My Aunt Is One Of The Almost 3,000 Who Died Because Of Hurricane Maria. I Never Got To Say Goodbye

Courtesy of Frances Solá Santiago

Funerals in Puerto Rico are always extravagant. From monumental flower wreaths wrapped in silk ribbons, to giant speakers blasting melancholic music, Puerto Ricans don’t waste the opportunity to show love to the departed with impassioned rituals. My family’s funerals are not so different.

In 2013, when one of my cousins died unexpectedly, the family — more than 50 of us — gathered to celebrate his life in the funeral home for three days. When it was time to say the last goodbye, one of my uncles had to direct the line to the coffin as if he were an usher at a museum — the chapel was too full. We ended the festivities with a group performance to the sounds of trova — traditional Puerto Rican music — at his grave. Nine years before, when my tío Tony died, we hired a Mariachi band, his favorite, to sing in front of the coffin. It’s a tradition to send our people to the other side with music, poetry, and beautiful speeches.

But in September 2017, nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, my family held a quiet funeral in the dark to honor my tía Guillermina. It lasted one day, and not everyone had the chance to go say goodbye. I was in New York City. Titi Provi was in Florida. My primos Tania, Victor, Gerardo, and Mariamgely were in other parts of the country. Hurricane Maria left the main airport on the island with no power or signal. Incoming flights were reduced to only a few per day with priority given to those bringing food, water, and supplies. There was no way we could say goodbye in person.

Courtesy of Frances Solá Santiago

I always had a special connection with my titi. As a kid, she made my prima Michelle and I feel like queens when she hosted a pageant for both of us to be crowned “Queens of Summer” at a family function. She owned a formidable collection of Puerto Rican antiques, like vintage irons, machetes and vejigante masks, and had a unique ability for networking and local politics that always gained her popularity in our hometown, Caguas. She was the epitome of Puerto Rican elegance, with a style reminiscent of Felisa Rincón de Gautier, the first female mayor of San Juan: big sunglasses, pendant necklaces, statement earrings, and a hand fan. In her later years, even as she faced difficult health issues, titi would welcome me to her house with a plate of sorullos sweet-savory corn fritters — or tostones — fried, smashed green plantains. But in the ten months since Hurricane Maria, I had to learn how to say goodbye from afar.

It’s difficult to let a dead relative go when Puerto Rico’s government, the media, and the Puerto Rican people are still debating Hurricane Maria’s death toll a year later. In August, the Puerto Rican government changed the death toll to 2,975 people, after nearly a year of saying only 64 lives were lost. But according to a study conducted by researchers at Harvard University, the death toll may in fact be over 4,000 people. Puerto Ricans in and out of the island always knew the death toll was much higher than the official number. We saw the dead piled up in morgues and funeral homes. Only eight days after Hurricane Maria, the Center for Investigative Journalism published a story that revealed the morgues and hospitals were filled to capacity with direct and indirect victims of the hurricane. My titi was one of them. Though she had been hospitalized prior to the hurricane, the hospital was at capacity and its generator collapsed shortly after the hurricane. There is no doubt in my mind that the Category 4 storm impacted the date and circumstances of her death.

For a week and a half before titi’s death, I had been active on social media raising awareness about Puerto Rico’s humanitarian crisis, and attended several protests to advocate the lift of the Jones Act, a merchant law that limited the island’s aid from other neighbor nations. But when my mami called to say titi had passed, I couldn’t take it anymore. I went to Miami to escape the heartwrenching reality of my island and the profound loneliness that had consumed me since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. I visited titi Provi and my cousin Michelle, who had managed to leave Puerto Rico the same day titi Guillermina passed away. I stayed with them for four days because I needed space to be a Puerto Rican kid again — not a grown-up grad student who had left Puerto Rico to pursue a journalism career in New York City. I needed warm hugs, Puerto Rican Spanish, mofongo — mashed plantain — and the love of family members who were as heartbroken as I was.

Courtesy of Frances Solá Santiago

Nine months later, on June 14, the Center for Investigative Journalism released a database of all the deceased in Puerto Rico in the months followed by Hurricane Maria. I searched for my titi, and there she was. The main cause of death was listed as septicemia, an infection of the bloodstream by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. A few days after I saw her death records in the database, I went to a vigil held in the Lower East Side to commemorate the victims of Hurricane Maria. My friend Andrea and I lit candles that symbolized the dead laid out on the parking lot at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center. We couldn’t hold back the tears as each candle was lit. Family members of other victims narrated their stories near a makeshift altar, but I chose to stay quiet about my own story. I simply stood in silence, head lying on Andrea’s shoulder, and tears rolling down my face, as I finally got a chance to celebrate that sacred ritual of a velorio for my dear titi.

There was no music, no family members, and no giant flower wreath with glitter letters saying, “Siempre te recordaremos,” we will always remember you. But in that moment, titi was with me, and I finally got to say goodbye.