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What was it like to live through Puerto Rico's Hurricane Maria? Esmeralda Santiago makes sure we don't forget

The bestselling author's new novel "Las Madres" is a powerful look at one of the toughest chapters in the island's history and a moving portrait of its resilient people.
Side-by-side of Esmeralda Santiago and her novel, Las Madres
NBC News / Penguin Random House

Hurricane Maria is etched in history as the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in a century but, as the years go by, it’s the small but searing details, gestures and actions of the Puerto Ricans who survived — and died — during that terrifying time that are at risk of being forgotten.  

Esmeralda Santiago’s new novel, “Las Madres” is a powerful and heartbreakingly accurate portrait of those unimaginable hours and seemingly interminable days after the storm, and its plots and characters’ stories center around one important theme: the battle against forgetting.  

“Being alive doesn’t mean that you’re not living with the trauma of this experience,” Santiago, the author of several highly acclaimed books, including her bestselling first memoir, “When I Was Puerto Rican,” said in an interview with NBC News. “What I really wanted to convey is that these people are human beings — and they’re going to be feeling that hurricane for the rest of their lives.”

Santiago left the U.S. territory with her family and went to New York when she was 13. But, she said, “in my imagination — in my mental, emotional life, I still live on the island — I think it’s important, for me writing in English, that people in the United States can see a very specific story about what happened, because sometimes the news only gives us little bites.”

She weaves two intertwining threads in her new novel. One contains the experiences and life stories of five U.S.-based women — mothers and their daughters — who end up visiting their native Puerto Rico when Maria cuts its destructive path.

The other thread is the strong depiction of the moments leading up to, during and after the monstrous hurricane with its all-encompassing, destructive force. 

Esmeralda Santiago.
Esmeralda Santiago.Robert Curtis / Penguin Random House

For those who lived through Maria, or remember their relatives’ desperate accounts, Santiago is faithful to the details, both big and small. She describes the frightening sounds of being inside a house that barely survives the pounding winds, the torrents of water that take everything — including people —  and the anguish of not being able to reach the injured, chronically ill and elderly because of impassable roads. 

She takes the reader into the hurricane and its aftermath  — including a heartbreaking scene describing one of the thousands of Puerto Ricans who lost their lives following the storm.

But Santiago also describes the tedious, seemingly interminable days and nights of living without power, longing for a hot cup of coffee or a warm shower. Meanwhile, hours were spent in the soupy heat and humidity, cleaning up streets cluttered with chunks of houses, cars and debris or cleaning up the battered houses that were left standing but flooded with brackish, black water.

When asked how she achieved such an accurate portrayal of what islanders went through, she explained that she poured through copious accounts and reports of what took place and spoke to numerous people who lived through it. “I had to become the hurricane,” she said. “If I become the hurricane, you can understand the horror.” 

But in the way Santiago then pivots to how individuals, families and neighbors — cut off from any immediate help —  make do, assist one another and push forward despite the unfathomable circumstances, her book captures what it means to be a Puerto Rican amid the cycles of loss and upheaval. It also becomes a timely and important chronicle of this chapter in the U.S. territory's history. 

In the novel’s afterword, she channels the way many stateside Puerto Ricans feel about what’s taken place in the Caribbean island in recent years. “There are times when I dread the news from the Puerto Rican archipelago, overwhelmed by the challenges my people must endure just to live in the place we call home,” she writes. “To be a Puerto Rican wherever we are is to fret over the uncertainty of often violent weather, natural forces, and repressive political directives that have shaped us for more than five hundred years of colonization by Spain and the United States.”

Never forget

Santiago, 75, said that even before Maria hit, she had been thinking of writing a novel around a hurricane that hit Puerto Rico because of conversations she had with her father before he died. He kept coming back to his own experience with Hurricane Felipe II in 1928 when he was 8 years old. “He remembered incredible details of that, and what really struck me is how emotional he got when he talked about that terrifying traumatic experience as a little kid.” 

Like other stateside Puerto Ricans, she initially focused on helping raise funds and supplies for the island’s recovery after Maria. But after a while, she pivoted to what she’s been doing for decades: writing. “I thought it was important for people that they are not mere statistics — that they have names,” she said. “They have homes, they have a history.”

The novel’s main protagonist, Luz, is an only child who survived a major accident that wiped her memories. “Luz accepted what people told her because she had no idea otherwise. Her history, and so her identity, belonged to others," Santiago writes in the novel. 

Discussing her main character’s struggle with memory, Santiago said that Luz represents the fact that Puerto Ricans have this very long history. “But if we don’t pay attention — we’re going to lose it, and I don’t want that to happen, at least in my lifetime,” she said with a laugh, “because we’re very, very special. The generosity, the openness, a curiosity que tenemos (we have)...There’s so many aspects of our lives that are very specific to our cultural heritage and our history, and I just want to capture as much of it as I can, so it’s archived somewhere.”

The themes of memory, identity and place are constant throughout the novel. While Luz strives to recall her own memories, her U.S.-born daughter Marysol, a home nurse in the Bronx borough of New York City, asks her dying patients to tell her about their lives and keeps a record so they won’t be forgotten. 

In the novel, Marysol had never been to her mother’s homeland before, but she sought to understand more of her and her family’s past — something that will resonate with many readers whose families at one time or another left their ancestral homes. 

Aside from the very realistic portrayal around Maria and what the islanders went through, Santiago tackles several societal issues through her characters. Luz’s parents are highly successful, multilingual scientists working at a big company on the island and  sprinkling their sentences with French and German. But they also happen to be Black instead of white — challenging long-held prejudices on the island around race and class. Other characters made choices decades earlier about where they could live because of societal expectations and their sexual orientation. 

Throughout the novel, Santiago sprinkles Spanish words and idioms, as well as cultural references that are very specific to Puerto Ricans, adding lightness and even humor at times but, most importantly, authenticity about the U.S. territory's distinctiveness.    

At the end of the novel, a heartbreaking plane scene will resonate with the many stateside Puerto Ricans who, like Santiago herself, are “constantly in the air between Puerto Rico, and wherever we live,” but as she said in the interview, “our emotions, or our longings, are there.”

With “Las Madres,” Santiago creates an indelible record of her homeland — and its resilience — during one of its toughest chapters. Her goal was to “take a lot of that information and make it accessible for the average person, Puerto Rican or not, who is interested in us, and maybe creating interest if it’s not there because,” she said, “I think we deserve it.”