When Hurricane María destroyed all possibility of hosting the Festival de la Palabra in early October, a gathering featuring Hispanic writers with events for the public and at schools, Mayra Santos-Febres, the creator of the festival and an author herself, was distraught.
Months of work had seemingly been blown away. Yet, not long after the hurricane a new possibility emerged. “I had gone to Kasalta (a well- known bakery in San Juan) to see if I could find signal for my phone, when this woman approached me and asked if I was Mayra Santos-Febres, the author. She introduced herself as Lidia, a cleaning woman originally from the Dominican Republic. She let me know that she was reading one of my books and she found that it was helping her survive the aftermath of the hurricane.”
The encounter helped her realize there was a need out there. At the same time, she was getting calls from many of the schools that would have participated in the Festival’s events. Although schools were not in session and would remain so for weeks on end, the public schools were being used as shelters for thousands of families who needed activities to help them cope with the loss and anxiety caused by the devastation of María.
Mayra called her Festival staff into action and started visiting shelters and communities. In a matter of days, she was able to collect 4,000 books, coloring books and other materials. “How crazy! Why are you running around with books amid this trauma and this devastation?”, she recalled that some asked her. But she was certain of their purpose at Salón Literario Libroamérica Puerto Rico, the organization she leads, which in addition to planning the Festival aims to promote diversification in readership. “People need to talk, they need company,” she would reply. At the time, she was concerned with news of suicides in the aftermath of the hurricane.
Aside from distributing supplies and books, her group would hold workshops in which people had an outlet to share their stories. In one of those sessions a teenager confessed she had been molested and had never told anyone. In another session, a girl shared her fears about her future. She was concerned if she would be able to finish the school year. As people shared their fears and anxieties, they came together.
“It was all about reinterpreting trauma. Art allows us to heal,” said the ebullient author.
One thing led to another and she recalls a group of women in Salinas wanted to cook in an open fire for the community but needed supplies to cook. Mayra was able to get a small donation from a well-known Puerto Rican author who lives in the mainland. Then the group asked for mosquito nets and another group of women began making mosquito nets and passing them along. In her visits, she also encountered other groups, an international NGO focused on health that had doctors providing care and they would link the efforts to make sure the most vulnerable communities were getting the aid they needed.
With needs rising and funds dwindling, she requested funds from United for Puerto Rico, which had been created to support the relief and recovery of Puerto Rico by supporting NGO’s in providing assistance to the most vulnerable populations. The funds arrived in January just in time to continue the work of the group. By April, they had provided workshops to 9,368 people all needing to share their stories.
“Neuroscience indicates reading and writing help create healthy connections in our brains that lead to emotional health, a basic need after the trauma experienced by so many among our population because of María,” said Mariely Rivera, Executive Director of United for Puerto Rico.