Reflections from Puerto Rico: Rebuilding, Resilience and Resistance

By the Medill Explores Puerto Rico Team 
Medill Reports

In February 2020, Medill MSJ students reported across Puerto Rico about the impacts of the island’s colonial status and debt crisis; recent earthquakes and 2017 hurricanes Maria and Irma; environmental injustice; and the island’s imperiled infrastructure and electrical grid. Throughout the reporting, the resilience and resourcefulness of Puerto Rican people shone through. Here are some reflections from their reporting.

The view from El Fortín Conde de Mirasol in Vieques. (Maddie Burakoff/MEDILL)

La Isla Nena

By Maddie Burakoff 

La Isla de Vieques — a short ferry ride away from mainland Puerto Rico — is a tiny slice of an island, only 21 miles long by five wide, with a population just shy of 10,000. In Isabel Segunda, its relatively bustling capital, low-lying pastel buildings sprawl out around a small plaza; people on horseback trot alongside the trickle of cars winding through the narrow roads. Tourists seek out the island for its stunning natural scenery: secluded beaches, dramatic limestone cliffs, a bioluminescent bay whose tiny organisms light up the night with a magical blue glow.

Another of the island’s attractions is El Fortín Conde de Mirasol, the stout Spanish fort that has overlooked Vieques since 1845. Its hilltop location, which once offered a strategic advantage for colonial military forces, now provides panoramic views for visitors to the historic site. On this clear February day, the sun illuminates a landscape of lush greenery and vibrant houses, bordered on all sides by brilliant sapphire sea. 

But however idyllic the scene might appear, there’s a great deal of conflict pulling at the seams of the seeming island paradise. 

“This beautiful breeze comes exactly from the bombing area,” local historian Robert Rabin says as a refreshing gust of ocean air wafts through the fort’s brick arches.

He’s referring to the eastern part of the island, which for decades served as a test site for the U.S. Navy to run drills and try out weapons. Starting in the 1940s, the Navy expropriated almost 70 percent of the land in the east and west of Vieques, leaving the island’s population sandwiched between two massive swaths of military-owned territory. 

The Navy put an end to its bombing tests in 2003 after an intense campaign of civilian resistance, but remnants of its activity remain woven into the life of the island. Because unexploded ordnance still scatters the ocean floor, the pristine-looking beaches sprout signs warning tourists to “recognize, retreat and report” any munitions they come across. The eastern swath of the land has been designated a National Wildlife Refuge, but is still flushed with enough environmental contaminants to be dubbed an EPA Superfund site.

The fort itself is home to extensive evidence of the island’s complicated past. Rabin — a Boston native who says he came to Vieques for thesis research 40 years ago and never left — oversees the Vieques Historic Archives, housed in a small cabinet-lined room near the building’s entrance. Here, a sea of files (government reports, ecological studies, news clips, legal filings) tracks the story of Vieques: the beating it took under the naval occupation, the sluggish recovery and the consequences shouldered by the viequense people. 

A Bomba performer at Corporación Piñones se Integra (COPI). (Neena Rouhani/MEDILL)

Speaking through music — La voz de Loiza: How an interpretive dance became the voice of identity for Afro-Puerto Ricans 

By Neena Rouhani 

Walking towards Corporación Piñones se Integra (COPI), a non-profit community center in Loiza, the pulsing Bomba drums bounced in the distance. With every step, the rhythmic pounding of the drums felt closer, filling the air with increased intensity. Making clear the melodic rhythm between the primo and the buleador, the two drums played in Bomba. Bomba is the first ever genre of music to come out of Puerto Rico, originating with West African people who were brought over as slaves in the 1600s. Bomba was their form of communication when talking was prohibited, and it became a voice of identity for Afro-Puerto Ricans. 

In coastal Piñones, the air felt hot and moist, causing the Bomba dancers to break into an instant sweat. Their feet gently pounded the stone tile floors while they swept their full red skirts through the air, the primo drum chasing behind, playfully imitating their movements. The drums sat atop a short platform, while the dancer moved briskly across the dance floor. The dancer was a young girl, around 10 years old. She began dancing Bomba at the age of three. 

In the most recent U.S. Census, over three-quarters of Puerto Ricans identified as white. 

If this were true, it would make the island whiter than Germany. Maricruz Rivera-Clemente, the founder of COPI, says that the lack of ownership when it comes to black identity has to do with a sense of shame associated with blackness on the island. In order to help black Boricuas regain a sense of black pride, Rivera-Clemente began teaching Bomba to the children in Piñones. She says that many Afro-Puerto Ricans connect blackness exclusively with slavery and oppression, so she wanted to break through those singular associations through music. 

Today, Puerto Ricans and tourists alike visit Piñones to take part in the dance workshops offered by Rivera-Clemente’s organization. The dance is a conversation or a challenge between the drummer and the dancer. With each rhythmic movement from the dancer, the primo drummer plays a pattern that coincides. The dancer leads, the drummer follows. The audience stands in a crescent shape, enraptured by the effortless coordination between the three performers. Although no words were spoken, a loud and soul-stirring message was certainly conveyed.

Bici-Caño. (Alison Saldanha/MEDILL)

Self-reliance on the Caño

By Alison Saldanha

One balmy Sunday morning in February, Crismaury Alomar, 23, and Patricia Matos, 22, hopped onto their bright yellow bicycles to guide a group of journalism students on an eco-tour of the eight barrios or neighborhoods bordering the Caño Martin Peña water channel. 

Salsa music poured out of colorful brick homes and corner shops along the winding streets. At various points, chickens, pigs and iguanas scurried out of the way as dogs barked at the contingent cycling past. 

Alomar and Matos, dressed in fluorescent orange shirts, are part of Bici-Caño, a locally-run ecotourism initiative working to raise awareness on the pivotal tidal channel, which is nearly four miles long and connects the San Jose Lagoon and the San Juan Bay. 

Since the 1940’s the Caño Martin Peña canal and its banks have been home to San Juan’s poorest residents, many of whom were farmers from the countryside. As the then-government sought to transform the island’s economy through industrialization projects under an initiative known as Operation Bootstrap, rural communities found little incentive to continue working on farms. So they moved here, searching for better economic opportunities. 

“While the government did not discourage this migration, they did nothing to support it. They neglected us and so the city now has over 26,000 residents living in informal settlements, disconnected from the city’s sewer and stormwater lines,” said Alomar, introducing himself as “Christmas.” 

Over the years, debris, garbage and sewage filled the canal and mangroves, reducing the once flowing waterway into a slivered stagnant, cesspool. Across the eight barrios, pockets of vacant land serve as dumping grounds, adding to the contamination. 

Not only does this pose a hazardous health risk to the neighborhoods, it is also a flood risk. When Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, strong winds ripped off over a thousand roofs in the Caño Martin Peña area and dirty canal water gushed into the houses. 

It was months before residents could return to their homes.

After a small spell of rain, we made our way under the bright blue skies through the barrios. It doesn’t take much for the area to flood, Alomar said. A typical Caribbean rainstorm, lasting less than a day, could waterlog the region up to a few feet.

In colorful graffiti, the words “Dragado Ya!” pop up on walls everywhere as a clarion call for  the city to dredge the canal. “It’s the only way to address the problem which affects all of San Juan, not merely the residents of Caño Martin Peña,” said Matos, who is studying environmental health at the University of Puerto Rico. 

A plan to do so has been in the works since the ‘90s, community leaders tell me, but is yet to take off owing to several reasons that range from a low bridge that makes it impossible for dredging equipment to pass, to the lack of funds on account of Puerto Rico’s crippling debt and the impacts of Hurricane Maria. 

The cost of the project is currently pegged at roughly $750 million, which is equivalent to about 5% of the U.S. aid approved for Puerto Rico. 

There’s also the matter of gentrification. With Caño Martin Peña located just two miles away from San Juan’s financial district, the area could be ripe for more upscale development. In 2004 the neighborhoods formed a community land trust to stave off real estate speculators, who could benefit from the dredging and beautification. Community leaders suspect the delay in dredging and restoration is also related to the lack of avenues for the government to profit from the work. 

Tired of waiting for the government, residents of the eight barrios are now working on a campaign to raise funds so they can start the dredging work themselves, said Jose, 74, one of the leaders of the G8 Inc.,  an umbrella organization of community leaders from the eight neighborhoods. 

How do they plan to raise the money? “Start a Go Fund Me page! I don’t know, man, but we gotta do something,” he said, shrugging in exasperation.  

A school damaged by the earthquakes. (Joel Jacobs/MEDILL)

Coming together, in crisis 

By Joel Jacobs

When we visited Guánica, it had been over a month since a 6.4-magnitude earthquake and powerful aftershocks rocked the southwestern Puerto Rican town, but it looked like it could have happened yesterday.

The disaster was still ongoing, and not only because the region has continued to be shaken by hundreds of smaller tremors since the most severe quake hit on January 7, killing at least one person, knocking out power across the island and displacing thousands. 

In Guánica, one of the hardest hit towns, damaged homes could be seen on nearly every block, and many families were still sleeping in tent shelters, both formal and informal.

We visited one of the tent cities run by the Puerto Rico National Guard, where massive white tents had been set up on a track in a park. The shelter’s population appeared to be smaller than at its peak, but National Guard members said they still provided meals for 350 people.

Marcos Villa Lassala, a 49-year-old fisherman, had been sleeping at the shelter for over a month. His house was damaged by the earthquakes, but fortunately not destroyed, and he visited his home daily to feed his pets.

“There’s a lot of brotherhood,” Lassala said of the community in the camp. “We met each other through an unfortunate situation, but we’re also coming together because we’re happy to be alive.”

His family lives in the United States. “I tell them I’m okay just so they won’t worry about me,” he said.

Lassala was still waiting to receive FEMA aid, which he expected to only be around $500. After he receives the aid and gets his home straightened out, he plans to move to the mainland as well. If he does, he’ll be one of the hundreds of thousands who have left Puerto Rico in recent years due to natural disasters and limited economic opportunities.

These calamities have happened within the context of Puerto Rico’s status, which many describe as a colony of the United States. Although Puerto Ricans have no voting power at the federal level, the federal government controls much of what happens on the island, from the delayed aid to Puerto Rico in the wake 2017’s Hurricane Maria, to the repeal of tax breaks that caused many manufacturers to leave the island, to the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s massive public debt.

In addition, Puerto Rico’s government has struggled with corruption and poor management. In January, protests broke out after a warehouse full of unused aid supplies dating back to Hurricane Maria was discovered in the same region where the earthquakes had hit.

The people’s history of discontent with the government could be seen in Guánica. A rusted-out truck tank on the edge of town had been graffitied with the words “Ricky Renuncia,” the rallying-cry that protesters used when calling for the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló, the former governor. Rosselló stepped down in August after the protests, sparked by the release of text  messages showing the former governor and his allies making misogynistic jokes and mocking constituents.

The town itself appeared largely deserted, aside from some workers inspecting damaged buildings and out-of-towners who, like us, were observing the destruction. 

As I walked outside a middle school that had partially collapsed, I passed by a middle-aged woman who was taking photos of the school through the chain-link fence. We solemnly acknowledged each other. “It’s terrible,” she said.


The coal plant in Guayama. (Anabel Mendoza/MEDILL)

A mountain of ash, a world of risk 

By Anabel Mendoza

Adela Brenes Texidor doesn’t look like a typical school. Hidden behind trees and steel wire fences lined with barbed wire, the two-story, lime green building is vacant of its nearly 400 middle and high school-aged students. Its windows are covered by metal shutters and the courtyard where children would typically play basketball is on a sunny Monday afternoon — empty. 

Texidor is the only school that remains in Guayama, Puerto Rico, a municipality of around 40,000 residents on the island’s southern coast. But while the infrastructure remains, the school itself is a ghost town. After a row of back-to-back earthquakes, Texidor closed its doors for over a month out of concern for students’ safety. 

But an even graver danger that continues to put students and Guayaman residents at risk is located less than a mile away from the school: the AES coal-fired power plant, which has been operating in Guayama since 2002.

Next to the plant are mountains of coal ash, a byproduct of coal burning. The ash contains a toxic mixture of chemicals like arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury, that can have serious and sometimes fatal consequences with regular exposure. Short-term exposure to these chemicals has been known to cause dizziness, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, while prolonged exposure can lead to cancer, birth defects, and organ failure, all things that residents in Guayama have experienced. In Guayama, one 8-year-old has recently been diagnosed with leukemia and a 23-year-old with stomach cancer.

From inside the Texidor classrooms, one can see billowing clouds from burning coal emitted from the plant’s smokestacks. Hidden by clear blue skies and the sound of swaying palm trees, coal particles smaller than a grain of sand are carried by a soft breeze, contaminating everything from the local water wells to the very air that students and teachers at Texidor breathe each day.

In Guayama, the coal-fired power plant has generated nearly 5.5 million tons of coal ash in its 18 years of operation. At some nearby beaches, residents have found hardened lumps of coal, or what one Guayama resident calls “coal cookies,” buried beneath the sand. While Puerto Rico’s Governor Wanda Vazquez recently signed a bill to stop the depositing of coal ash on the island, the plant is still active in Guayama and has a contract to operate until 2027.

Many Guayaman residents have been organizing to shut down the plant altogether, and they are particularly concerned about the health of students at Texidor. Some residents took jars of coal ash to agents at AES, dumping the remains on their desks. The agents appeared alarmed, and residents made their point: if the AES employees were scared to even clean the ash from their desks, imagine how residents and children feel breathing it in.

Building a foundation

Concrete blocks in Vieques offer a silent protest over health care. (Arnab Mondal/MEDILL)

By Arnab Mondal 

The Luis Muñoz Rivera plaza on the island of Vieques is surrounded by numerous concrete blocks, all arranged neatly together on all four sides of the plaza. Some of the blocks were dyed with color and most of the blocks had one or more names scribbled on them.

At first glance, the colorful layout seemed to me like part of some recreational community activity. There might have been some community festival or a fun get-together of some sort. After all, the stage at the end of the plaza was decorated with colorful ribbons, heart symbols and graffiti.

However, the sheer number of names struck me as odd, and since the blocks reminded me of memorials, I wondered if the names on the blocks belonged to the victims of Hurricane Maria which had devastated Vieques, and Puerto Rico at large, in 2017. Not only did Vieques suffer mass destruction due to the hurricane, it almost entirely lost contact with the outside world for about two weeks. Furthermore, Vieques was left without proper water and power supply for a long time. Not to mention, Vieques’ only hospital, which was subpar at best even before the hurricane, was in shambles. The resulting death toll on the Viequenses was severe. Hence, the idea that the local community might be building memorials to the victims hardly seemed like a stretch.

But then a few odd blocks caught my eyes. The blocks didn’t have any names scribbled on them. Each of these blocks had only a single letter, and together with other similar blocks, they carried messages like “Hospital” or “Niños Muriendo” (Spanish for “Dying Children” or “Children Dying”).

As I soon learned, it was Geisha Rosa who started this initiative with her father Geigel Rosa Cruz. They clarified that the names on the blocks belonged to the people who set down the blocks on the plaza, and the larger message was Viequenses’ demand that a new hospital be built. 

“Each block here is a symbol of the foundational block for the hospital we need,” Geisha said. “Members of the community buy a concrete block from the local vendor, costing only 80 cents, and they set it down in the plaza with their names on it as a collective demand for a proper hospital.” 

She also said that the goal was to reach 10,000 blocks, and as of now there are 7,400 blocks on the plaza.

It was only then that I noticed that the decorations on the stage at the plaza were not from any festive celebration. They were, in fact, cancer ribbons. And the banners around the stage had messages like “Hospital para Vieques ya” (Hospital for Vieques now) and “Vieques exige un hospital digno; a lucha continua…” (Vieques demands a decent hospital; the fight continues…).

The cancer rate in Vieques is eight times that of mainland Puerto Rico, which has a similar cancer rate as that of the mainland U.S. Yet, Vieques has no proper facility to deal with cancer. Vieques’ old hospital, the Centro de Diagnostico y Tratamiento de Vieques, has been shut down for years. The only operating hospital in Vieques, Centro de Salud de Vieques, was originally the only emergency shelter on the island during Hurricane Maria; it was later turned into a public community health center. Viequenses in need of chemotherapy have to travel to San Juan for treatment, which is an 80-mile trip over sea and land.

Another banner on the stage read “Ni una vida mas! Justicia para Jaideliz” (Not one more life! Justice for Jaideliz). Jaideliz Moreno Ventura was a 13-year old girl living on Vieques. She was suffering from flu-like symptoms in January and was having a difficult time breathing. However, the hospital in Vieques has no operational respirator. Unable to breathe or get to a real hospital in San Juan quickly enough, Jaideliz died on January 10. 

“Jaideliz is not the first to die due to lack of proper equipment,” said Geisha’s father, Geigel. “We don’t trust the government. They lie to us every time.”

Geigel also said that during Jaideliz’s funeral, her father encouraged the community to participate in putting down more blocks.

“As soon as you lay the first stone for the hospital, we’ll move all these blocks,” Geisha said. “But the more you make us wait for the hospital, the more blocks we’ll bring in.”

After the earthquake. (Catherine Kim/MEDILL)

An endless wait

By Catherine Kim

Here in the city of Guánica, the epicenter of the earthquakes, at least 350 people have been living in tents provided by the government for the past month. Inside the white tents that flap in the wind, people sleep on cots and store their few belongings in plastic boxes. The few pets they’ve managed to bring out of their damaged houses remain in small cages. A single medical tent is stationed at the entrance of the shelter, with a handful of quarantine tents lined up next to it. Religious groups and nonprofits regularly set up tents on the edge of the encampment, providing over-the-counter medicine, sanitary products, water, and other necessities. Mothers with babies in their arms are lined up to receive items like diapers and powdered milk.

The people in these shelters simply spend their time waiting, including 49-year-old fisher Marcos A. Villa Lassala.

He is wearing a beige t-shirt decorated with fish as if a representation of his life’s work. Athletic sunglasses with reflective blue lenses lie on the bridge of his nose — the kind that are used to protect one’s eyes from the sunlight bouncing off the water. When I approach him, he’s folding towels into a large plastic bin, which works as his makeshift closet. He then readjusts a rusty bike that sits at the head of his bed, the one he uses to ride down to his house and feed his cats every day.

He’s said he’s trying to be patient, but he never anticipated living in a tent for this long. He wears a wristband that indicates his house has experienced some damage (green means little to no damage, yellow means mild damage, and red means unlivable conditions), and he says the walls in his house are cracked and the balcony fell. Engineers sent by the government told him that his house was safe to live in, but given the structural damage the building suffered, he strongly doubts the evaluation.

“I thought I was going to receive help a lot quicker,” he said. “And even when I do receive any sort of financial help, I have to be slow to rebuild because I have to make sure that all the quakes are over and done with because there’s no point in building a home if it’s just going to come right back down.”

Though he finished filing paperwork right after the first wave of earthquakes in January, he’s yet to receive money from FEMA.  And he anticipates that a $500 check — the amount most people report receiving — won’t be nearly enough to begin repairs. Although he understands bureaucracy is delaying the government’s response, he said he wishes the aid process “was based on the people and what the people need.”

When I leave him after the interview, he wanders to a nearby tent, the only one that has a working TV for the people of the shelter. The news is on, and he stands with his arms behind his back, watching with a grim face.

Water is a blessing and a curse for some Puerto Rico residents. (Danyella Wilder/MEDILL)

Disasters Leading to School Closures Force Families to Cope 

By Danyella Wilder

The time is 5 o’clock. Colors in the sky indicate dusk is fast approaching; they change from a golden orange to a lavender-like shade. Stray cats roam aimlessly about, meowing while seemingly staring at nothing. Far ahead, the water of Caño Martin Peña continues to move along west, a cool breeze is pushed in closer. Across the channel, the sun’s edge casts a glimmer against the dancing ripples.   

This is Caño Martin Peña, and like many other neighborhoods across the island, the grandeur of sunsets is a common sight. But even in a place where the water’s edge glows from the ray of the sun, families are forced to accept the irksome reality that is school closures. Puerto Rico has closed hundreds of schools across the island in recent years because of austerity measures related to the debt crisis, and in the wake of recent earthquakes even more schools were closed because of structural safety concerns. After the earthquakes, at least three schools in the Caño Martin Peña area were closed.    

Sitting near the dock, I am joined by Melba Ayala Nieves, a tour boat leader at Excursiones Eco. With two young children of her own, she isn’t unfamiliar with the school closing crisis. Fortunately, her children were not displaced but rather enrolled at a new school. She begins by telling me only two or three weeks after her daughter started classes at the original school, the Board of Education ordered that it be shut down.   

Unlike her kids, many children in other neighborhoods haven’t seen such prompt recovery in their schools. Lack of funding for restoration often leads to the brokenness of once thriving neighborhoods, where children typically serve as the heart of said communities. 

Melba glances at her phone, our five-minute interview interrupted when she sees the time. It’s time to pick up her kids from their new school, less than a mile away. We continued the interview at a nearby park. Her kids run and play, seemingly unconcerned by my presence.  Seeing their immediate joy in monkey-bars and slides, I couldn’t help but wonder if they understood to the slightest degree what was happening to schools in their home country, Puerto Rico.   

 Half an hour later, I learn that Melba has stayed relatively positive in the midst of the scrambling chaos affecting other schools. She’s managed to keep a smile on her face, but her biggest frustration is in the government’s lack of empathy.  She said it “took too long to make the children feel safe” after their routines were changed. Her most important focus right now is providing for her kids in the best way she can, which often is by hiding from them her doubt and anger.   

Iniciativa Comunitaria does outreach work on San Juan’s streets. (Adam Rhodes/MEDILL)

Clean needles and caring 

By Adam Rhodes

It took the woman 10 minutes to push her wheelchair up the sidewalk to the outreach workers’ white, four-door Pontiac. She silently dumped a brick-sized box of used syringes into the red biohazard box — the size of a small cooler — and wheeled herself to the rear of the car. The trunk was full of boxes of clean needles, condoms and tourniquets.

Antonio Cintron, an outreach worker with the harm reduction group Iniciativa Comunitaria, gave her 20 clean needles, a tourniquet and other tools needed to keep her injection sites clean. 

She said she lost her left leg five months after Hurricane Maria battered the island in 2017. Because of her disability, she said she qualifies for programs that place her in an apartment and a job, but without anyone to take her, she is stranded. She, like many others, doesn’t have an ID, and without that ID, she said she can’t get a replacement insurance card either. 

A common refrain among nearly a dozen people who use injection drugs who spoke with me was the lack of basic necessities: clean clothes, an ID, food, shelter. Most of the people I spoke with said if they had the means to go into drug treatment, they would. 

At the last stop on their needle exchange route, the outreach workers drove the almost 30-year-old car to a small park, where police were feeding people experiencing homelessness. Most of the officers sat in folding chairs behind a van. Only one person, roughly 20 feet from the officers, was handing out food.

It was unlikely that anyone would come exchange needles with the police there, Cintron said. But the biggest barrier was a chained gate, blocking a park entrance between a group of people experiencing homelessness and the police and outreach workers.  The outreach workers saw that the police seemed to be making no effort to reach those behind the gate. 

“How are you going to feed the homeless, when they are right there behind a gate?” Cintron said.

A determined Cintron walked up to a female officer who was sitting behind the van and roughly five minutes later, returned muttering under his breath. The woman he spoke with, he said, pretended she didn’t know that the gate was locked. He criticized the police’s efforts in the park as a front: an effort to benefit from the optics of caring for the homeless, without having to deal with people who need the most help.

Roughly 10 minutes after we arrived, people began finding ways around the gate to exchange their needles with the outreach workers. With every bag of clean needles, Cintron would practically demand each person go get food from the police, reassuring them that they would be  safe. 

For those that chose to partake, there was a palpable excitement after Cintron’s assurances. They happily took Capri Sun drinks from officers sitting behind their car before getting food. But for some, Cintron’s assurances weren’t enough. One man emptied his pockets of two or three syringes and ran off before even taking clean needles, looking over his shoulders as he bolted.

Maricruz Rivera Clemente. (Kari Lydersen/MEDILL)

Bomba and Blackness

By Grace Asiegbu

Driving down the winding roads, 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. The smells are smoky and meaty or sweet and warm. 

People are buzzing in and out of the markets, visiting friends or buying groceries. The vans turn into a lot and we walk into a space lined all over with chestnut wood. The colonial Puerto Rican flag was hung next to the red, green, and yellow flag of Loiza. The gaze of a vejigante mask follows us around the room, and a portrait of Puerto Rican laureate Arturo Schomberg framed on the wall also has eyes that follow. 

Maricruz Clemente Rivera greets us with a wide smile as we walk into her space, a space that’s colorful and breezy. We were 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 Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Bomba originated in Loiza, 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.

Maricruz teaches bomba as a means of reconnection to Puerto Ricans’ African heritage. Across the island, the denial of race or racism is rampant. Particularly, Loiza has Puerto Rico’s largest population of Black people, a number that sat around 65% in the 2010 census. According to Maricuz, too many Loizans deny their Blackness. 

Denying Black or African ancestry is not unique to Loíza. According to U.S. Census data, 67.4% of Puerto Ricans identify as white alone and 5.2% identify as two or more races. The “little bit of everything” some Puerto Ricans may use to describe their racial heritage are Taíno, African, and Spanish. The Taíno were pre-colonial inhabitants of Puerto Rico, dating back to the 1400s. The Taíno were not exclusive to Puerto Rico–they lived in other Caribbean islands like Cuba, Haiti, and Dominican Republic. They also inhabited parts of what is now Florida. Of course, through enslavement and colonization, the Taíno became essentially extinct by the end of the 20th century. 

Ahead of the 2020 census, questions on how to construct race in Puerto Rico remain complicated. How can we reconcile people self-reporting their race as white when by the average American’s standard, these are non-white people? What does it mean for examining or reconciling racial inequalities if we can’t get an accurate description of people’s racial backgrounds?

Julio Morales of Y No Habia Luz. (Shreya Bansal/MEDILL)

Spreading light through theater        

By Shreya Bansal

The theater company  Teatro Y No Había Luz,  or The Company of Theater and No Light, aims to help students express their emotions through art. The organization has a huge role in reaching out to children and individuals going through trauma after Hurricane Maria, and recent earthquakes in Puerto Rico. 

After the hurricanes, many children lost their schools. Many individuals on the island are also going through PTSD. People on the island have not had time to recover from their trauma. The suicide rate has also gone up, and as more and more people are moving to the mainland U.S., people are suffering from isolation and depression. People are also surrounded by a feeling of hopelessness in the presence of a failed government and also having to live as a U.S. colony. 

In this environment, the theater collective is trying to provide resources to the schools and parents to help their children with anxiety. “The children feel like they have no hope, they are going through trauma and loneliness,” said Julio Morales, one of the members of the theatre collective. They believe that people need art and music just as they need food and water after the hurricane. Started in 2005, the theater group uses an interdisciplinary approach including arts, puppetry, and more to talk about social justice issues, build a sense of solidarity and encourage creativity and freedom of thought amongst children. 

It is also important to remember that the members of the theater company themselves are also survivors of trauma. Travelling around the island with their play, presenting to different schools and children, is also a way for them to heal. “The message we want to give is that of solidarity and unity.  A way of telling them we are here and we are feeling the same,” said Yussef Soto Villarini, one of the team members. 

We met Julio and Yussef at their headquarters in San Juan, on the second floor of a relatively old building. The place is full of colors and props and costumes and puppets, with a performance stage on one side and all the “Y No Había Luz” swag on the other. All the team members reflect both their love for performance, and their dedication to help people.


AES’s coal plant in Guayama. (Shawn Mulcahy/MEDILL)

A fight against ash 

By Shawn Mulcahy

Gravel pops and crunches under the van’s tires along an unpaved road, as dust rises over the windshield. Beyond the dust, a sprawling complex of metal tubes, conveyor belts and smokestacks comes into view. As the van draws nearer, ripples in a pond catch the sun’s glare and reflect back like sparkling diamonds. A warm breeze carries the faint scent of sea air and the sound of tractors working to clear a mountain of dust in the distance.

The dust is toxic coal ash produced by the AES power plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico — a town on the island’s southern coast. The ash contains radioactive elements and heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury, and is linked to a number of degenerative health conditions. Just months ago, the pile of ash stood nearly five stories tall. But a recent bill, signed into law in early 2020 by Gov. Wanda Vázquez, requires the energy company to clear the ash and prohibits AES from storing future ash at the site for longer than six months.

For those who live in Guayama, it’s too little, too late. They don’t want new regulations, which they figure AES will only haphazardly follow. Community members want to see the plant shut down. Years of exposure to the dangerous chemicals has created a health epidemic, they fear. Cancer, heart disease and respiratory issues plague many across the entire town. Less than a mile from the plant, teachers at the local school constantly wipe ash — so fine it slips through cracks in the windows — from the students’ desks. 

One afternoon in February, I meet Mabette Colon and other community members at a building in town. Colon, 20, who was born and raised in Guayama, is exceptionally bright. She explains the inner workings of the power plant with authority and at length. Now a college student, she has spent most of her adolescence fighting AES and the government. 

Despite the deadly consequences of exposure to coal ash, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has imposed few regulations on the industry. In June 2018, President Trump proposed rolling back rules on coal-burning power plants, further chipping away at the already lax oversight. Colon, then a high school senior, traveled to Washington to testify against the move.

For her, the fight is about more than just the pile of coal ash or EPA regulations. She’s fighting for her future, for the community’s future. As I listen to Colon talk, I’m struck by her poise and resolve. I try to put myself in her shoes, but I can’t.

Photo at top: A beach in Loiza. (Kari Lydersen/MEDILL)