I did an interview with Sandy Sanchez on 12/6/17. Sandy and I work together at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, I’ve known her for fifteen years. I was curious to hear about her recent experiences in Puerto Rico.
DM: Were you born in Puerto Rico?
SS: No, I wasn’t. I’m one of five sisters and my youngest sister was born in Puerto Rico. My father wanted a boy and he told my mother, "Go away and let me know if it’s a boy. And if it’s not, don’t.” So she went away to Puerto Rico. She called him and he was very excited. She said, “Her name is Gisella,” and he hung up. We stayed in Puerto Rico for about year. They weren’t separated. My mom just needed some time to be with the youngest of us and my dad needed to recoup from having so many girls.
DM: He was in the US?
SS: Yes. My parents actually were both born in Puerto Rico but they met here in NY. They met in a factory on Bleecker Street. My mom was married at 19. They had five daughters.
DM: And no boys.
SS: No boys, unfortunately. My mother said, “He never took off his socks.” I don’t know what that meant. We lived, for the most part, in New York. But we traveled every year to Puerto Rico. They had such great affection for Puerto Rico and had so many family members there. Even though they met in New York they loved to go back to Puerto Rico and they brought so many of their family members here. My dad brought both his parents and his siblings, my mom brought her sisters and her mom and dad. They all migrated here.
We often traveled and we have property there still. So this hurricane really traumatized us as a family. We went there three weeks after the hurricane to assess the damages to the property and to our families. The hurricane was a category 5 at one point and then it was downgraded to a category 4, still that was catastrophic. 80% of the crops were destroyed. A lot of people sustain themselves off of what they grow. There’s no electricity, there’s no water, there’s no economy. The hotel industry is shot. The pharmaceutical companies, who actually left the States to go there for a bigger bang for their buck, they’re closing. The economy is really taking a hit.
With all of that, there is support. We have federal support, we have medical support. There’s a floating hospital. But I think it came a little late, and the infrastructure was very poor to begin with. So the governor is saying, “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” and of course he has to be the voice of calm and the voice of reason, but the reality is that this is not going to be fixed anytime soon.
When you look at the situation and you go to the communities, the people are suffering. We sponsored two families. One family has three young children, and we supported them, provided them with food and money. The other family was two elders. They lost everything in their home, they had six feet of water in their home. So we provided them with lanterns and batteries and food. They don’t have any electricity or running water, and this is a family where the husband is 90 years old. They have to go to the ice plant every two days to get two bags of ice at $7.50 a bag. They walk about a mile and half to the ice plant. The lines were incredibly long. And they have to walk with a cooler to bring the ice back, ice that would maybe only last until the next day. To cool a container of milk, maybe a bag of meat, if you can find it - - if you get meat you have to cook it that day and eat it that same day. And you could only cook it with propane or what we call leñas, from the palm tree. You break some palms and use them for cooking. These are the conditions that people are living in day in and day out. And no end in sight.
DM: It’s heartbreaking.
SS: It is heartbreaking. I left there and I was torn to pieces. We repaired what we had to repair, we made it look livable, we didn’t want to board up the house because there’s tremendous vandalism. We had windows put up, things that were broken we fixed. We still had no electricity, but we did have running water. My mother wanted to go there with a one-way ticket. We were there for ten days and I think about the fourth day, she said, and I never heard my mother say this before, she said, “I can’t live like this. We have to go back.” I was very sad to hear my mother say that. We are going back in a month or so, to assess the home again, and the property.
We lost all of our famed trees. Every tree was uprooted and uplifted and it’ll be years and years before we get anything back. That’s minimal for us. For people who lost their homes and everything else, I feel for them. I still have not heard from some family. I call them to this day and there’s a permanent recording that says, “Lo siento. El telefono que a mancado no esta disponible,” which means, “I’m so sorry the phone number you’ve dialed is not in service.” To this day I still have not heard from family and friends who are living up in the mountains.
I was speaking to a friend of mine recently and she was saying that she has to come back to New York because of her health. Last year she sold her condo in New Jersey and she went to Puerto Rico to live a better life. She sold her car, she sold her condo, and bought this beautiful condo in Cayey. It’s a beautiful place, and she thought she would live her life out there. She said that it is a horrific situation for her. She can’t sell her condo. She has no life. She lives in a twenty-story building, no way to get up and down, she’s an elderly woman, she’s sickly, and she wants to come home to New York. So she was saying that it’s an impossible situation right now for her. She’s struggling to survive.
I read a report just yesterday that as of October 3, there have been 215,000 people who have arrived in Florida, people displaced from the hurricane. And there’s an estimated 470,000 people who will leave Puerto Rico in two years. What do you think that’s gonna do to the economy? This is my personal thought: the economy there is going to fail. However, I would think, in about three to five years, it’s going to flourish. From the industrialists and outside interests, people will come in and buy at low costs. Tourism will be up and again.
There’s a prime property right along the western coast. It’s a very poor section of Puerto Rico, but it’s so beautiful, it’s all seafront property and they wanted to overtake it to make hotels. So the people of Puerto Rico fought and fought and fought. Now all of those homes are totally destroyed. I’m thinking that sooner or later, all of that property is going to be bought out. It’s Calle Piñones, it’s right next to San Juan. It’s prime property. It’s right by the sea. It’s where they’ve grown and cultivated it. But now it’s all gone.
DM: I’ve been impressed with the mayor of San Juan, every time I see her on the news. She seems like someone who tells the truth and feels the need to speak out.
SS: She’s most definitely someone who I admire. Especially when Geraldo Rivera went there. Talk about fake news. He went out there just days after the hurricane. He wanted to be first reporting from Puerto Rico, he wanted to get back into journalism.
I was speaking with my friend who is there in Cayey, she said, “Sandy, you don’t understand, people are so desperate here. People are committing suicide.” This is something that’s underreported. We can have statistics from the news media that say we’ve had maybe eighty deaths due to the hurricane. But the reality is that we don’t know exactly how many deaths there were in the mountains, we don’t know how many people are not accounted for. And the other thing is because people have lost so much, financially, economically, their jobs and their families, my friend told me one young lady threw herself from a bridge, another young man hanged himself. This was on the local news. There’s nothing left for them.
I was there for ten days, with my husband, my sister, and my mom. We were home by 7:30 at night. There’s nothing else to do. By 5:30 it’s pitch black, you can’t see your hand in front of you. The roads, there’s no traffic lights, you’re out to fend for yourself. The police are at every intersection until 5:00 at night because the traffic lights are out, so it’s very dangerous to travel.
They had a curfew til about 10:00 at night, but that’s no longer because people need to be out and about. It’s hot as hell out there. Since there’s a lot of standing water there’s a lot of mosquitoes, and no air conditioning, no fans, nothing. We were singing songs, playing shadow games with lanterns, our shadows up on the walls. We were reconnecting with family and talking, telling stories. No TV, no radio, nothing. People will be tired of this, night after night, month after month. Nothing to do, nothing at all.
This month, December, marks a very proud month for many Puerto Ricans. It’s a holiday season. For many Puerto Ricans, these are the high holy days. This is when Christ was born and they celebrate like no other time.
This is when Puerto Ricans make pasteles and coquito. They’re not able to do that. This is a cooking season - - the joy of it all. We call it parranda time, when we go from home to home visiting. It’s such a downer now, such a depression. You would go and see life and music and fun and activity. There’s very little of that now.
There are some organizations with toy drives, and there’s help from churches and the Red Cross. There are drives, my friends who have baseball teams, the Latina hat societies, so many organizations that I’m aware of that are doing so much to send supplies and toys, trying to uplift peoples’ spirits. There are so many good things, people doing positive things. We’re trying. And we’re hopeful. But it’s going to be a long time before we get to where we need to be. There’s a long road to recovery for Puerto Rico.
* * *
Sandy sent me this link for people who are interested in making a donation to Puerto Rico relief: