We are accustomed to hearing the phrase “The Greatest Generation” describe that group of people that were mostly in their 20s during the second World War. The honorific of “greatest” could be fodder for debate but the deference we show for people that lived through a concurrent Depression is apt. Those were truly tough times. We also tend to be tough on the so-called millennials because of what we perceive their abilities to survive might be in the face of similar circumstances but let’s be fair: they haven’t been tested with anything like what the Greatest Generation survived, as were their grandparents and, in some cases, great grandparents.
Juan and Pura Laureano certainly fit a description for people that know personal Hells. From poverty in the 1920s and ’30s to the loss of a daughter who most assuredly would have doted on her two younger brothers, especially the one who would have been 10 years her junior had she not succumbed to meningitis. It is fair to say that leaving their pueblito of San Lorenzo for a land where they would need to sharpen their language skills in order to speak English could have set them up for more tough times. Then again the Laureanos have always been survivors.
The two sisters, Irma and Maria, were not the first rodeos of nature my parents had to ride out. In the 1990s there was Hugo and, much earlier in the late 1920s), there was San Felipe. Felipe was an absolute disaster, not because of sheer force, but because there was no early warning system in place to allow the Boricuas to prepare. Consider also that the houses were mostly made of wood with zinc roofs. Maria may have been stronger but the effect was identical. Ironically, the Two Sisters have taken many Puerto Ricans back to a time where what they are living through temporarily was the norm back then.
Surviving a natural disaster is a group effort of various communities. Your good neighbors are the closest community which may include family if you have any around. The most important community absent blood relations has been that of their church, El Primer Iglesia Bautista de San Lorenzo. Each and every time I visit I am treated to witnessing the sincere affection and consideration given freely and without reservation by the people of that church. I will say, though, such actions are also the result of one of the best examples of good karma I have ever seen.
Since my parents returned to San Lorenzo they have shared with their neighbors the bounty of a property that produced much in the way of fruits and vegetables. We have a way of saying gracias which includes the phrase “Que Dios te pagara doble!” which is a request to God that He pay you back double for your kindness, whatever it may have been. Juan and Pura have been paid back many, many times for their kindness over the last 40 years during this crisis. It’s like being a successful musician. It’s not about the practic you did last week. It’s about the practice you have done since the beginning.
There is the gentleman who lives across the road from them who brings four large soda bottles filled with frozen tap water that serves as a supplement for the ice they buy at a local convenience store every other day. There’s the church member who takes my mother on errands to the drugstore while the paid morning worker stays with my father to attend to his needs, do some cooking, and light cleaning. There are the cousins who drop buy with bottled water or sweet treats to lend a bit of cheer to an otherwise drab, repetitive day. Then there are those who drop in for no other reason than to visit with two nonagenarians just to give the greatest gift they can: company; short break in the day with human contact. These moments of kindness are matched only by a small plate of Arroz con Dulce, which, if my mother made some, you’re welcome to have some with una tasita de cafe.
They are also fortunate to have the professional services of their morning caretaker, Lisette Sanchez, originally from Chicago and now transplanted back to Puerto Rico in search of the sanity that living in El Campo promises when the weather is clear.
There are various caballeros who provide the necessary labor to keep the property looking well-groomed with weed eaters, a couple of cans of paint… whatever it takes to maintain dignity.
They rebuild sheds that have fed the Two Sister’s appetites.
These are the little things that matter once physical needs have been met. One needs to talk, laugh… to look on to what is yours with a semblance of relative pride even in the toughest of times. Pride is a good thing when it manifests itself in actions that serve others. Otherwise, pride for its own sake is a fairly worthless emotion. A waste of the heart. No one in my parent’s circle does good in order to feel good about themselves. They do good because they don’t know any other way to be, frankly. They do good because it’s what being Puerto Rican means to them. To these people, the new abundance of lone-starred, five striped flags I saw on this trip are about the good they do because it’s the best way they know to serve God.
(photo from Reuters)
Yes, they are down from being battered and a bit war-weary… but never count Puerto Rico out.
Next time you have a chance to take a vacation somewhere warm. Come and visit. They’re ready for you.