Upon returning home
Distance can distort one’s appreciations of home. All the good times seem more delicious in hindsight, while the bad aspects are conveniently swept away. But upon returning, this perspective can be an advantage. Things are never as good — or as bad — when seen up close once again.
Recently I spent a few days in Puerto Rico after nearly two years away. All of the indicators point to a country in shambles: low (official) workforce participation, middle-class flight, increasing crime. Everyone talks about how things are getting worse and solutions are nowhere in sight. But these things don’t seem to change people’s daily lives.
Most places you go in San Juan, the streets are full and alive at night. The morning and afternoon traffic jams are as bad as ever, the streets clogged with commuters. And yes, most people are still warm, friendly, and — it needs to be said — hardworking.
Take the rental car attendant who lamented the exorbitant cost of electricity while cheerfully advising my wife that one can celebrate one’s birthday any day of the year. This woman — in her late 50s if she was a day — was at work when we arrived late in the evening and again when we left at the crack of dawn some days later.
Or the longtime waitress at La Pradera restaurant, a solid-looking woman who still places every male customer’s order with a cheerful, sonorous “para el nene” (for the dear child).
But when the United States sneezes, the rest of the world gets the flu. Nowhere is that clearer than in Puerto Rico, where it’s hard to see concrete signs of economic recovery.
The empty loneliness of the four o’clock hour on Sundays in Ponce de Leon Avenue, a principal artery that runs through the urban neighborhood of Santurce, seems more pronounced now with the number of empty storefronts. When I lived there, the only businesses open at that time would be Marshalls and Walgreens, and now the latter moved several blocks way. And in a city where affordable urban housing is a huge issue, entire buildings are boarded up.
But some positive signs filter through, like the sunlight which seeps in through half-open aluminum windows. One of the two locally-owned indie/art film cinemas went through an incredible transformation. A building that used to be not much more inviting than someone’s marquesina is now a multilevel facility with lagoon views. A popular frozen yogurt franchise sprung up next to it, and several nearby restaurants appear to be thriving.
Problems persist, but there are still positive stories to tell. All of the difficulties, the shuttered buildings, the daily chaos, don’t have to be permanent symbols of decay. They can represent opportunity. The true danger lies in idealizing the past while feeling hopeless about the present. What must be kept at bay, at all costs, is the impulse to give up.