Spring Break in Puerto Rico will be a spring break I will never forget. This trip benchmarked a ten-year process that will grow into a sustainable gain for the community of Cataño and all surrounding it. What I got on the island was an incredible experience teaching and reminding me what it means to be passionate about what you believe. The members of Caras gave me a new perspective about community service and showed me the fire that drives people to be the change in the world.
Deciding to include myself on this service-learning experience gave birth to an opportunity to come to Puerto Rico without my family. Being an Americanized Puerto Rican, I have become clouded to the different cultural and ethical norms Puerto Ricans have, and being here with Pitt Business allowed for some unexpected findings in the ways of being a Boricua.
When venturing out of the United States, food is always a fun way to dive into the culture. For Puerto Rico, rice and beans were the main star of every dish. However, in American culture, this could seem a bit excessive to have for every meal. While rice and beans are not a cultural norm for most people in the states, it is a traditional island dish. During our trip to Puerto Rico, we were accompanied by two advisors working in the environmental science department, one of them being from Trinidad. Having her there helped give similarity about what it meant to live on an island and how rice and beans were also a staple from her experience. Another staple in the food of Puerto Rico was the condiment ketchup-mayo. A mix of ketchup, mayo, garlic, and other spices, this Puerto Rican bottle of deliciousness was everywhere you looked. What came across as very different to me was the dish of lasagna, rice, and beans. Talking with the members of Caras they made us aware that this was huge around lunch time and very common to see. In my experience, I usually have these two dishes on their own. However, it was a different way to bring both of my favorite foods together.
Keeping in mind cultural differences, living in the states a nice sunny day is a time when we pull out the shorts. The great thing about traveling to Puerto Rico is the warm climate. Usually seeing people in jeans and a long sleeve would be unthinkable in this type of weather, but in Puerto Rico, this was the style. In American culture, we all too eagerly choose to subtract clothing from ourselves when hot weather arises. In other countries where this climate is yearly, covering up is a way to protect themselves. My team and I learned the hard way of working under the intense sun while working in the mangroves, not only do you need to be protected from the sun but from the fire ants and other harmful insects.
Puerto Rico is not only known for the warm climate, but for the things that make up their culture such as history, art, and music. The time spent in old San Juan we had the privilege to be accompanied by Michael, the founder of Caras, to give us a historical tour of the old city. Being there and listening to him talk about Puerto Rico showed the empowering side of Puerto Ricans and the boot they refuse to be squashed under. We walked alongside beautiful murals on colorful houses telling a story of the citizens of Puerto Rico and their mistreatment by their capitalistic neighbors, but it also represented the unity and love the people of Puerto Rico have to make it through.
Typically, in the states, we don’t hear much about Puerto Rican uprisings or public marches, but I loved everything about these painting because they showed these things happen. Here, in the United States, I join in marches and up rises representing Black Lives Matter focusing on one part of my identity, not knowing or thinking about this other half. It was truly inspiring to see this type of power through art and gave me something to think about how I choose to live my life.
Learning about the resilience of Puerto Ricans through their culture gave clarity when speaking with the members of Caras about life after the hurricanes. Many of them nodded at the question and explained this is how life is. Many of the buildings were already in ruins and without electricity much before a hurricane struck. Rebuilding Puerto Rico has been a job long since anyone can remember, but citizens will continue to push for change and work hard to reach this goal of equality.
Being in Puerto Rico had many unexpected turns that gave a new perspective to things I would presumably not have the experience if I was still on the main land. Our last working day in Puerto Rico, my team and I were to present our scope of work to the community members. This challenged us culturally because what we were not expecting was to be translated. This was difficult at first from a presenter perspective, because during our preparation for the scope of work there are certain descriptive words and key translations we use to go into each deliverable. However, during this presentation, our goal was to make sure we were clear, short, and used simple words to get our point across. At the end of our presentation, I could tell we did a good job. It might not have been perfect but, having the opportunity to present to the community leaders showed me that we are a part of something big.
Being a part of this service-learning experience, showed me a different side of business than what we are normally exposed to in corporate America. The term business is the practice of making a living by dealing with commerce. We see companies who are for-profit reaching into America’s most vulnerable self and telling them if they buy this product, they can change the thing we hate most about ourselves. From working with Caras and interacting with local businesses, I am able to view global business as a way to build each other up. It is not about making a profit to buy a new car or go on an expensive vacation, but it is about bringing that money back in the community and holding on to the mission of the organization. The financial aspect Caras is trying to self-generate is for the benefit of the community.
Another perspective when thinking about global business is again in high context and low context ways of communicating. During our meetings and discussions with the Caras team, it was very casual and personalized. It was set up as a conversation instead of one party talking at the other. We wanted to make sure every individual was on the same page before moving on to the next topic and getting off topic was very common; taking the time to laugh and ask questions with one another was key time to building our relationship with Caras. My perspective of global business was confirmed while being on this trip. The atmosphere was relaxed and gave an energy of welcoming and these discussions we had were here to benefit one another for us to move towards a similar goal.
Studying environmental science and working with Pitt Business gave me a new meaning to the word service. Much of my service involved volunteer work; doing everything I could to help small communities, but never truly engaging with them about their real needs. International service-learning involved helping a community much differently then it meant with volunteer work or any community-based project. My internship involves me benefiting the communities by making the land they live on profitable to grow local food and safe from contamination such as lead. During the two semesters I worked, I never interacted with the community even though the community is who I was doing this for. International service breaks down the barrier between service and the people you are providing the service for. Caras prides themselves on their investment in the community. It was amazing to see the community leaders involved with the makings of this project invest their time to hear our ideas moving forward. The connection is much more real when you can interact with the people involved and I wish more organizations had the power Caras does. So much more can be accomplished than just a project when you involve the community. People learn how to work and communicate with different people, perhaps learn a new skill or even help someone find their passion. Caras does all of this and more, raising up a new generation whose focus is lifting each other up and that is the meaning of international service.
The time spent in Puerto Rico will truly be a time for me to always reflect on. At our last goodbyes, Michael left us with some last words of advice. He challenged us to do the hard thing and be the change in the world if we felt that was our calling. He reminded us he was our age when he started Caras Con Causa because he knew there were people right at home who needed someone to be on their side. That even though taking a risk can be scary, we must go out and just do it. Hearing Michael talking about risks moved something in me especially being so close to graduating. Courage is the hardest thing to come by, and after going through what feels like the hardest semester of my life it’s the only thing I have to hold on to as I take risks into this new chapter.