- Mass-Listening and the DiasporaThe Year in Puerto Rico
Since the hurricane, I've been able to see that there is an incredible emotional need. It's up to us as individuals to try to fulfill this emotional need by listening.—Félix Serrano Villegas, San Juan1
We in Puerto Rico are now over two years from the successive landfalls of Hurricanes Irma and María in September 2017, and we still linger in a fraught aftermath. Looking beyond the sites photographed for glossy tourism campaigns reveals a different reality. Hospitals and schools remain closed, electricity and other utility services are precarious, and lasting instability combined with a dire lack of social services leave many citizens languishing in medical and mental health crises. The relief and rebuilding funds voted into existence by the United States Congress have yet to be fully released, leaving the majority of the $45.2 billion approved for disbursement sitting in an account instead of reaching people in need. In a more publicized aspect of this immoral—if not illegal—process, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, better known as HUD, purposely missed the deadline to initiate the process for distributing billions of dollars' worth of relief funds earmarked for the archipelago.
As I complete this essay, we are now in the midst of another disaster. An ongoing swarm of over 1,800 earthquakes has been recorded just off the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico, the largest to date registering at a magnitude of 6.4. This seismic activity is causing destruction on land and forcing thousands of Puerto Ricans to flee their homes for the "safety" of cars, streets, and tent cities. Locations far from the southwestern region are experiencing tremors, aftershocks, and power outages. This new disaster comes at a time when we are not yet anywhere near a recovery from the catastrophic hurricane season of 2017. The abysmal lack of government relief in the aftermaths of María has spawned population-wide anxiety, as many know all too well that we cannot rely upon local or national government [End Page 144] agencies for response, relief, or rebuilding. The layers of disaster are numerous and remain interwoven in our life stories—no matter how much time passes from the event—while the ways we narrate, disseminate, and receive life stories of disaster and its aftermaths are complex, nuanced, and endless.
The invitation to contribute to an annual "International Year in Review" of narrated lives is especially helpful when it comes to noting patterns that signify phases of processing collective trauma. In the piece that I contributed to last year's feature, I explored narratives wrought in the urgency of the immediate aftermath of disaster. In this year's contribution, I will discuss briefly the production, circulation, and reception of Puerto Rican auto/biographical narratives over the past year in the contexts of what I call mass-listening projects. I define mass-listening projects as those that collect several life narratives related to a single issue or event for the purpose of curating multivoiced assemblages—in any modality or genre—for public dissemination. In other words, they are narrative transactions that have site-specific points for multiple speakers to conduct exchanges with multiple listeners.2 The reading witness or the act of receiving a disaster narrative is paramount to its function, as these life stories by their nature request forms of response, the most desired of which is action. In order to discuss a shift in diasporic identity constructions that I have observed since the hurricane, I will first examine a post on a Facebook page that I position as exemplary of this type of digital mass-listening project and then comment briefly upon three print anthologies as a means of extending my analysis of some of the ways this form of auto/biographical undertaking reshapes communal identity constructions that integrate home-space (experienced or imagined) with lived-space. I will focus on specific projects within digital and print publications to make larger arguments related to critical disaster studies, including the functions of diasporic communities, modes of narration, and listeners as witnesses to collective trauma.