You can still hear the salsa music, the car horns on crowded roads, the silent Ds that breeze through the Puerto Rican dialect. But you have to listen closely.
For months, the sounds of the Caribbean have been engulfed by the rattling roar of generators.
Almost four months after Hurricane Maria pummeled the island, about half of its residents do not have electricity, and most of the rest get power via boxy electric generators on wheels. Alone, one sounds like a giant lawnmower. A city full of them is a postapocalyptic whir. And as long as you can hear them, you can smell the diesel they burn.
At Vidy’s Cafe, about three blocks from the University of Puerto Rico’s flagship campus here, you hear the hum. You hear it at a greasy spoon a block away where three men named Fernando fry eggs and tostadas. And as you try to fall asleep, you hear it, too.
For nearly four months Lida Orta-Anés didn’t have a generator. Electricity still has not returned to her house in the mountains outside San Juan. Ms. Orta-Anés is a professor of environmental health at the Medical Sciences campus. She’s read research telling her that diesel-burning generators are carcinogens; she doesn’t think it’s a good idea to have so many of them running. The choice to live without one was her act of resistance against Puerto Rico’s new normal, where the cries of tree frogs are obliterated by humming machines. This isn’t how her island should sound.
Maria followed what many on the island now call its "first hurricane": the fiscal crisis. Puerto Rico is still in the throes of a nearly 12-year economic recession. Faulty bonds, tangled bureaucracy, and the end of federal tax breaks led the island’s economy to its breaking point.
The university has been struck by both hurricanes. Some of its campuses are practically in ruins, and it’s staring down a bleak mandate — to plan for a $300-million reduction in appropriations from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico over the next 10 years. And following the hurricane, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló Nevares of Puerto Rico received an extension to submit a fiscal plan for, among other things, the university system, to the territory’s fiscal control board.
But if Puerto Rico as a whole is to recover from its state of crisis, it will do so on the back of the institution. On the island, as on the mainland, a college education is the only way to move up the socioeconomic ladder, and the only way to train the people who will create an economy that is based on more than service and tourism. For many Puerto Ricans, a college education translates to one thing: a degree from the University of Puerto Rico.
The institution is the practical and symbolic touchstone for an island seeking hope. But it’s ailing. The depth of Puerto Rico’s broader crisis — and the lack of aid from the mainland United States — have left the university waiting for support. So it has fallen to a loose network of volunteers within the university community to lift up both an institution and an island. People like Lida Orta-Anés.
When she was growing up in San Juan in the 1960s, Ms. Orta-Anés’s parents emphasized to her and her four siblings that going to college was "nonnegotiable." UPR was always her choice.
In fact, she watched both of her parents receive their degrees from the university. The year after Ms. Orta-Anés got her bachelor’s degree, her mother graduated with a teaching degree, the only one of her siblings to go to college. The rest of Ms. Orta-Anés’s aunts and uncles worked trade professions. They were TV technicians, plumbers — work her parents would probably have done if the university hadn’t offered them a different path. And many of her cousins were first-generation college students.
“Certain things that weren't there before are turning into the new normal. ... People are starting to get used to this.”
Since its founding in 1903, the university has been imbued with the mission of producing working professionals like Ms. Orta-Anés’ parents, cousins, and herself. That focus took on renewed importance by the middle of the 20th century, when Puerto Rico’s economy had evolved from agrarian to industrialized, and needed a college-educated work force to feed companies like General Electric, the medical-supply company Electro-Biology Inc., and the pharmaceutical manufacturer Upjohn.
Today the island still depends on this mission of social mobility. More than two-thirds of university students receive Pell Grants. Ask them what they would be doing if not for the university, and most will say they’d be working in service-industry jobs or trying to extend the part-time jobs they already have.
After Ms. Orta-Anés earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in planning, she had dreams that extended beyond the island. She wanted to be an ergonomist, and she needed to study industrial and organizational psychology, and the management of industrial engineering. But no graduate programs on the island met her specific need. So in 1984, she and her husband moved north — far north — to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. There she was an active member of a Puerto Rican student group that called themselves Los Exilados, the exiles.
Their plan was always to spend two years in Michigan, taking the required courses, and then move back to the island to finish their dissertations. But the couple couldn’t immediately find jobs in Puerto Rico.
They stayed in Michigan. Ms. Orta-Anés wrote safety language for federal policy, designed training to prevent musculoskeletal problems, like carpal-tunnel syndrome, and worked on trade advisory committees for the United Automobile Workers. She had two daughters. She bought a home. But every year, Ms. Orta-Anés and her husband looked for positions on the island.
To alleviate her homesickness, she made a biannual pilgrimage to the island every Christmas and summer break. Her mother sent recordings of Puerto Rican TV shows. Ms. Orta-Anés dreamed during the dark Michigan winters of her return.
Every summer, her daughters went to summer camps on the island. The family had a goal: to assimilate easily when their return came. "We emotionally have been working for that for the past 17 years," Ms. Orta-Anés said.
In 2000, her husband took a one-year sabbatical in Puerto Rico, where he later found a tenure-track position. The relocation was finally a reality.
Ms. Orta-Anés returned to an island undergoing an exodus. Between 2005 and 2015, the territory had a net loss of 446,000 residents to the mainland United States. Just a few years before, companies based there lost a key subsidy from the U.S. government, which immediately chilled the economy. Meanwhile the island relied more on bonds it issued to investors, even as it took on more and more debt.
By 2016, Puerto Rico was on the verge of a financial meltdown. The U.S. government stepped in to help restructure its debt. A university-system audit in 2015 raised flags about UPR’s heavy reliance on state funds, given the island’s financial troubles. With that came proposed cutbacks — including to the university system, which gets two-thirds of its revenue from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. It seemed tuition and fee increases were the only option to make up the difference. Ms. Orta-Anés was on the front lines of the opposition to that. In 2001, she’d scored a tenure-track position of her own at UPR. Two years later she joined the Puerto Rican Association of University Professors, an advocacy group akin to the American Association of University Professors.
Today she helps lead it, and her activism in the face of financial crises has made her a thorn in the administration’s side. In 2012, the National Science Foundation froze funds earmarked for the university’s central administration office and Mayagüez campus, citing mismanagement and missed deadlines. Ms. Orta-Anés went on the attack, saying the problems were caused by "terrible administration," and her association approved a resolution asking for the president’s resignation. In February she and colleagues held a news conference to oppose the Puerto Rico governor’s proposed cuts to the university’s 11-campus system, and affirming support for a student strike that had been protesting the cuts for nearly two months.
And though students get most of the attention when they spar with the powers that be — mass strikes are a mainstay of student protests — Ms. Orta-Anés is there, with plans for campus and island outreach, gathering more instructors to help the cause, and connecting activists.
"I just think that it’s unfair," Ms. Orta-Anés said of the budget cuts. "We’re here, and those responsible for the situation we are in right now should pay for it, not the students, not the faculty members."
The student strike finally exhausted itself in June, when the Humacao campus voted to end it. The financial outlook was still bleak, but the immediate crisis had passed.
Three months later, Hurricane Maria slammed into the island.
Almost every Saturday, Ms. Orta-Anés loads her jeep with hand sanitizers, face masks, and gloves to help a small but growing brigade of students and professors distribute supplies and information about public-health practices throughout the more devastated parts of the island. "We’re getting to people the government is not reaching," she said.
The group formed when medical-sciences professors first learned after the storm that many people who benefited from various community-outreach projects were displaced at temporary shelters, sometimes far away from their damaged homes. By figuring out who was living in the shelters, professors began helping the families, who left the shelters during the day to clean their homes.
Soon enough, the professors realized they wanted to give people more than gloves and nonperishable food. They wanted to educate them.
Professors and students from other disciplines joined the small groups to distribute information on boiling water, the risks of Zika virus and dengue fever, and hygienic cleaning methods. That work led to connections with international-relief groups like Oxfam and Heart to Heart international, which have helped the brigade organize and secure more donations.
But the needs are daunting — the island’s governor has asked the U.S. government for $94.4 billion in disaster relief — and Ms. Orta-Anés and her partners are trying to make a dent on the island.
"We have all of the theory of how you come back from this type of tragedy, but we have never been there," Ms. Orta-Anés said.
Meanwhile, the people are taking it upon themselves to clean up the university, find diapers for single mothers, and spend their Sundays helping those in homes that don’t have running water. Many are doing this work while living in homes without power themselves.
"We have a truck," Ms. Orta-Anés says, as she drives back to San Juan in her bright blue Jeep. "This thing has seen areas I never thought I could get to. It’s not that we’re doing it better or worse than the government. We just feel that we needed to do it."
On a sweltering Friday in December, she drives the hourlong route to Humacao, one of the hardest-hit campuses. It lies near the island’s eastern shore, where the storm was the strongest as it started its trajectory. On the mountainous interstate, she notices a few cars stopped on the shoulder. The phenomenon is known to residents as a "Boricua hot spot" — one of the few-and-far-between places with cellphone service. ("Boricua" is slang for Puerto Rican.)
Later she points out fallen trees on the side of the road. They were barren and gray after the hurricane, like after a California wildfire, she said. Now they are lush and green again.
"Nature has given us, ‘This is how you need to project yourself. Green.’ That’s our model," Ms. Orta-Anés said. "In less time than we are saying our utilities are back, we already have green on top of our vegetation."
This is her philosophy. Projecting optimism. A country in need of restoration could use some of it.
She sometimes corrects people who use the word luz to describe electricity or power. In Spanish, luz can mean power, but it more frequently describes light. Puerto Ricans, she says, already have plenty of that.
In San Juan, the university’s campus in the Rio Piedras neighborhood at least resembles its former self. It houses students; some buildings even have central air-conditioning. In Humacao, it’s hard to see a college campus in the ruins.
The campus is crowded with plastic tarps. From a distance it looks like a Baptist mission — mosquito screens dangle off decrepit, low-ceilinged buildings. White plastic chairs stand under the tarps. Some are arranged in a circle, others in theater style, and a few surround a long white plastic table.
This is higher education at its most improvised. There are students and teachers, and that’s about it. Students in one class, meeting under the tarps, hadn’t bought textbooks online before the storm. Now the books are almost impossible to get, so they rely on lectures and notebooks.
“We have all of the theory of how you come back from this type of tragedy, but we have never been there.”
In a brick-and-mortar classroom in Humacao’s social-work department, two fans stand at the front. All the windows are open because of the little black specks in the corners and on the floor tiles. Despite attempts to ventilate the classroom, mold has lingered since the hurricane. But even before spotting the specks, you know it’s there. The room smells humid and stuffy, like a gym bag an hour after the sweaty clothes have been removed.
A few ceiling tiles are missing. When it rains, some students stand outside, next to the open windows and under the roof, to hear the lecture. Most students and professors agree: The tarps are better than the moldy classrooms.
Ms. Orta-Anés snaps pictures on her iPhone. She asks students if a professional cleaning crew has come to the building. They’re unsure. Later, she will share the photos with other faculty members; they’ll help figure out what types of supplies faculty members and students need, and keep pressing administrators for answers on how students and teachers will stay in classrooms filled with mold, and under plastic tarps.
In one class, electricity has only returned at home for one student, Frances Jimenez Guadalupe, a fourth-year social-work major. It was turned on the day before her birthday. But it still doesn’t feel permanent. "That little fear that it will go out when I get there," Ms. Jimenez Guadalupe said, "that’s not that easy to get rid of."
Before the electricity came back, her family had been using a generator. Doing homework or household chores with a generator means working against the clock. It’s costly to run the diesel-burning machines. Most families turn them off when they go to sleep.
Ms. Jimenez Guadalupe said her father would turn off the generator around 10 p.m. After that, any homework or reading had to be done by candlelight.
"I feel like I’m in medieval times," said Ambar Arzúaga La Santa, also a fourth-year social-work student. "You have to light a lot of candles and then there’s the heat. I feel the candles’ heat with the breeze."
Ms. Arzúaga La Santa was a vocal activist during the spring student strikes. Now she’s working with another social-work student to collect diapers, formula, and baby clothes for single and young mothers around Humacao.
As she walks around campus, another student greets her to update her on a research project they’re collaborating on. A professor told the pair they will need to drive to a nearby town, but the students are wary of using up gas with no guarantee the trip will pay off. Their conversation competes with generators sitting outside the hallways. High ceilings in the walkways cause the generators to echo. They sound even louder in the heart of campus, but they power today’s campus necessities: four washers and dryers and a mobile-device charging station.
Pointing out the damages the health center and tutoring center sustained feels personal for Ms. Arzúaga La Santa. The building that once housed the tutoring center is missing a wall. Roof tiles are peeled back. Piles of trash from cleaned-out buildings sit behind the former tutoring center, still waiting after three months to be collected.
"For me this hurts a lot because I was raised here. The university for me is much more than a school. It’s a home," said Ms. Arzúaga La Santa, whose father and brother attended the institution, and whose mother works there. "Seeing this is like see my own room, my house dismembered, and what am I going to do knowing that I don’t have the money to reconstruct it?"
Back at her home outside San Juan, Ms. Orta-Anés opens a Christmas card she gets every year — from Norka Saldaña, a friend she met while working toward her doctorate at Michigan. In this year’s card she wrote about the heartbreak she felt after Maria.
"We heard our land agonizing in the deepest part of our souls," wrote Ms. Saldaña, who stayed in Michigan, where she has retired after consulting for a clinical-diagnostics company. Even when exiled to the mainland, Puerto Ricans still yearn for the island where they belong.
Yolanda Izquierdo, a literature professor at the Rio Piedras campus, understands that yearning. A few semesters ago, she taught Dante’s Divine Comedy in one of her classes. The Italian poet wrote in exile, having been banned from his Florentine homeland. In the poem, his great-great grandfather foretells the daily anguish he would come to know so well:
Standing before the class, Ms. Izquierdo asked how many students, like Dante, were separated from people they loved.
For the professor, exile is a steady ache. Her family left Havana for Puerto Rico when she was 7 years old. "It was separation from family, from my school, from my neighborhood," she said.
Ms. Izquierdo’s oldest grandchild was also 7 when his family moved from the island to New Jersey. The move came in 2015 because of the island’s waning economic opportunities. Ms. Izquierdo’s daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren were among the estimated 89,000 people, according to a Pew Research Center study, who left for the U.S. mainland during the recession.
The professor’s son and his family were already living in New York by then. Her daughter nudged her to join them.
"I began thinking about leaving when I saw that everyone had left me," Ms. Izquierdo said. "I didn’t want to leave because I liked the university. I felt very comfortable here."
Ms. Izquierdo has worked at the university for 22 years. She lives in the Rio Piedras neighborhood and knows the names of shopkeepers and cafe owners near campus. She calls going to the nearby fruit market, Plaza de Mercado de Rio Piedras, a "religious experience."
“We want to improve what we have and do new things for the progress of our country.”
As she crosses the campus, she stops every few yards to give a lesson on the architecture. The golden-yellow buildings with the red, slanted Spanish-style roof tiles were built around turn of the century when Spanish architecture was popular. The newer, blocklike buildings that depend on central air-conditioning copy a North American model. And like other instances when the university has copied its peers on the mainland — creating more technical-job-training programs, say, or increasing tuition and fees — these buildings don’t quite work, she said.
The buildings are among many changes Ms. Izquierdo has noticed in the university. These days, visiting lectures from distinguished guest professors are rare and far between. It’s tougher for professors to travel to conferences. "There’s not money for anything anymore," she said.
Every semester, Ms. Izquierdo said, her courses have more students who have families to support or full-time jobs, often both. Life on the island isn’t paradise. Puerto Rico’s median household income is less than a third
of that of its mainland counterpart. And the bleak economic picture is having an effect: The island has lost nearly 10 percent of its population in the last decade
"Something pushes you or something pulls you," Ms. Izquierdo said about the post-Maria exodus. "And here what’s happening more is the push. People are pushing themselves to leave because they lost their jobs, they lost their house, or everyone has left them."
Facing her students after she asked how many had family outside the island, Ms. Izquierdo saw about 90 percent of the class raise their hands.
"I had to look at the board because my tears began to fall," Ms. Izquierdo said. "All of these families are divided. All of them."
Ms. Izquierdo will retire in June to move in with her family.
Pride and loyalty anchor the university. They’re what kept Ms. Izquierdo teaching The Divine Comedy while tragedies unfolded around her — the hurricane, the debt crisis, her family’s exodus. Loyalty is now pulling her away from the island. Ms. Izquierdo loves the university, but misses her family more. Puerto Rico will lose her, too.
If Ms. Orta-Anés is fighting for the future of Puerto Rico, she’s fighting to give the students who now sit at Vidy’s Cafe a chance to stay on the island. At the crowded college bar, José Néstor Rodríguez Rodríguez, a fifth-year architecture major at the Rio Piedras campus, and his best friend Jonhattan Ramírez Gomez, a sixth-year administration major there, discuss a slogan that has become popular since the recovery: #PuertoRicoSeLevanta.
"Puerto Rico gets up." For some, the slogan is a rallying cry of resilience. For others, who live in homes without electricity and running water, the sentiment rings hollow.
Mr. Rodríguez Rodríguez’s verdict: "Simply a slogan," he said. "I think there’s people who don’t worry if Puerto Rico will rise. Their worry is to survive."
Mr. Rodríguez Rodríguez and Mr. Ramírez Gomez are not activists. They live with their families, work part time, and are eager to start their lives after graduation. Mr. Rodríguez Rodríguez wants to earn a master’s degree in architecture. Mr. Ramírez Gomez hopes to own a restaurant or restaurants in Puerto Rico. After the storm, staying on the island is their only option.
Drinking $1 Schaefer beers, the friends trade storm stories. Vidy’s is now a place where students come to get their feet under them. Mr. Rodríguez Rodríguez said he never used to see students at Vidy’s early in the evening, chatting and eating dinner, but there’s power here. Now, Billy Joel’s "Piano Man" is barely audible over students talking, the air-conditioner’s whirs, and the generator’s rumbles.
The new crowd at Vidy’s is an example of how Puerto Rico isn’t exactly getting up. The storm rearranged the city’s geography: People go where there’s power, or where they can get a cell signal. On the way, they tolerate the new, heavier traffic. When you just want to survive, sometimes conformity is the only option.
"I’m realizing that certain things that weren’t there before are turning into the new normal. And that’s bad, too," Mr. Rodríguez Rodríguez said. "It’s part of this conformist feeling here. It’s the traffic, the stop lights, the jams, that the electricity goes out at any time of the day. People are starting to get used to this."
For six days Mr. Rodríguez Rodríguez cleaned debris and cut tree limbs at the Rio Piedras campus with students and faculty members from 6 a.m. until noon. It wasn’t an official clean-up. The university community saw the destruction and took it upon itself to help. Volunteers brought whatever supplies they had.
He used a machete. By the end of the week his hands were covered in blisters.
"There are many ways to care about a university," Mr. Rodríguez Rodríguez said. "We care about this university because there was a moment when we understood that the university needed us. After the catastrophe we were the first ones there."
The island needs them, too. Every Sunday, Mr. Ramírez Gomez drives a van filled with supplies and volunteers into remote parts of the island with Cambio PR, a student organization of mostly communication and journalism majors with a volunteer component.
He’s seen houses without roofs, met dirty children who lost their clothes in a storm surge, and delivered a mattress to a man who lost his. After eating a burrito at a Mexican restaurant on Avenidad Universidad, Mr. Ramírez Gomez remembers these faces.
"I want to take this plate to someone else," he said, in the guilt that now comes with feeling full. After eating a hot burrito, he laments that other people have not had a warm meal for nearly three months. Mr. Ramírez Gomez and Mr. Rodríguez Rodríguez are happy to be on campus, especially after the nearly two-month halt the student strike put on the spring semester. They need the university, too. The university was in disarray after the storm, but it still offered the only way forward.
Maria was not the first storm to throw debris in their way. The spring’s nearly two-month-long strike put their semester on hold. The pair opposed the strike not for its cause but its tactics, and its effects. They worried that if the university lost accreditation, they would lose their federal financial aid. Without aid, Mr. Ramírez Gomez said, he could afford one class per semester at most. Mr. Rodríguez Rodríguez, who aims to graduate in February 2018, when this semester ends, feared the strikes would halt his plans.
The strikes underscored that on an island where students and a university depend on each other to survive, the future is fragile. It can break slowly under accumulated pressure, just as easily as it can shatter in a storm.
"Really," says Mr. Ramírez Gomez, "the hurricane affected us less than the strike, personally."
Had they grown up on the mainland, Mr. Ramírez Gomez and Mr. Rodríguez Rodríguez could have simply enrolled in a different public university. There are plenty. When the state of Illinois faced a drawn-out budget crisis, and its public-university system suffered, some students just went elsewhere. On an island there are no neighboring states to turn to.
It’s easy to get used to an emergency machine when it’s always on. A fourth-year social-work class sits under Humacao’s trademark white tarps. A few feet away, generators echo off the stones of the walkways. Some students are distracted by the sound, others hardly notice it.
Ms. Arzúaga La Santa, a student activist, likened the generator’s sound to the calls of the coquí, a tiny tree frog that’s ubiquitous on the island. The coquí’s high-pitched cry is heard every night Puerto Rico. It’s often referred to as "our" frog or "our" animal. Stuffed frogs are sold in the San Juan airport and printed on T-shirts.
"For me at least, I can’t sleep without hearing the coquí," Ms. Arzúaga La Santa said. "The generator has turned into the coquí. We’ve gotten used to the noise."
Two weeks ago, Ms. Orta-Anés caved, and her family purchased a generator. It became too hard to work from home and rebuild her life without power. She maintains it’s a temporary fix until they install solar panels or power returns.
For all the changes Hurricane Maria has brought to Puerto Ricans, the storm still has not damaged the loyalty so many feel. In the social-work class in Humacao, under the tarp, when a reporter asked who wanted to leave the island after graduation, only one hand went up. Students had similar reasons for staying: family ties and personal connections to the island. Financial debt is the reason for so much of Puerto Rico’s distress, but it is not the only kind of debt at work here. The students are grateful to the island and the university.
There is pride in the struggle, in being part of a community that is seen by mainland Americans as forgettable. "Puerto Rico gets up" may not totally describe the conditions here on the ground. But there’s a reason it’s become a popular slogan.
"You enroll, and this enters into our heart and everything. It’s like we are studying this for the good of Puerto Rico," Ms. Arzúaga La Santa said. "It’s a feeling of belonging so strong that we don’t see ourselves leaving here, doing something else, living another life, because we want to improve what we have and do new things for the progress of our country."
Ms. Orta-Anés sat in the corner under the tarp and listened to the students’ responses in silence. This was the fifth time she had visited the Humacao campus since Maria. The last four visits, she asked professors and staff members what they needed and how faculty members could help. This time she simply observed.
Driving back to San Juan, past mountains covered in tropical vegetation, Ms. Orta-Anés thought about what the students had said. Living in a near-constant state of emergency takes its toll. It would be enough for many young people to stay in school long enough to get their degree, then flee the island like so many others had.
And yet these students were determined to stay. Just like she had.
The trees on the mountainous stretch from Humacao back to San Juan were lush and green. Even the fallen vegetation on the side of the road had new leaves and vines. The greenery was everywhere. In the weeks after Maria, Ms. Orta-Anés had felt worried, angry, determined, exhausted. Driving home, she felt something else.
"It was just that I felt so damn proud."
SOURCE: The Chronicle of Higher Education