Phoenix Woman Turns Tragic Hurricane Into Cultural Celebration

Published: Thursday, September 20, 2018 - 3:04pm
Updated: Thursday, September 20, 2018 - 4:19pm
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MARK BRODIE: And here in Phoenix the hurricane served as an unexpected catalyst for one Valley woman.

LAUREN GILGER: Jessica Gonzalez was born in Puerto Rico but came to the U.S. as a baby with her mother. And when the storm hit last year she says she felt both incredibly connected to her home — and so far away from it at the same time. In the year since the storm, she's put that connection into action creating the organization Movimiento Borikua to bring together Puerto Ricans in Maricopa County to help those back on the island and celebrate their culture here. I sat down with her to talk more about it and she says for her it all began the day before the storm last year.

JESSICA GONZALEZ: Family members were Facebook Live-ing and I was seeing kind of the onset of the storm from their lens. My family's from Barceloneta and as I was watching these Facebook lives I was traumatized. A lot of things came back in the forefront of my memories around my upbringing, around my migration, around why my mom chose to leave where my family is at —holistically you know because these live feeds were a reminder of the disconnectedness that I have with my family on the island and how that has been something that's been sitting on my heart for a long time. And I think a lot of that is because of migration, I think it's because of the separateness that we coexists with being — you know moving to the mainland and also living on an island in also status and how that changes whenever we do those and participate in those patterns. So the next day, I remember going to work, and I remember being in a staff meeting and I remember just again looking for these feeds looking for something — because at this time it's like there was a hunger for information — there was a hunger to make contact. And I finally had a chance to connect with someone through a fellowship I had done — and I got flooded with pictures — and I started crying. I could not, I was hysterical I was alone. And that's when I and I said ok Jessica what do you do when you feel this sad, when you feel helpless? And what I traditionally do is I build stuff.

GILGER: So you ended up finding other people like you here right? Who said I want to help as well, I am from Puerto Rico or I have family there and I can't be there right now — and like you said there was this hunger for information. So tell us about finding those people after the storm and connecting with them.

GONZALEZ: Once I figured out what I was going to do — and I started off with donation collection and that's where most people started, and so I started connecting with other groups, and I started working with local business owners like Fairtrade café. And these were destinations where folks can drop off items. And so in that work, I managed to connect with folks and hear their stories. And really lend an opportunity where Puerto Ricans — but also U.S. citizens and other folks that live in this area who just had a genuinely open heart and compassion for what was happening. So I galvanized a group there, and they managed to take on helping to relocate those islands and send them to the island as much as possible. And then there was this big stop gap on how you ship. And so then I transitioned into figuring out how do I find out who is migrating off the island, and are they coming to Arizona — because the narrative says otherwise. And I found some folks. And so then I started to figure out how do I then ensure that these individuals are loved and cared for because they're family. There's this longstanding idea in Latino communities where if you come to our home — we will give you our last slice of bread, we will make you the best cup of coffee but we will make sure that you're taken care of. And that's what I wanted folks to feel.

GILGER: Yeah. So that's what's so amazing about this to me is that you've sort of founded this community that wasn't connected before and connected them. I wonder how that feels. Like how something so terrible, like this storm, allowed you to reconnect with that part of your identity and build this community here.

GONZALEZ: I think what it gave me, is it gave me an idea of all the work, and dedication I provided for me. All the people in my life who have believed in me and invested in me — it allowed me to deploy that back into the community and say all of this has been to do this exact thing. There's one thing in my life that I haven't been meant to do, it's this and it's filling. It is unbelievably filling. I wouldn’t have been able to strongly be rooted and connected in a  way that allows me to be once again — pride have pride in my Puerto Rican culture. Saying that I'm Boricua — and coming out and saying that yes we are here in Arizona.

GILGER: And you've actually gone back to the islands since right? What was that experience like after all this?

GONZALEZ: Yes, I had an opportunity in July to visit the island and that was an incredible opportunity for me to reroute myself, you know, reground myself — connect to my culture. And I tell everyone, if there is an opportunity for you to go back to your motherland, to put your feet on the ground, that energy exchange is unbelievable. To turn every corner and all you hear is your music, you smell your food, hear the laughter, it was absolutely wonderful. But also, it allowed me to know and see what was happening on the island. And in my travels, I managed to learn that there was one thing that was happening — it's the diaspora that was helping. The diaspora was sending support from the U.S. There were local organizations, grassroots projects, and people coming together. It is through that work that managed to help a lot of these cities and towns, and local organizations that were popping up to do the work of helping the community. And then with that, giving the tools to those community members to then rebuild what they can imagine what they would like to see for the future of assisting with power outages, or energy issues, Wi-Fi signals, down to farming and increasing more community engagement. And that was just it was really great to see.

GILGER: So today is the one year anniversary of the hurricane, and since all of this has happened in your life. What are you doing now? I understand you're holding a vigil of some kind.

GONZALEZ: Yes, so this evening at 8:00 we will be hosting a community vigil. And what we're doing is holding space — holding space for Puerto Ricans, local residents and folks that just had Puerto Rico in their hearts — to come together, light a candle and just honor those who have passed away — honor those who are still suffering and just the day to day Puerto Rican that still just holds all of this deeply in what our future looks like. And so we are very very humbled to be a part of this movement and a part of this vigil remembrance around honoring those — and remembering what happened, and remembering what we feel, because we can't heal. We can't heal from the trauma that we felt, we can't heal unless we can deeply give ourselves space and time to remember — and always remember cause that's how we persevere and we move forward.

GILGER: All right. Jessica Gonzales, thank you so much.

GONZALEZ: Thank you.

GILGER: The vigil Jessica mentioned is tonight (Thursday) at Steele Indian School Park at 8:00 and you can get the details about that on our website. Just go to theshow.kjzz.org.

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