‘We’re more than Bad Bunny and good food’: Puerto Rico Week explores island’s identity
Maria Luisa Paul | Monday, April 26, 2021
For some, Puerto Rico might conjure images of oneself lounging beside Caribbean beaches — piña colada in hand — while listening to Bad Bunny’s grooving voice. For others, the island might bring to mind Hurricane Maria’s ravaging winds, two-decades-worth of a crippling debt crisis or former Governor Ricardo Roselló’s scandalous demise from power.
Regardless of the case, junior Álvaro Carrillo said his aim as co-president of the Puerto Rican Student Association at Notre Dame (PRSAND) is to prove that Puerto Rico is more than salsa music and natural disasters.
“A lot of people don’t have the opportunities to go more in-depth and learn about Puerto Rico,” Carrillo said. “They definitely have a false image of the island — well, it’s not false, but it’s misleading in a certain way. Puerto Rico is an island with a lot of talent, a lot of culture and a lot of very smart people.”
To achieve the goal of raising awareness about Puerto Rico’s rich culture, identity and history, PRSAND has held fundraisers to help the island’s most vulnerable, hosted Kahoot games about cultural trivia and invited guest speakers to campus. Its latest initiative: to organize Notre Dame’s first-ever Puerto Rico Week.
“Once you learn about Puerto Rico in-depth, everybody will have pride of what we’ve done and what we’ve gone through, and will be happy to say that Puerto Rico is part of the United States,” said Carrillo about the events that will take place April 26-29. “So we just want people to learn about what’s happening in Puerto Rico and at the same time enjoy because it’s very, very cool things.”
The week’s panel series is centered around three themes — climate change and energy, political activism and gender violence — that will be addressed by Puerto Rican experts in virtual panels.
On Monday at 6 p.m., Dr. Arturo Massol-Deyá and Dr. Catalina de Onís will speak on the island’s efforts to navigate climate change and discuss Casa Pueblo’s — a local non-profit environmental organization — successful solar-powered community in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico.
On Wednesday, lawyers Daniel Vázquez and Luis Ponce — the co-founders of Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora (BUDPR), a network that advocates for progressive organizations and self-determination — will speak at 7 p.m. about political activism and the history of Puerto Ricans.
Finally, on Thursday, Dr. Bárbara Abadía-Rexach, an assistant professor at San Francisco State University’s Latino Studies department, will discuss increasing gender violence and discrimination in Puerto Rico at 6 p.m.
One of the main reasons behind the choice of subjects is their relevancy. Puerto Rico is greatly exposed to climate change’s effects, has a diaspora that is becoming a growing force in American politics and is the only place in the world with a state emergency over the mounting number of femicides. Another reason behind the decision is to showcase how the island is taking steps to address these issues — something that anybody, regardless of their nationality, is able to learn from, senior Javier Rivera said.
“By looking at each of these issues, you kind of see a different angle that you might use to approach these issues in your own community,” he said. “Even though the circumstances are not exactly the same, there’s a lot you can learn from looking at this particular case, how it differs from yours, how a particular solution might or might not work. So I really do think it can just like inform people’s opinions, and what kind of like policy solutions might be best to address these issues.”
‘Latent power in a tiny island’
When Rivera decided to pursue a double major in engineering and political science at Notre Dame, he said he had one purpose in mind: to equip himself with the skills and knowledge necessary to help build up his native Puerto Rico.
“I really want to be able to go back and kind of help because, even though it’s really difficult, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing,” said the senior and member of PRSAND. “I feel indebted to go back, help, do things and make things better for everyone, and, as we say, echar pa’lante (move forward) the whole country.”
For Rivera, Puerto Rico’s recent history does not distract from its strengths — in fact, the series of crises the island has been subjected to throughout centuries have served to breed a resilient spirit that characterizes its citizens.
“During the hurricanes, people helped each other out when there was no government assistance. The same goes for the corruption, after which the entire island came together and forced the governor to resign,” he said. “So you always have this very latent power in a very tiny island, and I think that’s something that not many people realize when you’re just looking at the whole forest and not really at the individual trees.”
With 43.1% of Puerto Rico’s 3.2 million citizens living in poverty and with a falling economic growth rate, the current state of Puerto Rico’s affairs has led many to seek opportunities elsewhere, particularly in the mainland U.S. Census data shows the stateside Puerto Rican population to be nearing 6 million people. However, like Rivera, sophomore Jorge Blasini said the grim reality only inspires him to further advocate for his home.
“All this constant negativity influenced my generation to motivate themselves to try to impact Puerto Rico,” Blasini said. “Puerto Rico has given so much to us, and we want to give back. When I hear that we can’t do it, that particularly motivates me because I want to go back and show people that we’re not inferior.”
Sophomore Melanie Perez, who is a member of PRSAND and will moderate Thursday’s panel, said this resiliency and desire to give back to Puerto Rico is the spirit behind PRSAND. The club, she said, not only serves as a way to provide a greater understanding of the island to the community, but also as a home to students 1,991 miles away from Puerto Rico.
“It’s an amazing thing to be able to call yourself Puerto Rican. There’s a saying that says, ‘I’m Puerto Rican even if I was born in the moon,’ and I find that so,” Perez said. “It honestly carries with you wherever you go, and it’s a great thing to be able to be a part of.”