There is a word that Puerto Ricans use to describe themselves, says native Fabian Crespo Majias. It is ‘Boricua,’ a word derived from the Taino, the original inhabitants of the island.
“It means warrior of the highest,” he said. “It means that in our veins, we will never give up. If you hit me, I’ll get up. If you hit me harder, I will get up twice.”
These days as never before, he said, Puerto Rico is the land of the Boricua. Devastated by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, more than two months later most of the island remains without electricity, potable water is in scant supply, people are still living hand to mouth, many without houses or jobs.
Now a York resident, Crespo recently returned from his native homeland. And while he saw a lot of devastation, a lot of sadness and frustration, he also saw resolve.
“The people of Puerto Rico will rise. You see the Puerto Rican flag on houses, on the trucks that are bringing supplies,” he said. “One barber from my town lost his shop in the hurricane, and he set up his business under a bridge. That’s what I mean.”
Crespo, who is known as Tito, moved to York in 2016 after meeting a number of York residents including Betty Weaver, the former owner of a local restaurant, and Miles Franey and his family, who rented houses in the winter in his hometown of Aguada, on the northwestern coast of the island.
Now a manager at local bar and restaurant The Rough, Crespo lives with his wife Rosa Cortez and their two children Fabian and Fabiola in a cottage on the property. When he returned to Puerto Rico after the hurricane, he arranged to give out thousands of dollars of food vouchers through a local grocery store – all from money raised by the patrons and staff at The Rough.
“I can’t say enough about that,” he said. “I can’t believe how generous people have been. I wanted to bury my head in the sand, I was so embarrassed. But I realized now is my time to help.”
When he arrived in Puerto Rico in October, he said, “from the air, it looks like wintertime. No foliage. Everything was dry. It was kind of sad. In San Juan, all the electrical lines were on the ground. And you could feel it in the people’s faces, that sadness, that feeling of no hope.”
He said it took 70 years to get electricity to the most remote parts of Puerto Rico, particularly the poor, mountainous region. “And then you have 175 mile per hour winds and everything is going to be on the ground.”
As he traveled home and spent time helping out in the region, he said he began to notice a few things. For years, he said, money was power in Puerto Rico. ”‘If you have money, I will hook you up with electricity.’ That is the way it has been,” he said. But money was not helpful after the storm. You were no more likely to get food or water any quicker than your poorer neighbor, he said.
“I’ve seen this. It doesn’t matter how much money you have if you don’t have power like everyone else. If you want a bag of ice, you have to stand in line like everyone else,” he said. “So people get humble, and they start helping. If I’ve got a chainsaw and you don’t, I can help you and you can cook for me. That is what I saw. What do you need? I will do something for you.”
He said while his home town remains without electricity and did sustain significant damage, it can’t be compared to the damage in the center of the island and up in the mountains. He said he wanted to go to that region to help, but the bridge was gone. He saw reports on television, though, of people totally isolated, “and if you don’t have power and you need oxygen, you’re already dead. If the bridge is gone and the roads are blocked, where can you go?”
Still, it wasn’t hard to find suffering no matter where he was able to travel. His parents were fortunate enough to have a cement home that survived the hurricane and funds enough to buy the gas to power a generator. “But not everyone has money to pay gas. Many people lost their jobs. If you don’t have a job, what are you going to do? I met a lot of people who lost everything.”
He has been underwhelmed by the response of the United States government in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The government’s relationship with Puerto Rico has always been problematic, he said. But in the past 12 years, the country has been in a recession while the government amassed a debt of $70 billion and has filed for bankruptcy. As a result, people are leaving in droves, and it’s gotten to the point where the U.S. is saying ”‘Why do I have to take care of you?’ So we need to take care of ourselves,” Crespo said.
For instance, he said, a man in his hometown has an ice plant, so he sells ice to customers who queue up in long lines early in the morning. “He sells the ice, but he has a well and he gave away water for free.” His godfather, the community doctor, lost his office but set up a clinic in the local church and provided free medical care.
Crespo said that is the spirit of Boricua he saw.
“It’s going to take a lot of time to recover. But you get the feeling that the people, they’re like, ‘It’s another day.’ They’re just going day by day,” he said. “They worry about getting water, and a job. The disaster breaks my heart. But out of this many things will change, and for the better, I hope.”
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