After the Storm: A Father and Son Rebuild in Philadelphia

Posted on June 5, 2018
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Categories: Featured FACEs, Multilingual Family Support

In late September of last year, Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico. At that point, Maria had reached Category 4 strength, the second strongest classification a hurricane can receive. Winds reached over 175 mph, bringing flooding and destruction.

Over 100 lives were lost because of Hurricane Maria, more than half of those in Puerto Rico alone — and this number is thought to be an undercount. The aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was devastating: the entire island was left without electricity; houses were completely destroyed; and infrastructure was ruined. Thousands of people were displaced, and two of these people were Raúl Berrios and his son Asaf.

Raul and his son Asaf. Photo: Edwin López Moya / AL DÍA News

Mr. Berrios and Asaf came to Philadelphia after Hurricane Maria had uprooted their lives in Puerto Rico. Before Maria, Mr. Berrios was a musician, specializing in Afro-Caribbean sounds.

“I love rhythm because it is the masculine part more prominent in Caribbean and African cultures,” Mr. Berrios said about the music he plays.

He also spent decades teaching children music. He was especially committed to engaging underserved communities in music. Mr. Berrios would look for household items or items that were thrown out and refurbish them to create instruments. It was an environmentally friendly, low-cost, and practical way of creating instruments for poor communities.

Mr. Berrios taught and directed many school bands and played in his own band. He was and still is a renowned musician, traveling the world for shows and gigs and even producing seven albums. He was even invited to the United Nations to talk about his music projects, especially those that help poor communities and environmental projects that recycle materials to create musical instruments.

Asaf is a fourth grader at Southwark School, a K-8 school located in South Philadelphia. He is just as talented as his father when it comes to music: Asaf plays several instruments and is very involved in his school band. Asaf also enjoys Southwark’s diverse school environment, which makes him feel at home and exposes him to many different cultures.

Mr. Berrios and Asaf arrived in Philadelphia in October, only one month after Maria hit. Mr. Berrios describes the night that Maria hit as one of the longest nights he ever experienced, despite having lived through two other strong hurricanes — Hugo in 1989 and George in 1998 — before Maria. Around 2:00PM, Mr. Berrios received a call that the island had lost power, there was no water, and only small amount of food was available. Maria had brought down cement walls that surrounded neighborhoods, leaving communities completely vulnerable. Severe flooding infiltrated homes and closed down roads.

The experience was so stressful and scary for Mr. Berrios that he suffered a small heart attack as the hurricane was hitting his part of the island.

“Maria was very slow moving,” Mr. Berrios explained, which caused its destruction to be all the more damaging.

After the hurricane passed, Puerto Rico was left without electricity for months.  Water was contaminated. Mr. Berrios found nearly everything in his house was broken, and many more people were left without homes altogether.

Hurricane Maria devastated thousands of lives, but this devastation also brought people together. Mr. Berrios noted that right after the storm, neighbors who didn’t normally speak to each other beyond polite pleasantries now worked together to rebuild their lives. In his own neighborhood, he and his neighbors built a community garden as an alternate source of food, since food was hard to find following Hurricane Maria. They planted spinach, avocados, and more.

Children in the neighborhood often played basketball together, and sometimes the adults would join in. There was no electricity to tie people to their computers and televisions inside their houses, so everyone did everything together. Neighbors would visit one another to make sure everyone had enough water and food and would share if anyone was running low.

Mr. Berrios got the entire community involved in music during these troubling times. There weren’t many fun activities people could get involved with given the situation and limited resources, but Mr. Berrios was able to create instruments from household goods and even debris. People spent hours playing music together. Asaf even learned how to play the flute and ukulele during this time. Music distracted people from the devastation they had all just lived through, and it often lifted moods and brightened spirits.

“Music helped us survive,” Mr. Berrios commented.

Mr. Berrios creating musical instruments with families at the FACE End-of-Year Family Celebration on June 1, 2018.

How did Mr. Berrios and Asaf end up in Philadelphia? Mr. Berrios’s wife, also a musician, lives and works in Philadelphia. She insisted that Mr. Berrios and Asaf leave Puerto Rico and come to Philadelphia to be closer to her. Mr. Berrios loves Puerto Rico and leaving was a difficult decision, but many schools were destroyed by Hurricane Maria, which forced the majority of his students to move away. He could no longer teach music, plus life in Puerto Rico was hard. There was hardly an infrastructure left, but even more importantly, Mr. Berrios needed medical care. He had been suffering from cancer, and receiving treatment in Puerto Rico had become next to impossible after Hurricane Maria.

Mr. Berrios was sure that he and Asaf would return to Puerto Rico after visiting his wife in Philadelphia; he couldn’t imagine leaving Puerto Rico, the country that had been his home throughout his entire life, behind, but his wife was persistent. She wanted her son with her and she wanted Mr. Berrios to take care of his health.

So, Mr. Berrios and Asaf moved permanently to Philadelphia. Asaf started attending Southwark and fell in love with the school and the city. Mr. Berrios began to play music anywhere and everywhere he could, including with the Latin American Association of Musicians and appearing on Temple University radio station’s Latin Saturdays. Mr. Berrios wanted to immerse himself in Philadelphia music culture the way he had immersed himself in Puerto Rico’s, and he did.

Music continues to be a large part of Mr. Berrios’s life even though he had to leave Puerto Rico.  He left behind instruments, CDs, books, and sheet music, but he has not found it difficult to rebuild his music collection here in Philadelphia. Mr. Berrios frequently plays shows and gigs in and around Philadelphia and involves Asaf more now that he is older.

Mr. Berrios can see himself making a home in Philadelphia. He enjoys the culture and diversity the city has and the large music environment. Although at first Mr. Berrios couldn’t fathom leaving Puerto Rico forever, he now believes Philadelphia is the right place for him and his family.  “God put us here,” he says, “and we’re going to grow here.”