1. First of all, most Puerto Ricans, in and out of the disaster zone, are doing so many things that we’re exhausted. From day one, people in the archipelago have been looking out for each other as best they could, pooling resources, clearing debris, cleaning flooded houses, repairing what they can, those who have a cell signal or a satellite phone passing on messages for those who don’t, organizing their neighborhoods, looking for the missing, and on and on and on. People in the diaspora have been forming networks, putting together shipments, demanding government action, focusing media attention, talking to each other about what to do next, looking for our missing, and on and on.
2. Complaining is doing something. Complaint is a form of analysis. It’s how we name the problem. What people complain about is a map of their reality. Are we complaining about small things or big ones? Do our complaints focus on root causes or surface effects, or both? What beliefs underlie them? Where do they lead us? Who are we holding responsible and why? Do our complaints conceal not yet fully formed proposals? Being able to express our miseries and be heard is also an important part of preparing for action.
3. Those who complain about other people complaining may imagine that talking about how bad things are gets in the way of recovery. This is only true if it leaves people feeling powerless. Often telling the truth about how bad things are, and having people listen, especially when official lies are saying the situation is far better than it is, is very empowering, and telling desperate people to “look on the bright side” can be a form of violence. If we aren’t allowed to talk about how bad things really are, how can we come up with meaningful solutions?
4. The work of staying alive and well in a long-term disaster zone is extremely time and energy consuming. Most people still don’t have electricity. Many roads are still blocked. Many phones don’t work. Many, many jobs have disappeared. Especially outside the capital, many lack water, and in some areas food supplies are unreliable. Imagine getting sick. Imagine trying to make an appointment without a phone or transportation. Imagine that somehow you are able to get to a hospital and wait all day with everyone else. Will the power be on and stay on? If not, no one can access your insurance information or medical records. That took all day. You’re still sick. Do you do it again tomorrow? This kind of struggle is both physically tiring and discouraging. It’s easy for those who aren’t living it to underestimate the toll it takes. As a person whose chronic illnesses include symptoms of severe fatigue, the logistics of daily life can easily overwhelm me. Disability creates different kinds of roadblock, but a similar experience: tasks that are ordinary for others become extremely challenging for me, and even when I’m working far harder than they, heathy able bodied people may think I’m lazy. Living in a long-term disaster zone in which daily life is so difficult is similar to disability. A whole group of people faces much bigger challenges to action and is blamed and mistreated for it.
5. Beyond the overwhelming job of basic survival, there is the fact that the structures of daily life have collapsed. This makes it hard to connect with other people who are working on the same problems you are. It’s impossible to coordinate beyond your immediate location, or even know what’s happening a few miles away. “Doing something” works best when people do it together. While moving fallen trees or putting a roof back on is a neighborhood task, many of the problems people are facing can’t be resolved at the super local level, but larger scale organizing is very hard under these conditions.
6. All of these things have a devastating impact on morale. The entire context of people’s lives has changed. Basic resources they took for granted are gone. A lot of people are gone. For those who thought the US government would take care of them, and those who thought the colonial government would act responsibly, there is also the shock of being treated as disposable, of being insulted, abandoned, of watching people around them die of neglect and mismanagement. Without a clear sense of the alternatives, or a belief that we have the power to change the larger reality of who makes the decisions about our lives and how, the collapse of that expectation will lead to feelings of betrayal and depression. Some people may feel that it must somehow be our fault. Consciously or not, they may take in and become demoralized by the racism and colonial contempt expressed by some government officials and members of the media. Keeping up one’s spirits in such a situation requires the belief that something else is possible.
It’s easy to mobilize in the first days of a disaster. It’s much harder to keep feeling motivated, keep having the energy to reach out to the people around you, keep believing we can have a significant impact, if we don’t have support systems—people with whom we can cry about our losses, express our despair without having it taken as the only truth, be angry, be hopeful, brainstorm possibilities. With communication down, people can't have these conversations on the phone with trusted friends, and those in Puerto Rico don't necessarily know how hard those of us outside are working to support them. It’s easy to feel alone, and forgotten. Instead of criticizing those people who can’t figure out what action to take or how to take it, our job is to become that support system for them, as best we can, as communications technology allows. Sometimes, like this letter, it's a one-way message thrown in a bottle, in the hope that it will wash up in the right place. That we are listening, want to know more, have questions, want details, that they’re not alone and we will figure this out together.
7. People in the diaspora have also been traumatized. Many of us had no news of our loved ones for weeks. Some still don’t. Hundreds of thousands of us mobilized to raise funds, and gather up supplies and food, only to discovered that a lot of our help wasn’t reaching our people. We have often felt helpless, overwhelmed, grief-stricken outraged as we are exposed to callous, racist responses to our people’s suffering. Many of us are struggling to figure out the most useful ways to put our skills to work. Many of us are receiving refugee relatives, and helping to settle them, while we continue to raise money, organize delivery of supplies, lobby elected officials, go to meetings, inform the public, try to get reliable information. Those of us in the diaspora also need emotional support, need ways to vent our frustration and express our heartbreak. One form that frustration and crisis fatigue can take is to blame the people most affected for still being devastated. Anyone having those feelings needs a way to vent them with people who won’t believe they represent the truth about our people, without exposing our relatives to that blame--and that includes keeping it off social media, where it only causes pain and discouragement.
8. To my beloved gente living among ruins, go ahead and complain! I am listening to you, I believe you, what you have to say matters to me. I will gather up your complaints and pass them on. I will put your stories into my poems, read them on the radio, tell them to my friends and neighbors, post them online. Together we'll complain our way to something better.