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Two weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall, I made my first return trip to the island since Thanksgiving the year before. The descent into the San Juan international airport was marked by destruction: the lush, vibrant green blanket of my childhood was gone, replaced instead with a dull, devastating brown of naked trees (some standing, most toppled) and dishwater-gray piles of rubble where homes and businesses once stood. On my flight, the only half-full airplane traveling to the island I’ve ever been on, the passengers, a mix of aid workers and family members, crowded on either aisle and craned their necks to see it for themselves. I heard the gasps and saw the quiet sobbing of nearly everyone on board. I sobbed quietly, too.
I’d flown down to convince my 90-year-old grandmother, a Caguas native, to return back to the mainland U.S. to join the rest of our family until the electricity was restored and hospitals were up and running again; I was also there to distribute two suitcases’ worth of C and D batteries, bottles of Ensure, battery-powered lanterns, and solar-powered USB chargers. As I drove to my abuela’s house down a road I’d traveled probably hundreds of times in my life, I marveled at the ways that a landscape I had known my entire life had so instantly, irrevocably changed; through the bare, broken branches, I spotted a large lake just beyond that I had never known was there. At my grandmother’s house in Caguas, about 20 minutes south of San Juan, extension cords ran across the street from the powerful backup generator at a printing plant, which ran a few hours a day for neighbors in need, which was all of the neighbors. The fast-food place on the corner had its own generator, and quickly became a local hub and meeting point where people would begin lining up at 5:00 a.m., a full hour before it opened, hoping to charge their cell phones. Families lingered for hours in the air-conditioned dining room every day; trading rumors, waiting for their turn to recharge, to find out what would happen next. Everywhere, time felt suspended.
Five months later, the women of Puerto Rico are moving fast. In the days and weeks and months after Maria, they’ve waded into flooded neighborhoods to extricate the abandoned, and put together soup kitchens to feed the hungry. They’ve canvassed their communities in order to diagnose the most critical needs—street by street, mountain by mountain, house by house, family by family—and have returned when they said they would with supplies and support. They’ve created free legal aid societies to help families navigate the confusing and ill-designed processes required to file FEMA claims, and connected Puerto Ricans with aid groups far more active and impactful. They’ve raised money and rebuilt roads and devised innovative mass communication methods in light of limited or no electricity or internet access. And they’ve ventured far from their own neighborhoods and towns on foot and in pickup trucks to distribute solar-powered lights, generators, gas, clothes, shoes, tampons, batteries, medication, mattresses, water—and often most importantly, information—to a still-overwhelming number of people in desperate need. They’ve laughed and cried, listened, and hugged the people in their communities: the old, the sick, the disabled, the lonely, the rich, the poor. Many of them are the poor. The women of Puerto Rico have spoken up about subpar leadership and have challenged the inequalities, the broken systems, and have even called out an ignorant, out-of-touch president live on television (as well as firing back at him on Twitter). By empowering themselves—and each other—the women of Puerto Rico have empowered the entire island. Photographer Richard Mosse and I returned with?Vogue?to capture some of their stories.
“I am the great-granddaughter of a sugarcane plantation worker. My grandmother crawled her way out of poverty,” says Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, when we met in early March. We sat at a table not far from her current office, a small trailer on the grounds of the Parque Luis Mu?oz Marín, a beautiful, sprawling park she worked hard to reopen two years ago. “It isn’t my voice that’s important. It’s ensuring that my voice is the echo of a thousand voices. And that I use this platform to let the people lead the way.” Cruz became something like the face of the Puerto Rican disaster relief crisis post-Maria, when she made televised appearances pleading for aid from the mainland U.S. (and President Donald Trump, whom she called “the miscommunicator in chief,” among other terms) in T-shirts that read things like, “Nasty,” and “Help Us We’re Dying.” Though Trump visited areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma after four days, it took almost two weeks before he visited Puerto Rico; it took the White House a similar amount of time to waive the shipping restrictions that limited the access of goods and donations to the island. “The U.S. has continuously claimed that Puerto Rico is not a colony,” Cruz continues, “Well, the gig is up. That’s why I got really pissed off when the president said that we ‘wanted everything done for’ us. That shows not only poor leadership, but ignorance. He doesn’t know who we are.”
Now, like the rest of the women working to rebuild the island, she’s focused squarely on the future. Her goal is to find permanent solutions to recurring problems. After all, she reminds me, hurricane season is less than three months away. When presented with the tech industry’s sudden interest in Puerto Rico (and the so-called “Bitcoin bros” suddenly chomping at the bit to develop a presence on the island), Cruz says, “One of them was very snappy with me on Twitter yesterday, saying, ‘I’ll be buying areas in San Juan. Let’s not look for excuses, let’s make sure that we fix the problems.’ I answered, ‘Rest assured, we’re going to make sure you respect San Juan.’ ”
Hours after our interview, just before midnight, a text popped up from the mayor. “One last thing,” it ended. “I believe this series of interviews is called Women of America. Very respectfully, I want to make sure it is understood that I am first and foremost A PROUD PUERTO RICAN.”