“Maria’s thunder skirts flew high when she danced”
—from “Siblings” in Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith
“No hemos contado aún a los muertos,
no sabemos nada de lo que hemos perdido.”
—de “Las manos sucias: III” en Huracanada de Mayra Santos Febres
“We have yet to count the dead,
we know nothing of what we have lost.”
—my translation of excerpt from “Las manos sucias: III” en Huracanada by Mayra Santos Febres
Last fall, our son turned one.
Days later Hurricane María ripped through Puerto Rico.
I could not reach my parents for six long days.
“They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
—from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
My parents separated when I was twelve years old, and divorced when I was in college.
By some telenovela magic they reconciled two decades later, the summer before Hurricane María roared through their hometown, Salinas, Puerto Rico.
My one comfort during that week of silence was that they were together: through worrying about reaching my brother in New York and me in California; through negotiating with siblings and caring for their elderly parents with whom they each lived; through negotiating this post-Hurricane María world.
Through all of that they at least, I thought to myself, had each other.
After videos of flooding near my parents’ town sprang up on Facebook, I fished out my old copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the one I’d had since junior year of high school. After some searching, I found what I was looking for:
“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
I found strange comfort in those words that, to my mind, so perfectly captured what must have been my parents’ harrowing night in the storm. What I hadn’t counted on was the passage that preceded those words. I had somehow forgotten that in the midst of that storm a love story blooms:
“‘…People don’t die till dey time come nohow, don’t keer where you at. Ah’m wid mah husband in uh storm, dat’s all.’
‘Thanky, Ma’am. But ’supposing you wuz to die, now. You wouldn’t git mad at me for draggin’ yuh heah?’
’Naw. We been tuhgether round two years. If you kin see da light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.”
And that was that. I was undone. My parents, two decades spent living apart, were now reconciled, living their newest daybreak together after the worst storm of their lives.
“Lawd, some folks prayin’ for rain while they wait, / forgetting what rain can do”
—from “Ethel’s Sestina” in Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith
One September morning in 2013, my phone woke me just before dawn. My mother’s shaky voice announced that her Papi was gone.
Guelo Rafa died a day before my flight to Puerto Rico to say my goodbyes.
After hanging up, I went to my bookshelves, pulled out Blood Dazzler and turned to “Ethel’s Sestina:”
“Ain’t but one power make me leave my son. / I can’t wait, Herbert. Lawd knows I can’t wait. / Don’t cry, boy, I ain’t in that chair no more.”
I curled up in bed and I cried.
“Dormir en los balcones, buscar gasolina, calor,
calor interminable, hacer fila para el pan,
despertarse de la pesadilla recurrente de los
vientos azotando las persianas”
—de “Las manos sucias: V” en Huracanada de Mayra Santos Febres
“Sleeping on balconies, getting gas, heat,
interminable heat, standing in line for bread,
waking from the recurring nightmare of the
wind whipping the shutters”
—my translation of excerpt from “Las manos sucias: V” en Huracanada by Mayra Santos Febres
On the sixth morning after the storm, my cousin called to report that her mother made contact.
She told me that on my aunt’s way back home from standing in line at the bank, she saw a group of people gathered on the side of the road with their cell phones out. She joined them, tried her luck at making a call, and briefly reached my cousin’s eldest sister.
“Mami will tell your mother,” my cousin said, “so watch your phone. Titi will probably call you soon.”
I finally felt hopeful.
A while later, the phone rang, and—I kid you not—the word “Russia” flashed on the screen.
I picked up.
My badass, take-no-shit, raised us as a single-mother in New York City Mami was reduced to tears:
“¡¡Li Yun!! ¡¡Estamos Vivos!! We Are Alive!!”
She shouted as if I didn’t already know she was alive.
Because of course she didn’t know that I already knew.
For her, for them, without internet, television, with only limited access to the radio, the silence had been all the more deafening.
She did not know I knew she was alive.
She also did not know how much I knew about everything unfolding island-wide.
They didn’t know about the access I’d had to stories, ones that at first trickled out and then poured out across social media from phones on parts of the island that regained cell coverage relatively early on. They were clueless to the fact that even the national media was covering the island.
They had no idea that already the recovery efforts were going terribly.
They did not realize how much I was reminded of that fall of 2005 when Katrina hit New Orleans.
They could only begin to imagine how badly this would all turn out for our island colony.
At the same time, she of course knew so much more than I would ever know: The wail of the winds banging on the metal shutters of her darkened bedroom—a crazed murderer intent on banging his way in. Those were the words my mother used to describe her night with Hurricane María.
To this day I don’t really know how she managed alone with my bedridden grandmother, also María.
Still, the tremble in Mami’s voice as she spoke with me for the first time in six days gave her away.
My mother, who I had seen cry from despair only three times in my life (when my father moved out, when her uncle died and she could not attend his funeral in PR, and when her own father died), was undeniably shook.
My father got on the phone, calm and jovial as ever.
“Tu Mama esta—va a estar—bien,” he assured me. Your mother is—will be—fine.
And then, in the way he is known to do when things are hard, he changed the subject:
“Y esos Dodgers?”
How about those Dodgers?
“Aguas Buenas / Salinas / Río Grande / Sábana Grande”
—from “Almost Like Praying” by Lin-Manuel Miranda
I feared my almost 90-year-old bedridden Guela María wouldn’t survive Hurricane María.
Say it loud and there’s music playing / say it soft and it’s almost like praying…
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s remix on repeat. All. Day. Every. Day.
“…I heard somebody ask you once
what Puerto Rico needed to be free. And you said: Tres pulgadas
de sangre en la calle: Three inches of blood in the street. Now, three
inches of mud flow through the streets of Utuado…”
—from “Letter to My Father” by Martín Espada
I once wrote, “The thing about flooding is the mud.”
I’ve only seen the aftermath of one flood. 1992 in Salinas, PR.
It was Three Kings Day Eve, and my family had gathered at an uncle and aunt’s house to eat her famous holiday sopon, drink coquito, and sing aguinaldos—the ubiquitous carols that Puerto Ricans sing late into January, when we begrudgingly let Christmas season come to an end.
It had rained throughout the day, but there were no concerns about flooding.
I was in middle school, and primarily focused on hanging out with my gaggle of cousins. I was barely aware of my elders’ conversations, but at one point in the night the energy shifted. Adults—including my parents—disappeared, pulled away by some mounting crisis on the other side of town, where two aunts and my grandparents lived, and where my parents and I were staying during that visit.
It was the age of VHS recorders, and my parents had brought theirs down from New York. Heavy as a boom box hiked securely on one shoulder, they carried it everywhere and recorder practically everything during that trip:
My brother, barely eight-years-old dancing an exaggerated salsa for the camera on New Year’s Eve.
The pig farmer gutting and preparing the lechón for the holiday pig roast.
On Vispera de Reyes, the eve of the Epiphany, they recorded the flood.
The flood waters, chest high, raging through our family’s neighborhood.
My family and neighbors searching for ways around the river back to our grandparents’ house, where my elderly great-uncle remained.
What they failed to capture was the actual rescue of that confused but otherwise unscathed great-uncle because they could not safely cross the flood waters with the video recorder in hand.
Later, word came that though it hadn’t rained much in Salinas throughout the day, it had poured up the mountain. Old decrepit bridges and debris blocked the natural flow of the water, making the river rage into the neighborhoods that stood between the riverbeds and the ocean.
“El rio siempre busca los suyo,” my dad once told me. “The river always looks for its own.”
By the time my parents picked my brother and me up from my aunt’s house the next morning, the flash flooding had passed and the water had receded. All that was left was the mud.
The mud that ruined shoes, furniture, appliances, and suitcases full of clothes left on the floor.
The mud that covered every inch of my grandmothers’ usually spotless floors.
The mud that was the basis of insurance and FEMA claims.
The mud that made family members lift their shoulders in defeat. “At least,” they sighed, “no one was hurt.”
“Todo todo todo esta destruido” my mother chirped into the massive video camera. “Everything everything everything is ruined.” She was committed to recording everything, to showing the extent of the destruction.
Despite the stress of that ordeal, there was levity in her tone. An attempt to find humor in the dark stickiness of the mud.
We were all in the trenches of cleaning up those next few days before heading back to New York. Even though so much was damaged or completely ruined, that night and those days that followed also gave our family a story, a collective memory that tied us together across time and space.
“Todo todo todo esta destruido” is a refrain my cousins will occasionally unearth to tease my mother.
“Todo todo todo,” someone will say, and we all laugh.
The thing about flooding is the mud. And also the memory.
“Clavo mi remo en el agua / llevo tu remo en el mío / creo que he visto una luz / al otro lado del río”
—de “Al otro lado del río” de Jorge Drexler
“I dip my oar in the water / I take your oar in mine / I think I have seen a light / on the other side of the river”
—my translation of “Al otro lado del río” by Jorge Drexler
The river runs by the cemetery in Salinas.
When my dad, Papa Connie, uncle, aunts, and cousins walked alongside Mama Merida’s coffin on our way to her final resting place, we walked on a bridge over the river.
After my grandmother’s funeral, my Tío shared with me Jorge Drexler’s “Al otro lado del río.”
The lyrics, a perfect metaphor for death, “creo que he visto una luz / al otro lado del río,” will always remind me of Mama Merida and of Salinas’ cemetery.
Years later, I thought of this song again as the procession following my Guelo Rafa’s casket drove over that same river.
Hurricane María hit a few days before the four-year anniversary of my grandfather’s passing.
Because of María, the river ran through town and through the cemetery.
On the day of that anniversary, I had not yet spoken to my mother.
But I knew that for the first time since he passed, my mother would not be able to mark the date by visiting her father’s grave to pay her respects.
“Day 89: An Early Christmas Gift: The Last of my relatives in Salinas regains power.”
—from “Momentos de María” by Li Yun Alvarado
Six months after hurricane María, I still hadn’t written a single poem about any of it.
I had given money.
I had encouraged others to do so and had shared links to organizations.
I had shared regular updates and articles, keeping Puerto Rico front of mind among my friends.
On Facebook, I started posting the number of days people on the island had gone without power. When I began doing this I did not know when I would stop.
My relatives regained power on days 47, 50, 89, and—on another part of the island—day 212.
I have not stopped posting the number of days without power because there are still people in Puerto Rico without power.
In the new year, fellow Boricua-poet-in-Los-Angeles Luivette Resto reaches out and invites me to read. “Honoring the Nuyorican” is the title of the event. “I’m in,” I say.
It is March. Six months have passed, and finally, finally, I comb through my Facebook posts, e-mails to friends, text messages to family, and I write.
I craft a list poem called “Momentos de María.”
Momentos: moments and mementos.
The things I’ve collected. The ephemeral things we collect after a storm.
Birthdays, holidays, photos, songs, news stories, questions, prayers, hopes, disappointments.
Six months of watching from afar, of making sense of an experience that was unequivocally NOT my own, but also undeniably a part of my bones.
I write and read “Momentos de Maria” and draw friends and strangers into my family’s small slice of this national trauma.
It is not enough. But it does not feel like nothing.
LI YUN ALVARADO is the author of the chapbooks Words or Water and Nuyorico, CA. A Native New Yorker, she lives in California and travels to Salinas, Puerto Rico to visit la familia as often as she can. She created Hurricane María: Readings and Resources, a free resource available on her website. To learn more about Li Yun and her ongoing efforts on behalf of Puerto Rico, visit: liyunalvarado.com and follow her on Facebook: facebok.com/liyunalvaradophd