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‘Listening to Puerto Rico’: ND professors document stories from Hurricane Maria

| Thursday, November 1, 2018

A few months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in Sept. 2017, Marisel Moreno received an email.

The email was addressed to her and Thomas F. Anderson, both professors of romance languages and literature. It invited them to speak about the impact Hurricane Maria had on Puerto Ricans in a series of informational videos. 

A month and a half later, they found themselves on a plane to Puerto Rico with the mission of documenting one of the island’s most catastrophic storms in less than a week.

“It quickly developed, we got our dates, we got our tickets and … next thing we know we’re getting an email saying we’re sending a film crew so that we can do this professionally and you can interview people,” Moreno, who teaches Latino literature, said. “Of course we’re not reporters; we’re both professors of literature, so that was a little bit nerve-wracking but we jumped into it.”

Moreno and Anderson conducted the project this summer as part of a digital teach-out, a global community learning opportunity focused on a current issue. The original model was developed by the University of Michigan, which reached out to Elliott Visconsi of Notre Dame’s Office of Digital Learning in hopes of collaborating on a Puerto Rico series.

Visconsi reached out to Moreno and Anderson, and the idea became reality.

“To me honestly the most difficult part, it’s going to sound funny, is from the very beginning I just didn’t understand what a teach-out was,” Anderson, chair of romance languages and literature, said. “I mean, really, it ended up working great, but I felt almost the whole time like I was a little bit flying by the seat of my pants.”

The traditional Michigan teach-out involves experts speaking about a particular topic, Moreno said, but the Notre Dame team suggesting flipping that model — allowing Puerto Ricans to tell their own personal stories.

The result, “Listening to Puerto Rico,” features an array of on-the ground video interviews with Puerto Ricans of various backgrounds and experiences who recounted the impacts of Hurricane Maria. Moreno and Anderson served as interviewers on the Notre Dame team.

“A lot of the technical side of it was done by Michigan, I think, but I do feel that Tom and I are experts on Puerto Rico because that’s part of our academic research,” Moreno said. “We were guiding the contents more.”

The website includes visual narratives as well as an in-depth history of Puerto Rico, “Puerto Rico 101,” which Moreno and Anderson produced to give more context and background on the island.

“We both felt very strongly that we didn’t want to have a course online [about] Puerto Rico where we were just imparting knowledge because it didn’t seem like it was appropriate for the given circumstance,” Anderson said. “So we ended up, like [Moreno] said, focusing more on personal stories.”

The filming and interview process in Puerto Rico took place between June 15-20, Moreno said, which constricted the team’s schedule to about “four heavy days of no breaks.”

“As soon as this idea was presented to us, we knew that we wanted to have all of the materials up prior to the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria,” Moreno said. “That was the deadline — Sept. 20. So it was an immense and incredible amount of work to get all of this done.”

The videos are categorized in a variety of topics, among them “Call to Action,” “Economy & Migration” and “Infrastructure & Environment.” In total, the website presents over 50 videos documenting Puerto Rico and the impact of Hurricane Maria.

“We also felt that video was an important medium because part of the story about Puerto Rico is the devastation, the changes to the landscape, and we didn’t want to have a disaster narrative so-to-speak, but to see the back-drop, to have visuals where people could explain some of the changes,” Anderson said.

The project was split into multiple phases: first, there was an online teach-out course on Coursera which ran from Aug. 27 to Sept. 24. Second was launching the website.

“We were surprised that people tended to not want to focus so much on all the horrible things but rather how Puerto Ricans united, how they came together in a time of crisis,” Anderson said. “ … There were a lot of stories about families getting closer, communities getting closer, people being unplugged from the internet — kind of finding simpler ways to entertain themselves.”

Moreno said she was touched to hear how Puerto Rican communities gathered to take control and help each other in light of “inadequate responses” from the Puerto Rican and U.S. governments.

“But also we’d be lying if we didn’t say that there was some anger, too, in the interviews, people very frustrated and upset with the governments and just with the way that things have been handled,” Anderson said. “They felt almost like a sense of relief to be able to speak.”

The goal of the teach-out was to promote awareness about Puerto Rico, Moreno said, which includes promoting action in various forms and continuing to work on the issue.

“It’s not over,” she said. “We have a whole academic year where we’re going to be bringing speakers, we’re going to have documentaries shown — so we’re continuing to engage directly, we’re trying to build those links between Notre Dame and different institutions, whether it’s non-profits or universities.”

The team is also planning a follow-up visit, Anderson said, in which 12 to 15 faculty members from different fields will travel back to Puerto Rico in the spring, alongside Anderson and Moreno.

“So much of what we do, articles and books, appeals to a very small limited audience of experts in our field for the most part,” Anderson said. “This type of work we feel is so important that we’d love to encourage [more faculty members] to do it because it’s an engaged scholarship that potentially can impact thousands of people that wouldn’t necessarily have contact with our scholarly work.

“In the interviews themselves, several people acknowledged that it was so important for this kind of project to be done, that people were being given a chance to speak from their own platform. Hopefully the website will continue to be visited and people can take a listen.”

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About Kelli Smith

Kelli Smith is a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she serves as Associate News Editor at the Observer and is pursuing a double major in political science and television with minors in journalism and computing.

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