This past week I joined nine others from Norwich for the Alternative Spring Break in Puerto Rico where we were able to do many hours of community service along with exploring the island and its culture.
The biggest thing I noticed throughout the trip was the fact that many mainland United States citizens do not fully understand what Puerto Rico is in relation to the nation overall. When I went out to eat with my Tio Miguel, a native of Puerto Rico, he asked me how mainland Americans’ view the statehood debate. I had to answer that as far as I’ve witnessed that the issue of statehood, or even Puerto Rico in general outside of being a vacation location, is very rarely thought about or discussed. For example, when purchasing a souvenir, one of the students presented a U.S. dollar and asked, “Is it okay if I pay in U.S. dollars?” Hearing this, the women at the cash register gave a small laugh while I explained to the student that the U.S. dollar is in fact their currency. Another common occurrence was hearing people say “Oh, this is my first time outside the United States!” The problem with this is that Puerto Rico is a territory of the U.S. so it is not actually a foreign, non U.S. place. It is outside of the mainland United States, yes, but when these students said this they invision that they are in a completely foreign country. I can understand how it could be easy to forget it is another part of the U.S. as it is not a state and its culture is so different. A lot of the culture in Puerto Rico is closely linked with Spain’s culture, which can especially be seen in the laws. For example, if a house is bought in the husband’s name and he dies first, the house would go to the children and not directly to the wife.
The houses on the island are mostly built with cement to help the houses stand against the harsh hurricanes and other storms. In most U.S. cities there is a constant flow of traffic accompanied by road rage. Meanwhile in the streets of Old San Juan two men were running down the street, throwing a frisbee back and forth. Our community partner was describing how Puerto Ricans are typically very tolerable of bad drivers. For example if a car was cut off and nearly hit, there most likely wouldn’t be any honking. We witnessed many cars run straight through red lights and were informed of the saying, “no cop, no stop.”
Driving through Puerto Rico I was able to observe many differences from Vermont and mainland U.S. in general. There were all sorts of animals roaming free and stopping traffic occasionally in order to cross the streets. These animals ranged from dogs and cats to chickens and cows. Iguanas can be seen hanging out in trees or doing down holes. At one of the sites we went to for community service where we were helping care for new trees, the workers at Para La Naturaleza drowned the iguana in its hole. One of the students freaked out and was very disturbed, commenting on how cruel killing the iguana was. However, the locals in Puerto Rico know that the iguanas are invasive and are harmful to the environment.
Our community partner emphasized that after Hurricane Maria many officers left the island, leaving the law enforcement at a great shortage. While I went out to dinner with my family on one of our nights off, someone broke into our car and stole my bag. It was very unfortunate as many essential items were in the bag such as my identification, but we were all relieved it was simply a petty crime instead of a violent crime. At the police station, none of the officers spoke English. Luckily I have a decent base of the Spanish language and I was with my Puerto Rican family so we were able to file a police report after hours of waiting outside the station.
Overall the trip was very insightful and it was a great experience to be immersed in the Puerto Rican culture. I was able to feel more in touch with that side of the family, understanding their lifestyles. We were able to help the island by cleaning up beaches, helping care for trees, visiting the Boys and Girls club, clearing trails, and restoring an old school. Knowing our hard work was benefiting the community made it all worth it.