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Postcard from Puerto Rico

by on March 06, 2019 5:00 AM


We were sandwiched between la reina and the flag dancers.

As floats go, ours wasn’t much to look at – a police golf cart driven by an officer with braided hair and aviator sunglasses – but hey, when you’re on a float at the annual coffee festival in Yauco, Puerto Rico, you’ve got to enjoy the surreality of the moment.

This kind of thing happens a lot to us professional observer types. We think we’re going to stand on the sidelines and watch, and someone grabs us and makes us participate.

In this case, I was in a small town in southwest Puerto Rico with a group of Penn State journalism students as part of an annual spring break trip to a newsworthy place. One of the students, Maddie Biertempfel, was there to report on the state of the island’s coffee industry in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Another, Tom Shively, was there to meet breeders of fighting cocks, a sport imperiled by a new U.S. law that’s about to ban fights to the death between riled-up roosters with knives attached to their legs.

You might say I was not there just to watch; I was there to watch the watchers. But Rafael Mejia, our contact in Puerto Rico who seems to know everyone on the island, thought our student reporters might get good parade footage if they were part of the parade, and used his influence to secure us a place on the policia golf cart.

We tried to look as festive as we could by waving the little yellow-and-black Yauco flags Rafael had given us, but mostly we looked like palefaces from Central Pennsylvania who hadn’t seen the sun since October.

Even la reina, resplendent in a red-and-black gown, began to wilt in the afternoon heat. She smiled and waved, as queens must, but between smiles and waves she wore a look that said, “Get me out of this dress!”

From Yauco we drove to Ponce, where the rest of our group – we’re 18 students and four journalism faculty members – were watching the Mardi Gras parade. While we waited for them to straggle back to the bus we’d rented for the day, we admired an array of murals and one lurid sculpture that made clear that Puerto Ricans, or at least Puerto Rican street artists in Ponce, had not forgotten President Trump’s let-them-sop-up-the-hurricane-with-paper-towels moment.

One of the murals shows a donkey using its hind legs to kick people off the island and into the sea, where sharks await. The jackass has Trumpian hair, tail and eyebrows and wears an Uncle Sam top hat made of a roll of paper towels.

Across the street, a tall, faceless three-dimensional figure with unmistakably Trumpian hair is covered with cardboard paper towel tubes spattered with red paint. I suspect I will see further iterations of the paper towel motif before the week is out. In the lobby of our hotel in San Juan, meanwhile, “Make Puerto Rico Great Again” ballcaps are for sale.

Photo by Russell Frank

As for hurricane recovery, the devastation of 18 months ago is no longer so obvious. Yes, one can still see blue tarps where roofs used to be, but most of the tropical vegetation has reasserted itself and most of the debris has been hauled away. The troubles that remain are the invisible ones: poverty, pockets of substandard housing without water or electricity, and the flight of people and capital to the mainland.

You’ve got to really love island life to stay here, which, clearly, many people do – understandably so from the perspective of a pale-faced Central Pennsylvanian.

Then there are the returnees. During the coffee festival in Yauco, one of the parade watchers told me he came home from North Carolina after the hurricane to help the island recover. He’s far from the only one.

The day after the festival, my colleague Steve Kraycik and I accompanied student Caroline Pimentel to the town of Fajardo on the island’s east coast for a story about a needle exchange program. In Puerto Rico, as on the mainland, addicts are treated like criminals rather than patients, so it’s up to scrappy community organizations like Intercambios to do for the afflicted what government will not.  

From Fajardo we drove to Canóvanas, where Caroline ambushed the mayor – in the nicest possible way – about town residents from the Dominican Republic who still lack power and water. The Dominicans’ problem is a triple whammy: They’re squatters, living in wetlands that are prone to flooding even during ordinary rainstorms, they’re too poor to move, plus they aren’t American citizens, which makes them ineligible for FEMA aid.

These are the kinds of stories our students are trying to tease out during one quick week in Puerto Rico, along with cheerier ones about eating, drinking and surfing.

Not exactly a spring break wholly devoted to fun in the sun, though truth be told, there is a bit of that, too.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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