood kids with their bikes, running around and playing games. in the five years that I had lived in that house, I’d never even seen these kids before. I got to see actual stars, glimmering and twinkling, like something out of the movies. Nights were chilly and in an odd sense, I felt cozy and at ease…until morning rolled around and my routine was exactly the same.
Then there was the not so bright side, not being able to talk to my dad every day on the phone was tough, my jobs were put on hold and I couldn’t go to school for about a month after the storm. I went back to my usual classes with no electricity or running water at my university. We took classes under tarps, in scalding heat, swatting mosquitoes left and right. I could only attend my classes until 5pm? because it wasn’t particularly safe to be out at night. Yes, we had a daily curfew due to the increase of criminal behavior. So, my night classes had to be taken on Saturdays, which didn’t make us particularly happy, to have to come take classes that we weren’t even in the right mindset to take.
You might be wondering: was I even in the mental state to start talking about retail management and global marketing? That’s a big NO. My professors would speak and speak, but all I could think was: I need to buy more water for tomorrow, I have 1/4 of gas in my car, I have to do an online test with no electricity or WiFi at home, I need to find internet somewhere, it’s so hot today, I NEED A DRINK NOW! ??
But, here comes my disclaimer: I was one of the lucky ones. I got my electricity and water back around 40 days after the hurricane. There were people that didn’t have either for a year after. Yes, I struggled and hustled my way to find food, water and gas, but I was able to acquire it. Not easily, but I had access and funds for it, despite losing my jobs.
I also had my hidden gem, my escape–the only movie theater that was operating on the entire island. A fine arts theatre. I kid you not, I would watch 3-4 movies a week, no matter what it was. I would attend the first showing because it was the cheapest. Doing this was my way of enclosing myself in a dark theater, bag full of popcorn, and just immerse myself in whatever plot was in front of me to forget my current one.
Things slowly started to get better, but I knew that I needed to act fast and think quickly about my future. I graduated with a Journalism bachelors in June of 2018 and months before my graduation, I made the decision to move out of my little island to really immerse myself in the writing world. I would have loved to stay home and make it work, but companies and startups were firing people, not hiring. I was working 3 jobs in retail just to make some kind of money, to have that safety net to figure out my next move.
With a heavy heart and with the help and support of family and friends, I moved to New York in November of 2018. I say with a heavy heart because I had lived my whole life in Puerto Rico. I didn’t know anything outside of my tropical life. My family, friends and routines were there–those were the things that kept me so content and filled me with all of the joy in the world. I vividly remember crying the entire flight to New York. The lady next to me seemed severely concerned, but I couldn’t help it. The concept of moving, in such a big sense, was so overwhelming to me and I was so scared. Especially since I was doing it practically alone.
My childhood, my education, my memories: it hurt to leave all of it behind. But, I soon realized that I wasn’t leaving it behind, those things would always be there. I just needed to keep them close to heart and make use out of them someway. It was time to grow up and find my way, and I knew at that moment, during those difficult times, that I couldn’t do it in Puerto Rico. I didn’t feel guilty for leaving the island while it was still rebuilding itself. I know that I contributed as much as I could, whether it was working for a local shop or even consuming local goods as much as I could. As I said, the only life I knew was in Puerto Rico, and I was sure that there was a plethora of experiences and growth just waiting for me out there. This was the push I needed to really go for it.
It’s been four months since I moved to the city. Its craziness and hustling lifestyle, and even the hurricane experience I lived through, helped me to realize that nothing is going to come my way on a gold platter. I have to work and work hard, harder than ever. I now realize that I was comfortable with my life in Puerto Rico. I had my routines and everything was always relaxed and stress-free. It wasn’t a bad thing, but I knew I needed to get out of my comfort zone and New York was exactly the place.
I confess that I still am very scared. There is a constant mix of emotions going through my head, but I’m pretty sure it’s all part of the journey.
Since moving here, I have encountered the classic questions: “Wait…you’re from Puerto Rico? Were you there for the hurricane? Are you okay? How’s everything?” With all honesty, I don’t dread these questions. I think it’s important for people, especially those living in the United States, to know that we suffered gravely.
The news depicted one thing: that the government and FEMA were providing the help that was necessary but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Donald Trump said absolutely despicable things…that our disaster was costing the government to go over budget, that it was a lie that thousands of people had died, that Katrina was worse, so we should shut up and stop crying. Let’s not forget the infamous shot of him throwing a single roll of paper towels into a crowd of hundreds of Puerto Ricans in need of aid. They didn’t need that. No one deserves that, to be treated like a joke when human life is at stake every second of the day. Never had I felt so sick to my stomach. Never in my life had I wanted to scream of frustration. They made this disaster into a very political one, and frankly, we saw a lot of people’s true colors. Humanity was completely lost and forgotten.
A lot of terrible things happened and I don’t want us to forget that. Our government and the US government failed to help millions in need. But, I’m proud to say that we’ve grown from it, and we know that we can do whatever we set our minds to if we get together. It sounds so cheesy, but I saw it myself during those times. New businesses were opening, tourism was still up and running, and we would still do everything with the biggest smile on our faces. It took us awhile to find that inspiration, that drive, but we found it in each other, our neighbors, our work buddies, our friends, our family. And most importantly, that inspiration came from trusting in ourselves and our abilities to reach for what we knew we were worth and mark our territory.
If you do have the opportunity to visit Puerto Rico, I know you won’t regret a single second when you’re there. Go for the most breathtaking beaches, food that you’ll be talking about for months, coffee that’ll taste like liquid silk, and don’t even get me started on the nightlife. You’ll have the time of your life there, with all of its rugged edges and crevices. Yes, it still needs work and lots of it, but with the progress we’ve made up so far, I know there’s nothing holding “mi islita” back.