I didn’t leave Puerto Rico until I was 20. I was traveling to Europe with my college theater group when an immigration official in Spain said, “Oh, you’re American.” I tried to tell them, “Yes—but no.” I tried to explain that I am an American citizen in a place that “belongs to...but is not a part of” the United States, according to the Supreme Court’s definition of an unincorporated territory.

Later that year, I had the opposite experience when I transferred to a photography school in Ventura, California. I was the only Puerto Rican in my class and I felt very much like a foreigner. Our culture is a mixture of European, African and Taíno Indian. We’re very warm and outgoing. I had to adapt to a very different chemistry with the other students in California. Some of my closer friends there were Mexican, but I had to use a more neutral Spanish when I spoke to them, without all my Caribbean slang. When I’d call home, my cousin would ask, “Why are you speaking so strangely?” I’d say, “I can’t speak Puerto Rican here!”

Staying Strong: Diary of a Hurricane Maria Survivor in Puerto Rico

September 20, 2017 changed Sandra’s life forever. She survived category five Hurricane Maria at her home in Puerto Rico, but for the following three months she has to use every ounce of creativity, patience and perseverance to survive without power, water or access to most basic services.

Once we graduated, my Latin American friends had to leave the country. That was strange for me—that they couldn’t stay and I could. Yet I knew the history of Puerto Rico and what that advantage had cost us.

In 1898, Puerto Rico was acquired by the United States as a “spoil” of the Spanish-American War along with Guam and the Philippines. Until 1948, all our governors were appointed by the U.S. government. Until 1957, our patriotic songs and other expressions of nationalism were outlawed. Even today, our government exists under the discretion of Congress—though we do not have a voting representative in that body. Since 1967, there have been five referendums in Puerto Rico on statehood, independence or maintaining the commonwealth, but all have been nonbinding.

So we exist in a confusing, kind of gray realm. We use U.S. dollars and U.S. postage stamps. We serve in the U.S. military and our borders are monitored by U.S. Customs. In my California student days, I’d give my phone number to friends and they would ask if it was an international call. I had to check with my telephone company to find out (it isn’t). That’s Puerto Rico.

A statue of the Virgin Mary
A statue of the Virgin Mary in Toa Baja, on Puerto Rico’s northern coast. The area flooded hours after Hurricane Maria made landfall, when the government opened a nearby dam. Erika P. Rodríguez
cultural center in Cayey
A flag hangs from the balcony at a cultural center in Cayey, during a performance of troubadour music. The sky blue in this flag is associated with the movement for an independent Puerto Rico. Erika P. Rodríguez
Workers clean a business that flooded in Toa Baja, on Puerto Rico’s northern coast.
Workers clean a business that flooded in Toa Baja, on Puerto Rico’s northern coast. Erika P. Rodríguez
Bags of supplies
Bags of supplies wait to be distributed to families in Utuado. The Coca-Cola Puerto Rico Bottlers used their own trucks to deliver the supplies. Erika P. Rodríguez
A Puerto Rican flag
A Puerto Rican flag is painted on the living room wall of a home without power. The bedrooms are uninhabitable so the entire family has been sleeping in this room. Erika P. Rodríguez
A national flag inside a school supply and souvenir store in Aibonito, May 12, 2018. Erika P. Rodríguez
Mariselis Martinez plays music with performance group Papel Machete in Condado during the second day of a national strike, May 2, 2018. Erika P. Rodríguez
Riot police stand in formation in the San Juan banking district on the first day of a national strike, May 1, 2018. Erika P. Rodríguez
A view of the Panoramic Route in San Lorenzo weeks after the storm. The route crosses the island east to west through the mountainous region, offering beautiful views. Erika P. Rodríguez
The produce section of a supermarket in Guaynabo is empty when President Trump visits the town 13 days after the storm. Erika P. Rodríguez
While cleaning a storage area of his house in Toa Baja, Alfredo Martinez gathers old family pictures to throw away. Erika P. Rodríguez
An abandoned building collapsed in Puerta de Tierra, San Juan, after the Category 4 hurricane hit. Erika P. Rodríguez

I’ve been documenting this ambiguity for the past six years, starting with an internship at a Puerto Rican newspaper. I began photographing everyday moments: a salsa class at a bar, Mother’s Day with my family, festivals and political events. I could be at a rally, where everyone was shouting. But the best photo would be the one where a woman holding a sign was looking down and being introspective. You could feel her withdrawing into her own thoughts.

After Hurricane Maria ravaged everything in its path last year, there was a sense of unity among people of the archipelago. Under complete darkness, without sufficient fuel, water or food, and largely without communications, our sense of community changed. It was visible in the young neighbor who collected and distributed water for months after the storm, and in the person with a power generator who would provide electricity to other families through extension cords crossing from one home to another. It was visible in the neighbors who cooked together on the only working gas stove on their street. Tension and despair were real, but a new solidarity emerged.

a girl in the mountainous central city of Utuado
A few weeks after Maria, a girl in the mountainous central city of Utuado walked toward what used to be her home. A small creek nearby overflowed during the storm, eroding the road and pushing debris through the walls. Erika P. Rodríguez
A touristy area of San Juan, the day after Maria snapped a palm trunk in two in Condado.
A touristy area of San Juan, the day after Maria snapped a palm trunk in two in Condado. Erika P. Rodríguez
picture of Jesus
In Aibonito, a mountain town, a picture of Jesus sat in a pile of debris, still partially buried by dirt, a few weeks after the storm. Erika P. Rodríguez
A little girl named Brenda flies a kite at El Morro fort by San Juan Harbor.
A little girl named Brenda flies a kite at El Morro fort by San Juan Harbor. Erika P. Rodríguez

Over a week after the storm, I spotted a Puerto Rican flag flapping on the side of a fuel truck. More soon appeared on car antennas, storefronts, home balconies, highway bridges and street corners. Our flag, once illegal, could now be seen all over the island. It was a message: “We are here and we are standing.”

But we’re still dealing with the aftermath. In San Juan, where I live, I regularly still see broken electrical posts, missing traffic lights and blue plastic tarps covering damaged rooftops. The power still goes out short term. Things are much worse in the mountain town of Utuado. Communities there have been without power since the hurricane, unable to store food in their refrigerators, and many roads remain exactly as they were back in September. Electrical cables hang overhead and vegetation now grows in the mudslides that cover entire lanes.

The phrase “Se fue pa’ afuera”—literally, “he went outside”—is an expression for a Puerto Rican who has left the island on a one-way flight. It has become far too common. I’ve been to many tearful goodbye parties. My sister left for Chicago and has no desire to ever return; I was introduced to my newborn godson over Skype. I continue to see friends find better possibilities outside.

Girls from the turbans and bombas class pose after a musical event in Medianía Baja in Loíza. Bomba is an Afro-Puerto Rican form of music. Erika P. Rodríguez
Miguel Quiñones, a military veteran, poses in his home in Barrio Bubao in Utuado, on October 25, 2017. Erika P. Rodríguez
The Puerto Rican flag at a memorial for two independence activists killed in a police ambush in 1978 at Cerro Maravilla. Erika P. Rodríguez
Residents play dominoes in a shelter in Canóvanas three months after the storm. Ninety-four people were still living there. Erika P. Rodríguez
Ian Rodríguez Marrero, 15, trains in one of his last baseball practices in the island before moving to Orlando, F.L., with his mother on May 23, 2018, in Gurabo, P.R. Rodriguez mother, Emily Marrero, had thought about leaving but made the final decision in the aftermath of Maria. "I am leaving because my kid is not learning in school," she said, as at times multiple teachers go absent and the teenager has nothing to do inside the public school. Rodriguez father will join the family in the southern state after he finishes his studies in a year. Erika P. Rodríguez
A pool table in Cafetín Marrero in Old San Juan, May 11, 2018. Erika P. Rodríguez
A dog guards a property in Aibonito. The owner put the dog there after his elderly neighbor was moved to the United States and the empty property was vandalized. Erika P. Rodríguez
residents and public workers
The day after the hurricane, residents and public workers navigated flooded streets to rescue people. Erika P. Rodríguez
Police walk in formation
Police walk in formation as demonstrators protest planned austerity measures. Erika P. Rodríguez
A woman holds a sign
A woman holds a sign that says “A crime called education.” The University of Puerto Rico had announced plans to increase its tuition and possibly close six of its 11 campuses. Erika P. Rodríguez
A woman hangs a solar lamp
A woman hangs a solar lamp in her living room. Eight months after the storm, her home was still without power. Her husband, who suffers from sleep apnea, couldn’t use his air pump at night. Erika P. Rodríguez

We won’t know until the 2020 census how many people have already left. Since the beginning of the recession in 2006, Puerto Rico has lost around 635,000 residents, and another half million are expected to leave by next year.

As a young Puerto Rican, I’m unsure what lies ahead. That’s why I want to stay and continue documenting our complex dual identity. I want to photograph Puerto Rico as we rebuild, or fall apart. I just can’t look away. There’s no room in my mind or heart for anything else.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.