Climate Disaster & Colonialism in Puerto Rico: New VOW Book Shares First-Person Stories after Hurricane María

Hurricane María in Puerto RIco

Mi María: Surviving the Storm is out today! Order the book here.

The latest addition to the Voice of Witness oral history book series, Mi María, launches today, September 14, in advance of the four-year anniversary of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico.

After the hurricane, lack of government support and federal response left many in the archipelago without housing, electricity, clean drinking water, food, and medical care for months or years. Today, Puerto Rico is still recovering.

Mi María book cover

Mi María: Surviving the Storm shares 17 first-person stories exploring how communities come together in the wake of climate disaster, what it means to be a US citizen in a colonial context, and how precarity and inequity are exacerbated for those on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

Edited by Ricia Chansky and Marci Denesiuk and published by Haymarket Books, Mi María weaves together long-form oral histories and shorter testimonios, offering a multivocal peoples’ history of the storm and its long aftermath as people waited for relief and aid that rarely arrived and communities collectively organized to support one another in recovery. 

Telling their stories in their own words, narrators include:

  • Zaira Arvelo Alicea, who survived the hurricane by floating on a patched air mattress for sixteen hours, trapped in her home. Zaira’s story highlights several failures in the federal disaster-response system, ones that led her and her husband to remain homeless for well over a year after the hurricane.
  • Neysha Irizarry Ortiz, who gave birth prematurely in a clinic without electricity, running water, or a working phone.
  • Lorel Cubano Santiago, a community organizer who fed hundreds of people despite not receiving aid from the supply ships that docked minutes away from her neighborhood in San Juan. 
  • Windy Díaz Díaz, a wheelchair user who was stuck alone at home without power or running water, as branches and debris had blocked the ramp to her house.
  • Carlos Bonilla Rodríguez, a coffee farmer whose harvest and home were destroyed for the second time in his life.
  • And many more Puerto Ricans building community responses to this climate disaster.

The editors, both professors at the University of Puerto Rico where this storytelling project began, write:

The book’s title, Mi María, accentuates the need to resituate ownership over the public narrative from the government or media to the people who experienced this disaster, emphasizing that who tells the story matters. Despite the widespread government-level failures, through these stories we repeatedly see communities rising together to take care of each other.

The Voice of Witness education team worked with Puerto Rican education specialist (and narrator in the book) Zaira Arvelo Alicea to create free lesson plans available online for educators and advocates to download and bring these stories into classrooms and communities. 

The curriculum provides detailed teaching strategies and resources to facilitate a more nuanced and empathy-based understanding of the issues facing Puerto Ricans, as well as the broader social, cultural, and historical forces that inform these lived experiences. The lesson plans support learning about colonialism, globalization, the climate crisis, and interrelated issues including representation and identity; unjust economic policies; access to resources; migration; disaster response; and more. The curriculum is Common Core-aligned and Puerto Rico Department of Education-aligned and develops students’ critical thinking and social-emotional learning skills. 

By amplifying Puerto Rican voices and forging space for stories of injustice and resistance in their own words, this book and its free lesson plans are powerful tools for building connections, raising awareness, and supporting advocacy efforts.

Don’t miss the launch event this week on Thursday, September 16!

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