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Students in ‘la diaspora’ take Puerto Rico relief efforts into own hands

'A lot of us in the diaspora have realized the only way to really reach the folks who are really on the edge right now is to do it yourself,' says undergraduate Pablo Paredes

On Saturday, Pablo Paredes will pack five suitcases full of 340 pounds of supplies — everything from solar kits and water filters to mosquito netting and cortisone cream — and check them on a flight to Puerto Rico.

Once he arrives, he’ll load the suitcases into his uncle’s beat-up car and drive them into the mountains along winding roads to Casa Pueblo, a community-based relief organization in Adjuntas dedicated to supporting victims of Hurricane Maria.

Pablo Paredes

Pablo Paredes (right), an undergraduate in ethnic studies, is collecting supplies for Puerto Rico hurricane relief. (Photo courtesy of Pablo Paredes)

Paredes, an undergraduate transfer student majoring in ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, has a strong connection to Puerto Rico. His mother grew up there, and although he was born in the Bronx, New York, he spent a few years in Puerto Rico as a young kid. He has dozens of relatives who live on the island — aunts, uncles and cousins, many of whom live in the rural southeast region, one of the hardest hit areas. People living in these remote communities, he says, have largely been left out of news coverage of the disaster.

“Once you travel out of the small little area Trump visited and that’s been reported on, you realize that Puerto Rico is in ruins,” says Paredes.

crops destroyed by hurricane maria

Student group Boricuas in Berkeley donated some of its funds to Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica, a nonprofit in Puerto Rico helping farmers restore their crops. (Photo courtesy of Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica)

Six weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, one-quarter of Puerto Ricans still don’t have access to potable drinking water, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). More than 80 percent of the island is without electricity, and officials say it could be months before all power is restored. Most crops were destroyed, leaving Puerto Ricans heavily dependent on the U.S. for food aid, and thousands remain homeless.

Instead of FEMA providing adequate aid to Puerto Ricans, says Paredes, it has become a barrier to relief efforts, its rigid regulations forcing grassroots organizations and individuals on and off the island to step up. “A lot of us in the diaspora have realized the only way to really reach the folks who are really on the edge right now is to do it yourself,” he says.

But this shouldn’t be the norm, says Jesyka Melendez, a Ph.D. student in evolutionary biology and animal behavior. “We shouldn’t get used to it being this way,” she says. “The responsibility of relief effort should not fall solely on civilians.”

Melendez is part of a group on campus — Boricuas in Berkeley — made up of graduate students dedicated to creating a support network for Puerto Ricans on campus, most of whom have families and friends in Puerto Rico struggling to live their day-to-day lives, and to provide crisis relief to communities on the island who need it most. (“Boricua” comes from “Borikén,” the indigenous name for Puerto Rico before the Spanish colonized the island.)

Jesyka Melendez, Erika Lopez Alfonzo and Yairamaren Roman

From left: Jesyka Melendez, Erika Lopez Alfonzo and Yairamaren Roman are part of the student group, Boricuas in Berkeley, which provides a support network for Puerto Ricans and students from other Caribbean communities on campus. (UC Berkeley photo by Anne Brice)

After the hurricane hit, the group organized a dinner and music benefit, and in just one night, raised more than $7,000. They donated the funds to nonprofits in Puerto Rico — Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica, which is helping farmers restore their crops decimated by the hurricane; and the Hurricane Maria Community Recovery Fund, made up of grassroots organizations providing aid for the humanitarian crisis.

Boricuas in Berkeley also aims to provide education about the complicated relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S., says Melendez, one based on colonialism that’s left Puerto Rico politically powerless and dependent on the U.S.

“I think it’s fair to say that Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. has, in some ways, created and maintained the crisis that we’re watching build up right now,” she says. “It didn’t happen overnight. It’s time for the U.S. to step up and assume responsibility and do everything in its power to rebuild, but that’s just not what we’re seeing. It’s really frustrating.”

Paredes, who is working with Boricuas in Berkeley to gather supplies and coordinate delivery, says he will continue to provide relief to Puerto Ricans in every way he can, but acknowledges that without a bigger effort, the situation in Puerto Rico will continue to deteriorate.

Paredes will leave Nov. 11 to deliver supplies to Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Cryo Mariena via Flickr)

“If the relief effort doesn’t get very serious, very quickly, and this political garbage doesn’t get moved out of the way, we’re going to have epidemics,” he says. “And that’s very scary.”

Paredes is now accepting donations at the Cesar E. Chavez Student Center in room 245 and has an Amazon wishlist. He’s also selling t-shirts with his original artwork to raise funds. For a list of needed donations or to contact Paredes, visit his Facebook page or call him at (510) 967-1357.

Boricuas in Berkeley is organizing another event for December to collect supplies for Puerto Rico relief. The group plans to host events throughout the academic year that promote education about Puerto Rico and other Caribbean communities, including Cuba, Dominican Republic, U.S. Virgin Islands and Martinique.

To learn more about Boricuas in Berkeley or get involved, visit the group’s Facebook page or email [email protected].