Embracing Puerto Rico

It wasn’t exactly a slow news week.

Covid-19, a.k.a the novel coronavirus, was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization.

The President of the United States declared a national emergency. As he described his proclamation, those were “two very big words.”

The stock market crashed.

The NCAA canceled March Madness.

The NBA and NHL suspended their seasons.

MLB postponed Opening Day of the 2020 season.

Disney closed all its theme parks.

Travel between the United States and most of Europe was announced to be suspended.

Schools began closing and attempting to move course instruction online. Thousands of classroom teachers who had never heard of Zoom quickly discovered modern videoconferencing.

Other than 9-11, I can’t remember a week like that.

Meanwhile, I had arrived the previous weekend with a team of volunteers in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We had committed to a service trip there more than six months ago partly to help with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, but also to begin a wide-ranging relationship between our university alma mater and our clearly underserved fellow American citizens about 1150 miles southeast of Florida.

While we were getting media snippets of the chaos on the mainland, we found ourselves highly engaged in a set of more basic, everyday challenges faced by the people of Puerto Rico.

We learned about the historic struggles of Puerto Rico, approximately 400 years under Spanish authority and just over 100 years under American governance.

We learned about the deeply personal, unique, and diverse culture of Puerto Rico in music, dance, mural art, proper apparel, naming public buildings, storytelling, legends, heroes, and political argument.

We learned that there seems to be an infinite number of delightful ways to combine rice and beans, in much the same way many on the mainland think of pizza or burgers. Puerto Rican cuisine, particularly Mofongo, is a source of creativity, pleasure, and national pride. Locally grown artisan coffee is exquisite. Although sugar cane is no longer harvested in Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth is the largest producer of rum in the world.

We learned through our host partner, Instituto Nueva Escuela (INE), how Montessori education is making a seminal change in the efficacy of Puerto Rico’s public school system. Understanding the social and emotional needs of children brings compassion into the classroom as a working platform organically linked to lesson planning.

We learned that the resources of our nation are spread unequally, but we can help to fix that in small ways by offering to redirect our attention to those in need.

We learned once again that before you can help anyone, you have to learn to listen closely to what they are saying. When it’s in a language other than your own, you have to listen even more closely.

We learned there really is a way of speaking called Spanglish, and that the idioms of an island landscape sharing Spanish and English languages are charming and fun to learn.

We learned the tact necessary to be a part of an adjacent community, the humility necessary to offer to teach new skills, and the camaraderie of sharing a purpose with like-minded volunteers absent an agenda other than to be helpful.

We learned that our love is always needed everywhere we are willing to share it.

This was my third trip with the Yale Alumni Service Corps, a collection of individuals who pledge time each year to enter the everyday lives of friends around the world we otherwise would never meet.

Our visit to San Juan focused on elementary and middle school education, public health, athletic sportsmanship, and construction projects to improve the local school infrastructure. My own prior experience in these programs centered on coaching small-business entrepreneurs, but this time I was assigned to a team dedicated to teaching newsletter writing skills to help information move more easily into and out of the classroom.

When you start the week explaining what a newsletter is and end the week with six classrooms each producing twenty beautiful newsletters, you get a sense of what kind of impact a single week can actually deliver.

When you see a playground without shelter from the sun on one weekend and a team-built canopy bringing comforting shade to that same playground the following weekend, you know the week’s work was well applied.

When a chorus of joyful children surrounds you singing their favorite songs and dancing a set of newly learned steps, you have a sense that the time you spent together might give them hope to continue their studies after you depart.

Puerto Rico was certainly hit hard by Maria, but that’s only part of the story. The main island of Puerto Rico is approximately 110 miles long, 35 miles wide, and home to more than three million people. These individuals are U.S. citizens, yet they have no vote in federal elections, notably the presidency. Although they elect their governor by popular vote, they have but one non-voting member of Congress.

While Puerto Ricans pay no federal income tax, they pay FICA and progressive local taxes. They work as hard as any Americans I know, believe in democracy as much as any Americans I know, serve in uniform and are deployed when called to war—and yet their voices in times of need are severely limited.

Puerto Rico endured a severe downturn in its economy tied to a loss of jobs in the pharmaceutical industry with a change in American tax policy. Just as it was making progress recovering from Hurricane Maria, it was hit by a devastating earthquake. In order to rebuild fallen structures that may not have met code restrictions over the past 50 years, clear title is required to receive FEMA or bank financing, yet there are few resources available to Puerto Ricans to secure title to property where families often have lived for generations.

When Puerto Rico needs help from its parent nation, where is the voice it deserves?

Think of it this way: If Puerto Rico were a U.S. state instead of a territory, it would have two senators and perhaps as many as six voting members in the House of Representatives. This isn’t an insignificant segment of our population. This is a vital, energized, eloquent citizenry in need of the attention our current laws are not offering them.

Will Puerto Rico someday be a state that enjoys all the benefits of representation so many of us do? Who knows?

In the coming decades while that is decided, I invite you when the opportunity allows to visit this gorgeous, magnificent, enchanted Caribbean gem and offer the gifts of your talent or treasure to speed its recovery. These are our fellow American citizens, and they welcome our friendship as much as our love. You will be embraced!

When we serve others, we fuel the spirit of our own souls. When you’re dancing the bomba in the warm tropical breeze, you might get a sense of how glorious outreach can be.

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Photo by the author on location with YASC.