Le Lo Lai


Credit Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The New York Times

Le Lo Lai: “kind of lyrical “scat” exclaimed by the traditional jíbaro [Puerto Rican mountain people] singer,  “la-le-lo-lai” o “lai-le-lo-lai” o “ay-le-lo-lelo-le,” heard between stanzas (cuartetas) of the sung décima, also exists among the ancient Spanish workers on the small farms of Castille, Murcia and Almería. And it may have even originated from an even older place, from the Moorish lands; because they actually sound like certain ancient sung exclamations of North Africa.” (Credit: The Puerto Rico Quatro Project http://www.cuatro-pr.org/node/122)

For the past three and a half months, the island of Puerto Rico has been trapped in a sustained nightmare, where the world you know and love has become at times not only unrecognizable but perilous in more ways than can be either counted or countered. Over one hundred days after being grazed by Hurricane Irma and obliterated by Hurricane María, most of the population is still without dependable electricity or safe running water. I’m not going to include numbers because they are constantly changing. Depending on who you ask, either 32 or over 1000 people were killed as the result of the hurricane. We have a greater awareness of what’s going on on the island in the mainland US because internet and cell phone coverage are barely available, so word of mouth, radio, and the local news when tv is available is how most people are getting news on what’s happening on other parts of the island. There are still people searching for word of their family members. Schools are remaining unopened, some permanently as the population drops with a mass exodus to the mainland. People who have never left the island, who expected to live their entire lives there, are finding themselves struggling to adapt to tenuously created new lives in Florida, Massachusetts, Iowa. They are cold this winter.

As a bicultural interpreter with a Puerto Rican mother, I have found myself in the position of explaining the island’s unique history and relationship with the United States. Now, more than ever, people have questions. Who are they? Are they really US citizens? What rights do they have? How do they relate to the rest of us Americans? It’s a strange thing, both hopeful and painful, to interpret Puerto Rico every where I go. The cashiers at REI and Cabela’s, asking about my purchases of water purifiers and solar chargers, my landlord in North Carolina as he repairs the back deck, dozens and dozens of attendants at the NAI national conference this year in Spokane. It’s a strain, but a welcome one. Because the number one question I’ve received has been, “How can I help?” Even when Puerto Rico is being abandoned by the services that are meant to relieve all American citizens, individuals and groups are not turning their backs. I wish I had easy answers for them, but the best I can do right now is direct them toward trustworthy organizations to donate to, or, if they want to assist in my family’s work in helping people grow vegetables at home, as most stores are still without refrigeration and fresh produce is hard to either come by or keep from spoiling, I give them the address to send packets of seeds and supplies. In the Sunny Southeast NAI community, we are attempting to figure out how to create a support network to help the interpreter sites of Puerto Rico get back on their feet, a network that will hopefully continue on as a resource for other areas if and when they are hit by catastrophe or need in the future.

One of the best gifts we can share as interpreters, though, is our voice. Sharing the truth about Puerto Rico, climate change, political and social history and how it impacts our world today, the importance of art and expression in the development of resilience in a population, the journey of our environment as it recovers from increasingly intense stresses, many of which came about from human actions. Helping people to learn beyond A + B = C, to grasp what it means to make even seemingly insignificant choices that can help push us toward a better future as a whole, and to find both sobering perspective and great joy in those relationships…those are powerful gifts. If you’ve ever been to Puerto Rico, you know that although it is a small island, it is not a quiet one. A great musical voice comes through in our songs, stories, dances…even in our wildlife. The coquí, a tiny tree frog which is our national symbol, has a mating call as loud as a lawnmower at 90 decibels. (This is good, as the lovelorn frogs, owls, and endangered Puerto Rican parrots are competing with the sound of generators day and night.)In honor of Three Kings Day – a holiday celebrated in Puerto Rico and throughout the world on January 6, where children leave shoeboxes of grass under their beds for the camels of the wise men on their way to Bethlehem to eat, a day that the people of the island are insisting on celebrating together in spite of the massive loss and strain in their lives – I wish you all the strength of your compassion and your voice.


“Gold, frankincense and myrrh? No, that was before! Now we bring you water, gas, and light…three gifts of incalculable value!”

To participate in the Jane Goodall Roots & Shoots PR garden project: seeds (zones 11b-13b), water purification tablets, and seedling peat disks can be sent to Nelly & Rick Asselta, PO Box 1332, Maunabo, PR, 00707

For a list of charities vetted by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies: https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/centrovoices/current-affairs/where-donate-help-puerto-rico-disaster-relief-and-recovery-hurricanes

To learn more about how one art museum helped their city handle the aftermath of Hurricane María through art programs: https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2017/10/puerto-rico-art-museum

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