Tina Locurto (York Dispatch) interviews Sarah and Paul Ratliff, who settled in central Puerto Rico to create Mayani Farms, focusing on sustainability and organic living. They speak about how they consider the island to be their home and life after Hurricane María. [Note: Migration goes in many directions, friends…]
When Sarah and Paul Ratliff uprooted their lives in California to farm in the misty mountains of Utuado, Puerto Rico, the couple knew only five words of Spanish between them. Despite the uncertainties — Sarah called the decision “impulsive” from start to finish — the Ratliffs consider Puerto Rico their home. “It was time to do something really different, and so we decided in the last half of our lives we might as well do something that feels meaningful to us, and so, here we are,” Sarah Ratliff said, smiling from her veranda that overlooks a lush, green mountainscape.
Utuado, located just a smidge to the west of the center of the island, is surrounded by high mountains and the Lago Dos Bocas reservoir. Though the Ratliffs live only six miles from the town center, it takes a half hour to get there. The winding, narrow road carved into the mountainside passes colorful Mediterranean-style houses, and, on the last leg of the trip, a yard full of vibrant peacocks. [. . .]
In just a few months, the couple sold their house, packed their belongings and made the long journey to the mountain neighborhood of Don Alonso in Utuado. In about a year, they established Mayani Farms, and Paul’s dream of working in agriculture was achieved. Focusing on sustainability and organic living, the Ratliffs do not sell any of the products they raise. Instead, they use much of the goat milk, cheese and eggs for themselves and share with neighbors and friends.
Alongside Sarah and Paul, 11 cats, three dogs, one bird, seven goats and pigs, one buck and too many chickens and ducks to count have also taken up residence at the Ratliffs’ Spanish terracotta-style home. From the moment the couple arrived, friendly faces, warm greetings and a strong community caused the Ratliffs to feel as if they had been traveling for 40 years before finally coming home.
To Sarah, self-identity is an important part of her decision to move to Puerto Rico. As a biracial woman, she tried to identify with each piece of herself — African American, Japanese and white — but it felt “disingenuous.”
“I weave in and out of self-identity depending on the situation,” she said. “There’s also the experience I have of being very ambiguous-looking and people assuming I am Puerto Rican, Persian, from the Philippines or some other place that’s not me.”
Experiencing the same struggles and fighting the same battles as her friends and neighbors during Hurricane Maria helped Sarah discover her true identity. [. . .] “I really started identifying with Puerto Ricans in a way I hadn’t before,” she said. “I’ve always felt assimilated into Puerto Rico, but after the hurricane … I really felt less American, I felt less multiracial — I felt Puerto Rican.”
Like Sarah, many Puerto Ricans share an identity from several races — African, Spanish and Taino, the indigenous people of the Caribbean. She meets people from the island who assume she’s Puerto Rican, which is fine with her. “I see no reason to correct people because maybe it’s just not that important to me anymore. And it’s got nothing to do with trying to be someone I’m not,” Sarah wrote, in an article for Multiracial Media. “It’s about being able to live someplace where I’m seen as an equal, and isn’t that what all POC (people of color) strive for?”
Hurricane a ‘defining moment’: Of the 5 acres of farmland the Ratliffs cultivate, about 80% of their trees were blown away by Hurricane Maria.
As the winds started up, the Ratliffs knew their lives would change — though they were not certain how. The first half of Hurricane Maria did little damage. After the eye of the storm passed over, however, the second half caused devastation. “The sound is something I’ll never forget. It’s not something I can necessarily describe, but it’s harrowing,” Sarah said. “It sounds like the meanest, baddest expletive you can imagine — and its sole purpose is to knock down your door.”
Their house was not damaged, thanks to years spent hurricane-proofing. Their farm did not fare as well. After the wind and rain died down, Paul said, his crops were the last thing on his mind. His and Sarah’s own survival, as well as helping neighbors and friends, was most important. It took the Ratliffs 10 days to clean their driveway after Hurricane Maria. They didn’t have electricity for nine months. The six-month cleanup they expected turned into a year and a half, with work still in progress.
On a warm, showery afternoon, Paul takes visitors on a tour of the farm. As he climbs the muddy hills that link each crop and tree, he passes several plants supported by metal beams and rope — an effort to save the few trees that have a chance at recovery. He and Sarah said it’s “demoralizing” to lose everything they had worked years to achieve. “You can’t re-create eight years of work in a couple of months,” Paul said. “It’s just not possible.” [. . .]
[Photo by Tina Locurto: Sarah and Paul Ratliff at Mayani Farms, on March 6, 2019. Editor’s note: Tina Locurto, a senior journalism student at Penn State University, and a group of her classmates spent their recent spring break reporting from Puerto Rico. Locurto will be joining The York Dispatch as a general assignment reporter in May following her graduation.]