The first time I heard the term “faceless people,” I was a student in sociology class. The professor used the term to refer to persons who – for several reasons such as economic situation, race, place of origin, physical or mental conditions and age – have been silenced and ignored by the rest of society. Sometimes they are simply invisible. With time, I have discovered that the term is constantly changing and adapting to different situations and moments in history.
Recently, I participated in a training for the Sphere program through ACT Alliance. Ernesto, one of the members of the Cuban Council of Churches, chatted with me about their work and attention given to people with disabilities. Ernesto, who is also a person with disabilities, spoke about the part of his work that deals with creating awareness within churches and communities of those persons with disabilities who have always been there, but are in many instances invisible to others.
Reflecting on the events surrounding Hurricane Maria and the experiences lived as a result of that disaster, Ernesto recognized that Maria left a lot of new invisible people in its wake. Laurie Kraus, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, has alluded to how disasters often tend to become “apocalyptic” events. That is, since the word in Greek means “action to uncover,” disasters tend to discover, reveal and unmask what was apparently hidden. Hurricane Maria was an apocalyptic event not only for Puerto Rico, but also for the United States and the world. Many realities were put in “discovery” — some hidden, and others simply ignored by sectors of society. For instance, it was revealed that some think that Puerto Rico is only San Juan, or that once larger, more visible towns were repaired, then all of Puerto Rico was restored. For many it meant discovering that Puerto Rico is part of the United States and that we share the same citizenship. Social inequality, the lack of a plan, the weak and poor infrastructure, the grievances of the Jones Act, corruption and the governor’s lack of empathy to the pain and suffering of the people are some of the many things that were also “discovered,” and ceased to be “invisible” in Puerto Rico.
This is the number most Puerto Ricans will tell you died because of Hurricane Maria: 4,645. That was the number of pairs of shoes that were left on the steps of Puerto Rico’s capitol building as a reminder of ignored deaths and altered death statistics. The reality is that we will never have an exact number. What we have are the names, the memories and the experiences of the friends and relatives of these victims. For them, they are not just statistics. Of course, we know that most of these deaths did not occur during the hurricane’s passing. These deaths happened days, weeks and months later. The lack of energy and water, the limited access to medicines and medical care and poor living conditions were the hurricane’s indirect effects.
Among that number is a significant number of people who died as anonymous heroes. People who did not appear in international newspapers or even on the island’s local news, but whose actions and dedication rumble in the hearts of those who remember them. José Luis Torres-Milán is one of them. For many, his is an unknown name. But if you go to the coastal town of Aguadilla and ask anyone in the public housing complexes, or any of the local fishermen, or the hundreds of people who remember his joy and service, they will know his name. Chegui, as he was affectionately known, died doing what he loved most: serving God and those in need. Pastor of Tercera Iglesia Presbiteriana in Aguadilla, he was known for his commitment to the people around him. He served in California and Puerto Rico, and was recognized for his involvement in promoting human rights and social justice. In California, he helped develop an international ministry that brought together people from more than 15 nations. This ministry aided with food, clothing and work with undocumented people.
Torres-Milán was faithful in his commitment to the God who called him and to the service of others. From the moment that Hurricane Maria hit, this pastor saw a call from God to serve and provide help to the people. Together with the congregation he pastored, Torres-Milán distributed food, water and other first aid supplies. Because of his service, the congregation began to receive many outpourings of help for those affected by the storm. He was celebrated by his church, the presbytery and synod, the people who loved him and by the seminary where he was completing his doctoral degree. However, since he was not a famous artist, a millionaire philanthropist or part of a major global humanitarian aid organization, his death only made local news. Like Torres-Milán, many people died as a result of the hurricane while serving others. As we celebrate these lives, we seek to stop them from being invisible.
In many respects, Puerto Rico has been a forgotten island. Beyond their native artists and its tourist attractions, many Americans on the mainland (50% according to a poll by Morning Consult) do not know Puerto Rico’s history or its political status.
A few miles from Puerto Rico’s coast, there is an island that has also been forgotten: Vieques, a forgotten island within another forgotten island. This was not always the case. For 60 years, Vieques was important to the U.S. Navy. In 1999, a security guard named David Sanes died as a result of a bomb that mistakenly fell while sailors conducted a military exercise. This event raised the alarm of the people of Vieques and the attention of the rest of the people of Puerto Rico.
For nearly three years, the people of Vieques and thousands of other Puerto Ricans joined voices to demand that the Navy leave the island. When the Navy left Vieques, they left behind land and beaches that were polluted and inaccessible. They also left behind a remarkably high rate of cancer diagnoses in Vieques’ population.
There were many organizations, groups and churches — including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — that advocated for the Navy’s exit from the island municipality. Hundreds were arrested for marching and carrying out civil disobedience. Mimita Nieves was one of these protestors. Prior to Sanes’ death, Nieves worked for years to get the Navy to leave Vieques. Her motivation to fight came directly from her experience. She remembers how her grandmother’s house became the object of eminent domain so that a naval base could be built. She remembers the horrid and continuous explosions that were heard all over the island. Nieves still remembers every arrest, the struggle and the sleepless nights.
Now 72, Nieves lives by herself in Vieques. Her house was greatly damaged by Hurricane Maria. Little aid was provided by the government; the “repairs” made to her house by the aid program Hogar Renace did more harm than good. Several months after power was restored, she continued to walk in darkness because her home’s electrical system was damaged beyond repair. A few months ago, she was finally able to have power restored to her home. She celebrated with tears of joy when she saw the lights turn on. Her home had at last been repaired thanks to the work of the Emergency Commission of the Boriquén Synod in Puerto Rico and Hope Builders, which has since received support from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
Thousands of elderly persons like Nieves suffer the government’s abandonment. In some instances, they also suffer the lack of support of their communities and families. After the hurricane, many families felt compelled to leave the island in search of better living conditions. Many elderly family members were left behind. Some were unable to travel due to health concerns; others decided to remain in the only place they’d ever know. In the worst cases, some were abandoned by their families. Not all members of the elderly population have been recipients of the support and care of churches, organizations and, in some instances, the government. Many continue to be invisible: forgotten by a system that prioritizes some sectors and ignores others.
A small house on top of a hill is what Verónica calls home. A few years ago she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which severely limits her mobility. Verónica can hardly walk; she lives like a prisoner within the walls of her home. She gets little help from her family, since they also face great economic hardships. Her house, like others in her community, suffered greatly from the onslaught of Hurricane Maria. The lack of resources and government assistance kept her house in the same deplorable conditions a year after the hurricane’s passing. A community-based organization, Centro de Apoyo Mutuo Bucarabones Unido, was committed to helping the elderly population and those with disabilities. With the few resources available and the help of volunteers from Presbyterian congregations, Verónica now enjoys a home with better living conditions. Many others with disabilities or chronic health conditions still face a system that has forgotten them, a system that has made them invisible.
The church is called to live out the gospel that dignifies human life and that recognizes our neighbors, without a thought to their race, age, gender identity or other condition — to see them as the children of God they are. Faced with this reality, we are confronted with the question: Who are the invisible persons in our communities and churches? What are we doing to help their voices be heard, their faces be visible and their lives be “discovered”? That is what Jesus’ ministry was all about. It is in this way that we show that we are the church.
Edwin A. González-Castillo is the Presbyterian Disaster Association associate for disaster response and refugee ministry for Latin America and the Caribbean. He has also served as a pastor, stated clerk for San Juan Presbytery, and as a translator for several of the PC(USA) agencies. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.