Harvard and Puerto Rico

Harvard University and institutions in Puerto Rico have worked together on many projects. One of the most dynamic of these collaborations is the Puerto Rico Winter Institute, a major January “happening.” 

Stretching in January

The Puerto Rico Summer Institute

By Merilee S. Grindle

The Puerto Rico Winter Institute is a major January “happening” at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. For the past four years, students from Harvard and the University of Puerto Rico have enjoyed more than the sunshine, warmth, beauty, and good food of Puerto Rico. They have collaborated in intensive intellectual “stretches” across disciplines, cultures, and time.

Conceptualized by Doris Sommer, a professor in Romance Languages and Literatures, the Institute (PRWI) is an experiment in appreciating the rich academic and cultural life of Puerto Rico and expanding interactions among students and faculty who share research and teaching interests. As Sommer explains in her description of the Aula Verde, the “real” world is never far away from the Institute experience.

I’ve had the privilege of sharing some of that “real” world experience in PRWI activities for the past two years—and I have indeed been stretched! In the summer of 2006, I joined discussions about the connection between water, the environment, and plant life in Puerto Rico. Organized by Noel Michele Holbrook, professor in Harvard’s Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, daily lectures were held at Puerto Rico’s Escuela de Artes Plásticas; lectures were made real through study visits to rain forests, watershed sites, mangroves, and the bioluminescent bays of the island of Vieques. The stretch resulted from bringing together plant biologists, hydrologists, and human rights activists (among others) to consider the meaning of water for plant and human life.

This kind of interaction has been made possible through generous support from the Wilbur Marvin Foundation. The Winter Institute is a groundbreaking way to promote collaboration between universities, their students, and their faculty.

I again got a chance to witness these collaborations this past winter when I attended lectures and participated in field activities related to the fascinating topic of how the brain and human emotions interact in interpersonal communication, whether it is through speech, gesture, or artistic expression. Students and I puzzled over the art and science of “empathic translation” in music, art, poetry, law, and neuroscience and considered how our insights could be applied to cross-cultural communications and artistic expression. The experience, organized by Alice Flaherty, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, was an intriguing intellectual stretch for me, made all the more rewarding through sharing it with students and faculty engaged in their own intellectual reaching.

At this point, I can only regret that I was not part of the first two stretches. In 2005, “Culture at a Crossroads,” organized by Sommer, was an intellectual journey that considered architecture, literature, identity, and religion. The following year, the Institute was organized around the theme of public health and society, and was led by Harvard Medical School professor Arachu Castro, who focused attention on Caribbean and U.S. connections, particularly with relevance to AIDS, immigration, and the health status of U.S. Latinos.

The Puerto Rico Winter Institute has been extraordinarily successful in helping both students and faculty stretch their minds beyond the normal boundaries of academic disciplines and cultural understandings. It has also resulted in increased networking and collaboration among scholars in Puerto Rico and Harvard. The sunshine, the warmth, the landscape are wonderful; so is the intellectual exercise.


Merilee S. Grindle 
is the director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and Edward S. Mason Professor of International Development at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

See also: Puerto Rico

A Green Classroom

Children participate in workshops on urban ecology run by community members, many of them parolees and probationers. Photo courtesy of Civil Action and Ecucation Corp

Puerto Rico in Winter

By Doris Sommer

“Aula Verde” is the name of an ecological park and science center for school children in Puerto Rico. It was an appropriate visit for the third Puerto Rico Winter Institute, dedicated to water and plants and directed by Harvard biology professor N. Michele “Missy” Holbrook. The amphitheater-like design of the flora, to facilitate viewing in lessons by the practiced guides, and the elegant simplicity of the laboratory building that borders the butterfly farm and dedicates space for arts and crafts with skilled mentors, were all quite pleasing to Missy’s experienced eye, but not astounding for the well-traveled botanist until we learned how the park was developed. It’s a story of recycled resources and civic revival.

Marco Abarca, a creative Costa Rican human rights lawyer, had been called in to consult on an ongoing class-action lawsuit against unconstitutional prison conditions in Puerto Rico. Abarca, a law professor at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), managed to direct part of the fine monies accumulated throughout years of litigation toward an investment that would improve the living conditions in one of the largest and poorest housing projects in Puerto Rico. Abarca together with community participants, consisting of parolees and probationers, began to transform the mosquito-infested badland behind the Catholic school into a natural haven. Then, with the help science educators, the group designed a workshop for elementary school children on urban ecology. As the participants organized, what developed was a community-based, self-employed enterprise known as Aula Verde. Its expert workshops are certified by the Department of Education of Puerto Rico and supported with Title I funds for the approximately 12,000 elementary school children who visit each year. By now the concept of “Aula Verde” is an inspiration for other consolidated sustainable development initiatives that can significantly improve lives in marginalized communities and at the same time enhance the education of Puerto Rico’s youth.

The project has salutary side effects in the academy as well. Abarca’s UPR law students work together with the community participants of Aula Verde to develop research that stretches the range of community improvement efforts to social concerns such as adolescent pregnancy, breast-feeding, school retention and prevention of drug abuse. Collaborative research prepares students to make effective interventions in all these areas, as evidenced by the support garnered in several non-profit organizations that have formed a tight network to promote this community’s development on various fronts.

The name, Green Classroom, also captures a general spirit of the island as a haven for learning, especially in winter, through collaborations across faculties and student bodies that might otherwise stay unknown to one another. For the past four years during the month of January. Harvard students and professors have been leaving the black, white, and grey winter of Boston to land in the full color of Puerto Rico to join colleagues and classmates there in order to learn from one another.

The small island measures about 100 by 35 miles but has over 20 ecosystems making it a virtual laboratory for life sciences, as we learned during the inaugural 2004 Winter Institute on a tour of the vast and impressive UPR Botanical Gardens in Río Piedras. The island also condenses many of the social, cultural, public health and ecological issues that count on local expertise and that also claim our general attention today in major universities throughout the Americas. Like a time-tunnel for Latin American countries that have recently entered the economic force-field of the United States through negotiated but uneven treaties, Puerto Rico could look like a laboratory and teach a lesson about what is gained and what is lost when circulation (of monies, goods, and people) trumps sovereignty. Since the 1950s, while Latin American economies were busy building local industry through Import Substitution Industrialization, Puerto Rico was a pioneer in attracting outside investment. The models developed there for over half a century are now being implemented throughout Latin America.

Nevertheless, Puerto Rico is usually overlooked or relegated to someone else’s field of study, unless the focus is specifically on the island in a book, or a course, or a lecture often by Puerto Rican scholars themselves. Other academics can’t quite place the territory and tend conveniently to ignore it. North Americanists seem consider it Latin American and therefore out of bounds; and Latin Americanists have apparently put it close to the United States where their field tapers off into another domain. Caribbeanists are likely to focus on Cuba as representative of the Spanish speaking area; and post-colonial studies can’t quite include Puerto Rico’s pre-post “Commonwealth” status, especially when its oxymoronic structure comes out clearly in Spanish as “Estado libre asociado.” Juan Flores calls the condition “Lite Colonial.”

Puerto Rico is a hybrid of cultures and of conflicting political identities counterpoised in a seemingly delicate but somehow enduring balance. The complicated island consistently performs the counterpoint and edgy creativity that theorists have described as either quintessentially Caribbean (read Cuban) according to Fernando Ortiz, or as distinctly borderland (between Mexico and the United States) to follow Néstor García Canclini. Puerto Rico’s complexity might have been exemplary for their theories, but perhaps it goes deeper than they were prepared to imagine. Contradiction is official in Puerto Rico as well as commonplace. To be both a “free state” and an “associated” or dependent territory would appear untenable and can be ontologically unnerving. Yet the duality has promoted admirable agility and a tolerance for contradiction, even while it strains the emotional resilience that the situation demands. A glaring example is the legitimate complaint that although Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections, they are drafted under presidential leadership into the United States Army at an alarmingly high rate, from the Korean War through Viet Nam, and serve disproportionately in today’s Iraq war. Less notorious but just as revealing an example of contradiction are the two separate legal traditions that lawyers generally command in Puerto Rico: the Civil Law tradition, which combines German and French positive law inherited from a reformed Spanish Empire, and the United States Common Law tradition that imposed its own adversarial procedures (vs. the older inquisitorial approach) without objecting to the substantive claims of the Civil Law tradition. Cases are generally argued in Spanish, unless they go before the United States District Court in Puerto Rico, in which case they must be argued in English. This leveling of differences between legal systems has prepared Puerto Rican lawyers to consult for other Latin American countries that feel the pressure to adopt United States legal procedure in order to facilitate economic accords. But the “homogenization” of differences in Puerto Rico should look like a limit case for countries that are testing the boundaries of treaty-friendly “harmonization” that promises to recognize the legitimacy of different legal systems despite asymmetries of economic and political power. The island remains a microcosm and classroom for this challenge today, as the national law of sovereign states rubs against demands of other states and of international conventions and courts.

The island’s unsettled political status doesn’t amount to an identity crisis—Puerto Ricans are generally proud to beboricuas—but it does provoke noteworthy resourceful responses that combine elements of Anglo and Hispano along with other immigrant worlds and that sometimes retrieve older indigenous traditions, making the island a fascinating focus for scholarship and for enduring friendships. This became clear to me when I started to travel to San Juan, following the pattern of my Brooklyn barrio neighbors from childhood. It was also clear that almost anyone would come to the same conclusion about the intellectual and personal pull of Puerto Rico once they got there. And Puerto Ricans would benefit from the visits too, as my friend Rubén Ríos Avila explained. UPR students are homogeneously almost all from the island and hardly get exposed to unfamiliar points of view, so that the interchange of perspectives is not only welcome but fundamental for a critical education. Bringing Harvard colleagues and graduate students to share seminar experiences with Puerto Rican counterparts became a project I took on with enthusiasm and with confidence about the promising results. The project began through the Cultural Agents Initiative, as I explored sites and partners in Old San Juan where visitors would inevitably feel drawn, and it was adopted by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies once the design could be implemented as a program, thanks to support by the Wilbur Marvin Foundation.

From the beginning, our collaboration has counted on the hospitality of the Escuela de Artes Plásticas—where the Institute holds its classes across from the magnificent Morro Fort and the Atlantic Ocean; the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe—where Harvard students and some faculty stay in the old seminary’s student rooms behind the peaceful cloistered patio; and the University of Puerto Rico, our close partner in academic planning and staffing, through the initiative of Silvia Álvarez Curbelo, a professor and former DRCLAS Visiting Scholar.

Our themes or areas of focus vary from year to year, intentionally, in order to engage the broadest possible range of students and scholars. Seminars and fieldtrips on arts and religion in the first year brought Tom Cummins, Davíd Carrasco and J. Lorand Matory to work with Enrique Vivoni, Angel Quintero, and Juan Flores. The next year, Arachu Castro, Dharma Cortes, and Dolores Acevedo-Garcia worked with Glorisa Canino and Jorge Duany on issues of public health. And in the third year Missy Holbrook accompanied by Maciej Zweniecki, Paul Moorcroft, Rafael Bras, Elvira Cuevas, Ernesto Medina, Carla Restrepo and Jorge Ortiz studied water and plants. Neuroscience and the ethics of empathy provided a context for Alice Flaherty to include Graham Ramsay and Doris Sommer in partnerships with Margarita Alegría, Marco Abarca and Antonio Martorell in the recent fourth year of the Winter Institute. Next year we hope to engage colleagues in economics or the law. Topics change, but the collaborative model remains constant. Three, sometimes four, faculty members from Harvard join an equal number of professors from the University of Puerto Rico to alternate their lectures and presentations between visiting and local professors for a dozen graduate students from each institution. Through this design Puerto Rico is as a partner for Harvard’s scholarly engagements in ways that can foment sometimes lasting exchanges or dialogues. The two-way and mutual model of the Institute probably distinguishes it from other approaches to scholarship abroad. Most either host a Harvard professor with his or her students in a country appropriate to their course material; or they engage Harvard faculty to teach in foreign universities. Some students study abroad too, often during summers, but very few choose to substitute a semester or a year at Harvard for a term elsewhere. The Winter Institute takes advantage of down-time in the dead of winter not only to identify Puerto Rico as an appropriate site for the study of many fields; it also recognizes Puerto Ricans as colleagues and mentors across a range of academic disciplines.


Doris Sommer
 is Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and literatures and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is also Director of Cultural Agents (culturalagents.org). She thanks Professor Abarca for his help with this article and for providing photos.

Monkeys and Men

monkey
Rhesus monkeys are the subject of interdiciplinary research on Cayo santiago. Photo by Jeremy Pertman

Learning from Cayo Santiago

By Melissa S. Gerald

What does who opens the door on a date on a frigid Cambridge evening have to do with a lush island off the shores of Puerto Rico? For that matter, what does this island, teaming with squealing free-ranging rhesus monkeys, have to do with some of the best minds at Harvard?

I pondered these questions as I prepared to give a lecture on sexual selection theory to a group of Harvard students at the Puerto Rico Winter Institute this January. In a sense, the answer to the second question is easier to answer. Harvard scientist and prolific, two-times Pulitzer Prize winning author Edward O. Wilson reminded me last spring that his journey into what become the field of sociobiology began on this island, known as Cayo Santiago, in 1956. Since then, Cayo Santiago has become a mecca for both scientists who study social behavior through observations of the social interactions and relationships of monkeys, and for evolutionary biologists of all sorts, who try to fathom the workings of the mind and language. Marc Hauser, Harvard psychologist and recent author of Moral Minds (Ecco Press), and his students have conducted ongoing research there for more than twenty years on Cayo Santiago.

Hauser works extensively in both the field and the laboratory. “What is exciting about working on Cayo Santiago is that you can ask profound questions about the evolution of mind to animals living in semi-natural conditions, and answer these questions with the rigor of captive experiments, and with the sample size of a drosophila geneticist,” observed Hauser recently.

So, going back to my first question, how does mundane dating etiquette connect to sexual selection and patterns of monkey behavior? Here is a quick tour of what I explained to the students.

Current divorce rates for the United States suggest that even if we manage to stay in a relationship there are always ups and downs. Many conflicts between men and women often arise from the differences between the sexes. How do we breathe, eat, or drink? We know how to satisfy these basic, primary needs. There are serious consequences for people who do not succeed at these tasks: they die. By contrast, if we do not find a mate, we only suffer, albeit a lot, if one is to judge by the plethora of self-help dating books for both men and women.

Our living primate relatives, such as monkeys and apes, can help us to recognize different reproductive decisions and strategies that continue to operate today. For those who do not succeed at reproducing, they die and with them go their genes. Natural selection favors those traits that lead to the greatest survival and reproductive success of the bearers. What is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander, and as we see in many animals, like humans, males and females often differ in behavior and appearance. Nearly 150 years ago, Charles Darwin began to unravel the selective forces driving these differences between the sexes.

Sexual Selection Theory

Darwin noted that some traits seemed to hinder survivorship. For example, the bright feathers of the male peacock are conspicuous to the female peahen. They also stick out like a sore thumb to predators, appearing as flags waving to predators, "eat me, eat me!”

To account for these sexually dimorphic traits Darwin developed the theory of sexual selection, a subset of natural selection. Sexual selection is selection for traits that enable individuals to acquire more and better mates. So while a trait may be damaging to survivorship it will be favored when it increases reproduction. Sexual selection occurs as a result of a character being non-randomly related to variance in reproductive success. As such, Darwin surmised that these gaudy feathers evolved because, while peacocks are clumsy in flight, the long fanciful tail is sexy to females and could enhance males' ability to reproduce.

Sexual selection theory provides a general framework from which we can explain communication differences between the sexes. This theory informs us that males are likely to compete against one another for females, that females are the choosy sex, and that males advertise individual differences to attract females. While as a graduate student and before joining the faculty at Harvard, Robert Trivers explained in a seminal paper in 1972 why males do we they do and why females do something else. It is all about investment. This would be investment toward an offspring, in terms of time, energy, and risk at the expense of one’s own fitness.

On Cayo Santiago, one can see first hand that female rhesus macaques are the investing sex, and this is typical for primates. Females get pregnant and once impregnated, females are required to carry the offspring to term. Women gestate for more than nine months, female rhesus do it for five and a half months, and both do it at a cost. Pregnancy is rather metabolically taxing. Pregnant females get hungry and lethargic. Imagine life as a pregnant rhesus monkey. You do not have supermarkets. You have to find your own food. This quest for food comes at the expense of doing other things, such as grooming and getting groomed, cultivating and maintaining social relationships, relaxing, or even taking care of your other kids. Once a mother, the investment expands. Infant rhesus require milk for at least the first 6 months of life, and a female cannot start cycling again immediately after birth, particularly if a mother is nursing on demand. It is very demanding keeping your eye on a playful infant, who could easily wander into the path of a competitor, or in the territory of a predator, if in the wild. Without the mother, the consequences can be quite devastating for an infant.

The extent to which a male invests varies across the primate order. Nevertheless, all in all, the extent to which the female primate invests in offspring care is far greater than any investment a male can devote to his offspring. A male’s minimal investment is the sperm that he contributes.

It could certainly behoove a female to mate with a male who will stick around to help take care of her and their young. How is a female able to assess whether a male is able and likely to provide her or their offspring with direct benefits such as protection or even material benefits like food? Typically, socially dominant animals have priority of access to resources. When resources are in scarce supply it can greatly benefit a female to be connected to a male ally who can monopolize access to resources. Indeed, across many species there appears to be great evidence that females choose males on the basis of their dominance rank. Females also might exercise choice for males who can offer indirect benefits such as good genetic quality for her offspring.

Some of the research that has been done on Cayo Santiago helps us to understand some of those selection criteria. For example, evidence exists that female rhesus macaques prefer males that are socially novel to them and thus genetically different. This preference prevents inbreeding. Inbred offspring are typically less likely to survive and reproduce than outbred infants. Apart from checking out the new male on the block, females may also pay attention to individual differences between males in appearance to gain information about his underlying quality, or even how a male is likely to behave toward them.

Vervet Cheaters

There are all sorts of ways that men and women adjust themselves to make themselves more appealing. Women can wear make-up, and men can work out. Even playing hard to get is about sexual economics. By decreasing availability (not returning phone calls or playing "hard-to get"), the value of that person goes up. Animals cannot cheat. They are what they are. I conducted some experiments in vervet monkeys, an African cousin to the rhesus monkey, to see what exactly happens when you help a male cheat. Male vervets exhibit varying intensities of blue and aquamarine color on their scrotum. Males who display resplendent colors tend to dominate their pale counterparts, so I painted pale males bright. I could not make an alpha out of a cheater, but brightly painted pale males tricked others, but not always in the faker's favor. While pale males acted nicely toward these imposters, brightly colored males perceived these males as a challenge and attacked, regardless of how the poor cheater behaved. Furthermore, females tended to act antagonistically toward these cheaters. Moral of the story: cheaters never prosper.

These studies of vervet monkeys underscore the importance of coloration in guiding social interactions between individuals in a captive setting. Vervet monkeys are not alone in spreading their words through color. Adult rhesus males and females exhibit reddened sexual skin (both faces and genitalia) during the mating season. While, color intensity increases throughout the mating season, it maxes out during the season's prime days of mating activity. Corri Waitt and colleagues wanted to determine whether females pay attention to this coloration in males. Their experimental study showed that females paid preferential attention to images of male faces that were digitally reddened over imaged of the same males who had paler faces.

As I reported to the students, the coloration a male rhesus monkey sports also directly affect their social interactions with others, even in the wild. In a more recent study I led on Cayo Santiago, we showed that males with greater face and genital hue spent more time associating with females in both nice, affiliative interactions and in sexual activities. Coloration does not appear to be threatening to females, as coloration was not associated with aggressive behavior, so we are surmising coloration is attractive to females for one reason or another.

At the Puerto Rico Winter Institute, I discussed with the students why females are the choosy sex, the possible criteria female primates use in their choice of mates and how females communicate interest in males and exercise mate choice. Although I highlighted these concepts by discussing patterns found in nonhuman primates, I informed the students that there is no typical primate, just as there is no typical human culture. The choices a female makes will be dependent on her environment, and social factors may constrain her preferences. Sexual selection theory can help us to understand human mating strategies and how men and women communicate. As we recognize common patterns among primate species we also see common threads among cultural groups of humans, which pronounce our common origins. By clarifying how sexual selection operates to affect male and female communication in primates, this may also shed light on some of the universal problems that plague humans such as: sex differences in crime, sexual jealousy, and why it is so difficult for humans to remain faithful.

Those are just a few of the things my research on Cayo Santiago has allowed me to understand and explore. And it will continue to provide an opportunity for Harvard and other researchers to learn about monkeys...and ourselves.


Melissa S. Gerald
 is Associate Professor at the Laboratory for Primate Morphology & Genetics in the Department of Medicine at the University of Puerto Rico Medical School. She was the Scientist-in-Charge of Cayo Santiago from 2001 to 2007.

A Look at Cayo Santiago

By June Carolyn Erlick

It doesn’t look like a zoo. Indeed, on Cayo Santiago, a 38-acre tropical island off Puerto Rico’s coast, the only mammals in cages are human beings. Edmundo Kraiselburd, the affable director of the Caribbean Primate Research Center here, quickly scoots behind bars to check a few messages on his Blackberry.

In this free-ranging monkey colony with a population of 1,022 rhesus macaque monkeys, it’s the monkeys who are kings (and queens). Visitors to the island must be tested for tuberculosis before arrival. “We know the monkeys are cute, but don’t make eye contact with them,” sternly warns colony manager James Ayala. “I’m being serious.”

Cayo Santiago staff are busy trapping monkeys to obtain scent and DNA to determine paternity lines, marking each monkey for identification purposes. Everything has to be done before hurricane season in June. Adaris Mas, the Research Center’s first Puerto Rican resident scientist, points out the different monkey groupings. Some monkeys are grooming themselves, while others patiently groom each other. They are indeed cute.

Before ducking into his protective cage-office, Kraiselburd tells his visitor, “The whole concept of National Research primate centers came from Cayo Santiago. The subject of sociobiology got its start here also with E.O. Wilson.”

Kraiselburd, a virologist by training, explains that the first monkeys were brought to Cayo Santiago from India in 1938. All the monkeys on the island are descended from the original 409 monkeys, providing a specialized gene pool. Supported by the National Institutes of Health and administered by the Unit of Comparative Medicine at the University of Puerto Rico, the island is a researchers’ paradise.

The latest “hot theme” to be studied is stress, according to Ayala. “The question is whether dominant animals are more stressed than others,” he observes. “You can get information from a naturalistic setting that you can’t elsewhere. The environment in a lab is stressful for the animals in and of itself. That’s what makes this place unique.”

Research on the island, according to Kraiselburd, has resulted in the malaria vaccine, the Hulka Clip that controls reproduction, and tetanus advances, not to mention discoveries in the fields of psychology and sociobiology. The research on the island is multidisciplinary, ranging from cognition and communication to morphology and physiology.

The island now confronts two challenges. One is overpopulation. Monkeys on the island don’t face hungry lions or tigers, and they have ready access to food. This means that the survival rate is considerably greater than in the jungle. The challenge is how to thin the monkey population through sales and donations without upsetting the balance among the groups of monkeys.

The second challenge is a human one. The island is less than a mile off Puerto Rico’s coast; Kraiselburd is initiating projects to integrate the Research Center with the community, a low-income village of fishermen. Even though tourists are not permitted on the island, a monkey-themed museum and library on the mainland could attract visitors. He’s currently involved in a project to improve community schools.

“It’s all about giving back,” says Kraiselburd.

A large rhesus emerges seemingly from nowhere, ignoring the visitors. The sky is as blue as it could possibly be. An iguana slinks by, his green skin bending with the lush vegetation.

“When E.O. Wilson was here recently to participate in a documentary, we tried to find him some ants, because we know he’s interested in ants,” comments Ayala, reminded by the iguana of the island’s spectular biodiversity. “But we couldn’t get enough ants in one place, so we found him a termite mound.”

Try doing that in a zoo.


June Carolyn Erlick
 is the editor-in-chief of ReVista. She is the author of Disappeared: A Journalist Silenced (Seal Press 2004) and Una gringa en Bogotá (Aguilar, 2007).

See also: Puerto Rico