Finding ‘Place’ in Unexpected Places

Illustration in pink, green and blue, with silhouettes of people working together to build a house.

Illustration by Daria Kirpach

Helping residents in Puerto Rico Reminds Us What Home and Belonging Really Are.

Danny stood on the curb waiting for us every day in front of his hurricane-ravaged house in Puerto Rico as we arrived to help him rebuild. 

His residence outside of Carolina City was among thousands all but destroyed by Hurricane Maria in the fall of 2017, and Geneseo alumnus Dan Martin ’16 and I led a group of seven Geneseo students last May.  The week-long Livingston Cares disaster relief mission involved removing debris and doing home restoration in conjunction with the United Methodist Church of Puerto Rico. It was the second Livingston Cares relief trip to Puerto Rico. In January, Betsy Colón from the College’s Grants Management Office led a group to Patilla, where they focused on debris removal, roof sealing and trench digging, among other tasks.

For me, this trip had a personal aspect. My family is from Puerto Rico and many of them experienced Maria’s wrath. I had returned there for family gatherings, but this time, it was different. How could large parts of an island so beautiful and rich in history and culture — and a U.S. territory —  be virtually in ruins?

We all had seen the devastation through the news coverage, but seeing it first-hand was mind-blowing. Neighborhoods in shambles. Debris everywhere. Street signs gone. We used our instincts to find our way. 

We stayed at the church and its members prepared our meals for us. We were eager to work as we drove to Danny’s house every day. Danny spoke no English and our foreman, Louie, spoke very little. Our translator, Gregory, was amazing and some of our students were able to communicate thanks to their Spanish courses. The floods had inundated Danny’s house. We wanted to move quickly in the week; we had to bring as much normalcy back to him as possible. At our nightly debriefing, however, we wondered if we would even make a dent on rebuilding Danny’s house. But those concerns quickly diminished in unexpected ways.

Instead of an aura of hopelessness and dread among the people we were helping, we immediately observed a fortitude in Danny and Louie at our work site that counteracted the hurricane’s power. In addition, we began experiencing joy and warmth. Both Louie and Danny wanted our students to experience and learn about the people and culture of their island. They brought us traditional foods such as fresh pineapple, blood sausage and limber de leche, a frozen treat.  We met some of Danny’s family members and Louie talked about his family and the time they spent at the beach.

We were doing the work for Danny but he was giving us so much more in return. In the midst of mass destruction, we were experiencing a strong sense of place —  Danny’s place. His home.

It was a powerful message for our team. The news media covered the physical devastation but paid little attention to what was being done to alleviate the hopelessness, anguish and mental isolation Hurricane Maria brought, including a spike in the suicide rate, as reported by the Puerto Rico Department of Public Health. It was an unforeseen but inspiring realization for us that just being there with Danny and others was more important than the house restoration we were doing. 

At a church service our last day, we experienced a wonderful outpouring of gratitude. We departed with the knowledge that place is much more than brick and mortar, even when Mother Nature unleashes her destructive forces. We learned that being there meant more to them than anything. The sense of place among the people of Puerto Rico remains intact, and our team discovered that place in their hearts.

Fatima Rodriguez Johnson is the associate dean of students for multicultural programs and services at SUNY Geneseo. She is a proud Afro-Latina and is grateful the opportunity to serve the people she loves.

Author: geneseoscene

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