Beyond Chicago

“Trauma on trauma”: A pandemic and back-to-back natural disasters leave Puerto Ricans devastated

By Shreya Bansal
Medill Reports

Starting in late December, a series of earthquakes devastated southern Puerto Rico, forcing thousands to take shelter on the streets, in their cars and in government tents as their homes were destroyed. The situation left people on the island traumatized. At the time, many Puerto Ricans were still trying to recover from the shock of Hurricane Maria, a category five hurricane in September 2017.

When Maria hit, the island was already in the midst of an economic crisis, drowned in $70 billion of public debt. On top of that, the long history of living as a U.S. colony has worsened the natural disasters’ psychological impact. One disaster after another, along with the lack of mental health facilities, has led people to depression, committing suicide or drugs, according to leaders from various non-profit organizations who stepped up to help Puerto Ricans in lieu of adequate government measures.

COVID-19 has only added to the trauma, as the elderly population with a high proportion of underlying health issues lives in fear of getting the virus while also dealing with the economic impacts of the pandemic. Virus precautions have also made  seeking both mental health care and community support networks more difficult and complicated.

“It’s trembling every day, every night.”

The largest earthquake that struck Puerto Rico’s southern coast on Jan. 7 registered as a 6.4 magnitude and was followed by a 5.6 magnitude aftershock a few hours after. According to the Puerto Rico Seismic Network, the island has not seen this level of seismic activity since 1918.

Health and Human Services secretary Alex M. Azar II declared a public health emergency for Puerto Rico on Jan. 8 because of the quakes.

Earthquake shelters in Puerto Rico
Thousand of Puerto Ricans were stuck in government shelters even after earthquakes (Joel Jacobs/MEDILL)

“Having seen your home and knowing that you can’t physically go in there is very traumatizing. You’re physically, emotionally, and mentally tired, and it’s trembling every day, every night,” said Helga Maldonado, regional director of the nonprofit ESCAPE, an organization that stepped up to help affected areas after the earthquake.

Maldonado, along with members of her organization, went door to door to find out how they could help. Mental health services were the top necessity people reported, she said. ESCAPE, along with the Association of Puerto Rican Psychologists and other non-profit organizations, provides free psychological services to the survivors of natural disasters.

“It’s trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma,” said Maldonado. The lack of action from the government left people anxious and helpless, she said. “After all natural disasters, all the societal issues are exposed and it’s basically like you’re undressing the country.”

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Keeping the spirit: Religious groups adapt to COVID-19 but challenges persist

By Jake Holland
Medill Reports

Instead of preaching to a live crowd, replete with white-haired parishioners and toddlers wobbling up and down the nave, Pastor Ryan Kapple has found himself facing the empty pews, delivering sermons via livestream to no one in particular.

High-definition cameras track and record Kapple’s every move and turn of phrase, transmitting his services via Facebook Live to the 300 or so members who frequent Leawood Presbyterian Church in suburban Kansas City.

Like nearly every institution in American life, places of worship — churches, synagogues, mosques and the like — have been hit hard by the novel coronavirus and subsequent social distancing measures.

No longer are Christians able to physically gather as one, to sway to sweet hymnals and nod their heads when a verse speaks to them. No longer are Jews able to join together at the synagogue for weekly Shabbat dinners, and no longer are Muslims able to lay side by side in the mosque to pray.

But amidst the uncertainty and lack of physical meetings, religious leaders have turned to online platforms to practice their faith with community members. These measures are hardly a substitute for in-person worship, but they allow people of faith to find support from their community and their religion at a time when so much else remains up in the air.

“Gathering is essential to institutions of faith, and gathering is part of the human experience,” Kapple said. “It’s been a challenge, definitely, adjusting to our new normal.”

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Beef mecca Buenos Aires shifts toward more vegetable options

By Dan Moberger and Colin Boyle
Medill Reports

Meat, especially beef, is deeply embedded in Argentina’s culture. Argentines consume more beef per capita than residents of any other country.

Family gatherings revolve around “asados,” which most Americans would call a barbecue. Sporting events, protests and everyday lunch breaks give locals a chance to try a variety of meats, often grilled at makeshift stands.

The country’s top eatery is a steakhouse called Don Julio Parilla. It’s ranked No. 34 by William Reed’s list of the world’s best restaurants. Traditional Argentine dishes include a schnitzel-like breaded meat cutlet, heavy cuts of steak, meat-stuffed empanadas and a chorizo sandwich fondly known as “choripan.”

Vegan and vegetarian diets have been growing in popularity across the world, but Argentina has been relatively intolerant of them, until now. Meat consumption in Argentina was at an all-time low in 2019. Vegans and vegetarians still face ridicule from meat-loving traditionalists, but they have an increasing array of options. Buenos Aires, the capital city, now has over 60 vegan or vegetarian restaurants.

The dip in meat consumption is explained by a variety of reasons. The rising popularity of vegetable-heavy or -only diets, more visible animal rights activism and the nation’s struggling economy all likely contributed. In this video, we go to the source and ask Porteños — as the people of Buenos Aires are called — about the cultural shift.

Photo at top: A plate of steak at Don Julio Parrilla in Buenos Aires is served up on a Tuesday afternoon at the world-famous steakhouse. (Colin Boyle/MEDILL)

Local organizing key to rent strikes across country

By Samone Blair
Medill Reports

Rent strike protests were among various demonstrations that took place across the country on May 1. Employees at companies like Amazon, Instacart, Target and Whole Foods also took to the streets while still practicing social distancing in honor of International Workers’ Day.

Organizers who align with Rent Strike 2020 are calling for the cancellation of rent, mortgage and utility bills for two months due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. A bill introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) in April lays out legislation for similar payment cancellation.

Peter Meyer Reimer, a Rent Strike 2020 Organizing Lead, says it’s important to differentiate a rent cancellation from a rent freeze and eviction moratorium.

“I’m answering 50 to 100 emails a day from people saying, ‘Look, I know my landlord can’t kick me out right now but they’re going to evict me the second they can. They’re saying they’ll ruin my credit rating,'” said Meyer Reimer. “And so these people are living in fear.”

In order to be connected with a mutual aid organization in your local area to help out or for support, you can call 312-883-4677 or visit

Photo at top: A bike pulls a Rent Strike banner down a street. (@fivedemandsglobal/Twitter)

Argentinian designer turns fashion into environmental activism

By Layan Dahhan and Esther Bower
Medill Reports

BUENOS AIRES — After visiting parts of Argentina that were full of pollution, Jesica Pullo, a designer based in Buenos Aires, decided to combine her passions for fashion and the environment to create Project Biotico, a sustainable fashion company. Pullo uses recyclable materials — like potato chip and cookie bags — to make clothes, purses and other fashion accessories.

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Preserving a coffee lifestyle in the ‘notable’ cafés of Buenos Aires

By Xinyi Zhang and Yilin Xie
Medill Reports

BUENOS AIRES — Fifteen years ago, Nestor Pichelli decided to change careers and found himself helping preserve a mainstay of life in this capital city: the café notable, or historic coffee shop. “The coffee culture in Argentina is a lifestyle,” he said, as he sat among tables full of patrons at Café Tortoni, one of the city’s oldest “cafés notables,” and a magnet for tourists. “It is a mode of how people interact and talk about life.”

The ornately decorated Café Tortoni — with dozens of artifacts hanging on its walls — has a history going back more than 160 years. Before it became a destination for international tourists, it had long been a social meeting place for artists, writers and politicians in Argentina.

Café El Banderín is another of the city’s classic neighborhood coffee bars. Its history is told through the wall of pennants and pictures from soccer teams given to owner Mario Riesco over many decades.

Riesco isn’t betting his bar on the lure of its history. He is seeking a younger clientele, with original and novel drinks and specials. He hired Agustina Sarni to help bring in a more diverse, neighborhood crowd, many of whom have become regulars at this cozy coffee bar.

Photo at top: In the afternoon, almost every café is full of customers. They come here to unite, to chat about things that have been going on, or just relax and enjoy the coffee. (Yilin Xie & Xinyi Zhang/MEDILL)

Blackness in Puerto Rico

By Grace Asiegbu
Medill Reports

Driving down the winding roads of Piñones, cars are greeted with green leaves and bold flowers. Between barrios, roads are marked with bright, lively signs informing drivers of their current location. Soon the view shifts from natural vegetation to sights and smells of restaurants lining the strip.

People are buzzing in and out of the markets, visiting friends or buying groceries. Our vans turn into a lot, and we walk into a space lined all over with chestnut wood. The colonial Puerto Rican flag hangs next to the red, green and yellow flag of Loíza. The gaze of a vejigante mask follows us around the room, and a portrait of Puerto Rican laureate Arturo Schomberg frozen in perpetuity is framed on the wall.

Maricruz Clemente Rivera greets us with a wide smile as we walk into her space, a space that’s colorful and breezy. We are there to learn the art of bomba.

Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican style of music and dance that stretches back centuries. It’s rumored bomba was created in 1501, but the first documentation of the dance was in 1787. Like many things in Latin American countries, it emerged as a means of survival for enslaved Africans during the transatlantic slave trade. Bomba originated in Loíza, the Capital of Tradition in Puerto Rico. Bomba is a percussive style of dance largely marked by the dancer and drummer having a conversation through the steps. It is a challenge between the drummer and the dancer, in which the drummer has to follow the dancer’s steps and anticipate their next step.

Clemente teaches bomba as a means of reconnecting to Puerto Ricans’ African heritage.

Maricruz Clemente gives historical context and racial analysis of bomba music and dance before the lesson begins. (Alison Saldanha/MEDILL)

“People don’t want to talk about slavery. We started with the music because it’s not as…scary,” Clemente said.

For Clemente, bomba is a symbol of African Puerto Rican history and it’s a way to celebrate a heritage some do not acknowledge. Loíza has Puerto Rico’s largest population of Black people, a number that sat around 6% in the 2010 Census. Yet according to Clemente, too many Loízans deny their Blackness.
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South Africa’s Fourth Industrial Revolution limited by lack of computer literacy, access

By Amy Sokolow
Medill Reports

Thabo Malatji, 29, commutes an hour from Alexandra, a township north of Johannesburg, to Tembisa, another township even farther north, every day for work. His office is inside a cluster of vibrant blue, green and orange converted shipping containers, which pop against their dusty surroundings. The neighborhood is dotted with trees and situated in a community of modest, tightly packed houses with tin roofs. Malatji works at the Tembisa location of the Youth Employment Services, or YES, on their marketing team, and is mostly in charge of their social media presence. He is guaranteed employment for at least the next couple weeks, since he has been working with them for almost a year as part of a career training program, where he also learns computer and business skills.

His real passion, though, is fashion. “I actually made this top that I’m wearing,” he said, pulling at the hem of its blue-and-white-striped fabric to show it off. It’s perfectly tailored to his thin frame. Malatji has been trying to get his fashion business, Solexxx Threads, off the ground through social media, but he can’t always get his work done because he can’t get online at home. “I just need the financial backing because what I use here is Wi-Fi, and when I’m out of the range, I don’t have internet access,” he said.

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Brexit spells uncertain future for London’s financial services industry

By Carolina Gonzalez and Jake Holland
Medill Reports

Well before the word “Brexit” went from idea to reality, some of the world’s biggest banks began to loosen their ties with London, once one of the unquestioned leaders in finance. But now that Brexit is a reality, will the city of Shakespeare, Big Ben and, yes, global finance, also lose its coveted status in Europe?

Brexit, the messy divorce between the United Kingdom and the European Union, has cast a shadow of uncertainty on pretty much every industry since the 2016 referendum. Financial services is no exception, and many banks operating in London moved sections of their business elsewhere to mitigate risk — even before the UK formally began its uncoupling from the EU in January 2020.

As of January 2019, these shifts accounted for at least 800 million pounds in assets, or about 10% of the United Kingdom’s total banking sector assets, according to a report by Ernst & Young. The firm said this was a “conservative estimate” based on already announced plans; some banks have not yet revealed what they are going to do.

The Global Financial Centres Index, a semi-annual report compiled by think tanks in China and the United Kingdom, lists New York as the most competitive global financial center. London came in second, with Zurich, Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin each rising in the rankings because of Brexit, according to the September 2019 report.

New York extended its lead over London from the previous rankings cycle some six months earlier, and other European cities like Paris and Luxembourg made large gains. Analysts from the study warn that if Paris were to make similar gains and London were to make similar declines, the City of Light could eventually overtake the British capital.

For many years leading up to Brexit, large banks like Credit Suisse and JPMorgan Chase had set up offices in London to be able to conduct business in other EU countries relatively easily.

That’s because of something called passporting, which allows firms authorized in one EU country to operate freely in another EU country. Until Brexit, a bank with a passporting stamp in London was able to conduct business in, say, Athens or Lisbon without much additional work, said Phil Levy, chief economist for freight forwarder company Flexport.

“Financial services are huge for the UK, and the City of London, it’s what they do” Levy said. “This financial passporting idea meant [banks] could go set up offices in the City of London and serve all of the European Union very easily. You didn’t need to have headquarters also in Frankfurt, or in Paris, or in Dublin.”

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Female politicians are struggling, but could succeed with more faith from voters

By Shirin Ali
Medill Reports

In 2020, more women hold positions in U.S. political office than ever before. Survey data reveals that 69% of adults believe female political leaders would improve the quality of life for most Americans. The public sees benefit to female leadership, but struggles to convey that faith in the voting booth.

Despite positive statistics in favor of women, the U.S. political landscape suggests a much bleaker reality of female leadership. Despite voters having more comfort electing females to legislative positions, when it comes to the Oval Office, women time and time again face significant obstacles.

“There’s a comfort level with women as legislators, whether it’s at the federal level or state level. They work well up the aisle, but to be the chief executive to be the place where the buck stops, that’s the next, big hurdle,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Though year-over-year data produced by CAWP shows a steady increase in the number of women choosing to run for office, they still face more struggles in winning votes than their male counterparts. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 48% of Americans say men will continue to hold more high political offices in the future, even as more women run for office.

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