By Ivan Robles, ’20

I had anticipated that spending part of my summer in San Juan, Puerto Rico doing qualitative research would be one of my biggest challenges yet. Although I had spent 21 years as a proud Puerto Rican living in Miami, I had not yet had the opportunity to truly familiarize myself with the island of my roots. Beyond pursuing an important academic goal, I knew that carrying out my senior thesis work here would have an incredible influence on how I viewed my Latinidad and my personal history. The island had long been a permanent fixture at the front of my mind, particularly following Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria in 2017, but I had yet to discover where I stood as a product of the diaspora within the nebulous of Puerto Rico’s painful colonial history, messy politics, and vibrant culture. The sangre puertorriqueñain me caused me to ache over what the island has long been forced to endure, but it also instilled in me a hunger to understand the island’s future and the actors at play in crafting it. And now, after having spent two weeks on La Isla del Encanto, I can admit that these unknowns and yearnings continue to linger and may, in fact, stay with me for a lifetime. However, my experiences thus far have allowed me to begin turning the pages of Puerto Rico’s story.

Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña

I am currently in San Juan working as a volunteer with La Corporación Proyecto ENLACE, a social-justice and environment-focused non-profit in the Caño Martín Peña area committed to collectively redeveloping its eight neighboring communities. One of these projects that I have interacted with personally is a collaboration with Oasis de Esperanza, a group born in the Caño Martín Peña community dedicated to providing resources to the area’s injecting drug user population. These resources include a needle exchange program to combat rates of HIV and Hepatitis C, collecting health information from community members, fostering collaborations with other local organizations and health centers, and advocating for public policies that defend the human rights of this vulnerable population. I have been working with the program’s director to bolster its capacity to provide these services by seeking out partnerships with groups with similar missions, particularly those on the mainland. My work with Oasis de Esperanza has allowed me to confront the myriad of ways the fundamental human rights of the community’s drug-user population are neglected, namely with public policies that limit access to medication and create obstacles for intervention programs. This work has also been significant in allowing me to begin immersing myself in the community and building connections that have positively impacted my thesis research.

These past two weeks I have sat down with a collection of individuals with true passion for transforming their communities. My thesis seeks to develop and understanding of Hurricane Maria’s impact on community organizing in Puerto Rico, pairing qualitative information from interviews with existing quantitative data to demonstrate how disaster events transform and mobilize community groups. I have had the opportunity to interact with over twenty community leaders these past two weeks, all conducting different work with the shared goal of not only allowing Puerto Rico and its residents to recover from Maria, but to also emerge even stronger than before. For example, the Foundation for Puerto Rico has committed itself to promoting the island’s visitor economy, providing professional and technological support to small businesses that have largely been neglected in the hurricane recovery project. Taller Tambuyé also seeks to build resilience with its bomba classes, a traditional dance and music style that prioritizes self-reflection and the importance of community. Both these groups became refuges for community members in the days following Maria and have since doubled their efforts. La Colectiva Feminista is another source of radical change in Puerto Rico, acting as both a safe haven and a collective power to force the island to reconcile with its history of violence against women and other marginalized communities and the ways in which Hurricane Maria has disproportionately affected these groups.

With each encounter I am granted a fresh perspective of the island’s current troubles and its future. I leave each conversation with an indefinite feeling in pit of my stomach, deep sadness and anger swirling alongside soaring pride and an excitement to see what lies ahead. I know my time here will not give me all the answers that I am searching for, but I know it will ultimately provide me with a preface for the pages that have yet to be written.