By Ivan Cardona
Almost everyone is familiar with the fight-or-flight response — your reaction to a stimulus perceived as an imminent threat to your survival. Less well-known is the fight-flight-freeze response, which overwhelms your coping capacities and leaves you paralyzed in fear. I experienced this trauma this weekend, as I was glued to the newsreels and social media posts monitoring Hurricane Fiona, and how this weather system unpredictably behaved as it wreaked havoc on my homeland of Puerto Rico, inundating the island with flooding rains that caused massive mudslides and washed away homes and bridges. I was in close contact with everyone at home, yet paralyzed and feeling helpless like many in New York watching the natural disaster unfold. As I saw more rainfall than ever in the history of the island, my stress increased, and I felt insurmountable anxiety.
It was frightening to watch the news coverage of Fiona, especially since with every report, you could distinguish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s blue polyurethane tarps covering some of the homes. They were left over from Hurricanes Irma and Maria only five years ago. The two storms were among the world’s worst natural disasters that have happened to an island.
Previously, Puerto Rico had been blessed with more than a century of near misses. Ever since Irma and Maria — two Category 5 hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico in September 2017 — the island, a U.S. territory for 124 years, has experienced an increased demand for mental health services. Fiona became a reminder that emotional scars are the hardest to heal.
Those of us who left the island after Irma and Maria did so under distress. It was not easy. I had my education and professional experience to fall back on. Others had family members on the mainland U.S. who could offer relief and/or shelter. The island’s population, once 5 million strong, decreased almost by half, marking one of the biggest exoduses in Puerto Rico’s history.
And where did people go? Like other refugees, you went where your family members and friends could offer comfort, support and understanding. This weekend, when the media interviewed Puerto Rican families in the states who were concerned over what was happening on the island, this common phrase was immediately uttered: “When I left the island five years ago…”
I once said that being Puerto Rican can be defined in many ways, given our unique and changing social-economic reality, our changing environment and our changing relationship with the U.S. In my opinion, however, our strongest defining trait is this: Give a Puerto Rican flag to a Puerto Rican, and you will see the flag raised in pride and solidarity. Also, our flag does not wave; it dances to the beat of Latin drums.
This weekend, Puerto Ricans and many Latinos in Hempstead, Brentwood and other parts of Long Island held one another up in mind and spirit, knowing all too well what this new weather/climate threat represented. Would we be the new generation of Puerto Ricans welcoming newcomers from the island? Would it be our turn to help them adjust and succeed in a place different from our shared homeland?
Once I was asked why I thought the Puerto Rican diaspora was so “different” and so “diverse.” In my opinion, we must remember that our exoduses have happened at different moments in Puerto Rican history. Also, we are a diverse mix — descendants of Spain, Africa, the Taino Indians and now the U.S. Puerto Rican communities in the U.S. are not analogous — we are people of different skin colors, ages, social classes, physical abilities, religious and ethical values, and political beliefs. What we do have in common is an overpowering, cohesive belief that being Puerto Rican makes us unique — and when you fall, you get back up, primed to do battle and hopefully triumph over hostility and despair, as we have so many times before.
Editor’s note: Ivan Cardona is a professor of public relations in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication.