It’s 1989 and, before Hurricane Hugo hits, the jungles of Puerto Rico are vibrant and loud. The snakes hiss, the birds chirp, and the frogs, las ranas, those wonderful coquís, they sing proudly on the isla.
I say sing and not croak because in Puerto Rico nothing croaks, we all sing. And the coquí, that tiny little green ranita, sings loudest of all.
Its slow, two-toned timbre comes from the leaves, the streams, the mountainsides. It hides in street lamps, city parks, jungle trails. It flows into kitchens, patios, bedrooms, and telephone receivers. Co-kee… co-kee… co-kee.
The melody lives in a Boricua’s veins in the day and echoes across la isla Borinquen at night. It’s the song of the caged bird set free. It’s the cadence of a people that through everything dance and praise. It’s the soundtrack to a diaspora of millions calling them home.
But as Hurricane Hugo approaches the coquí doesn’t chant in celebration. It calls out to the island: Prepárate. Disaster is coming.
In San Juan a little boy, Boricua, son of the island, child of the island, listens and crawls into bed with his parents, bracing for the storm.
Co-kee… co-kee… co-kee.
* * *
It’s 1998 and Hurricane George drowns the island’s sandy beaches. Puerto Rico falls silent. The people board up windows with plywood and lock their doors. The birds have all flown away to seek help. And the coqui finds safety in the dark jungle, escondido.
A thousand miles away on the American mainland, a little boy, Boricua, son of the island, child of the island, sits in front of a four-channel TV screen and watches fuzzy images of bent palm trees and old weathermen predicting disaster.
He closes his eyes so he can hear the island, so he can make sure it’s still there.
* * *
It’s 2017 and Hurricane Maria is barreling across the Atlantic. Scientists say the warming effects of climate change are feeding the hurricanes, making them stronger and faster.
Feeding them… like monsters.
And they’re saying Maria is the most powerful hurricane in recorded human history.
On the island, the people store up water, the birds fly off to seek help, and the coquí calls out its warning louder than ever before, louder until just before the storm.
A thousand miles away, a little boy, Boricua, son of the island, child of the island, posts on his Facebook with tears welled up in his eyes, “If you’re the praying type, pray for Puerto Rico tonight.”
* * *
It’s 1989 and Hurricane Hugo’s winds crash against the walls of the San Juan apartment.
The little boy’s father stands nervously at the window watching the family car in the parking lot, their most expensive possession. One tree falls next to it. Then another. Another. And another. All of them surrounding the car but barely missing. The family’s livelihood is spared.
But on the radio there’s a report that Abuela’s neighborhood is under forty feet of mud.
Abuela’s house is under forty feet of mud.
Abuela is under forty feet of mud, the boy realizes.
He remembers the night coquís snuck into Abuela’s bedroom while he napped in the old house. The adults drank wine loudly on the patio while he half slept in the humid night, waiting for his parents and home. He awoke to the frogs. The coquís had checkered the white walls, clinging to the cement. Their small brown eyes peered out at him and the boy was scared. When Abuela found him crying in the corner she explained the coquís were leaving their blessing.
“This is the song of your isla, mijo,” Abuela said. “Te cuidan, they are watching over you.”
The boy wonders if the coquís are watching over Abuela now.
* * *
It’s 1998 and Hurricane George is caught in the mountains outside of Arecibo, what’s called the worst-case scenario. The eye of the storm bounces off the jungle’s cliff faces until it rips apart, splitting off into numerous tornadoes.
One thousand miles away, a boy, Boricua, child of the island, son of the island, prays an endless rosary at school. On this day the teachers don’t ask him questions, they don’t assign him homework.
Over dinner his mother takes an endless string of phone calls and announces everyone on the island accounted for, everyone except Titi Ani and her eight kids in Ponce. Nobody can get a hold of them.
The boy falls into bed. He prays for Arecibo, he prays for cousins gone missing, he prays so hard the rosary snaps and beads bounce all over the hardwood floor.
The boy tries to listen for the coquí but hears nothing. He’s too far away.
* * *
It’s 2017 and Hurricane Maria is caught in the mountains outside of Arecibo. The hurricane’s winds are crashing so violently against the island that it measures on the Richter scale.
“It’s not a hurricane, it’s an earthquake,” the boy says aloud.
“It’s not an earthquake, it’s the end of the world,” he hears the frogs cry.
* * *
It’s 1989 and Hugo is past the island, moving out into the open water of the Caribe. The U.S. Navy is ashore after President H.W. Bush ordered them to stand ready just miles away, ready to begin the recovery mission.
The phone rings with the sound of Abuela’s voice. She waded in waist-high waters to safety, to a welcome home.
The coquís told her where to go before it was too late, the boy thinks. Abuela knew to listen.
That night the jungle comes back to life. The birds return. The snakes slither. And the coquí sings its song to lift the island from its near ruin.
Co-kee, co-kee, co-kee….
* * *
It’s 1998 and Hurricane George is running off to Florida, limping and injured from the stabbing mountains of El Yunque at the island’s center.
One thousand miles away, a boy, Boricua, son of the island, child of the island, receives a message from the teacher’s assistant.
It’s your mother, the assistant says, they found your aunt and cousins.
The boy falls back in his seat. He falls back in relief. He falls back into prayer only this time in gratitude.
He looks at the Time for Kids magazine in front of him. He reads the articles on the destruction over and over again as if the thin, glossy paper is all there is connecting him halfway around the world. He stares at a photograph of an old woman in a fancy blue suit with the title First Lady. She’s touring the damage, talking to the sick, healing the streets he calls home.
That night the jungle comes back to life. The birds return. The snakes slither. And the coquí sings its song to celebrate rebirth.
Co-kee, co-Kee, co-Kee….
* * *
It’s 2017 and even though Maria is gone, she’s plunged the island into total darkness. The faucets won’t run. The telephones won’t ring. In Fajardo, a woman puts a kiddie pool out on the patio to collect the rain. It’s the only water she’ll have to drink for weeks. That story repeats across the island until dozens, hundreds, thousands, countless die. We may never know the number.
One thousand miles away, a boy, Boricua, child of the island, son of the island opens up Time Magazine to see pictures of the American president playing golf next to pictures of dead bodies on the streets he calls home.
That night the jungle is quiet. The coquí doesn’t sing. Scientists begin to wonder where all the frogs have gone.
* * *
For days there’s no action except death. For days there’s no movement except towards death.
There are no heroes waiting offshore. The cavalry is not coming. When the birds return, they bring the coquí solemn news: our isla is forgotten.
But that night, from a deep corner of the jungle, the song begins to play. At first, it’s nothing but a small chirp. It is heard in the hands of a plumber who wades into water to save a child he does not know. It is heard in the rapping on front doors as neighbors begin to check on one another. It’s heard in the voice of a young mayor as she challenges the sitting President of the United States on international television.
The boy watches the mayor and sees his Abuela in her attitude, hears his Abuela in the mayor’s voice, feels his Abuela in her cadence. And it becomes clear to the boy that his island is full of Abuelas all fighting for the streets he calls home.
It’s the coquí’s call. And it rises, rises. A small resistance growing.
Co-kee! Co-kee! Co-kee!
And in its song, the frog sends out the call to all sons of the island, daughters of the island, children of the island thousands of miles away.
Se levanta, se levanta, se levanta la isla!
We rise. Together.
Image: by Luke Stackpoole via rawpixel.com