As I sit on my couch, I glance at my mother who is intently watching the Spanish news. I see a vibrant 86-year-old woman who has been away from her home for the last three months. You see, my mother lives in Puerto Rico.
Mami moved to the United States with my father, my sister and me in 1954. She was 22 and had no high school diploma. Like many before her, she found a job in a factory, where she worked for many years. She became eligible for an anti-poverty program, which trained her to be a teacher’s assistant. There, she was introduced to the world of education, and a whole new world opened up for her.
When I was in high school, she earned her GED, began night courses at a local college, and eventually completed her bachelor’s degree in education. Her pursuit of her dreams inspired me to pursue mine. She is my hero, and always has been.
When she returned to Puerto Rico, she fully entered into life on the island. Five days a week, my mother starts her day attending the 7 a.m. Mass. She returns home for a quick breakfast before going to Campira, an exercise class for seniors. She finishes the morning visiting the sick or just sharing her delicious cooking with friends and neighbors. As you can see, Mami has a rich and full life.
That rich and full life came to an abrupt halt when Hurricane Maria unleashed its destructive force on Puerto Rico. Life as this energetic woman knew it ended on Sept. 20. Now my mother, along with millions of Puerto Ricans, faces an uncertain future. Mi isla del encanto — my island of enchantment — was decimated.
Every morning, millions of American citizens awaken to the challenge of no electricity. Every morning millions of American citizens awaken to a shortage of food, medical services and water. Every morning millions awaken to the trauma of unrecognizable surroundings. To this day, there are many who are not able to contact their loved ones to hear how they have survived the hurricane.
The lush tropical rain forest is gone. The basic daily comforts slowly become a distant memory. My heart breaks watching my mother desperately try to reach her friends to discover if she has a home to go back to. My soul aches as I think of what Puerto Ricans face every day and what awaits my mother when she returns.
I pray that the strength of my people will carry us through this crisis. We are a people who love life and live it with exuberance. We have a deep faith in God. Being hopeful and helping one another are in our DNA. We do not expect to be taken care of. Yet when everything is lost, we do look to our government to provide us the basics to help ourselves. We do not want paper towels thrown at us when there are people with no food or water. We need help to rebuild our island and lives.
There is not a meal that I sit down to eat that does not remind me of those who are hungry. I choke on the water I drink, knowing so many suffer from thirst. I look at the beautiful foliage around me and I ache for the loss of beautiful tropical flowers and majestic palm trees. Everywhere I turn, I am reminded of what others do not have.
So I implore my fellow Americans, do not forget Puerto Rico. Do not forget what they will face for weeks and months to come. Just like our sisters and brothers who have endured the destructive forces of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, earthquakes, and fires, Puerto Rico will need your prayers, help and support. Do not forget them.
As I glance at my mother, I find myself smiling despite my sadness. I smile because in the midst of this disaster, she continues to teach me about grace and dignity. She continues to teach me about laughter, hope and resiliency. She is only one, but there are millions who mirror her spirit. With their strength and your prayers, Puerto Rico will rise. Si, Puerto Rico se levanta!
Maria Baeza is a clinical social worker in private practice in Bangor. She lives in Newburgh.
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