The mountains where I was born.
I remember the day my family left this land where I’m sitting right now, in the western mountain of Puerto Rico. It was May, 1967. We drove out of the farm gates for the last time, and looking back to watch Chago Soto close the gate behind us, I thought of the angel driving Eve and Adam from Eden. I was thirteen, and leaving the land I am most connected to on earth, the place I most deeply love. For years I would dream, night after night, of walking up the path to our house, and I would think, “This time it’s real,” and then wake up, heartbroken, in Chicago. I made a life for myself in the United States, a good life. But not one day has gone by that some part of me wasn’t yearning toward these mountains. Because it felt irreparable, I became accustomed to the loss, and built a wall of resignation around my longing.
For the last two years I’ve been living in Tomales, California, a beautiful ranching community in West Marin County, an hour north of Berkeley and Oakland. In many ways it has reminded me of Puerto Rico—the clean air, the frogs at night, the circling vultures and hawks, the peace and quiet. But it’s also been lonely. The local culture isn’t very social, and the population is almost entirely white. I’ve been trying to find a balance by driving back and forth to the teeming East Bay, where there are friends, people of color everywhere, cultural and political networks and events, and some of the urban stimulation I crave in small doses.
Then, in January, I had a seizure without any warning aura. I woke up on the ground with a fractured rib and badly injured shoulder. I lost my driving privileges and became dependent on neighbors to get to the grocery store, a half hour away, while it now took a major effort to organize transportation into the city. In a local culture marked by fierce independence and self-sufficincy, it’s not so easy. So I’ve been struggling, feeling torn apart, really, by trying to figure how I can have both the clean environment and peace of the country, and the community I need to sustain me.
I’d argue with myself in the late-night hours. I love New Orleans, it feels Caribbean, I have friends, it’s not so far from Puerto Rico…but it’s so polluted, it’s surrounded by petrochemical factories that leak toxins into the water and could trigger major catastrophes at any time, plus it’s the city most likely to be hit by a hurricane and has a murder rate way higher than Oakland’s and you go even a little way into the country and it’s David Duke territory. I brainstormed a plan to create an intentional community full of old radical artists by buying a campground…but where? Plus it’s way too big a job for one elder with low energy. I didn’t even consider Puerto Rico. It’s impossible. I don’t really have people there anymore, I can’t drive, the health care system is bad…
At the same time, I knew I was long overdue for a visit, especially as I hadn’t been able to go since Hurricane Maria. It was excruciating to await news from so far away, to want desperately to be in my homeland, with my people, and know that until conditions settled down, I didn't have the physical capacity for the trip.
Hurricane-burnt landscape, south coast.
Because I can’t drive, and because I need more support than I used to for travel, and because I also needed support to face the damage that hurricanes and escalated colonial extraction have caused, I waited until the right person could go with me. That right person was my friend Susan Raffo, and the right time was now.
Our first day in Puerto Rico, we stayed at a wonderful eco-lodge in the national rain forest of El Yunque, and hiked down a precipitous trail, where I sat in the Cubuy River between rain-forested slopes, watching the clouds unfurl around the peaks where my ancestors believed the gods lived. And suddenly, everything became clear.
At the heart of my question about where to live has been another: how do I best set myself up to contribute all that I can during the critical next ten years of human history? And in “best set myself up” I include what makes my heart sing, because a singing heart will be more necessary than ever in the coming times. Sitting in the silken water of the Cubuy, I realized that the belief that Puerto Rico was not a possible choice was part of that wall of resignation, that I was no longer raising a child or caring for a parent, that I didn’t need anyone’s permission, and that I could finally come home. I have been dreaming for two months about this journey, dream after dream about coming here. Dreamt about the people and the land itself. Dreamt I attached a traditional Puerto Rican mask on the outside of my tiny house on wheels. Dreamt of my ancestors telling me to come home.
View of my family's farm from across the valley.
And all at once, I could also hear my land calling me home, my lifepath calling me here. Realized that THIS is the place from which to face climate havoc. Within minutes, it became a certainty inside of me, and ever since, I have been so happy I just burst into giggles and jump up and down.
So this is what happens next. I will make my way back to California via New Orleans and L.A. and begin the work of preparing to move back to my homeland, where I will place my tiny house on a north facing slope of my family’s land, at the top of a mountain. I will make some repairs and upgrades to my house, while our friend Elio prepares the site. I will figure out the safest way to ship my house and then get it into position. I’ll start the process of setting up high quality wifi, while Elio gets water and power in place. And while I prepare to shift my center of gravity, will continue to do the work I’ve been doing. I’ll go on building Rimonim, my new Jewish liturgy project, will send the manuscript of my new book Silt to the book designer, celebrate and promote the newly released new, and greatly expanded edition of Medicine Stories, and begin the next book, while I figure out the logistics and timing of my move. I’ll also be looking for someone to go with me to Puerto Rico as a support person in November, to do the next phase of preparation.
I am also beginning the work of bringing my deep hope and sense of possibility to the community where I was born, a community with a devastated economy, in the country with the fifth highest level of economic inequality, whose people are going as far as Hawaii for work, to earn enough to come back and live, until it runs out. At the same time, devastation is also opportunity. In the bare ground where coffee has been destroyed, we could be planting food to make us less vulnerable to hunger. We could be learning from other mountain communities that have found funding to create solar microgrids. We could join the agroecology network of sustainable food farming. We could be cultivating new kinds of resilience.
With Don Luis Ríos, age 100, whose daughter was my best friend in grade school.
So I am making connections, planting idea seeds, listening to the sorrow and discouragement of my people, reaching out to potential sources of support, and feeling such a deep sense of joy and satisfaction that I have, after half a century away, grown my own gifts and skills into a formidable set of resources I can now bring home. And the projects I plan to start in my tiny mountain community can also be a way in for young diaspora Puerto Ricans eager to connect with their roots and also take part in the archipelago’s recovery. (Puerto Rico includes the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra, and the island of Mona, which is mostly a biological research site, as well as several smaller islands.) Finally, I hope to create collaborative opportunities for non-Puerto Ricans who want to come and work with me in various ways, and to host small gatherings, workshops and retreats.
Since living in Tomales, I have gone on speaking tours in the spring and fall, and will continue to do so from Puerto Rico. I’ll return to the Bay Area for High Holy Days at Kehilla, at least one Tertulia Boricua, and time with my dear friends, and will also increase the amount of work I do via video conferencing, a form of virtual touring that saves wear and tear on my body and our planet.
I am not alone in this venture. At the same time that there’s been a massive brain drain of professionals, and a broader exodus of those exiled by devastation, and running counter to the influx of “bitcoin dudes” and wealthy USers seeking tax shelter, there has been a small stream of diaspora Puerto Ricans coming home to be part of a decolonial rebuilding, joining our people as we prepare for the havoc of our collapsing ecosystems. It’s being called “rematriation” and I’m part of it now.
View towards the south coast.