“Buenos Vecinos”

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Of the most meaningful work we, the introductory University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, accomplished in Puerto Rico in January 2018 were humanitarian brigades. In those brigades, UB clinic students purchased and delivered solar lamps, diapers, water, and other necessities to Puerto Rico citizens still recovering from Hurricane Maria on more remote and inaccessible parts of the island.

 The power of connection among neighbors quickly became evident in our work. For example, on such a brigade in Maunabo, a community leader named Maria (who served as our guide) knew exactly which houses were occupied and which were temporarily evacuated, without a list or notes. As #UBLawResponds students climbed the winding and unforgivingly mountainous Maunabo roads, Maria would point to a house, tell us how many people lived there and what they needed, be it bed pads or power bars.  She was always right.

How, we asked, did she know all of this? “It’s my job to know,” she said. In a town slightly more populous than Kenmore, New York, community leaders were aware of and directly responding to resident needs. Maria’s home was badly damaged as well, but she and Rojelio, and countless others like them focused on serving their neighbors through it all.

This month, I witnessed reflections of that dedication at the celebracion de los Tres Reyes Magos, held in the Olivencia Center on Swan Street in Buffalo NY. There, again, I saw community leaders who know their neighbors. These leaders are very aware of neighbors needs, and appear enthusiastically determined to meet them; folks who get involved because they believe in community. And this was not just officials. One person we met was a Vietnam Vet who makes it his business to care about every other Vet he meets, and his group of three friends who get together to volunteer on the weekends. How very Puerto Rican and how very Buffalonian.

Here in the City of Good Neighbors, many of us share this impulse. Most of us will always, when able, shovel our neighbor’s walk. We buy a beer at the bar for the stranger from out of town, and then argue with our friends over the answer when he asks about the best wing spot. We show up for, check in on, and take care of each other. And we cherish traditions, especially of the celebratory variety. The organization and commitment of our local Puerto Rican community, growing for more than a century, has surely helped earn our sobriquet, and the continued pledge to service from all corners of the city will keep proving it true.

It’s clear why “Puerto Rico se levanta” (Puerto Rico rises up): it’s her People. Buffalo too though. Buffalo se levanta. With her People, including those who arrive today and tomorrow. But we need to do it together, New York and Puerto Rico. We’re too intertwined to let one rise at the expense of the other. We must continue to foster productive exchange, to nurture the relationship between the state and the island. That’s why I’m returning in two weeks. Not just to serve there, but to serve the Puerto Rican community here at home by playing my small part in keeping our institutions connected.

#UBLawResponds’ efforts for our clients need support – you can help by donating whatever you can at our fundraising site.