Moving Beyond “Un Poquito de Español”

04_25_40When I interviewed with Professor Connolly for a position in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic she asked me if I spoke any Spanish. I could tell it wasn’t a deal-breaker if I didn’t, but I couldn’t imagine UB Law helping people recover from the hurricane without it. I told her excitedly that I had been really working on getting fluent … for the last ten years.

I have always regretted letting my proficiency in the language slide after high school, but also never fully gave up. As a result, I’ve spent the last ten years telling people I speak “un poquito de español,” and encouraging them to use it with me – then missing the punchline to all the best jokes.
When I got to Puerto Rico this time I promised myself I would make the most concerted effort I could to learn, practice, and speak the language while here. Full immersion. And doing so has been the most enriching thing about the experience thus far, because it connects me to the people. It feels like the most meaningful thing I could do, to learn their language, and talk about their struggles with them in it. To drop s’s with them and wish one other good luck.

When we arrived at my first “humanitarian brigade,” (providing supplies like solar lamps to those still recovering from Hurricane Maria) I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been told we would travel on-foot through the mountains, giving out whatever supplies we could to these communities, who were both hit the hardest by the hurricane and had the least resources to recover. Although we gave out soap and towels, the most important item were the solar lamps – because, unbelievably, almost every one of the houses we visited was still without power.

Where we were in the mountains most people speak only Spanish, and I wanted to try and use the opportunity to practice with people. But it turns out explaining how a solar lamp works is more complicated than ordering bacalaitos! It was a situation that could have scared me off from communicating, but the #UBLawResponds team encouraged me to embrace the opportunity instead and face my fears. Their support propelled me into practicing enough that I could lead a group of students without knowledge of the language provide supplies to residents all on our own.

I’m certain my grammar was not always correct, and I nodded and smiled through some bits I couldn’t quite catch, but ultimately the connection was made. I can’t begin to describe the warmth and compassion I received from these incredibly resilient people. They applauded my attempt where they could have been frustrated, and together we all understood one another a little better. I came to Puerto Rico with #UBLawResponds to try and help people here feel appreciated, and instead I found myself being offered water from someone who hadn’t had running water since María. The breadth of this island’s resiliency and beauty is unbounded. I am forever grateful.

So, go for it! Puerto Rico needs meaningful help from all kinds of people with all kinds of expertise, and even though many of the citizens speak some English, at least trying to speak with them in their language sets a reverent tone unlike anything else.


Ventanas Rotas: Importing Broken Policies


As Puerto Rico enters its 4th month without fully reinstated power and water, crime rates have begun to soar, but the response to this reality from the government is counterintuitive at best. According to The New York Times, January 16, 2018 article, the local authorities have embraced Rudy Giuliani’s defunct “Broken Windows” policy to combat the recent influx of general crime, as well as the drastic swell in homicides. The policy purports to create a general environment of law and order by cracking down on small public crimes. Not only have critics recognized this policy as ineffective, racist, and harmful since its employ in the 80’s, there are clear signs it won’t work on the Island of Puerto Rico.

First, the police throughout Puerto Rico are on strike! How do authorities plan to increase the number of citations and arrests when 2,000 of the island’s 13,600 officers are calling out sick each day in protest? Officers are striking because they have yet to be paid for the many additional hours they put in during recovery from Irma and now María. But the failure to pay stems from the larger issue of the island’s $74 billion debt crisis – something they arguably cannot escape while trapped by PROMESA – the U.S. Federal law which created an oversight board tasked with restructuring Puerto Rico’s debt – and a general lack of independence.

Second, Puerto Rico’s economic crisis is well documented; however, the hurricane has exacerbated the issue by claiming many citizens’ jobs. Unemployment claims are mounting as employers close or downsize, and traveling to work has become more difficult for many people. People without jobs still need food for their families, gas for their generators, and funds for other basic needs, such as housing and medical attention. There has been a simultaneous uptick in robberies, theft, and car break-ins. However, I see many of these crimes as a symptom of the failing federal benefits programs and Federal aid through FEMA to help victims, not an indication of the failing morality of the Puerto Rican People.

Puerto Rico has struggled with high crime rates for most of its developed years, and I find the general response has been to blame the people and culture, when in reality, it is attributable to the stifling effects of systematic oppression. So, to see the local authorities on the island work in conjunction with federal forces to tackle this issue by attacking poorer communities – as the Broken Windows Policy inescapably does – is truly frustrating. The tactic operates within the same broken colonial mindset, by blaming the problem on the underrepresented and powerless in order to distract from the true origin of the issue – the parasitic colonizer.

When citizens have good options for employment, combined with opportunities to enrich their own communities, crime becomes a less attractive avenue for obtaining basic needs. Puerto Ricans do not need the U.S.’s recycled discriminatory tactics of oppression. What they do need should be up to them. I believe it is time to acknowledge the relationship between crime and a lack of autonomy; and, as I visit the island, I am looking forward to learning more about the Boricua point of view on the issue from the people themselves.

I volunteered to come to Puerto Rico with the #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law because I wanted to show my solidarity with the people, and to encourage a healthier relationship with the Island in my generation. I believe that with good policy and grassroots movements Puerto Rico can thrive through its resilience.