Like millions of my fellow Americans, I have been watching the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Ian in Florida with a heavy heart. Just last week, it was Hurricane Fiona. Because that storm hit Puerto Rico, rather than the U.S. mainland, there are many, including me, who are worried that Puerto Rico will soon be forgotten as we respond to the devastation of Ian. Despite the fact that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, the island is often neglected in our shorthand for the United States.
I first went to Puerto Rico as a teenager to visit family friends, meaning that I encountered it as someone invited into a position of community rather than as a tourist. That kind of intimacy allows a person to witness an environment and its people more fully, I think, although one remains a novice for a long time. Feeling close to a place happens before knowing it deeply.
Still, I learned a lot through the generosity of the Borrás family of Guayama, a warm, animated, and intelligent group of people. It was easy to feel comfortable in the heart of this Afro Latinx family. They had golden-brown to deep-brown-red skin and curling to coily hair on a spectrum like that of my own family in Alabama. They taught me about the history of slavery on the island and took me to Loíza, the historic center of African culture in Puerto Rico; they taught me about the culture of the Indigenous people, the Taínos, and laughed while pointing out the distinctions between the academic Spanish I’d learned in school and the more florid, nuanced, and expressive Caribbean Spanish they spoke. I was instructed in foodways, music, dance, colorism, and, of course, the colonial condition.