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The Story of Puerto Rico, Its Adaptations & Culture: Gisela De Jesús

In the words of
Gisela De Jesús
Generational Resident of Puerto Rico

[EP News Note: Gisela De Jesús’ primary language is Spanish with English as a well-cultured second language. The following interview was conducted in written English directly with Gisela.]

This is a story of Puerto Rico as told by Puerto Rican native Gisela De Jesus. It is a personal account of the Puerto Rican culture, its ecological beauty and timeless interconnectedness between its people and its environment as linked with the rest of the world. Her story carries the voices of the Hispanic Community, the spirit of its people, and their unique understanding of their relationship among themselves within their environment that helped them survive centuries of ecological challenges.

Following is her full interview with Ecology Prime News that was highlighted in the feature story, Puerto Rico: The Ageless Ecological Adaptation of an Hispanic People. This interview focuses on the evolution of her people and their adaptations to life and living, particularly in recent time.

Gisela De Jesús

Born and raised in Puerto Rico
Residence: San Juan Metroplex
(Carolina area, community of four buildings in the city.)
Business: Chief Operating Officer, Omegavus Trading LLC
(Privately-owned quantitative multi-strategy international trading)
Co-founding Strategist: Ecology Prime Inc. (EPI)

EcologyPrime:   Puerto Rico has seen a rapid succession of two hurricanes, earthquakes and now a pandemic that has, like other regions in the world, rapidly escalated since February 2020 and poses the same dangers the rest of the world faces from the same virus.  It must be especially challenging facing the distress of the global pandemic all the while continuing to deal with the aftermaths of the other recent environmental incursions.  How are you and your community handling this? 

Gisela: Puerto Rico throughout history has been hit by several hurricanes but none like Maria, a category 5 that hit the island on September 20, 2017.   Maria was regarded as the worst natural disaster in recorded history to affect the Caribbean Region and on top of that for us as Puerto Rican the only major hurricane since 1928 when we were hit by hurricane San Felipe a category 5.
[EP Note: San Felipe 1928 was the first Category 5 earthquake to hit the United States in recorded history.] 

I heard the stories as a child from my grandparents, when they told us the stories of how they survived in a poor country in early 1900, a Puerto Rico mostly dedicated to agriculture with hardly any industries. But the stories I heard from my grandparents were stories of bravery and resiliency of a kind society ready to help each other and to lend a hand to the needy and of people that will not hesitate to share the only plate of white rice left and divide it into 3 or 4 portions so everybody can eat something. 

The Puerto Rico I Never Saw

That Puerto Rico I never saw, I only heard until that day of September 20th of 2017 when I saw before my eyes how the winds and fury of nature took everything, absolutely everything, from us.  More than 3,000 people lost their lives and the island was left with no water of electrical infrastructure for almost a year. 

Hurricane Maria as a Category 5 storm on September 19, 2107, as it nears Puerto Rico. (Credit: NOAA)

The first weeks were hard not having the basic things… in 1928 they didn’t have all the amenities that modern life have us accustomed, so they didn’t miss a phone call or twitter or email as basic venues for communication. 

But we did… yet we didn’t have any way to communicate when the sun came down and total darkness would take over the whole country.  I will never forget how I felt when looking outside the window at night… that is a feeling that will stay with me forever. 

The funny thing is that since we didn’t have any electricity most of the people on the island didn’t see the extent of the damages caused by Hurricane Maria until later.  There was only one TV station and one radio station that survived. Most people heard the radio and the few that had generators were the only ones that were able to see [the TV station] so the rest were only trying to survive. 

And survive they did!  In a lot of communities, especially up in the mountains, there was total devastation, so people started to look for all things that survived, food, blankets, radios, batteries.  Neighbors created community kitchens with all the food they recovered.  They helped the elders of each community first by helping them rebuild their houses in every possible way; maybe it wasn’t a perfect professional job, but it was functional but for me.

The Will of Our People, Their Good Nature and Their Resiliency Were What Saved Us.

The most important thing was the fact that entire communities were alone without the help of the government, because roads to many towns were destroyed by the strong winds. [People] up in the mountains were isolated and help from the government was slow or nonexistent.  In the best cases, it arrived weeks even months later. The government was overwhelmed. 

During that time, the will of our people, their good nature and their resiliency were what saved us.  The same thing happened in 1928; some people are still struggling with that disaster. 

San Juan community clearing debris after Maria in September 2017. (Photo Credit: Gisela De Jesús)

It is not easy to recover from total devastation. But a year after Maria, hotels, restaurants, malls, tourist attractions, cruise ships started to come, and our economy started to recover. New hotels opened last year, visitors by cruises and airlines increased dramatically. And then on January 7th of 2020 a 6.4 earthquake hit the island. 

Why the Earthquakes Hit

There are three faults on the south of the island that were completely dormant for more than 100 years.  These faults have generated more than 4,000 aftershocks ranging from 2.5 to 5.8 in intensity since January of this year.  The big earthquake created another blackout. Our electric system was still weak and not completely repaired after the hurricane, but our people again proved its resiliency and its good spirit during the hardest times. 

What Locals Did to Aid Our People in the South Was Amazing to Me

Only one person died as directly related to the earthquake, but hundreds of structures were lost.  More than 7,000 people were left without a home and were camping outside, 24 schools were destroyed, roads, bridges, and the list goes on.  In total, around $3.1 billion was lost.

We were lucky this devastation caused by the earthquake was mainly in the south of the island.  In my community, little things happened as a consequence of the earthquake… just power outages since most of the electricity of Puerto Rico is generated in the south. 

What locals did to aid our people in the south was amazing to me.  People on the north and all area that was not affected by the quakes started to collect water, food, blankets, clothing and everything you can think of because those people lost everything. [Our community] went on caravans of vans, cars, trucks to take all that help and give it directly where it was needed. Most [went to] to the camping sites they built to stay safe and distribute all [the supplies] to them. 

My people … living in cars and in tents outside [in the] neighborhoods… stayed outside together in fear because after the big quake. The island had shocks almost constantly… 20, 30 per day… some days more.

Despite the Covid-19 Pandemic, “We Overcame the Fear”

But we overcame the fear. We started working again, and the economy was starting to build up again. It was just after Christmas and the list of events and projections for the economy was very promising.  I had a list of projects that I hand-picked, and I was so involved and happy about the future.

But COVID-19 came upon us in March of this year. But, once we had four positive cases, our Governor declared a lockdown on March 15, and we’ve been locked since then.  Originally, the lockdown was going to be until the 30th but it was extended until April 12th, yesterday it was announced that it might be extended again.  [EP Update: Puerto Rico continues to cautiously deal with controlling the pandemic, but it is still under safety restrictions.]

The thing is this, I am ready, my community is ready, and Puerto Rico is ready.  I lived through three major hurricanes in my lifetime, one earthquake and now a worldwide pandemic.  We have recovered from all. 

The aftermath of the pandemic is not clear yet, but some experts say it will not be easy. Maybe this is going to be the biggest challenge, but this will be a different one.  This challenge will not be from only my community, this challenge will involve all of us around the world… the BIG community. 

We have to understand that this effort will definitively have to start from down up.  Every person in every community will be important to achieve the common goal of putting back all the pieces of our world together again.  I am doing my part; I hope you are doing yours. 

In the end, we are going to win… all of us together will.  This pandemic proved one thing: We are one world and we are one big community…let’s get ready!

EcologyPrime:   Puerto Rico is known for its kind human spirit, its deep-rooted friendliness and family/community values.  Can you talk about your neighborhood/family and how you look after each other during these times, but also how you look after each other in the best of times?

Gisela:  The Puerto Rican society has very strong Roman Catholic roots coming from the Spaniards that discovered [the New World] in 1492.   So, we were raised like I always say, the old fashion way. 

Naturally Respectful, Always

Here you can’t just address a person you don’t know or an elder so casually. ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ is part of our vocabulary in Spanish “usted”.  This word “usted” was essential when I was growing us. If by any chance children from my generation, and even now, don’t use “usted” (the equivalent of ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’) when talking to an elder, boy were you in trouble!  These customs have made us value and respect the elderly.  

Also, a sign of respect in our society is that you have to ask your parents for their blessing every time you see them.  When I was growing up living with my parents, the first thing I had to do when waking up was go to mom and say “bendición” (bless me) and my mom replied, “Dios te bendiga” (God bless you), every single day of my life until now. 

I am 61 years old and when I go visit my mom, if I don’t ask for that blessing, the look on my mom’s face is like I am disrespecting her.  So, I hope now you have a little bit of how you are raised in Puerto Rico: very strict and structured but also full of love.  It still happens today. 

I always think that those things are absorbed by our brains.  It’s like those teachings merge in your brain and stay there forever, because when you least expect it, they come out afloat.  Usually, this happens at the most important times. At least this is what I have experienced during these past terrible experiences that Puerto Rico has gone through over the past 3 years. 

Transfer of Values to the Modern World

Today societies live at such a rapid pace that they forget the things that matter behind.  Our island learned this the hard way. The last three years have shown us the our neighbors, communities, and family –  more than the government – are what is there first in crucial times. 

In our community (a gated community of 4 buildings, 6 apartments per floor, 7 floors each building in total 168 apartments), after Hurricane Maria, we created a Safety and Security Committee.  We created a list of all the apartments with people who needed special help, like people in wheelchairs, bedridden persons, etc., and we designated a person in our community in charge of each to help them in case of an emergency. This was useful during this year’s earthquake.  Even our community didn’t suffer damages, but the 6.4 [magnitude] was felt all over the island. 

I clearly remembered at 4:25 AM I was asleep when I felt that I was being shaken so strongly that I woke up, then I realized it was an earthquake.  Thank God I stayed calm and waited until it was over.  It lasted about 45 seconds (but it was an eternity) then 10 minutes later another 5.3 and 10 minutes after that one a 5.0 and after hundreds of aftershocks that kept us on our toes for weeks. 

During these times, our community kept helping the south, sending water, food and even entertainment for the children. Also, retired teachers started giving classes, improvising classrooms under trees, in tents.  We built BBQs out of blocks to give chicken, homemade burgers and even paella to the hundreds living outside in tents.

It was a great inspiration that our values were still intact, regardless of the hardships we were going through.  Then, after the storm comes is the calm. And with it you start to review what you did right or wrong and what can be improved.

But one thing stays constant, one thing you don’t have to change and that is the disposition and unconditional help that people give you.  That’s my people, that’s what makes me proud to be Puerto Rican.

EcologyPrime™:   Despite the hurricanes and earthquakes, Puerto Rico is an amazingly beautiful and ecologically diverse archipelago region.  How do you view where you live in connection with the entire Puerto Rican community and culture?  Can you talk about the Puerto Rican culture in terms of its roots in the global Hispanic community?

Gisela: Puerto Rico is a beautiful country with a rich cultural diversity. It is known for its beauty, beaches, and pleasing climate. Puerto Rico has been described as a melting pot of cultures due to the influence of different cultures like Spanish, Taíno Indians, and Africa.

Puerto Rico is a self-governing territory of the United States. The island is located in the Northeastern Caribbean, East of Dominican Republic, and West of the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rican archipelago includes the mainland and many islands like Culebra, Vieques, and Mona. The island is mostly covered by mountains with coastal regions in North and South.  Christopher Columbus discovered the island on the 19th of November of 1493 on his second voyage to a new world and named it, San Juan Bautista.

The Taino Indians & Discovery by the Spanish

Indigenous Taino people – 12-27-2015. (Wikimedia Commons, by JazzmanJr.)

The Taíno Indians came from South America and were the first inhabitants and named the island Borikén or Borinquen, which means “the land of lords”.  The Spaniards invaded the island and forced the Taíno Indians into slavery, those who could escape managing to go to remote mountains.  Later they are known as “jibaros” or “mountain people”. 

As I mentioned before, we give great importance to dignity, honor, and respect to the elders in the family. We are emotionally attached to our family and friends and like to socialize with them.

Priority in Education

We give high priority to education. The literacy rate is 93%; 60% of our population have a high school or higher level of education and 24% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.  Also, to give you another fact, 40% of NASA engineers are graduated from the Engineering School in the town of Mayaguez on the west of the island. NASA recruiters come each year. My class from 1976 contributed two of those engineers.

Today that melting pot created between the Spaniards, African and Taíno Indians is so strong that after years of being a US territory our roots, culture, and music has not been absorbed by the American influence. Puerto Ricans are very proud to be Latinos, but because of our relationship with the United States, we are often discriminated against by Central and South Americans.  This comes all from the political side, but that is a long and complex issue… not for this questionnaire.

The important thing for me is that when something happens in any part of the Caribbean, Central or South America, we always help.  Even though sometimes they might look at us differently, we have Latin blood running through our veins, and we will never think twice when someone near us needs a hand. 

Recently, the Bahamas was devastated by Hurricane Dorian in 2019.  We were still in the middle of our recovery, but our people didn’t hesitate to send doctors, first responders, paramedics.  Our community again started collecting food, water, batteries everything to send our Caribbean neighbors. 

We Are A BIG Community

Like I said before, we are a BIG community, with values and respect for each other.  And when someone needs us, we are there.  Puerto Rico is a poor country in terms of money and riches, but we have the biggest hearts always ready to help, always ready to share even the last slice of bread.

That’s what my parents taught me; that’s what my grandparents also taught me. And when you multiply that by 3.5 million people living right now on this island is when you start to comprehend what is Puerto Rico and who we are…  simple and humble people who were borne on a beautiful island in the middle of the Caribbean who learned how to survive but never forgot to respect and service others. That’s all.

Taino Music Live, by Akitchitay

(Feature Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, by Deb Stgo)

Related Articles…

~ The Great Adaptation: How a Nanometer-Size Forced Humanity to its Knees… and to Adapt.
~ Puerto Rico: The Ageless Ecological Adaptation of an Hispanic People
~ The Ecological Impact of the Industrial Revolution

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