The last time I went to Puerto Rico in 2011 things were noticeably different than when I went to Puerto Rico in January of 2018 as a Student Attorney in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. The changes were very apparent in the more rural areas, like in Arroyo.
One of the first things I noticed were the boarded-up windows in occupied dwellings, even in upscale buildings. We stayed in Santurce, surrounded by many of these types of dwellings. On our first night there I glanced out of my window as I was preparing for bed. I noticed that many of the windows of the multi-level building across the street appeared to be boarded up. I thought nothing of it until the next morning when I looked out of my window and saw occupants in that same building. One man was peering through his window, looking down at the street as I went about my morning routine. In my naivety, I was shocked that any amount of windows of an occupied building were boarded up. I am used to seeing a building with boarded-up windows and instantly understanding that the building is vacant. So to see a man calmly peering out of his window in a building with boarded-up windows was a sight that made me momentarily suspend my morning routine and survey what I was seeing.
It was not so much the sight of occupants in a boarded up building, it was the tranquility with which the male occupant stared out of his window, as if nothing was amiss. I wondered how long it took him to get accustomed to the sight of boarded-up occupied dwellings on the island. I wondered how long it would take me to get accustomed to that sight if I were in his situation. I wondered if this was the new normal or a temporary transitional phase. I wondered even if one gets used to drastic changes, is one still subconsciously being negatively affected by the changes? It took me about two days to get used to the sight of seeing boarded up windows. Then, I began to not even notice them anymore.
Another change that I observed were all the abandoned homes. On a #UBLawResponds humanitarian brigade, I spoke at length with a resident of Arroyo. As we walked together, she pointed to all the homes on her street that had been abandoned by families seeking a better quality of life on the mainland. Watching her repeatedly point her figure, saying “this family left, that family left,” was a lot to take in. I read about the thousands of Puerto Ricans fleeing the island after Hurricane Maria, but to actually see all the homes left behind by these fleeing people was something else. I looked at these beautiful abandoned homes and imagined living in such a home and making the difficult decision to leave it because life had become unbearable.
The upbeat spirit of Puerto Rico, however, has not wavered. There is a certain carefreeness and zest that many people comment on when they visit Puerto Rico for the first time. I previously thought this attitude was the spirit of the island … but after this post-Maria trip, I now see that is the spirt of the people on the island. I have faith that the indomitable spirit of the Puerto Rican people will ultimately uplift the island from the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria and keep it thriving.
Whenever anyone asks me how the “trip” to Puerto Rico was, I tell them it was intense. This really throws people off because they expect the standard, “oh, it was great!” But this wasn’t a vacation, this wasn’t just an outing. This was a trip that revolved around serving the people of Puerto Rico through humanitarian brigades and pro bono legal services. As Student Attorneys in the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, we traveled a lot, and we saw a lot too. We observed a mix of average/rich people, as well as the very poor. We experienced the clash of a daydream and reality
Puerto Rico is beautiful and confusing. The natural beauty of the landscape, flora and fauna, and the wonderful people all makes you feel like you’re in a little paradise. You can easily find Walmart, Marshalls, K-Mart, Old Navy, Macy’s, JC Penny, Forever 21, and outlet malls with every fancy name brand you can think of. However, I can guarantee you, within a quarter mile of any of those stores or malls, you will see the reality of Puerto Rico’s current situation.
You will see people just trying to make things work so they can live their lives. You will see innumerable blue tarp roofs, houses without roofs, people living in abandoned storefronts because their house was destroyed, and more. It’s like walking from a daydream into a harsh reality. If you move a little further from the façade, you’ll see poverty on a scale that should never exist in America.
It’s a constant conflict that’s very unsettling. It’s hard to comprehend how there can be a shopping center right next door to a community that’s suffering and struggling just to put roofs back over their heads. It’s why we were there as part of #UBLawResponds.
After we returned from Puerto Rico, two fellow student attorneys from the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic found our work coming together. Recently, we authored a scholarly article on Puerto Rico’s political constraints in light of its relations with the United States and the appointment of a fiscal control board under the federal Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Stability Act (PROMESA). The paper presents case studies from the perspective of the agricultural and energy fields, and proposes creative alternatives through which Puerto Rico may experience significant economic growth and achieve a sustainable level of resiliency, by empowering local communities and municipalities. Although such community-level economic growth has been achieved in other countries, such efforts in Puerto Rico are frustrated by the islands’ controversial political dichotomy.
Puerto Rico’s official political identity is the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, albeit in title rather than form. Despite granting Puerto Rico the right to constitute its own republican government, Congress retains control over the islands under the Federal Constitution’s Territorial Clause. Recently, Congress exercised this control and enacted PROMESA, whereupon a fiscal control board was appointed to oversee Puerto Rico’s fiscal plans and assure the local government pays its 74-billion-dollar public debt. For local communities and municipalities, the board threatens local budgets and other instrumentalities, such as land and utilities. This means that efforts to create community-owned resources and revenue streams could be hampered by the board.
As #UBLawReponds student attorneys, we tasked ourselves with identifying ways in which Puerto Rico’s communities can achieve resiliency and rise above the strictures of PROMESA and the fiscal control board. In a similar manner, other schools and entities, both in Puerto Rico and mainland U.S, have joined the efforts to research and propose creative solutions to Puerto Rico’s ongoing crisis. For Puerto Ricans, it is important that discussions about the political and fiscal future of Puerto Rico continue in academic, political, and social fora. The goal is to educate people and create awareness in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. mainland. American citizens, including the millions of Puerto Ricans living in the several states, need to be aware of how they can have a strong voice in Congress through their representatives, and advocate for their fellow Americans living in Puerto Rico. But regardless of the will of Congress, Puerto Ricans need to act now. Given the collective efforts of local community partners, firms, universities, law schools, and hopefully this clinic, Puerto Rican communities could soon take charge of the future of Borinquen.