Three weeks after catastrophic Category Five Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, investigative journalist Michael Deibert traveled to the island to survey the damage. He was planning on writing a series of articles on the recovery efforts — and the shocking lack thereof.
Deibert had grown up listening to his grandfather’s stories of the island, a Lutheran Minister who lived in Mayagüez for three years and ran tutoring programs for neighborhood children. He heard of the shaded coconut palms, the lime trees, and the apricot sunsets. In 2010, he visited for the first time as& the debt crisis began to spiral, and the class divide became even more pronounced. Like many before him, he was wowed by the variety of topography and how quickly you could go from Old San Juan to the middle of the lush mountains. But, this time in 2017, Deibert was greeted with the aftermath of nature’s wrath. Telephone poles sliced through homes and old school buses were left upside down by the wind “like a child’s toy.” It was a far cry from his grandfather’s idyllic memories.
Deibert recounts these experiences and decades of political and cultural dissent in his latest book, When the Sky Fell: Hurricane Maria and the United States in Puerto Rico, which made the New York Post's list of best books of the week, and will be the topic of conversation at Books & Books in Coral Gables Thursday, September 26. The book exposes the fraught relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States, tracing as far back as 1493 when Christopher Columbus set a precedent of colonialism and ending on the cusp of Governor Ricardo Rossello’s ousting which erupted this July and bled into August.
“You can see a lot of the buildup that led to people not being able to take it anymore with the release of the texts,” says Deibert of the political scandal that led to Governor Rossello's resignation. “If you’re 25 years old in Puerto Rico or younger, your entire life has been austerity, it has been a recession, and then the horror of Maria, and the aftermath. No wonder people were fed up.”
Protests erupted on the streets in July after sexist and homophobic text messages from the ex-governor surfaced, and after days of dissent, the embattled Governor Rossello resigned from the office his father, Pedro Rossello once held. But, the succession process was not any less beleaguered. Protestors marched to the governor’s residence, La Fortaleza, singing the national anthem.
“At one point there were three governors in a week,” says Deibert. “I think what happened this past summer was this intense collective catharsis. I think there is so much trauma that has been foisted on Puerto Rico over the past few years and people have to remember that before Maria, people were leaving en masse to move to the mainland. You’d drive around the island, and you’d have these towns that were being depopulated, full of shuttered stores and businesses. Whether or not [what happened this summer] can lead to the rearranging of the political order [on the mainland] I think is an open question — I think a lot of people hope that it does.”
Puerto Rico has been under the thumb of the United States since 1898 when it went from Spanish to US rule under the Treaty of Paris. Eventually, the Jones Act of 1917 granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. But, the political status of Puerto Ricans remains a contentious issue. It is a Commonwealth controlled by the United States, but its citizens do not have a vote in US elections, nor does their representative have a vote in the US Congress.
“No one ever asked the Puerto Ricans if they wanted to become US citizens," says Deibert. "The island was just treated as war booty by the Americans after the Spanish American War, and I think in order to understand a lot of the ongoing dysfunction of the island, one has to reach back to that point. You don’t have to be an apologist for the independence movement to be able to recognize that the fact that three-however million Puerto Ricans are ultimately ruled by a US president and a US Congress that they have absolutely no recourse to, that they can't elect or vote out of office, that is profoundly undemocratic.”
Back in San Juan in 2017, Nydia Melendez-Rivas, a photographer native to Maunabo, joined Deibert and they interviewed locals who were left devastated where the Hurricane made landfall. One Friday afternoon, they arrived in the town of Aibonito. People were still recovering, but much of the town’s urban core had been able to restore electricity. Neighbors from the surrounding towns gathered to drink, eat, and blow off steam after a day of grueling physical labor salvaging their homes and neighborhoods. Later, in a restaurant in a converted colonial building, Deibert watched a band play Marc Anthony’s “Preciosa.” The crowd sang along, recounting all the wonders of the island. Ending with a bittersweet, “Yo te quiero, Puerto Rico.”
“In that moment, you saw the never-say-die spirit of Puerto Rico,” says Deibert. “As we drove out of town the next morning, I saw a banner strung outside of a shuttered escuela de danza. ‘Y si el cielo cae, bailo bajo la tormenta’ it read. 'And if the sky falls, dance under the storm.'”
The vitality instilled in the banner’s message and the resilience of Aibonito's people inspired the book’s title. Deibert weaves incisive history with on-the-ground reportage to explain why the US territory was so badly ignored by the federal government during the aftermath of Maria.
“I think with most Americans you have to start at the level of telling them Puerto Ricans are citizens. You have to start that low and build from there, so I hope this will help educate people on why things are the way they are out here,” says Deibert, who is now the Bloomberg Caribbean correspondent stationed in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Deep in Old San Juan on the corner of Calle del Sol and Calle de la Cruz, there is an unassuming three-story bar where locals drink into the wee hours of the morning. But, in 1950, Nationalist Party President and leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement, Pedro Albizu Campos, called this place his home. This is where he spent years orchestrating the failed uprising that incited Nationalist revolt all across the island, all for an independent and autonomous Puerto Rico. Today, the Nationalist Party headquarters and Campos’ home’s history is forgotten in the lull of music and mundane conversation over stiff drinks — except for a makeshift plaque dedicated to Campos. Deibert now lives across the street.
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“I live across the street from the house [Campos] led [the uprising] in, what are the chances of that? It’s so strange,” says Deibert. “There’s a little plaque to him, but the building is not even a museum; it’s a bar. There’s a little plaque that says this is where Albizu Campos lived that looks like an individual put it up. It doesn’t look like an official mark. It's strange to me that it wouldn’t be a museum of the national patrimony. He played a pretty historical role whether you like him or not — he was a historical figure.”
As Deibert and Melendez-Rivas traversed the aftermath of Maria in Aibonito, they drove to a local gymnasium where a group of volunteers was working with the Puerto Rican National Guard to distribute food. Deibert writes that one guard was disappointed to learn he was not from FEMA.
“The thing I think that is really important: It wasn’t the storm that killed so many people here. It was the absolute lack of response on the part of the president, and it was the absolute lack of caring as people here were dying and dying and dying and he was sitting in his golf club in New Jersey and couldn’t care about it.”
When the Sky Fell: Hurricane Maria and the United States in Puerto Rico. 8 p.m. Thursday, September 26, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 305-442-4408; booksandbooks.com. Admission is free.