Aurita Maldonado is a US Army veteran, Purple Heart recipient, award-winning author, and Afro Latin dance instructor who has danced intimately with Death.
She served more than eight years in the military, including two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. After a 200lb IED exploded directly under her vehicle and three rounds hit her pack, she chose to simplify her life and follow her dreams.
She moved to Haines, Alaska, to become a rafting guide in a bald eagle preserve and face her PTSD while running through the wilderness. In 2012, she contracted a severe case of rat lungworm, which paralyzed her from the waist down, leaving her in a wheelchair with neuropathy over her entire body.
Aurita was told she wouldn’t walk again, but they misjudged her determination. Her inspirational recovery is featured on Animal Planet’s show Monsters Inside Me: Season 5 Episode 1.
In 2017 Aurita moved to the 24-mile island of Vieques, Puerto Rico to teach salsa, but Hurricane Maria hit and shifted her focus to survival. She was pregnant with no electricity, water, nor communication. Her story was featured in the documentary, Broken Worlds: The Island (Vieques).
Her story was also featured in CNN Special Reports “Storm of Controversy: What Really Happened in Puerto Rico,” hosted by Bill Weir, a year after Hurricane Maria.
Today she continues to reside in Vieques with her two children. She lost their father to a heart attack, but continued their dream and runs an organic farm, La Finca Infinidad. She is the director of Tropical Storm Dance Co. and teaches salsa, bachata, Zumba, and Latin Fusion Aerobics…all with a side of inspiration.
You can contact or connect with Aurita Maldonado at:
Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?
I began reading Dean Koontz novels when I was about eight years old because my stepmother read them constantly. I couldn’t understand a lot of the words he used, so I always had a dictionary and notebook on standby. I fell in love with how he could draw my senses as well as emotions into his stories. I could see, taste, feel, hear, and smell his descriptions, and that fascinated me. I still remember how much I enjoyed a writing assignment I had in first grade. Storytelling is something I’ve enjoyed immensely my entire life. Oh, and last but absolutely not least, Maya Angelou.
What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?
I spent 8 years, 5 months, and 29 days (all veterans know the exact number) in the U.S. Army as a “Cryptologic Chinese and Korean Linguist.” Turns out the challenge of storytelling is something I enjoy in multiple languages. I had a Top Secret/Secret Compartmentalized Information clearance (think a full locked/guarded door higher than just basic Top Secret) and never could or can have conversations about what I did anywhere but underground. I had turned down a scholarship to the University of Chicago to enlist, vowing to get my education while serving, but after returning from Afghanistan, I honorably discharged, sold everything I owned that didn´t fit into my Rav4, and moved to Haines, Alaska to be a river guide on the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve (BEST decision I’ve ever made).
I’ve enjoyed 18 years of teaching salsa and bachata to adults and children. I´ve also taught Zumba Fitness for 13 years. I directed the Moab Salsa Bachata Festival in Moab, UT for two years before moving back to my island, Vieques, Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria I gave all of my dance classes for free and worked cutting trees and cleaning yards with the father of my children. Now I´m an organic farmer. I run La Finca Infinidad, a permaculture project that I began in order to keep my children absolutely connected to Atabey, our culture, and their father.
What’s something about me that readers wouldn’t know? I had a pet rooster named Buster when I was in seventh grade at Milton Hershey School (a boarding school) in rural Pennsylvania. I trained him and brought him to nursing homes as a therapy animal, and that is where I began to learn different perspectives in droves. I chatted with the residents as they pet Buster, teary-eyed, remembering their youth on the farm. The resounding theme was: Do what you want, I wish I had taken more time for my family, the only things you’ll regret are the things you were too scared to try, and it all ends eventually.
Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?
My book’s title feels like it’s taken lifetimes, but it came together easily at the same time. I’ve been talking about dancing in the rain for nearly two decades and talking about writing a book for nearly three. I was given the nickname “Hurricane Rita” in 2005 for my boundless energy and fire, and the whole, “I am the storm” movement fits, being that it’s the premise of the entire story.
I wrote the book as a response to two messages I received towards the end of 2021. The messages were the kind that make you stop everything you are doing and pay attention because it can be a matter of life-or-death. Both were asking how I´m O.K. after the things I’ve survived: abandonment, war, paralysis, losing the love of my life… Finding myself a pregnant homeless wounded veteran, and widowed mother of a seven-and-a-half-month-old. They both asked how had I not folded my hand and given up because they didn’t want to play the game any longer. How is it that I smile so easily and freely after so much tragedy?
I am Taino. My Taino name is Niki Guarinara, Guardian of the Good Spirits. Atabey is our Mother Earth. She functions in connection to everything… Ecosystems that are all one. I’ve lived outdoors for the last 6 years on a hill disconnected from city water and electricity. I’ve learned that you need the rain as much as the sun, the light as much as the dark, and when you pay attention, you can feel a storm or earthquake coming like a dog can. Shockingly fast centipedes do not surprise me any longer, as I’ve found that when I pay attention, I have an instinct that warns me to their exact location when they are present. I found the title because that’s what the book is: a guide through my own instinctual healing process to cultivate my peace through the torrential downpours that feel crushing but at the same time, saturate the earth as a sweet catalyst for growth. Becoming One with the Storm is the smooth, ancient rhythm of peace cultivated amidst the cacophony of grief.
How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?
The first time I saw the image for the cover, I said, “That’s it.” That is the physical embodiment of “the grounding current of the storm that courses our veins and connects us all to everything around us. Our most basic life force!” She is powerful and as grounded as the matriarch Ceiba, dancing effortlessly with whispers of love clearly visible in the clouds. The cover is exactly as I saw it in my mind.
When I first held my book in my hands, I felt my father’s love clearly as well as that of Alex, the father of my children. I felt my very alive inner child cheering, and I cried. This book will save lives
If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?
“There’s Hope” by India.Airie
“Good Man” by India.Airie
“Sleep Through the Static” by Jack Johnson
“No es Cantar por Cantar” by Gilberto Santa Rosa and Pirulo y su Tribu
“Niagara en Bicicleta” by Juan Luis Guerra
“El Caballo Viejo” by Roberto Torres
What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?
The takeaway is that we are all the main characters AND AUTHORS of our lives, no matter what we´ve been taught or have told ourselves, and Death is real. It is absolutely necessary to drop the “worst critic” mantra and learn to be your best friend. It sounds cute like when you tell a teenager, “Lose the attitude!” or “Leave your troubles at the door,” but how? How do you do that? You cannot do any of it if you don’t know who you truly are. We get to create our most beautiful art with ourselves, and we can choose what type of person we want to be if we understand where we are in our healing process and why. It takes work and discipline (doing things you need to do even when you don’t want to do them) to remember that fact throughout the entire process. Self-honesty is paramount. When you begin to be honest with yourself about your participation in your own conflicts, everything around you gets a lot easier. I want my story to inspire you to begin your own journey into self-honesty and becoming your own best friend. I want this book to motivate you to choose to change your life. I want you to be inspired to save your own life and align your thoughts, words, and actions to cultivate peace.
My perfect reader has had thoughts about moving away from society and the 9-5 lifestyle. They feel there is something off about “it all,” and want to do something different. Someone who has experienced trauma, grief, injury or is going through a “rough patch.” The perfect reader is anyone who has EVER thought about suicide. I wrote this book for veterans. The ones who come back and can’t find an ounce of inspiration to try to fit back into the façade after returning from war. We are trained to put ourselves last, disconnect from our feelings, and always distinguish a “them” and an “us.” and have seen too much reality to “believe the hype.”
What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?
When I began to align my thoughts, words, and actions, I felt a bliss I hadn’t experienced before: An excitement for life that was nearly palpable in its brilliance. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do authentically. I had a recurring thought that I wanted to be able to inject people, infecting them with that exact feeling. I said it repeatedly that I wished I could just take a needle and suck out a little of the joy I feel to infect others. I’ve found a way.
When I spoke to a few squads in the Ft. Indiantown Gap Training Center, they said that EVERY SOLDIER should hear my message. That is powerful.
I’ve received many letters of readers who have changed their lives completely since reading my book. One even took her name off an assisted suicide program.
What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?
I have a companion workbook that I am working on currently to accompany The Zen of Dancing in the Rain: Becoming One with the Storm. I am the Storm but Who Am I? A Journey. Also, I have a children’s book and a series in mind inspired by this past Father’s Day. The kids and I ate a pineapple that their deceased father had planted with his own hands in 2018, 5 solid years ago. You can learn a lot about survival from paying attention to plants. The non-writing project I’m working on is acquiring drinkable water for my community here in Vieques, PR. I run a farm solely on the light of the sun and rain catchment right now, but I’m working to get an Air Water Generator up here so we can gravity feed the community water while creating hydro electric energy and expanding the crops.
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