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Small town in Puerto Rico devastated by Hurricane Maria

Northwestern community comes together for Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican scholars seek new opportunities at Northwestern after Hurricane Maria

The list of Spanish names that opened visiting scholar Javier Valentín Feliciano’s presentation carried a deep meaning. They were all names of people who lost their lives to Hurricane Maria, and to whom Valentín Felician dedicated his talk in which he shared his experience as a survivor.

His own sister Luz María Valentín Feliciano was among the names. She died of a flu that was left untreated due to the lack of infrastructure on the island after the hurricane. Now, Valentín Feliciano is fighting the government, arguing her death was a result of Maria. At the same time, he is trying to cope and manage his life and how academic work—both abruptly halted by the disaster.

Valentín Feliciano, a former doctorate student at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, is part of a Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Provost’s Office initiative called Residencies at Northwestern University for Puerto Rican Scholars. The program aims to help graduate students and faculty who had their work disrupted by the hurricane to get back on track. Along with five other scholars from the island, he found a safe haven at Northwestern.

On February 15, Valentín Feliciano, the first visiting scholar to arrive at Northwestern, along with Verónica Dávila, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese who was on leave in Puerto Rico when the hurricane hit the island, shared their thoughts on the consequences of Maria and their expectations for the future of the island at Kresge Centennial Hall.

TESTIMONIALS

“Hurricane Maria brought me to Northwestern,” Valentín Feliciano started his speech.

Originally from the small town of Añasco, journalist Valentín Feliciano worked in different parts of the island throughout his life. But when the hurricane hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 19, 2017, he was at home. Unlike the capital, San Juan, his coastal hometown was not prepared for the destruction. As soon as it started to rain, they lost communication with the rest of the island.

After three days, the situation disintegrated further. Telephones and radios did not work, and the streets were flooded to the knee. Access to the town was cut off, and only contaminated water was left to drink.

As time passed by, nothing changed. Days turned into weeks. The only sustenance to arrive on the island was “salty military food,” according to Valentín Feliciano. Yet it was still not enough. That was when he decided to seek help from the media.

For days, Velentín Feliciano went various times to City Hall asking for help, but was met with no response.

“Because I’m a journalist, I decided to go to the radio station,” Valentín Feliciano said. “After that, it took three days for the food to arrive.”

COMMUNITY SUPPORT

Valentín Feliciano, however, saw one upside to this tragic catastrophe—the hurricane brought his community together. People who often did not interact with each other joined forces to recover from Maria.

Other Puerto Ricans who attended the event agreed with Valentín Feliciano. One attendee pointed out that because some citizens still have no access to drinkable water or electricity five months after the hurricane, the disaster might lead to a new Puerto Rican diaspora. The man also suggested the community should stay and support Puerto Rico instead of moving permanently to the mainland. More than 500,000 Puerto Ricans have already left after Maria.

Valentín Feliciano also emphasized that, even though initiatives such as Northwestern’s have helped with the recovery of the island, there is still much to be done.

“No nos dejen de apoyar,” Valentín Feliciano said in Spanish. “Do not stop supporting us.”    

NORTHWESTERN INITIATIVES

Later that day, two Northwestern student organizations, Alianza, the Latinx Student Association, and NULBA, the Northwestern Luso-Brazilian Association, held a movie night to fundraise for Puerto Rico.

The movie chosen was “Looking for María Sánchez,” an independent Puerto Rican romantic comedy that takes place on the island. Starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, the film tells the story of Nuyorican Raúl, who travels to Puerto Rico in search of the love of his life.  

“Once we learned that this film demonstrated the island of Puerto Rico, we thought it would be perfect,” said Weinberg junior Sofia Salgado, NULBA’s President. “The film showed the beautiful land before the destruction of Hurricane Maria, which just further proved our point that the island continues to need help because it is not anywhere near to the state it once was.”

Before the movie screening, Zorimar Rivera Montes, a second-year graduate student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, opened the event, giving an overview of the situation in Puerto Rico to an audience of around 40 people. Rivera Montes, who previously worked at the same university where Valentín Feliciano pursued his doctorate, discussed the government’s response to the hurricane and the current status of the island.

While the main goal of the movie night was to raise money for local communities in Puerto Rico, Salgado said that this sort of initiative is not only important to help those who are in need, but also to unite members of the Northwestern community.

“I think the importance of having these interactions between different Latinx groups of Northwestern demonstrates the fundamental reason why we exist to come together as one,” Salgado said. “Although we may have different ideas and priorities as groups, coming together as Latinx shows one of our greatest strengths: that we are able to unite together to help our people.”

FUTURE EXPECTATIONS

Valentín Feliciano, who now continues his work on the the Colombian narconovela in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, has future plans to remain in the mainland after his residency.  

“I think I will stay here,” he said. “In Puerto Rico, there are no jobs and the economic situation has been tough. On the other hand, at Northwestern they have treated me marvelously.”

He ended his talk expressing his gratitude to the Northwestern community.

“We come here to work hard. And to survive. Thank you, Northwestern, for this opportunity,” Valentín Feliciano said.