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Students create Notre Dame Puerto Rican Student Association in the face of natural disasters, misconceptions

| Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The heavy winds started around 4 a.m. on Sept. 20, 2017. An hour later, sophomore Alvaro Carrillo’s house lost power as Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico.

A high school senior at the time, Carrillo had to witness the destruction the storm wrought on his native land.

His family’s house endured the 155 mile-per-hour winds. However, complications rose in the aftermath, as Puerto Rico was left in the shadows due to months-long power outages.

“The bad things started to happen after Maria,” Carrillo said. “I live in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, and we were the first to get power three months after the hurricane. You can imagine the people who live in the rural areas of Puerto Rico, where they did not receive electricity even a full year after Hurricane Maria.”

Puerto Rico’s problems did not end or start with Hurricane Maria. A financial crisis was already crippling the island’s economy before Maria struck. Almost three years after the storm, Puerto Rico is now facing a different kind of natural disaster: earthquakes.

“The problem is that Puerto Rico has not fully recovered,” Carrillo said. “So, you have a country that is $72 billion in debt and you hit them with a hurricane with a damage assessment surpassing $100 billion, and then with a sequence of earthquakes.”

Since Dec. 29, the Caribbean island has been rattled with daily earthquakes. Hundreds of temblors have rocked the island, including Puerto Rico’s most destructive quake in a century a 6.4 magnitude earthquake that jolted the whole island awake in the early hours of Jan. 7.

Photo courtesy of Alvaro Carrillo

Members of the recently-established Puerto Rican Student Association raised money in LaFortune to aid the disaster-stricken U.S. territory.

In the face of these issues, a group of students from Puerto Rico decided to create the Notre Dame Puerto Rican Student Association in order to raise funds for disaster relief and increase awareness about Puerto Rico’s situation and culture.

“With these recent events that have happened in Puerto Rico, I saw a lot of Puerto Rican student associations all around the nation moving and raising a lot of money to help Puerto Rico,” Carrillo, who serves as the Puerto Rico Student Association’s president, said. “So, I talked with my best friend, Adolfo Serbia, and we decided we had to do something.”

The club was approved in December, and since then, the Puerto Rican Student Association has mobilized to raise funds for disaster relief, hosting two fundraising events in LaFortune Student Center and Five Guys at Eddy Street.

“People were really receptive to our campaign,” Carrillo said. “We recently had a fundraiser at LaFortune. In only two hours, we raised $500 in cash and are still waiting for the University to tell us how much we raised in Domer Dollars. The one in Five Guys was very successful as well, we gained 20% of all the sales’ proceeds.”

The funds raised through these events will be donated to local nonprofits Casa Pueblo and Instituto Nuevo Escuela. Carrillo said the association chose these organizations due to their known success and education initiatives in Puerto Rico.

Even though the Puerto Rican Student Association’s immediate focus has been on raising funds, a core part of its mission is to increase awareness of Puerto Rican culture on campus.

“Unfortunately, this is a campus that lacks a lot of diversity, so the best way to tackle this is by hosting events, bringing speakers, doing fundraisers, really everything that can expose our culture to students here on campus,” Carrillo said.

‘We are Puerto Rican, but we are also United States citizens’

Freshman Amaury Amador already realized there are many misconceptions surrounding Puerto Rican culture at Notre Dame.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about what people perceive about Puerto Rico versus what we grow up to believe,” Amador said.

The main misconception Amador notices is the widespread belief that Puerto Ricans are international students.

“Sometimes they see us as strangers, but, even though we are not a state, we are part of the United States and we definitely still get treated like second-class citizens,” Amador said.

The political situation between Puerto Rico and the United States is historically complex. The island is considered an unincorporated territory which is under U.S. control, which means the country’s constitution only partially applies to Puerto Rico. However, the territory is still under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the federal government.

“We are U.S. citizens, we have fought in the army and have fought in all the wars the U.S. has been involved in after the 18th century,” Carrillo said. “We can’t vote for the president even though we are a U.S. territory. We don’t have a vote in Congress even though we get taxed and regulated by Congress. So you can say Puerto Rico is a colony.”

Puerto Rico’s political situation has given rise to contentions between the territory and the federal government, especially in regards to the government’s response to natural disasters in the Caribbean island.

“You would think it was preposterous if New York City stayed without electricity for six months, but then you have San Juan spending almost a year without power, and no one batted an eye,” Amador said.

Even though Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico almost three years ago, federal aid has been slow in entering the island. In January of 2019, President Trump released billions of dollars in aid to Puerto Rico. The $8 billion allocated through the Department of Housing and Urban Development was supposed to be released months ago, according to Reuters.

However, Carrillo noted these efforts have been painfully slow and long overdue.

“After Hurricane Maria, the response by the federal government was horrible,” he said. “We didn’t receive even 10% of the recognized damage assessments. When you compare this reaction to the one the federal government had with Hurricane Harvey in Texas, it was completely different.

“You hope the government can bounce back, but they don’t have the financial tools. Then you hope the federal government responds and sends money, but they don’t.”

The Puerto Rican government has not been able to deal with the natural disasters’ aftermath appropriately either, Amador said.

“The [Puerto Rican] government has not done much to fix the situation because of the political problems,” Amador said. “It’s like ‘let’s not help the people. Let’s put a candidate’s name in the water bottles so the people know who they should vote for.’”

Consequently, distrust for both the federal and local governments has grown over the years. As a result, Puerto Ricans have learned to “take matters into their own hands” when it comes to solving problems, Carrillo said.

When the earthquakes began devastating the island’s southern region, Puerto Ricans rushed to aid their suffering countrymen.

“Now with the earthquakes, huge traffic jams started to form from the northern part of the island to the south because people were taking food, water and baby formula to them,” Carrillo said.

For Carrillo, this act of solidarity is a clear reflection of the Puerto Rican character.

“These natural disasters make us come closer and bring out the best in everybody,” Carrillo said.

Study first. Give back after

In September 2017, both Amador and Carrillo witnessed Hurricane Maria’s devastation.

Almost three years later, they like many in the island were woken by the earth’s shaking.

“My house literally started shaking around 5 a.m,” Carrillo said. “I was terrified because we couldn’t understand what was happening.”

Merely a week later, they bid farewell to their families and friends to come back to Notre Dame, fearing the uncertainty brought by the series of earthquakes.

“It’s definitely hard because the earthquakes were in January and we left for college right after, so it was like leaving all your family over there without knowing what was going to happen,” Amador said.

Yet their country’s mishaps have inspired them to continue studying in order to return to Puerto Rico upon graduation.

“We want to use this opportunity of receiving a higher education to come back and work towards improving what the government has been unable to do,” Amador said.

For the moment, the students are focusing on helping their country from across the sea.

“We are using all the tools at our disposal, and that’s what the Puerto Rican Student Association stands for,” Carrillo said.

Marisel Moreno, associate professor for Latinx literature, serves as the Puerto Rican Student Association’s faculty advisor. A Puerto Rican herself, Moreno said she admired the drive and initiative the students showed.

“I am just so happy this is finally happening,” Moreno said. “I have been teaching at Notre Dame since 1998, and I have always dreamt of having a Puerto Rican Student Association — but all the effort truly comes from them.”

Whether through raising funds or hosting events on campus to increase awareness, Carrillo said the group is not going to desist in its mission to increase Puerto Rico’s presence on campus.

“We are definitely going to be hosting more events in the years to come and this is not a one-year thing,” Carrillo said. “We are going to keep moving forward so that, if anything happens to Puerto Rico, we are able to stand up and help our island.”

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