The strong, penetrating sound of a whistle created by the wind entering the windows of the shelter would never leave my head. It will forever stay in my ears. The streets became rivers. I have lived in Puerto Rico my whole life and I have lived through other strong hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico during my lifetime, but I had never seen anything like Maria.
Loíza, a coastal town in Puerto Rico, where 298 houses were totally destroyed, and it is estimated that Hurricane Maria, the strongest hurricane in the last 100 years to hit Puerto Rico, affected an estimated one thousand homes.
Houses were suddenly flooded with water because of heavy rains and the raging, overflowing rivers. Wooden houses were totally destroyed. Huge lines formed, taking six hours to buy 20 dollars of gasoline, frustrated attempts to get water, the lack of communication because the majority of the cellular antennas fell and the collapse of the whole electric power service in the country brought Puerto Rico the world’s attention.
The sun begins to beat down hard on the exposed skin, while some of the inhabitants of this town enter their roofless houses. The sheets from a baby’s crib flutter in between pieces of glass from a door that exploded, books everywhere, walls streaked with mud, people with watery eyes, but smiling. These are some of the descriptions of what life is now like in the town of Loíza. Founded by “cimarrones” (African slaves and descendants of escaped African slaves), it is one of the 78 municipalities of Puerto Rico; it is one of the poorest towns with the largest black population and a high crime rate.
As I walked through the flooded streets I felt something on the floor, then I realized that there were electric wires lying on the floor covered by rainwater that is now mixed with black sewage. The only vehicles that can pass through the streets are pick-ups and high buses, or you can walk with boots to avoid cutting yourself with debris from the hurricane.
The lack of oxygen for those who have respiratory problems, the lack of medicines and the lack of professional medical services is the current living situation of patients bedridden in Loíza’s shelters.
Between leafless trees and large deforestation, a group of children in Los Richard neighborhood stop me and ask me to photograph them. I tell them to keep playing, so they continue passing a ball to each other, full of energy and happiness without any apparent worries.
Some people stop in the middle of a river, the Rio Grande de Loíza, with the hope of getting a phone signal so that they can call their relatives to let them know they are alive.
After the hurricane, peace does not reign, problems begin to bloom and the discomfort increases. Not having any clothes to change, sleeping in a space that is not your home (if you’re lucky), and if the mosquitoes let you sleep, because there is no fan that can somewhat protect you from the them, then having to lay awake thinking that at any moment downpour could fall, as is the norm in the tropics, and soak your house roofless again.
This is how they now exist. When everyone knows that they are people who feel, drink, starve and smile, nonetheless.
Álvaro Aponte-Centeno has a variety of formal trainings as an artist, including music education at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico, film theory and communication courses at the University of Puerto Rico.
He has taken masters courses in cinema at Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV de San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, as well as having taken masters courses in Puerto Rican and Caribbean history and literature at the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. He began his career making television documentaries for the Puerto Rican public television channel, in which he served as editor, cinematographer and director.
He has received the Best National Director award and Best Short Film award 3 times at the Puerto Rico International Short Film Festival.
Recently he has begun to explore photography as a language, and has been privileged to have the Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey, as a mentor. Right now, he is developing different photographic projects in the style of documentary photography.