Art history + community organizing = Yaucromatic
Last weekend our exchange group took a tour through the streets of Yauco, a town also known as “El Pueblo del Café” because of its roots in coffee agriculture. After the destruction of Hurricane Maria in 2017, municipalities all over Puerto Rico were struggling to maintain their small businesses as they recovered. Local artists and dueños de empresas united with the conviction that “art is not only for museums, it is for the people” and formed the organization Arte Para Unir.
The photo at the top of this blog shows one of the dozens of breathtaking murals you can appreciate in Yauco. I think this photo is amusing because our friend Javi, bottom left, is on exchange from Spain and was standing right below a Spanish conquistador — while standing next to Abby, who is from New York but has Spanish ancestors. Then you see our awesome tour guide to the right, who is from Yauco. All of these places are represented in a dynamic way on the mural. One thing I enjoy about our group is that we all come from far-away places and differing heritages, yet we have the same deep love and respect for this island. We all desire to keep moving our respective corners of the world away from the kind of cultural division and oppression that can be seen in the history of colonies like Puerto Rico.
Homesickness, Chi and Gratitude
Although my first three months of living far away from home have been invigorating and full of new joy, moments of culture shock coupled with deeply missing my community back home have led to an underlying feeling of loneliness that emerges a few times a week. This feeling is frustrating, because I know I will return to what I miss very soon, and the beauty of living in Puerto Rico is oh so temporary. I also have so many people supporting me over the phone from back home (thank you so much), so what the heck?! Why does this happen when everything is more than OK?
I have accepted that the feeling is natural, and I am not fighting it any more. When the homesickness bubbles up, I have two secret weapons. One is an ancient Taoist practice, which I learned in my Culture of East Asia class. Lao Tzu taught people to pay attention to and to follow Chi energy – which is a uniting force that flows through everything. Chi will even flow through our own bodies if we desire to connect with the universe and ourselves. This sounds very hippy-dippy, but the basic idea of peace through connection is accessible to anyone, regardless of your religion or place in life. You can allow Chi to “flow” effectively through you in simple ways: exercising in a way that you enjoy, spending time in green space and appreciating fine details (sound, smell, texture), and identifying beauty in commonly overlooked, mundane tasks like washing dishes or walking up stairs.
When I cultivate space for Chi, the homesickness does not disappear, but I feel much more comfortable in the present moment.
Another antidote to falling victim to homesickness is something I learned from my boyfriend (thank you, Ricky). A few weeks ago, I was having a rough afternoon, and I shared my frustration with him. Instead of just saying, “Oh, I’m sorry Charlotte,” he pointed out that homesickness is actually something to be quite grateful for. To yearn for your home and the people associated with it means that … you have a GREAT home! So many people do not have supportive, safe or enjoyable home lives, and getting away is their only opportunity to find peace. I realized in that moment how darn lucky I am. I appreciate San Diego now so much more than I ever have.
One part of Puerto Rico that I can always count on for comfort is the muy rica comida. I have learned how to be a better Spanish speaker, I have learned how to deal with insects, but what I am most proud of is my newfound expertise with plantains (plátanos) and bananas (guineo). These starchy friends are a staple here and can be prepared in many ways, from fried tostones to mofongo to shredded pieces that are pressed into a bowl (arañitas) that holds more food.
I love going out to eat with friends (probably too much but I just tell myself I am supporting small businesses and then I feel better about it). The inspiration I gain from the truly delicious dishes here is allowing me to blend my own style of pescatarian cooking with comida puertorriquena. In the images here you can see a meal I made at home and a photo of my gorgeous housemate and her mama at a cafe in Viejo San Juan.
Charlotte Roberts, who is studying sustainability and business, is studying in Puerto Rico for the spring semester.