Hours before Hurricane Maria was predicted to strike the island, Alondra Dávila's parents tried to do whatever they could to prepare. Her mother ran to the store to stock up on what little food was left on the shelves, while her father put panels in the windows for added protection. Dávila, 20, and her family waited anxiously through the night, listening to the sound of their neighbor’s windows breaking, and watching as leaves and water began to enter the living room, eventually flooding her parents’ bedroom.
Throughout this time, she and her mother prayed. Both women are Seventh Day Adventists, members of a Protestant Christian denomination distinguished by its observance of Saturday as the Holy Day, and its emphasis on the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ.
“My faith was strong the entire time. If anything, Maria made it stronger,” Dávila tells Bustle. “I knew that God was going to be with us and that He was going to let things happen.”
Millennial Puerto Rican women like Dávila are redefining their religious faith in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. While it’s yet to be seen how the storm will affect the religious composition of the island, which is heavily Catholic, Hurricane Maria drove many boricuas to reevaluate the role of faith in their lives. Because of the destruction of more than 3,000 churches during the storm and the migration of more than 130,000 Puerto Ricans to the mainland after, church leaders have seen lower attendance, according to Christianity Today.
But despite lower service attendance, many millennial women are stronger than ever in their faith. Ada Alvarez Conde, 31, says she credits the storm with helping her religious beliefs grow. A worker in the island’s Service Employees International Union (SEIU), she tells Bustle she was raised Catholic. Though her mother experimented with different religions like Judaism and Hinduism, Alvarez Conde attended Catholic school until college and even thought she’d become a nun. Instead, she began exploring different religions herself after moving to Maryland for graduate school. “Every time I moved, I looked for churches. For me, the church was a way to connect with something familiar,” Alvarez Conde tells Bustle.
In the months leading up to Hurricane Maria, Alvarez Conde was going through a particularly rough time. She had run for senator for the San Juan district in the November 2016 elections and lost — a position, she says, that made it difficult for her to find work. She was jobless for five months and turned to religion for strength. But she didn’t feel quite at home in her Disciples of Christ church, especially she says after witnessing its lack of connectivity after Maria.
"The most important thing to do is have your own relationship with God. Faith is unique and individual."
Things changed in October 2017, when Alvarez Conde received an invitation to another Disciples of Christ church called Mar Azul in Guaynabo. After she attended her first service, the church called her asking whether she needed food and water because it had relief bags to give away. “There was chaos about who was going to help and a lot of necessity,” Alvarez Conde says. She liked that Mar Azul, like so many other churches across the island and the diaspora, became a distribution center for supplies, picking up the slack in response to the federal government's aid following Maria.
Inspired by the kindness and resilience of her church community, Alvarez Conde plans to enroll in Theology University of the Caribbean and earn a certificate in ministry. She hopes to focus her efforts on helping victims of domestic violence through the church. “During hardship, you see the development of faith. People look for authenticity,” she says.
Though approximately 56 percent of Puerto Ricans are Catholic and 33 percent are Protestant, according to the Pew Center, this phenomenon of increased commitment to faith after Hurricane Maria is not limited to women who practice Christian denominations. Angela Ortega, 20, who attends Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan, says if she didn’t have faith she “probably would have had a nervous breakdown.”
There’s just something about being a Puerto Rican woman. We have passion in our blood that’s undeniable, and that passion is there for a purpose. One of the things that I’ve learned to do is celebrate who I am and use that passion to ignite other women and sharpen each other.
Puerto Rican millennials found faith from non-religious sources as well. Karina Nicole González, a 28-year-old bilingual speech therapist from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, says she and her devout Catholic grandmother clash when it comes to religion, because González doesn’t believe in organized religion. Instead, González is active in SiemPResente, a community organization that aims to bridge the gap between the diaspora and the island. Since the passing of PROMESA, a 2016 U.S. federal law that established an oversight board in an attempt to address the island’s debt crisis, the group lost its steam. But as of late, members have been joining together to host monthly fundraisers for grassroots organizations in Puerto Rico. “What gives me faith is the upcoming generation. Seeing young people in their communities cleaning up, helping others, trying to make things work with the little they have,” González says. “I have a lot of faith in the future and that we can create a place for boricuas to thrive and be a happy, resilient community.”
Lidy Águila, a photographer, teacher, and member of SiemPResente, agrees. The 27-year-old was also raised in the Catholic tradition, but says she has developed her own faith and spirituality in the wake of Hurricane Maria. She lost three important people — her nephew, her aunt, and a person she considered a brother — all in the months prior to the storm. Though she is struggling with building a new life, she says she has faith in family and the power of love. “We’re like machines that run on this energy,” Águila says. “I really think what keeps me alive right now is the love of my dad, mom, my little sister, and grandma.”
Hurricane Maria had an unquestionably devastating effect on the island. But in its wake, people are being inspired to find something — whether it be organized religion, family, or faith in Puerto Rico itself — to anchor their belief in. As Dorimar Del Rio, a 29-year-old singer at City Church Chicago, tells Bustle, “There’s just something about being a Puerto Rican woman. We have passion in our blood that’s undeniable, and that passion is there for a purpose. One of the things that I’ve learned to do is celebrate who I am and use that passion to ignite other women and sharpen each other.”
“I’m a Seventh Day Adventist, but I’ve learned the most important thing to do is have your own relationship with God. Faith is unique and individual,” Dávila says.
Religious or not, Diasporican or islander, it’s clear that Puerto Rican women are stronger together.