“So I landed at 17.00…. the taxi driver I got had been waiting since 8.30am for a customer. He only asked for $30 so I gave him $60… Hard to get a signal here. They just closed a nearby hospital due to the stench of all the dead people. My parents are rationing the diesel, turns on at 7pm and off 7am… neighbors wait for that so we can give them electricity to cook. Now my cancer ridden uncle is stuck on a 10th floor. I might have to go there, carry him down, bring him here. All I can say is holy shit.”
Francis McCloskey, October 5 via Whatsapp
Francis McCloskey rides a bicycle everywhere. On the sticky morning of June 5th, 2014, sick of commuting from Queensway into the city squeezed between the sweaty, heaving armpits of the Central line, he hopped off at Bethnal Green and bought a bike at the first shop he found.
At weekends, Francis normally rides 100 miles or so out of London, stopping for a pint somewhere on the way back. His top tip to stop the English rain obscuring your glasses? Wear a peaked hat everywhere you go. “It fits in with the east London aesthetic, too,” he says slyly.
Now a Hackney resident, the 26-year-old architect meets me the Sunday before he flies home for Christmas. Francis looks more Irish than Hispanic. With his blue eyes and pale complexion, you could be forgiven for not knowing he is Puerto Rican.
We walk through Ridley Road Market, perusing open market stalls teeming with an array of hooves, fish and melon-sized avocados. Francis is hungover after a house party hosted by some Syrian friends escalated; he recalls playing bongo drums with some elderly Caribbean men at 3am.
He has not bought any Christmas presents yet, so I am accompany him to find gifts for his family back home in Río Piedras, a village in the metropolitan area of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan.
Francis usually goes home once or twice a year. The festive season in Puerto Rico is very much dragged out.
“It’s like a one-month long ordeal,” he laughs. Spanish and American cultures mix as celebrations start in the middle of the month, as people go from house to house playing parrandas, the island’s native music. People hold two Christmases: one on December 25 and then on January 6, when the three kings magically deliver presents to children who leave food out for their camels.
Pork is the dish of choice. It’s washed down with copious amounts of coquito, a Puerto Rican spiced rum drink — like eggnog, without the egg plus coconut and added ginger. The San Sebastian street festival in San Juan marks the end of the festive season in mid-January, when everything goes back to normal.
Not this year.
The annual ritual of cleaning the house from the inside-out, to start the year as you mean to go on, is now a daily necessity for millions on the island. Exactly 100 days ago, on the morning of September 20, Hurricane María hurtled through Puerto Rico. Houses were gutted by 155mph winds which floored trees and stripped the island of leaves, electricity and all phone service. It topped off a season where four powerful storms decimated the 100-mile long island and killed, officially, 64 people. The reality is probably much higher; an investigation in November found 499 hurricane-related deaths reported by funeral homes that weren’t tallied in the authorities’ count. The total could be as high as 1,052.
Francis made the 4,230-mile journey from London to Puerto Rico two weeks after María hit. His sister had not made contact in the days after the hurricane. He didn’t know if she was alive.
“Immediately after the hurricanes, you start receiving this constant stream of harrowing images, from which you slowly start to discern the places you’ve always known and loved,” says Francis.
“You can’t imagine this fucked up alternative future.
“Because it’s so far, it was impossible for people out there to relate what was actually going on in their minds. Everybody just pretends to go about their business, but I freaked out and had a nervous meltdown.”
After taking two days off work to gather himself, he returned to find colleagues at his London architect firm had pooled together up to £200 each to fund a plane fare. Delta permitted three suitcases, which he packed with 2,400 tampons and baby wipes and as many water purification tablets as he could find in London’s outdoor stores. He didn’t tell his family he was coming home until he had landed for a layover at New York’s Newark airport.
“Communication is really spotty — you just hear crackled phone calls the entire time, it’s horrible. I wasn’t going to worry them that I was going straight into the thick of it.”
Once in San Juan, Francis spent days going up to the mountains in his cousin’s Jeep, taking 1300 litres of bottled water up to the villages of Braulio Dueño in Bayamón, Villa Esperanza in Toa Alta, and Villas del Sol in Toa Baja.
“People flocked to the car like flies,” he said.
While doing his water runs, Francis befriended an elderly woman named Maria Luisa in Naranjito, a village in the central mountainous area. Her eyes were yellow. Rat urine seeping into the plumbing supply had caused an outbreak of leptospirosis, a bacterial infection, as villagers used reeds and gutters that had broken off their houses to collect water from a creek. Francis recorded a video to share with her daughter in New York, to let her know that she was alive and ‘fine’.
They all say they’re ‘fine’.
As Francis went to say his goodbyes to Maria Luisa before flying back to London, she told him she wasn’t feeling well. “It was devastating,” he says. “I have no idea how she is now.”
“It’s a relief to be able to put your feet on the ground and drive up to wherever you need to go to make sure whoever is alive.
“At the same time, I’m not sure what’s worse. It confirms how bad everything is. The anxiety has not gone away at all.”
More than 100,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island for Florida. In the decade before the hurricanes, 400,000 are estimated to have left. The 2016 population was estimated at 3.4 million. By 2019, it is predicted that nearly half a million more people will leave.
“What used to be categorically a brain drain before the hurricane is also now a mass exodus of those who can,” says Francis. “The sense of guilt? That’s a shared one. I think that’s a common thing.”
He left the island when he was 18 to study architecture in upstate New York, during which he did stints working in Spain, Slovenia and Kazakhstan as well as a six-month exchange in London. After completing a Masters at London’s Architectural Association, an Old Street firm sponsored him last year. Attaining long-term sponsorship is a challenging, stressful process. Companies must prove they’ve searched the UK without finding the ideal candidate for the job; only then can they apply to sponsor someone on a Tier 2 visa.
“London was the first city I felt like I wanted to get to know more.
“It’s more about big city life here. You don’t really ask people what high school you went to. A signature thing about Latin America is that it’s very socially stratified. Here, it’s about being at the forefront of contemporary design, being in the city together and having a lot of fun.”
As we walk through Stoke Newington, he points out a tiny Mexican restaurant, La Casa del Burrito. He suggests a margarita.
‘Despacito’ plays as we wait. Luis Fonsi’s track had 954,000,000 Spotify streams at last count and was on every dancefloor across the world this summer. A fusion of hip-hop, Caribbean and Latin American influences, reggaeton, which originated in Puerto Rico in the 1990s, is the musical genre of the moment. Fonsi sings, “This is how we do it down in Puerto Rico”. It turns out the singer is the cousin of Francis’s best friend back home.
When we pay, Francis chats with the restaurant owner in Spanish. It turns out she was visiting her sister in Florida when Hurricane Irma, María’s predecessor, hit on September 10. In typically South American fashion, she says everything was fine, except that her sister’s avocado tree fell. “You don’t fuck with a Hispanic’s avocado tree,” warns Francis. I understand now his yearning for the enormous avocados at the market before. There are very few left in Puerto Rico.
After our margaritas, we cross a Santa-clad charity collector who’s singing along to Christmas songs blasting outside a Tesco. “Let’s dance,” says Francis. He takes her hand and spins her round on the pavement. The Puerto Rican in him shines through as he salsas along the rainy pavement.
It’s his birthday tomorrow. Much has changed in a year, but as he turns 27, everything and nothing is different. He will go to El Batey, the same San Juan bar he goes to every year, and turn his phone off.
“My friends will know where to find me.”
“Driving around is quite the safari. Giant fallen trees still everywhere. Electric cables hanging over the roads. Mud slides. A working traffic light is a rare sight, so in urban areas you have police officers occasionally guiding traffic. And they’re wearing jeans and t-shirts, I’m assuming because there isn’t a way to wash their uniforms. At night, it’s pitch black and you have to scramble home before midnight to avoid getting a nasty fine and jailtime in violation of the curfew. It’s Heart of Darkness stuff.”
Francis McCloskey, October 9 via Whatsapp
Gabriel Mulero, 33, is a litigation lawyer who lives in Richmond, south-west London. He isn’t going home to Manatí, a pueblo in the north of Puerto Rico, until February next year.
Gabriel grew up in a small gated community, with one street and 30 houses. “Everyone knew everyone, you knew all your neighbours. They’d have parties. You’d walk down the street, walk into the house, walk into the party and no one cared. It was completely acceptable,” says Gabriel.
“When the hurricane hit and there was no electricity, they all walked out of their houses and started hanging out with each other again. That had subsided when the young generation left.”
“In the past few years everyone’s been leaving Manatí because the kids are leaving. It’s the older people who have become grandparents who are still living there and know each other.”
After studying economics and international relations in America, Gabriel learnt French in Paris before returning home to study law. Then, he decided to leave again.
“I wanted to do international legal work, and didn’t see the opportunities in Puerto Rico as the ones I wanted to have.
“Had I stayed it would have been fine. I would have had a job, but the type of work just wasn’t something I wanted to do.
“It’s not unusual.
“It can be advantageous for one person to leave the island and look for opportunities, but it may not be advantageous for the Puerto Rican economy — it’s one less person buying goods and services.
“Well-prepared professionals with a certain level of education, who’d otherwise be able to part of the economy are leaving.
“The mass emigration of the past ten years is definitely detrimental, but you can’t judge the people who are doing it. They have mouths to feed and lives to live. Everyone has their own reasons.”
Gabriel is staying in London over the festive period to work. He’s spending New Year’s Eve in London with a group of friends which includes people from Europe, Hong Kong, Canada, England and fellow Puerto Ricans.
While Gabriel and his friends will end up in a bar or club, Año Viejo is very different on the island. Food is the focus, always eaten standing up: spit roast pork, rice with peas, pasteles (plantain dough), potato salad, tembleque (a coconut milk pudding) and, of course, lots of coquito. This year, the party, Gabriel is told, will happen at one of the few houses with electricity and water.
His paternal grandmother lives alone in San Juan. She is 88 and practically immobile. Her house still doesn’t have water or electricity. Gabriel’s father convinced her to go to Orlando and stay there with his uncle until next year.
“Whereas we all love our grandmother, because of her condition she needs someone to be there. She had to get on a flight to Orlando so my father could have something less to worry about, and deal with the rest of the family’s situation,” says Gabriel.
Alejandro Domínguez Clas, Gabriel’s brother, works for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. He goes out six days a week on 12-hour shifts to get the electrical power grid and stations back online, only for them to burn out again and again. On the phone he tells Gabriel of the immense workload and level of destruction.
“You feel it in their voices that they’re hopeful, but things don’t look their best at the moment,” says Gabriel. “But they are hopeful. I know they are.”
After the hurricane, Gabriel’s mother stayed in Manatí to look after the family. Gabriel couldn’t speak to her for three days.
“She thought, ‘Okay, yeah, I’m fine,’” says Gabriel. “She was physically fine. Luckily, we didn’t suffer too badly in terms of property. Things broke and fell down, but nothing catastrophic.”
Having created some level of normality for the grandparents, Gabriel’s parents now spend their time helping others on the island who still, 100 days on, don’t have basic utilities. His mother, a retired scientist, goes up to the mountains in Jeeps with friends. Many of them, including Gabriel’s father, are former engineers.
From this side of the Atlantic, Gabriel and a handful of Puerto Rican friends in the city are doing what they can to help. Several events throughout the winter — dinners, balls, club nights — successfully raised money for the aid, and on February 1 a Puerto Rican carnival will take place at the O2 Academy Islington to raise money for the relief effort.
“It’s not very common for Puerto Ricans to live in the UK, but these events are bringing us together because we all want to chip in, one way or another,” says Gabriel.
“The lack of media coverage doesn’t surprise me. There aren’t enough Latin Americans, let alone Puerto Ricans, in London for the issues that affect us to be at the forefront of the mainstream.
“We will come through, I am sure. That will be seen in 2018 when businesses continue to reopen, the infrastructure continues to be rebuilt and next year’s version of ‘Despacito’ makes everyone in the world remember who we are again.
“I’ve been leaving Puerto Rico since I was a kid. I didn’t leave because I was looking for a job, I left because I wanted to travel the world and do that whole thing. It sounds cheesy but it’s true.
“But, in order not to feel guilty I do need to justify it to myself within the context of what’s going on because I know I am one of those people who could go back there and do something productive.
“It’s a very tricky situation. It cuts deep into all of our psyches, I’m sure.”
“Everything is cash, so there are kilometric queues for cash points, petrol stations, supermarkets. Armed men protecting these places. You see long lines of cars along certain parts of the highway — an indication that there’s cell phone reception. For those lucky enough to have a generator, the next concern is getting diesel fuel. We’re turning ours on at night and off in the morning, keeping water bottles in the freezer so the food stays cold and sharing electricity with four immediate neighbours.”
Francis McCloskey, October 9 via Whatsapp
Maria Sobrino has only missed one Christmas since she arrived in London 12 years ago, and it was because her passport was being processed.
“Religiously, I need to go back,” says the interior stylist, 37, who lives in Belsize Park. “It’d be a big offence to my parents if I didn’t go.”
After studying fine art at the University of Puerto Rico, she took a design Masters at Goldsmith’s. America was an option, but Maria preferred the conceptual, research-driven side of British design. Once she’d graduated, she worked a series of menial jobs, including in Madame Tussauds’ photography department before landing a job at an interior design magazine in London.
“It’s the kind of work that’s really difficult to do anywhere other than a city. If I ever wanted to go back I would need to go back with a plan for my own business or something.”
San Juan does not offer the same opportunities as London. Now, more than ever, returning to Puerto Rico in a professional capacity is a difficult prospect.
“Everything’s gone back to basics. It’s all about bringing everything back to normality, and I don’t know where you could start with that.”
Maria flew out to Puerto Rico in mid October, four weeks after the eponymous hurricane hit. She spent $300 on batteries, torches and a portable radio for her 90-year-old grandmother, who, 100 days on, still doesn’t have power or water.
Her grandmother showers with bottles of water, if there are any. Most supermarkets only allow one per customer.
“My parents were telling me everything was fine but really, you don’t know,” she says.
“At least when you’re there you can see they are obviously not comfortable, but you know where they stand.
“They are okay. They’ll be fine.”
There was no Christmas tree for the Sobrinos this year.
“Who’s going to buy a tree when there’s no electricity to put lights on it?” Maria’s mother asked.
But, if there’s one thing Puerto Rican people can do, it’s improvise. Maria says they make the best of a bad situation.
For the first time, Maria’s parents met all their neighbours. With no electricity, phone, or internet, nobody stays in their houses because there is nothing to do. People gather in building lobbies for a chat, a drink, a game.
“That’s one of the things that has really not surprised me,” says Maria. “Everybody has really come together and seems quite optimistic — not optimistic. But this is the situation we have and we are just going to have to deal with it.”
“It’s easy for me to come from London, arrive on a plane and say, ‘Oh, this is so nice!’ says Maria. “People who were there don’t find it as amazing.”
Days on the island are centred around basic, mundane tasks. With barely any electricity, schedules are dictated by domestic tasks that are seldom thought about in the UK these days, such as hand-washing jeans and going to the store for tinned pork and beans.
“People say everything’s going to be alright. It might be true, it might not be true, but it’s better to think that way,” she says.
This attitude isn’t delusional; Puerto Rican culture is, by definition, laid-back.
However uncomfortable it is to be on the island, there is nowhere Maria would rather be for the Christmas period: “I know some of my friends are going to have to stay in London and they’re having a hard time with that.”
For New Year’s Eve, Maria would normally travel to one of the neighbouring islands, Culebra or Vieques, but this year, access may be diminished.
“If I spend it by the beach, I’m happy.”
As for 2018, Maria’s family hopes that everything goes back to normal.
“It wasn’t in the best shape already but at least there was hope for improvement. Now this feels very, very far away.”
Like Francis and Gabriel, she has high hopes for the island’s recovery.
“I hope people haven’t suffered from short-term memory and continue acting as a community.
“It really has brought out the best of us.”
“This is a massive humanitarian crisis. It’s frustrating. It’s sad. This is going to take a while. But you know what, we’re coming together. Those who can, organise into brigades to help others in any way possible. Having minimal access to the news means people talk to one another. People hang out on the terrace, they play music. They share. Kids play outside. And the leaves are coming back. We’re just being people. We can’t take anything for granted. Again, words will not suffice to express my gratitude. Thank you for this. See you soon. I’ll try to bring you some rum. Un abrazo, Francis.”