Local Educators Lead Relief Efforts in Puerto Rico

A former school librarian in Puerto Rico returns home after Hurricane Maria to help—and to tell the stories of the local people who are helping students, libraries, and schools recover.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, we knew we were in the path of hurricanes. When I was a child during Hurricane Hugo in 1989, my parents gathered my grandparents, aunt, and cousins in our concrete house to be together during the storm. Power was out, wind was blowing, rain was non-stop, as we shared food, played games, and tracked the hurricane’s path on our paper Hurricane Tracker Map. It was a frightening and tense experience, but I felt safe, because we were together. On September 20, 2017, I was in Boston as Hurricane María struck the island where my family still lives. This time I followed from afar via interactive maps, online radio, and social media posts of friends and colleagues in Puerto Rico. As soon as the storm hit, all communication was lost. It would be weeks before I spoke to my family. Fortunately, they were OK. I decided to concentrate on assisting and raising awareness of local groups and community efforts.

The author (second from the right) and her family in Puerto Rico.

Several weeks after Hurricane María hit, I started reading about the impact to libraries and schools. The few and already struggling libraries in Puerto Rico reportedly had leaking roofs, spreading mold, damaged collections, and broken doors and windows. Some schools were serving as shelters, and later as community centers where children would meet, distract themselves, and receive hot meals. Other schools were closed due to the damage. As a former school librarian in Puerto Rico, I wanted to work with and for Puerto Rican youth communities, educators, and librarians in any way I could during this difficult situation. In late January, the governor proposed closing hundreds of schools on the island. With so many families moving to the mainland after the devastation, enrollment in Puerto Rican schools has already decreased by more than 22,000 students, according to Puerto Rico’s Department of Education. But there are reasons for hope in Puerto Rico, too—neighbors assisting one another, and people struggling personally but making an effort to help others, especially kids. Many are using literacy projects to push forward and help with healing and rebuilding. I returned to Puerto Rico (with luggage full of books and supplies) for New Year’s and Three Kings’ Day, staying from December 29, 2017 to January 8, 2018. While my family had power when I arrived, it went out a few times while I was there. Seeing the destruction and the lack of progress three months after the storm was startling and upsetting. My people were still in survival mode. But I also saw hope in the Puerto Rican people and their actions–neighbors helping each other, people struggling personally but making an effort to help others, especially kids. March 20 will be the six-month anniversary of the storm and they are still working to rebuild their lives and communities. Here are some of the people who are making a difference.

Isamar Abreu Gómez

Isamar Abreu Gómez is an assistant librarian at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. Her library serves faculty and students, and provides resources and services for future Puerto Rican teachers. After the storm, she wanted to connect children’s literature to students’ experiences in a post-María Puerto Rico. She created the “Maleta Cuentera” (Storytelling Travel Bag). “The idea came of that blend of a travel bag as a medium to carry and transport artifacts, but also to travel and migrate to other places, like started happening after María,” Isamar says. As soon as schools near her library started opening, she brought her Maleta Cuentera to the students. “When students saw the travel bag filled with books, many started talking about their family members who had left the island, and the possibility of their leaving as well,” she says. She has now joined with a community arts coalition for more support of her project. Long term, as the coordinator of her library’s juvenile collection, Abreu Gómez wants to develop an environmental and social justice literacy project to spread the work of the Maleta Cuentera to more Puerto Rican children.

Américo Guzmán Santiago

Américo Guzmán Santiago is the school librarian at the Julián E. Blanco School of Ballet, a specialized public school. The school wasn't severely damaged, so cleaning the physical space to offer classes was not that difficult, but there were several caveats: they had no power or way to get or maintain a long-term electrical generator and the optical fiber that connects them to the Internet was severely damaged. But the biggest hurdle, Américo says, was the emotional and psychological impact of the hurricane on students. “Their houses got flooded and many lost their roofs and windows,” he says. “Some students lost family members, grandparents, and uncles.” The library became a place to meet, chat, and process the experience with fellow students. “It is a meeting and distraction space that goes beyond books,” he says. He coordinated library visits with teachers and had students write about their life before, during, and after María. “Literature and writing are intrinsic ways to express emotions and heal,” he says. “Students went through a lot and are still processing their experiences. Writing them [is] the best way to work them out.”

Angelo Rivera

Angelo Rivera works at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Elementary School, a rural school in my hometown of Sabana Grande, where my family still lives. I have known him for years. After the storm, I planned to organize a donation of books by or about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, Latinx children’s books, and inclusive Spanish and English language titles to his school. I then learned the school was going to be “temporarily” closed and students were being relocated. Roosevelt Elementary remains closed, as Rivera and his former students are dispersed among different schools. With the school's future unknown, Rivera and I started two new projects to serve the school community and the rural community as a whole. The previously collected books will go to the new projects. First is a community library, being built in a classroom at a sports complex next to the school. Rivera, a local high school librarian, community members, and I are developing and organizing the collection. The second project is the creation of “rincones de lecturas” (reading corners) in different houses of the community. Each month, people exchange books, and children and adults read books and do activities. “The community learns the responsibility of taking care of a book collection and sharing the love of reading,” says Rivera. Children already received the first round of books and are excited and eager to read their new collection. “These projects are important to empower and revitalize our community, who are often neglected,” he says. “It’s an experience for the community to turn their free time into growth opportunities.” Angelo and several community leaders have since created a non-profit organization called COSECHA (Centro, Oportunidades, Servicios, Educativos, Comunitarios, Hermandad, Artes–translates to Center, Opportunities, Services, Educational, Communities, Kinship, Arts) to help coordinate and manage the projects and donations.

Sonia M. Vázquez Cintrón

 Sonia M. Vázquez Cintrón, a lawyer who works with non-profit organizations, has taken the lead on rebuilding the Guayanilla Public Library structure and collections. A river overflow brought water and mud to the building, damaging the building's structure and most of the library's collection. The library is a community hub, a consistent source of social and economic support, and cultural development in their town. It's important to rebuild, but it will be a challenge.

Guayanilla Public Library

“Honestly, the library didn’t have an inventory of what they had, they don’t have a librarian, and it’s being a bit difficult to assess the damage and help them,” says Vázquez Cintrón, who adds that the challenges won’t deter her from continuing the project. Through donations and community members, she already has paint and materials to fix the structure, chairs and rugs for the children’s area, and I am now helping her gather children’s books in Spanish (the majority of books donated are in English). These people are doing work we don't hear about on the news. As I learned about these wonderful projects, mainstream news reports focused on fishy energy contracts and a faulty FEMA response. For many people watching the coverage, rebuilding Puerto Rican seemed like an insurmountable task that would be forever caught in bad politics. But I am here to share what I’ve seen on the ground: The rebuilding and future of a Puerto Rico post-María is community-led. These communities are not stopping and waiting for anybody. They are sticking together and confronting the challenges. While a younger me huddled with fear and anxiety waiting for Hugo to pass, today, people in Puerto Rico look around and see they have each other as I had my family. And as more people join them, they will not falter.
Sujei Lugo has created an Amazon wishlist to help collections for children’s libraries and other projects in Puerto Rico that she is assisting.

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