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About the Author

Diana Acosta, a Master’s student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was raised in a close-knit Central American community in Washington, D.C. and Hyattsville, Maryland, where she currently lives. Her studies and areas of interest include youth advocacy, immigrant justice, ethnic studies, social justice movements and participatory action research. She hopes to continue working within collective efforts of decolonizing education to honor and center community wisdom, narratives and voices.

 

She thanks Professor Pedro Reina Pérez and Rachel Murray-Crawford for bringing us all together and organizing us in and outside the space. She also wants to express deep gratitude to all her classmates who took the time to get to know each other and share their own ideas and dreams of our futures: Margaret, Rosangely, Adriana, Sara, Yara, José, Laura, Karen, and Ismanuel. Our community was built through each of their willingness to be present, share insights, ask thoughtful questions, challenge ideas, keep it real, and share their love for a Puerto Rico that is strongly rooted in the wisdom of its people and communities.

El Pueblo Tiene La Fortaleza

The People Have the Strength

by | Mar 18, 2021

The chilly 8 a.m. sun made its way slowly in Washington, D.C, tiredly signaling a new winter day. It was Thursday, January 7, 2021, and less than 24 hours prior, my home city had been terrorized with violent riots at the Capitol. I was still making sense of what had happened when I hazily found myself  logging into a Zoom room, not knowing how the next seven days would feel like. At the time, I did not know that the Puerto Rico Winter Institute (PRWI) would become a powerful and healing learning community amidst the transition of power, a pandemic and an extremely difficult year for my community.

Professor Pedro Reina Pérez warmly greeted the group of students from both the Universidad de Puerto Rico (UPR) and Harvard, as well as participating Puerto Rican faculty and community organizers. He delved into the theme of this year’s seminar: Reimagining Citizenship and Governance in Pandemic Times and how it built on the seminar’s work of past years to shed light on multiple systems within space, infrastructure, racial justice, environmental rights, art, activism, legal rights, gender equity, economy and community-building at play in Puerto Rico. He explained to us that in years past, students from both universities experienced the seminar in-person and participated in workshops at different sites together in Puerto Rico.

 Participating in these sessions virtually was new for everyone, including faculty. The sense of place and space were soon to be redefined as we co-built a new learning environment with virtual challenges. Nonetheless, the discussions we proceeded to have based on topics assigned to each day were illuminating, fruitful and honest, allowing us to be vulnerable in our learning process while getting to know each other better through our stories and perspectives. Although I was unsure about how the days would pan out, I was encouraged after listening to our introductions how willing and open students and UPR faculty were about having thoughtful community discussions.

The opening session kicked off with Dr. Érika Fontánez Torres, law professor at the University of Puerto Rico who dug deeper into the right to the city, focused on the collective power of physical and social urban spaces as ones of co-creation and community by and for the people. Students brilliantly co-led the discussion and layered this concept with Puerto Rico’s historical and contemporary context pre-pandemic and during it.

The conversation highlighted the devastating effects of colonialism, capitalism and commodification of resources on the island as well as the people-power within cultural and social movements. These include the successful 2019 protests demanding the end of corruption and resignation of ex-governor Ricardo Roselló. We then learned from Professor Pedro Adorno Irizarry, a legendary artist and co-founder of Agua, Sol, y Sereno (ASYS) theater that leads educational workshops and performs with and for communities across Puerto Rico. Adorno shared so much wisdom with our group, bringing to light the power of spontaneous organizing through the arts, physical movement and embodied presence on the streets. He emphasized the transformative relationship between extemporaneous body movement, healing and the arts as vessels of resistance in times of pandemic.

The next day, we had crucial discussions with Heriberto Ramírez Ayala, an activist who works towards educating about and dismantling  gender-based violence and toxic and hyper-masculinity. They focused on engaging in liberatory frameworks that have been useful in their work and some of the learnings from their workshops in Puerto Rico and abroad such as Dímelo Pa, a space of dialogue and resource-sharing for male-identifying participants.

Activism mural art in San Juan, Puerto Rico; “The People Have The Strength” by Roberto Acevedo)

Sunday was one of my favorite days of the entire experience as we watched two powerful and inspiring performances by Agua, Sol y Sereno and renowned award-winning Puerto Rican musician, Fabiola Méndez. Agua, Sol y Sereno’s performance, COMER, captivated so many of us with its message about the importance of the Earth and our embodied and spiritual connections to the food it produces and multiplies. This performance, although created before Hurricane Maria, inspired many Puerto Rican communities after the natural disaster with its message of hope and a fruitful land and humanity. Méndez and her musical partner shared their extraordinary talent with us, holding a discussion titled La Décima en Puerto Rico, a traditional form of poetic rhyme used in instrument, song and poetry. They also sang and played songs about the island and experiences of the Puerto Rican diaspora.

Even though we were shivering with the cold here on the East Coast, these breathtaking performances brought us the warmth we needed with their powerful messages. We could feel the connections between the humans across our screens and with the performers, savoring the moment of liberated movement and song across time zones and beyond borders.

Agua, Sol, y Sereno artists performing COMER for the PRWI, January 10, 2021

We then started the week with Professor Marina Moscoso who delved into a case study about gentrification and properties institutionally labeled as estorbos públicos or public nuisances. She enlightened us with much of her own field work in relation to abandoned properties as well as the lack of infrastructure to turn these properties into much-needed public and green spaces. Natalia Irizarry Rodríguez, an alumnus of both UPR and the PRWI, built on Professor Moscoso’s work by sharing her own work and studies about the need for more community-focused policy that reimagines common spaces during the pandemic including UPR’s own community development plans. Professor Mareira Quintero Rivera led two additional sessions focused on the field of cultural administration, its impact on the citizenry and its role in reimagining Puerto Rico’s people-oriented economic and community development. Professor María de Mater O’Neill followed, encouraging us to think beyond the limits of time and space. We talked about imagining futures, both immediate and long-term, in Puerto Rico and across the world through the lens of social and participatory perspectives. She led us through a futuristic interactive mind map activity that laid out our thoughts on the imagined possibilities based on what we had learned and our own lived experiences.

Professor and social worker Elithet Silva Martínez provided important insights into her work at UPR and beyond focused on advocacy and healing spaces for and with women and LGBTQIA+ students to end gender violence. Elithet shared with us how critical this work is given the disturbing data about the disproportionate number of sexual assaults and femicides against women on campus and across the island.  Her perspectives were extremely insightful as a practitioner and scholar whose work has become central to UPR’s gender equity work and healing spaces with and for survivors.

Natalia Irizarry Rodríguez’s presentation sharing the impactful legacy of student protests at the University of Puerto Rico, January 11, 2021

This learning experience, although different in a virtual environment, was one full of meaning and community. It is thanks to the artists, activists, organizers, classmates and faculty that we were able to create such an open and engaging learning environment that allowed us to ask challenging questions and critically engage with the materials and information in the context of our own communities. It was a transformative experience to center and learn more about Puerto Rican communities, narratives, realities, and collective envisioned futures.

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