Puerto Rico Se Levanta

Maria Shepard, US History, Global Studies Coordinator

Good morning everyone. During our last Upper School Gathering, we had the pleasure of listening to Mr. Park share his personal story, as he invited us to reflect on the interconnectedness and between the individual and the community. Today I have the opportunity to come before you and share a bit of my personal story. While Mr. Park made it look quite easy – and while I do consider myself a “sharer” - as I prepared these remarks, it struck me just how difficult it is to capture yourself on a piece of paper, as well as reveal yourself in front of so many people. So I decided to go back to the beginning --  to where it all started. As many of you may know, I was born and raised in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. I grew up in a medium-sized town near the capital city of San Juan, with my mother, father, and extended family by my side. I attended an all-girls school from 1st through 12th grade and was a student in my mom’s history class through my Middle School years. I guess, the apple did not fall far from the tree! At 17, I came to Princeton, NJ for the first time. My parents came with me (and so began my mom’s love affair with Target and my dad’s quest to find the biggest golf store in the greater Tri-State area!). After a few days of hurried activity to get my dorm room ready, the time came for them to return home and for me to make a new, temporary, home for myself.

What was originally intended to be a 4-year sojourn stateside turned into a permanent move. And while I have spent more than half of my life in New Jersey, I still think of Puerto Rico as home. It is an essential place to my identity and sense of self. Over the last few weeks, Puerto Rico has been at the forefront of my mind. The places I used to go to, the friends I used to spend my days with, the childhood memories I collected over time have featured prominently in the flurry of thoughts that whirl through my consciousness. I thought I’d share one of those memories with you. Spoiler alert – this moment in time was not a turning point in my life; it did not feature any important people in my life; in the big scheme of things, it is a quite insignificant moment, but I share it with you because for better or worse, it is quintisentially Maria Shepard.

Imagine this…a 10-year old version of me playing in her room with her Barbie dolls. An only child with a vivid imagination, I would spend hours coming up with adventures for the “Donaldson Family” who lived in Connecticut. Mind you, at that point in my life, the farthest away I had ever been from Puerto Rico was Miami, Florida – where my aunt, uncle, and cousins live. My friends’ last names were an assortment of López, Martínez, Jiménez, García, and Rodríguez. And my English-language skills were not as polished as they are today – with some winner pronunciations like “knowledge” and an unusual penchant for double negatives – I blame Bert from Mary Poppins. So where did the Donaldson family come from – well, clearly they were relatives of my favorite TV aunt, Aunt Becky from Full House. And, why Connecticut, you may ask? Well, obviously because that was where all the baby-sitters from my favorite book series “The Baby-Sitters Club” lived – Stonybrook, CT to be exact. One afternoon, 10-year old me had an idea – a hurricane was coming to Connecticut and the Donaldson family would have to gather all their belongings, pack them in their blue Buick, and evacuate. So much to do and such little time, I thought as I moved my dolls and placed them in different places of the dollhouse and literally packed the plastic car with as many things as it could carry. And then with all my dolls buckled up that particular “adventure” came to a halt. I had no idea what would come next. After all, I had learned about hurricanes at school and had heard many traditional Puerto Rican songs referencing their might and destructive power. I knew there was such a thing as hurricane season that made it so that the prospect of such a natural disaster could materialize on any given year. But my 10-year old imagination was bound by my limited life experience; it could not take me to a world turned upside down by the forces of nature.

Fast forward a few decades to September 20, 2017…the storm made landfall on the south of the island right as I was getting ready to go to work. I had spoken with my parents the night before, and we had assured one another that the house built by my grandfather would withstand the storm. It’s an old home, but it has good bones; it is not near the coast nor in a flood-prone area; the storm windows will keep the water out; and the 40-year old pine tree that my mom and dad planted when they first started dating – well, it’s seen it’s better days so if it goes, so be it – these were the musings we shared with one another the night before the storm came and were the same ones I replayed in my head during the quieter moments of the school day. 

I was able to reach my parents as the storm raged outside their home. The sound of the wind was relentless; the amount of rainfall was unexpected – they reported – the water was indeed seeping in through the windows; the pine tree was losing most of its branches; the brick fence in the backyard was close to collapsing – they continued. And the eye of the storm had not yet passed by. I feared for my parents and feared for the fates of the millions of Puerto Ricans whose houses my grandfather had not built. In the end, my parents and close family members were safe. The house stood.

That night I was glued to the news and to social media – watching in search of familiar places, names, and faces. Trying to get a sense of the extent of the devastation. At first, there was not a lot of information. The first wave of posts came mostly from Puerto Ricans in the United States trying to figure out the whereabouts and status of their loved ones on the island. Then, pictures started trickling into my news feed. And there I saw it – the beach area I used to frequent with my friends and used to go to “defrost” after long New Jersey winters was covered in black waters; the national rainforest, which we had planned on re-visiting during our next visit to PR - and which had safeguarded the island from other storms - looked like it had been slashed and burned. The grounds of my alma mater, where I had played with my friends countless of times looked like a war zone. The stadium where I had seen my first concert had become a shelter for over 700 displaced people. Images of flooded streets, roofless homes, collapsed bridges, damaged roads filled my screens.

As the days went on, a new normal emerged. In this new normal, each day people have to choose between different lines and wait for hours on end: at the supermarket for food, at the gas station for a fill-up or at the bank to access cash – the only form of payment accepted at most stores since ongoing telecommunications outages make it difficult to accept credit cards. Once inside a store, people find that most essential products are scarce and limited in the number each customer is allowed to buy. And this is in Puerto Rico’s metropolitan area.

Outside the San Juan metro area, reports paint starker choices. A news article I read describes: “In many towns there are no lines; stores haven’t been able to open, tanker trucks can’t reach distant gas stations to resupply and many bank branches are still closed. Water service has not been reestablished in many areas, and people I have spoken with tell me of hour-long slogs just to get drinking water for their families. Rural residents have no basic goods to buy, and no way to buy them even if supplies arrived. They need help immediately.”

As things stand today, 95% of people are still without power and about 50% are still without running water. Telecommunications are still spotty with only 38.5% of cell towers in operation, powered by generators. Flights coming in and out of Puerto Rico are limited, making it difficult for patients with serious needs to get the medical attention they need. Schools have been suspended for the immediate future.

It is important to pause here and recognize that this plight is being experienced by our fellow American citizens. There are 3.4 million Puerto Ricans who live on the island, which places the island just under Connecticut in terms of population numbers and above 21 of the remaining 50 states. On account of our political status, Puerto Ricans living on the island do not have full representation in Congress and lack political leverage. And yet, they have made countless contributions to this country by serving with distinction in the armed forces, paying Social Security, Medicare, as well as import, export, and commodity taxes to the federal government, consuming American-made goods at high rates, as well as providing a bilingual and skilled labor force for the American economy.  

Puerto Ricans are resilient people, who have learned to make due with what is available. They mobilized and provided aid to the US Virgin Islands and others in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma – even when they had little to spare. They heeded the call in the time of other people’s need, but today and in the coming years, they will need your help to rebuild a stronger Puerto Rico.

Since the storm, many members of the PDS community have shared with me expressions of concern and kind words of reassurance, as well as have asked me what is the best way to help. I am deeply grateful for your empathy and compassion, and I would like to take this opportunity to share the ways in which you can take action:

1)    I believe that learning about the history of Puerto Rico and its relationship with the United States is an important first step. Thank you to Rahul, Hallie, Ricardo, Fernando, Tarika, Zeytun, Kate, and Sra. Simonds for putting this educational presentation together for our community.

2)    It is also important to impress upon Congress and the federal government that the residents of Puerto Rico, as American citizens, need their continued to help to rebuild the infrastructure of the island. The American citizens who reside in Puerto Rico are a displaced constituency within the federal government, and they depend on citizens living in the mainland to advocate for their relief. I would encourage you to take what you have learned here today and share it with others, as well as write to Congress asking it to support the rebuilding efforts, both long- and short- term, of the island’s infrastructure.

3)    You can also participate in a PDS-wide fundraising effort. Next week, on Wednesday, October 11, InterACT in partnership with Service Learning will host a Rita’s Ice Sale. Throughout the course of next week, students in these clubs will also be selling “PR Se Levanta” laptop stickers. All proceeds of these sales will be donated to the Hispanic Federation, which supports Hispanic families and strengthens Latino institutions in the areas of education, health, immigration, civic engagement, economic development, and the environment. They have launched the UNIDOS Disaster Relief Fund to help meet hurricane-related needs and recovery in Puerto Rico. They have an outstanding rating on Charity Navigator and 100% of donations will go to help children and families recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.

Thank you for letting me share a bit of my story with you – where I come from is inextricably linked to who I am. And no matter how far life takes me, I will always call Puerto Rico my home. I stand here today proud of my people – of their resilience, resourcefulness, generosity. This strength of spirit in the face of adversity is embedded in our cultural DNA and is long rooted in our collective history. Pa’lante, mi’ja – move forward, my daughter. A mal tiempo, buena cara – in bad times, stay optimistic. La vida es dura pero hay que vivirla. Life is hard, but it must be lived to the fullest. These are some of the expressions in our vernacular. Not only do they feature prominently in my internal dialogue, but they also sustain Puerto Ricans when things get tough. And things in the island are tough right now – there is a humanitarian crisis unfolding in our backyard. Puerto Rico se levanta, Puerto Rico will rise – but it cannot do it alone. I encourage you to tap into your sense of kinship and personal connection from which compassionate and empathetic action is born. Together we can make a difference. Can I count on you?

About the Author:

Maria Shepard

Upper School History Teacher
Global Studies Coordinator