Some people have asked me how I feel being here for six weeks. Six weeks is more than triple the time I’ve spent in Puerto Rico at any vacation since I left in 1985. I have not spent the holidays here either, due to the high cost of travel at this time of the year. The answer is predictably complicated. The short version is that in many ways it feels as if I had never left. In other ways, it feels that I will never be able to return.
Imagine if you were able to return to a part of your past as an adult. This is how it feels to come back and revisit many of the things that gave you emotional comfort as a young person. For me, it was reconnecting with the language not just as an educated listener but as a participant, in a deep way that just isn’t possible when you are here for just two weeks. The human connections you make as a living, breathing part of the culture. The sights and sounds you remember as you walk down a street.
You also experience those aspects of living here that caused you distress, but you are now grown and better able to confront fears, insecurities, and some of the isms without crumbling. I listened to a former high school classmate introduce me as “one of the nerds from high school” with a smile on my face, because I embraced that aspect of myself decades ago. I can now call out sexism and racism because I know it when I see it as a member of the Puerto Rican diápora. As a woman, I am afraid of going out alone at night, but I know what risks not to take and where and how to draw the line.
While all this is good to know, I have to accept I am homesick for California not because of all the organic, high quality food I can find there. I used to lie to myself on the flights back, telling myself I have been spoiled by the first world allure of the golden state. But I have had to accept that California also feels like home, albeit in such an extremely opposite, bizarre way. California is my professional home. It is where I became a working artist, and it is where I have held every significant job I’ve had. California has even functioned as an intellectual benchmark of sorts, a place where I debated ideas in ways more open than in other parts of the US. When I visit other places, I always ask myself if I could hold those conversations with their residents.
Putting aside the issue of whether I feel like I belong when I visit, there are many practical obstacles to be faced once you stay longer than two weeks. The noise level here is excessive, I think. The issue of stray animals, emotionally unbearable. The lack of greens in most restaurant meals has me shopping every few days to supplement my diet. Everywhere I look I am reminded of the fact that I have lived “outside” a very long time. The high cost of life is
only one aspect. There is the access to critical services for older folks, part of what Maria Falcón calls “the fragility factor” for island residents.
My aunt, for example, leaves at the crack of dawn when she has an appointment with her doctor because they run so late she might have to miss lunch in order not to miss her slot. Her doctor has so many patients because she is one of the few generalists who has not moved her practice elsewhere. Doctors are moving their practices because they barely get paid for the work they do. Could I, someone accustomed to so many first world comforts, adapt to life in the colony of a decaying former super power? As a documentary about the hurricane’s aftermath points out, Puerto Rico is a “patchwork of temporary solutions for long-term problems.”