Puerto Rican Ingenuity and Spirit Still Rising High & Making History

Posted on September 20, 2019 by Catholic Charities Admin  |  Share

Comite Noviembre volunteers arriving at Coliseo de Arecibo, Puerto Rico 

By Teresa Santiago, Catholic Charities NY Spanish Media Consultant 

A few days ago, I closely tracked Hurricane Dorian as it threatened the Caribbean, praying that it would not hit Puerto Rico as it had been forecasted. At the last minute, Dorian veered off Puerto Rico’s coast and selfishly I breathed a sigh of relief.

I was in Puerto Rico in the beginning of August doing volunteer work as part of Comité Noviembre’s, (CN), 13th annual educational trip to Puerto Rico. CN is an organization I co-founded 33-years ago to raise awareness of Puerto Rico’s rich culture, language, and heritage, and to pay tribute to the accomplishments Puerto Ricans have made to this country. In September 2017, CN launched the Estoy Con Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Effort with its consortium of Puerto Rican leaders, organizations, business partners and with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, which served as fiscal conduit. This effort raised over half a million dollars and has provided direct aid and services to over 85 nonprofit organizations throughout the island. These organizations deal with issues ranging from medical and mental health, education, solar energy, watershed projects, food insecurity, HIV/AIDS, homelessness, suicide prevention and many basic-human-need services. Grants were also awarded to small businesses and micro enterprises to stimulate the economy.  This trip was the third humanitarian mission to Puerto Rico.

I arrived days after el paro nacional (“the national strike”), where over 1 million Boricuas crammed the nation’s largest highway through to the street of old San Juan, to demand the resignation of its then Governor Ricardo Roselló. No one went to work or school and those that could not attend the demonstration watched in awe on TV. The largest shopping mall in the Caribbean, Plaza Las Americas, closed. Grocery stores, restaurants, barber shops, beauty parlors, nail salons, car dealerships, mom-and-pop stores - everything closed!  Mothers, fathers, children, elders, religious, people from all political affiliations, and from all walks of life attended this peaceful demonstration, and they won! The Puerto Rican Diaspora also showed its solidarity and strength with demonstrations throughout the United States. Spain, Italy and France also joined in.

The Ricky Renuncia (“Ricky Resign”) Movement was a response to the nearly 900-page chat-group leak published by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, (“Center for Investigative Journalism”), which contained sexist, homophobic, classist, misogynistic and violent comments. It also contained evidence of deep-seated corruption in Puerto Rico’s government. But perhaps the most hurtful trigger was the revelation that Rosselló and his all-male chat group, including some of his close associates, made fun of the dead from Hurricane María. That’s where Puerto Ricans drew the line.

The movement was a show of strength, determination, ingenuity and love of country. With a fiscal crisis of $74 billion in unpayable debt, the creation of a fiscal control-board, closing of half of its schools, its broken health care system, the devastation of Hurricane Maria and the institutionalized government corruption, the public exposure of the Governor’s “chats” was the straw that broke the backs of our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters. The energy was electric, palpable and the people of Puerto Rico made history!

For the last 13 years, I have been traveling to Puerto Rico on an annual basis on educational trips planned by Comité Noviembre. Its mission has always been to create awareness of Puerto Rico’s rich culture, language, and heritage and to pay tribute to the accomplishments Puerto Ricans have made to America.

I was very hopeful because we were going to visit the places where we have done volunteer work in the past and would see the progress of these projects. At the same time, we would join new volunteer efforts on what was our third humanitarian mission to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. 

On our first day we returned to Hunger Corp., a nonprofit organization that is building and restoring 32 homes for victims of Hurricane María in La Hormiga community of Dorado. In August 2018, CN volunteers removed debris, power-washed, plastered, and painted throughout this area. It was truly gratifying to see the homes we worked on last year, completed and move-in-ready for their owners. This year we built the frame for the cement that would form the foundation of a new house. Can’t wait to see its progress next year!

Teresa Santiago with Comite Noviembre volunteers building cement frames for new house foundations

As the trip continued, I witnessed people from all walks of life - young, old, employed, unemployed - waiting for hours on long lines to receive a bag of groceries and a hot meal. People were sleeping on the streets of some of the most affluent areas of Puerto Rico. Young men were begging for money for food. Situations I had never seen in Puerto Rico before. 

By all accounts, the tourist areas of Isla Verde, Old San Juan and Condado are open for business and seemingly doing well. But if you travel just a few miles away from these areas into the center of the island, the story is totally different and dire. Almost forty percent (40%) of Puerto Rico’s residents are either children under 18 or the elderly. The minimum wage is $5.08 an hour. The unemployment rate is currently at 7% down from 14.99%, partly because almost a million people have left the island, migrating to the states after Hurricane Maria. Food insecurity, homelessness, and physical and mental health issues are growing daily in Puerto Rico.

But those who have stayed are working to create a new Puerto Rico. One based on the needs and decisions of its people. What I witnessed in Puerto Rico was a community taking control of its future, starting their own micro-enterprises, using their land, artistic abilities, forming community and business-collectives to assist neighbors and create sustainability.

Members of Asociaon de Mujeres Agriempresarias (Association of Women Agrientreprenuers) explaining their work

I was awed by the Asociaión de Mujeres Agroempresarias (“Association of Women Agricultural Entrepreneurs”), an organization created by a group of female farmers whose goal is to encourage the development of agribusinesses for women. They empower women through expert training to fill traditionally-non-female jobs, allowing them to advance the economic development of their families. They establish sustainable agricultural enterprises, and market their products thus contributing to the economic stability of their homes and their community.

We were treated to a delicious lunch with products grown exclusively by these agroempresarias, which included avocados, sweet potatoes, cilantro, honey, sweet peppers – all home grown. We were scheduled to visit Finca Cosechas Tierra Viva, the first “smart” farm in Puerto Rico, producing sustainable greens, herbs, vegetables, and fruits in an acre and a half of land. However, a torrential down pour kept us from visiting the actual farm. But its co- founder and mechanical engineer, Franco Marcano, made an incredible presentation explaining what a “smart” farm is and how it works.

He blew us away with his concept: implementing accessible technology towards the production of food which in turn develops a sustainable, productive, efficient and profitable farming model. As he simply stated, “Cosechas Tierra Viva is where ecological practices meet technology”. Puerto Rico imports 85% of its food, and Hurricane María has shown once more the vulnerability of our food security. The development of the agricultural sector is a priority. Some challenges to that are land accessibility and high-capital investments. Cosechas Tierra Viva has identified how the local agricultural model can be highly improved. It is currently based on a big farm operation, which has a high cost and low production per square feet.

With food security being an extremely high priority for Puerto Ricans, I had the privilege of volunteering for Ministerio Buen Samaritano (“Good Samaritan Ministry” or “MARC”), a non-profit organization that provides non-perishable foods and a hot meals to Puerto Rican families in need. MARC reaches a total of 90,000 people monthly.  After Hurricanes Irma and Maria, MARC distributed over 12 million pounds of food to 640,000 people, impacting forty-five municipalities on of the island.

My volunteer experience with MARC truly left an impression that I will honor for many years to come. The day before our service I received a call from its young Pastor. He said, “Teresa, we have received accounts that there is great need in the Arecibo area of the island and we are going to do a “pop-up” food pantry distribution as well as hot meals for whomever shows up.  We don’t know how many people are going to show up. We just announced it. Are you still in?” My response: “Absolutely!” Our original plan had been “just” to prepare grocery bags and serve lunch to approximately 500 people.

As our bus driver turned into the Coliseo de Aricibo, the largest sports arena in the area, the line of people waiting went around the coliseum 3 times, 4 people deep. As 38 members of our trip got off the bus the crowd burst into cheers. Within minutes our team was instructed, given assignments and the distribution began. The most powerful part of my experience were the blessings, the hugs, and the tears in the eyes of the people we were serving. The humbleness and genuine gratitude from the people we were serving truly struck me. I will never forget that feeling! At the end of the day 1000 families received bags of groceries and a hot meal.

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