Students to build partnerships on ‘alternative break’ in Puerto Rico

When Pablo Paredes, an undergraduate transfer student in ethnic studies at UC Berkeley, visited Puerto Rico last November to deliver emergency supplies in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, he was shocked at how lifeless the island felt.

man in broken down house in Puerto Rico

Six weeks after Hurricane Maria struck the island, Pablo Paredes met with community members in Puerto Rico, including Don Pepe, standing in his home in Canóvanas. (Photo by Pablo Paredes)

“It was barren,” he says. “There were broken stumps of trees. Naked branches or no branches left. No greenery in sight. The national tree was literally gone.”

And he says the island’s mascot, the coquí — a small, native frog known for its loud call at night — was silent.

“That was the first time ever that I didn’t hear the coquís,” he says. “Usually it’s a serenade. There are thousands of them singing to you at every corner of the island at night. It’s the song of Puerto Rico, and it’s gone.”

Pablo Paredes with men in puerto rico

Pablo Paredes (second from left), his uncle Alfredo Burgos (left) and Don Pepe (far right) in Canóvanas. Burgos went without light and water for 40 days in Gurabo. (Photo courtesy of Pablo Paredes)

Now, nearly six months later, Paredes and ethnic studies undergraduate Camila Ruiz, are about to leave for Puerto Rico as part of Alternative Breaks, a program in Berkeley’s Public Service Center that gives more than 100 students each year a chance to explore social justice issues through hands-on service during their winter and spring breaks.

During this trip, Paredes and Ruiz will be identifying community partners and reaching out to the University of Puerto Rico’s 11 campuses to find ways to create a committed, longterm partnership with UC Berkeley.

“A lot of the people are still off the grid,” says Paredes. “You can’t make calls, you can’t send emails. So we really want to go there, show up, bring some materials again, but more figure out what a partnership would look like. What are their needs? And what can we do over here so, come this time next year, we can begin to do some concrete projects.”

Canóvanas, Puerto Rico six weeks after Hurricane Maria struck. Paredes says it’s remote communities like this one are still suffering the most. (Photo by Pablo Paredes)

Although it’s been reported that about 15 percent of the island’s more than 3 million residents are still without power, Paredes says the number is much higher — especially when taking into account people living in remote areas. And Ruiz says the federal government has done little to provide relief.

Camila Ruiz (center), from Puerto Rico, with her family in the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Camila Ruiz)

“So many Puerto Ricans remain displaced and face heightened vulnerability from malnutrition and health concerns,” says Ruiz. “Our trip to Puerto Rico will allow us to offer our hands and resources by tapping into central hubs within communities already providing food, lodging and awareness to members… and to learn more about how the diaspora can help throughout this time.”

When Ruiz and Paredes return to Berkeley after a week on the ground, they’ll present their findings and pitch project ideas to the Alternative Breaks team.

Paredes says he hopes to establish a longterm commitment from UC Berkeley to support Puerto Rico, similar to the Magnolia Project, where students through Alternative Breaks provided more than a decade of work rebuilding communities in New Orleans that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Sandra Bass, the director of the Public Service Center, says Alternative Breaks brings students together by creating a shared sense of purpose. “The opportunity to create lasting connections with their peers while engaging, supporting and learning from people in the field is a truly transformative experience for our students.”

Paredes and Ruiz are leaving for Puerto Rico tomorrow (Saturday, March 24) and will return April 1. While there, they plan to purchase supplies from local stores for the communities they visit. The team is accepting donations via Venmo at @AyudaPuertoRico.

Get in touch with Paredes on Facebook or by email at pablopare@berkeley.edu.

Learn more about the Public Service Center’s Alternative Breaks program.