Why Return to Puerto Rico in the Midst of the Debt Crisis?

Giovanni Roberto, founder of Comedores Sociales. Photo by: Erika P. Rodriguez

In 2014, 84,000 people — 230 per day — left Puerto Rico for the United States. It was the highest net migration rate in 10 years.

When I left the island in 2007 to come to New York, I always thought I would return. Then the market crashed in 2008 and job prospects crashed with it, so I stayed in NY. I am grateful that I’ve been able to build a career here, but not a day goes by that I don’t think about the future of my island.

Thanks to my current job at the Open Society Foundations, I am able to go back to Puerto Rico and serve as a thought partner with people working to address the economic crisis and mitigate the impact of the crushing $72 billion debt on the people. On a recent trip back to speak with residents about how the debt crisis manifests in their daily lives, I discovered that Puerto Ricans are choosing to come back to the island despite the economic crisis. Many also decided to stay. They are professors, artists, nonprofit managers, chefs, and farmers. They are people who care deeply about the future of their island and their people.


Giovanni Roberto

Giovanni Roberto lived in Spain during the development of the Podemos movement. He could have stayed abroad; instead he returned to Puerto Rico to apply what he learned from the movement. Three years ago, he launched a project called Comedores Sociales, through which he feeds hundreds of students, professors, and administrators from the University of Puerto Rico. People give whatever money they have in exchange for a plate of food. “We have three types of donations: the suggested donation of $5, or people can donate their time serving food or cleaning. We will not let anyone leave here without eating,” Giovanni says.

Through his project, Roberto helps feed hundreds of students, professors, and administrators from the University of Puerto Rico. Photo by: Erika P. Rodriguez

The Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics measured the cost of living in Puerto Rico against that of 325 predominately urban areas in the United States. The institute concluded that the cost of living in Puerto Rico was 13 percent higher, and groceries were 21 percent more expensive. “Through this project,” he says, “I can feed people and also educate them about the ways that we can create alternative economies in these times of crisis.”

Natalia Lucia Vallejo

Natalia Lucia Vallejo, a 31-year-old chef, returned to Puerto Rico after working in Argentina, Chile, and Spain. Natalia believes that the Puerto Rican culinary industry should use food locally grown in Puerto Rico. She is working to raise industry awareness and runs a monthly food tasting event where she uses as much locally grown food as possible.

Chef Natalia Lucia Vallejo. Photo by: Erika P. Rodriguez

“When I was living in Barcelona,” Natalia says, “I would go out to the market and choose the fresh local ingredients I needed based on a menu I had prepared. Here in Puerto Rico, I have to see what is available first, and then create a menu.”

Lucia Vallejo runs a monthly food tasting event where she uses as much locally grown food as possible. Photo by: Erika P. Rodriguez

The Jones Act mandates that Puerto Rico import and export all products in U.S.-built ships, managed by U.S.-based crews. This increases not only the price of food but all products consumed on the island. Eighty-five percent of all the food that Puerto Ricans consume is imported. The U.S. government decides the price of milk, chicken, etc., in Puerto Rico. Natalia believes that “chefs need to make choices so that there is a culture shift, and we start choosing to support local farmers in their endeavor to build a sustainable agriculture movement on the island.”

Je Garcia Matthews

Je Garcia Matthews returned to Puerto Rico after 17 years of living in Miami. She came back to connect to the land. When she arrived in her hometown of Hatillo, she found that people were suffering from illnesses due to poor nutrition and a lack of access to preventive health care.

Je Garcia Matthews, founder of Finca Pajuil. Photo by: Erika P. Rodriguez

Five years ago, she founded Finca Pajuil, a 100 percent sustainable farm where she grows local medicinal plants and sells tinctures and medicines. Je consumes most of the things she needs from her farm and trades products with other local farmers or other service providers.

Garcia Matthews consumes most of the things she needs from her sustainable farm and trades products with other local farmers. Photo by: Erika P. Rodriguez

In the 1940s, agriculture was replaced by the industrial economy in Puerto Rico. Small farmers like Je face numerous bureaucratic processes to secure permits and have to compete with large agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology companies to sell their products. Through Finca Pajuil, Je created an alternative economy that helps people in her community prosper and stay healthy and fed in the midst of the economic crisis.

Xavier Varcárcel

Xavier Varcárcel has always lived in Puerto Rico and decided to stay when others fled the economic crisis and austerity measures. Xavier is the director of arts programming at CREARTE, a nonprofit organization that offers after school programming and alternative education schools in San Juan and Yabucoa.

Xavier Varcarel, director of arts programming at CREARTE. Photo by: Erika P. Rodriguez

Sometimes, Xavier and his employees spend weeks not getting paid. There are times when he has no gas to get back and forth to work. Public transportation on the island is unreliable, and a recent $0.30 per gallon tax increase on gas has made driving even more expensive.

CREARTE is a nonprofit organization that offers after school programming and alternative education schools. Photo by: Erika P. Rodriguez

Running a nonprofit on a debt-riddled island is not an easy proposition. It was made much harder when the Puerto Rican government proposed a 75 percent cut to these organizations. Xavier and CREARTE participated in an effort with over 100 other nonprofits to demand a halt in budget cuts for NGOs last year. By organizing, CREARTE and the other NGOs were able to make some headway, but cash flow is still a huge challenge. Many organizations like CREARTE depend on the Puerto Rican government to cover up to 95 percent of their budgets.

Xavier is working to implement a membership dues model for CREARTE that might help the organization raise independent funds. He remains hopeful that the organization can diversify its funding and keep the doors open for the children. However, the reality is that due to the economic crisis and austerity measures, many organizations like CREARTE will end up closing. The crucial services they provide will not be available to the most vulnerable communities.

Marisel Hernandez

Marisel Hernandez is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Marisel returned to the island after 10 years of living in New York. She has a part-time position that barely covers her living expenses. She returned to give back to the island but her options are limited. As an educator, Marisel is frustrated because there is no space to grow intellectually when in survival mode.

Marisel Hernandez, adjunct professor at the University of Puerto Rico. Photo by: Erika P. Rodriguez

Sometimes Marisel has to choose between paying rent and buying groceries. She banks canned goods, preparing herself for when the crisis “really hits, because this is just the beginning.

Students and teachers have come together to stage a series of assemblies and strikes. Photo by: Erika P. Rodriguez

“This affects me, and my health. When my contract ends and my health care ends and I don’t get paid for the summer,” Marisel says, “it gives me a lot of anxiety, depression, and sadness.”

But what gives Marisel great hope is that students and teachers have come together in the past months to demand a debt audit and a debt moratorium through a series of assemblies and strikes.


Ultimately, the future of the island is in the hands of the U.S. Congress — a governing body in which Puerto Rican members cannot vote. Every week, 3,000 Puerto Ricans leave the island. My family and friends still live in Puerto Rico and face some of the same challenges that the people I’ve profiled are facing.

The House Committee on Natural Resources put forth a version of their bill [PDF] to address the crisis. This bill doesn’t allow for Puerto Rico to engage in an orderly restructuring of the debt. It calls for creditors to voluntarily come to the table to negotiate their portion of the debt. It is also proposing a decrease in the minimum wage for those under the age of 25 and an oversight board to make decisions on economic and policy matters.

Some see this as a step in the right direction while others continue to struggle with the colonial tones of its mandate and its lack of an orderly debt restructuring process. My hope is that we continue to empower Puerto Ricans on the island to decide their fate and ally with the diaspora to create a way forward.

It’s a courageous political act to stay, to build, and to resist.

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