‘Two lives: one before Maria, and one after.’ Puerto Ricans in Arizona mark anniversary of tragedy




Yesenia Perez (center) sits with her daughter at an event held September 20 in Phoenix to mark the anniversary of Hurricane Maria. Perez survived the hurricane, and is remaking her life in Gilbert. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Two Phoenix events marked the first year anniversary of the catastrophic hurricane that destroyed Puerto Rico. Those who lived through Hurricane Maria and those who witnessed it from afar gathered Sept. 20 to tend to the wound that’s still open, for communities destroyed, the thousands of lives taken, the families separated and the livelihoods gone.

Claudio Medina Rivera, who moved to Chandler one month after Maria, said the anniversary brought mixed feelings.

“It’s a mix of sadness, nostalgia, and, on the other hand, joy. We are happy we are alive and found a place that has taken us in,” he said.

Medina Rivera now leads the Puerto Rican Center of Arizona, an organization founded in 2007 to promote Puerto Rican culture. However, since Hurricane Maria, it  has shifted gears to also connect recent arrivals to employment and housing services, he said.

The organization marked the anniversary of the hurricane at a church hall with testimonials from Puerto Ricans living in Arizona, prayers, a candle lighting ceremony and dance and drum presentations. 

Medina Rivera, who lived in San Juan, said Maria was “a dramatic, miserable experience.”

“Us, Puerto Ricans, have two lives: one before Maria and one after Maria,” Medina Rivera said.

Yesenia Perez agrees.

In Puerto Rico, she was a homeowner. Now, she rents a home in Gilbert. On the island, she was middle class. Here, the single mother is considered below the poverty line, she said.

Perez and her two daughters attended an outdoor vigil Thursday night organized by Mujeres del Sol and Moviemiento Borikua to mark the hurricane’s anniversary. In the middle of a grassy area at Steele Indian Park, an altar was put up to honor of 2,975 lives lost after Maria.

Marisa Sotomayor’s stepfather, Jose Julian Sosa, was among those killed. He died of heat stroke because of the lack of electricity, she said. Sotomayor moved to Phoenix from Bayamon in February.

At the vigil, both Sotomayor and Perez talked about the sound of Maria.

“It sounded like a woman screaming,” Perez said, adding that, at one point, she peered through the window to see if there was someone standing outside her Aibonito home in mountainous, southeastern Puerto Rico. But on the other side of the window, there were 155 mile-per-hour winds and rain ripping trees from the land and downing electricity lines.

“It’s a noise you never forget,” Sotomayor said.

The sound was a different one Thursday night in Phoenix. Sandra Antongiorgi’s heartfelt voice and the nostalgic tunes of Luis Carmona’s cuatro — a ten-string guitar that is the national instrument of Puerto Rico — captured the gathering.

They played “En Mi Viejo San Juan,” a song about migrating from Puerto Rico to a “strange nation.”

Adiós.

The audience chimed in on the chorus.

Adiós. Adiós.

Antongiorgi continued.

Borinquen querida. Beloved Borinquen, the island’s indigenous Taino name.

Sotomayor’s voice rose.

Tierra de mi amor. Land of my love.

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

1 COMMENT

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here