Reporting from Puerto Rico
Journalists from the Bellisario College of Communications are reporting from Puerto Rico during spring break. This is a live blog documenting their experiences as they explore how Puerto Rico is reinventing and expressing itself in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
Isle of Cats
On the shore of Old San Juan lives a colony of more than 120 stray cats. Wanda Belaval, 63, and Efrain Corsino, 66, volunteer at Save A Gato at least once a week to make sure that displaced cats are fed, medicated and sterilized. The demand for volunteers has grown since Hurricane Maria because many families who left the island abandoned their pets.
Belaval and Corsino have 11 cats of their own. They believe that working with animals is therapeutic. On Tuesdays around noon, you can find them traveling in a golf cart filled with buckets of cat food and fresh water to disperse among several feeding stations.
“I want to give them till their last breath, as long as they are not hurting,” Belaval said.
If the cats look sick or stop eating, Belaval records them so that they can be trapped and examined. Many of the cats suffer from blindness because of the salinity and harsh sunlight on the sea shore.
When volunteers find cats that are friendly, Save A Gato places them in foster homes until they can be adopted or flown to a shelter on the mainland. The organization relies entirely on donations to pay the transportation fees.
Last week, the nonprofit spent $689 to send six cats to shelters, according to Irma Podesta, the mainland coordinator. Sometimes the shelters on the mainland won’t return Save A Gato’s kennels and that is an additional $45 expense.
Partnering with companies such as PetSmart, the organization receives discounts on dry food, but Belaval says she buys extra wet food out of her own pocket.
“The cats will follow me to the next station as long as I am carrying a can,” Belaval said. “This food really gets them the nutrition they need.”
~ Story and photos by Sarah Price
The persistence of the press
Hurricane Maria closed down many businesses in Puerto Rico, but not El Nueva Día. The island’s only daily newspaper stayed open, sending reporters out during and after the hurricane to show what the island was going through.
Both writers and photojournalists from El Nueva Día shared their experiences with us as we took a tour of the newsroom and printing presses. One journalist explained that reporters worked for 70 hours straight. Because the newspaper had emergency generators, El Nuevo Día never lost power. The newsroom was transformed into a campsite for the staff and their families who had hot meals, water, and places to sleep.
The staff tried to help other Puerto Ricans who had no power or food. Some journalists relayed messages to family members stateside who were worried about their loved ones. One reporter told us that while out on the job, she unpacked her bag of food and water and started distributing it.
Despite the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, the journalists said that morale was high on both the island and within GFR Media, the parent company of El Nueva Día. For newspaper readers, the stories on the recovery of the island gave them hope and showed the progress Puerto Rico was making. The reporters got the satisfaction of helping to spread news to an information-starved public.
One story in particular illustrated the sense of purpose that the reporters shared. One of the video editors had been in an area that was hard hit by the hurricane. His colleagues feared the worst when he didn’t come to work for seven days. The whole company was relieved when he finally showed up one day covered in mud. His co-workers hugged him and asked him if he wanted to eat, clean up, or take a nap.
His reply? “Give me something to edit!”
~ Story and photos by Ally Lutter
‘The simple life’: How a miniature model town became a family tradition
Weaving through the mountains of central Puerto Rico, travelers can spot small villages on the hillsides. But none is as tiny as the miniature model town on the road to Orocovis.
The project started with six houses and has now grown to more than 50 pint-sized buildings that include houses, stores, a church, and even a cemetery.
Verti Alvarado said her family — who lives across the street in a bright blue house — maintains the miniature town. Her sister Margarita started the tiny town 30 years ago. “To remind us of back in the days,” Alvarado said. “It was the simple life.”
From the church in the town square to the two tanks at the top of the hill, the model town is a replica of a neighborhood known as Cerro La Guaira, which no longer exists.
Alvarado said the original, full-scale houses were rotting and unsafe, so the government moved the residents to another area and placed them in sturdy concrete houses before tearing down the old homes.
Every year, Alvarado’s family assembles the model town on the hillside and takes it down in October to pay homage to the destruction of the town.
By Thanksgiving Day it goes back up. Alvarado said her three brothers light up the miniature town with string lights.
Through the years, the lighting ceremony has gained traction.
“They make dinner for everybody, drinks, you know it’s a party,” Alvarado said. “It’s a big celebration.”
Recently, an elderly woman came to the site.
“Because she grew up in [La Guaira],” Alvarado said. “She came. So happy. She moved to another town and she came by and was so happy about it.”
Before Hurricane Maria hit, Alvarado said her brothers took the model houses down to protect them. When they reassembled the village, her brothers put “little blue tarps” on top of the roofs that matched the blue tarps FEMA distributed to cover houses damaged by the hurricane.
Alvarado, who once lived in New Jersey, said she has been in Puerto Rico since December.
Nowadays, Alvarado welcomes tourists from her mother’s porch, and invites them to take photos of the miniature village.
~Story and photos by Lauren Lee
Soccer coach doubles down on commitment to Puerto Rico after hurricane
Soccer has always been a large part of Joe Talley’s life.
Growing up in Springfield, Ohio, Talley played the game throughout high school and college. His first job out of college was with the Major League Soccer team Columbus Crew. He’s dedicated much of his life to coaching girls soccer teams around the United States. Now, Talley is using his coaching skills to teach kids in Puerto Rico about soccer and about life.
Talley’s interest in coaching soccer in the Caribbean started when he had the opportunity to coach the Haiti women’s national soccer team at a tournament in Disney World.
“Those girls, they never cared about appearance or anything,” Talley said. “Our girls had mismatched shirts. The equipment manager forgot our equipment so I’m taking bottles of water and setting them up as cones. But the girls … it was no big deal to them.”
After that tournament, a fellow coach from back in Ohio asked Talley if he would move to Puerto Rico with him. In spring 2017, Talley moved to the island, hoping to make a career out of coaching. That fall, Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico, leaving much of the island without power or cell phone service.
“We didn’t have money, we didn’t have much food, there was not much gas in the car to go anywhere, there was a curfew,” Talley said. After struggling in their Isla Verde condo for a week, Talley and his roommate got on a flight back to the mainland.
It didn’t take long for Talley to make his way back to Puerto Rico. A month after Maria hit, Talley became the Puerto Rican owner/licensee of the national soccer coaching company Coerver Coaching, the same company he worked for in Ohio. He quickly created partnerships with youth soccer clubs across the island.
Nowadays, a typical week for Talley finds him driving all over the island to work with kids in San Juan, Caguas, Isabella, Rincón, and Bayamon. Some of the kids he works with are able to attend the program thanks to scholarships provided by local companies.
“There’s a lot of sponsors that cover the costs for the kids here, which is not something you see back [on the mainland],” Talley said.
Talley hopes to help the kids in the program grow both as soccer players and as people.
“We really want [the kids in the program] to be disciplined people, to be respectful people,” Talley said. “When you see a player start to develop those characteristics and have those values, that’s when it’s rewarding for me. It’s not just about the soccer.”
~ Story by Steph Krane
The expensive Puerto Rican Rum Festival was nice. The music was good, the people were hyped. But the lines were long, and my patience was running low.
I decided to adventure to the outskirts of the heavily branded alcoholic booths in search of something more peaceful. I was graced with a table packed with goodies of all shapes and colors.
They looked homemade and delicious. As I explored the booth, I found the owners and creators of these artisan treats.
Nitza Pizarro and her husband Carlos Aponte are the owners of Típica Artesanal, or Typical Artisan in English, a small traditional Puerto Rican sweets shop. Their main location is in the northern town of Bayamón, but they traveled down to San Juan to promote their brand.
Carlos jokes that Nitza is the real boss and he only washes the dishes. Nitza laughs and playfully smacks his arm.
She tells me she has been baking goods for more than 30 years. The recipes for these magical treats, she says, have been in her family for generations. But she only created the business after getting an artisan certification six years ago.
I ask her to pick the most Puerto Rican treats in her spread.
Mamopostial is the first treat in her arsenal. It is a mix of coconut and melao de caña or sugarcane syrup. Nitza adds sesame seeds for some crunch. The texture is grainy but sweet with an amazing mix of coconut sweetness.
She then shows me the tirijala. This sweet is made of sugar and corn. The joke is you must pull the white substance until it breaks. It was a workout.
My personally favorite was the “besitos de coco” or coconut kisses. These can be filled with fruit like guava and simply melt in your mouth.
Next time I'm in Puerto Rico I'll make sure to look again for Boricua sweets.
~ Story and photos by Erin McLoughlin
La Casa Tin
When a man who is building environmentally sustainable hut-like rooms on his property tells you to visit his friend Marty up the road who created an entire house out of shipping containers, you get in the car and go.
At the end of a small road in Aguada, Puerto Rico, sits La Casa Tin. Here you’ll find Marty and Liz Perkins along with their two cats, who Marty refers to as “the boys.”
When we arrived unannounced on Wednesday afternoon Liz was stateside, but Marty proved to be quite the tour guide himself. He showed us, a couple of strangers, every aspect of the unique house he built almost entirely by himself. The only thing he had someone else do was put up drywall because he “hates that stuff.”
La Casa Tin becomes more impressive once you find out Marty does not have a high school education. He is just a problem solver who will work at something until he understands it and can fix it. He’s engineered everything at the house from the electricity, to solar panels, to water, to hydroponic plants. Marty is constantly tinkering with home improvements, documenting his progress on the La Casa Tin Facebook page.
He is a three-years-retired employee of Amtrak and a Delaware transplant. Marty told us he moved down to Puerto Rico almost immediately after he retired and brought his wife with him, “kicking and screaming.” Marty mentioned that while she’s no longer screaming, she may still kick from time to time.
In terms of decorations and design of La Casa Tin, Marty said it came down to three words: “Sí mi amor.” Anything Liz wanted in the house, Marty would do, even if it meant ripping out nearly completed sections. Marty never seemed to really mind, saying, “She has a lot of good ideas, and she will be sure to remind you of them.”
His relationship with his wife seems to always come first, but it is followed closely by the relationship between the man and his home.
~ Photo by Andrew Kalmowitz
Tracing the roots of the Piña Colada in Old San Juan
Among the countless landmarks spread across the historic district known as Old San Juan, one restaurant near the Plaza de Armas claims to be the birthplace of the piña colada.
Restaurant Barrachina opened in the late 1950s and was originally known for paella, a traditional Spanish rice dish. It wasn’t until 1963 when a Spanish bartender, Don Ramón Portas Mingo, mixed rum, pineapple juice, and coconut milk to create the well-known tropical drink: the piña colada.
The restaurant has a quaint café feeling with pastel pink walls surrounding an open courtyard. The soft sound of local music is interrupted by the whirring of three large machines filled with pre-made piña colada mix.
Jorge Ayala, shown above, is a bartender at Restaurant Barrachina. He said that the restaurant serves approximately 2,200 piña coladas every day. Sitting at the restaurant for about an hour, I witnessed Ayala mix up approximately 30 piña coladas.
A few other restaurants around Puerto Rico also claim to be the birthplace of the piña colada, but Restaurant Barrachina has literally set their claim in stone – with a marble plaque mounted at the entrance to the Old San Juan eatery.
~ Photos and story by Caitlin Lee
Pageant success a source of Puerto Rican pride in wake of Hurricane Maria
Kiara Liz Ortega, Miss Puerto Rico 2018, competed at Miss Universe this past December, and placed top five in the world! When I spoke to her about her journey to the crown, it was not what I expected. I thought she would discuss her experience with modeling or the performing arts, and then explain how she used that experience to excel in pageantry.
As someone who has been competing in pageants since she was 11 years old, I understand how beneficial it is to come from a performing arts background. I started acting and modeling at age 10, and was introduced to pageantry through my acting school. Most of my pageant friends have similar stories, but Ortega was the complete opposite.
She had humble beginnings, with zero modeling or acting experience. She was working at a restaurant to pay her bills, and became dissatisfied with her life. She knew that there was more for her, but she didn’t know what that “more” was. The people she worked with at the restaurant kept telling her that she needed to leave and pursue something greater. After some encouragement from her family and friends, Ortega decided to go to the auditions for Miss Puerto Rico.
The pageant was being run by Denise Quinones, a former Miss Puerto Rico and Miss Universe. Ortega went into the audition process with no expectations, and was just grateful for the opportunity. She was shocked to receive a call back from the organization, saying she was chosen to be a contestant.
The pageant was held on Sept. 22, 2018, exactly one year from when Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Ortega said she was not expecting to take home the crown, but once she was crowned, she took the responsibility seriously, waking up at 6 a.m, every day to exercise, attend photo shoots, and perfect her walking and stage presence.
She went into Miss Universe with confidence, and was overwhelmed with gratitude when she made it to the top five. Ortega said she could feel the overwhelming amount of love and support from Puerto Ricans. After experiencing such a catastrophic event, Puerto Ricans finally had something to celebrate, and Ortega became their superhero, bringing joy, love, and hope back to the island.
~ Story by Alisa Vasquez
Art in the City of Coffee
Yuaco, Puerto Rico, (appropriately nicknamed the City of Coffee) held its annual coffee festival this week. The fanfare-filled event included a parade, music, vendors and the opportunity to buy beans straight from the farmer who harvested them.
But the industry surrounding coffee in Puerto Rico goes beyond farmers and drinkers. Héctor Soto sells coffee-inspired artwork – among other paintings – for Boceteo, the company that he and his wife run.
Soto, shown above, said his artwork changed after Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017.
“Hurricane Maria affected my work in so many ways,” Soto said. “It moved me to do other things that unite people. Coffee is one of the things that unites the Puerto Ricans,” Soto said.
He brought to the festival a vibrant display of art. Most pieces featured steaming coffee mugs.
“I am a coffee lover, and I want to share my art with coffee lover people that attend this festival,” Soto said.
The hurricane wiped out about 80 percent of the island’s coffee trees, devastating farmers who rely on the crop for income. But Soto said the drink is still a large part of Puerto Rican culture.
“The coffee of Puerto Rico is flavorful and unique, and the coffee unites people,” Soto said. “I decided to do work that unites the emotions – the love for the culture and the island.”
~ Story and photos by Maddie Biertempfel
Actor becomes a living statue for performances in New York and Old San Juan
Standing at 4’11” and just over 80 pounds, Johan Figueroa-González is even smaller than the statues he imitates.
A journalist-turned-street performer, Figueroa-González works as a "living statue" in Washington Square Park in New York City in the summer. During the winter he "statues" in La Plaza de Armas in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The artist takes about two hours to paint himself in the style of a monument or statue. He then dresses in pre-painted garments and generously applies baby powder to his entire costume.
When he is satisfied with his appearance, he puts on a short performance—kneeling in front of the arch or fountain he will occupy to show respect—before immersing himself as part of the monument.
On Saturday in La Plaza de Armas, Figueroa-González held his pose among the inanimate statues on the fountain for over eight hours, moving only to blow a kiss each time someone dropped a coin at his feet.
When he was a student at the University of Puerto Rico, Figueroa-González served as the model for an introductory drawing class, which is where he learned to hold his poses for long periods of time.
Although he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism, Figueroa-González has worked as a guide at Las Americas Museum in Old San Juan, and he is known to frequent open mic nights at Poet’s Passage when he is not posing in the plaza outside the bookstore.
~ Photos and story by Malia Schimminger
Daily life: The carnival at Carnaval Ponceño
In the Mardi Gras-like atmosphere of Carnaval Ponceño, a boy is still mesmerized by the chance to take the controls on a ride in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
~ Photo by Caitlin Lee
Ponce's Famous Bacalaítos Fryer
Luis Otero has been making bacalaítos, fried codfish fritters often served at festivals in Puerto Rico, for more than 20 years.
Otero’s bacalaítos are famous across the island. His truck is covered with photographs of him with prominent entertainers and public figures who have come to try his take on the treat. At the Mardi Gras carnival in Ponce, his truck drew a long line throughout the day.
With a skilled hand and a whisk attached to a drill, he mixes the batter for each batch of fritters and pours it out into the fryer until the bacalaítos reach greasy, golden perfection. His practiced technique allows him to cook many bacalaítos at once, each around 10 inches in circumference.
According to an article in PrimeraHora, on a typical day Otero uses 50 pounds of wheat flour and 20 pounds of cod fillet to make the crispy delicacies. He has a permanent kiosk every weekend in the Boquerón area, and he regularly travels to towns all over the island to sell his bacalaítos at cultural events and festivals.
~ Story and photos by Valerie Welch
Photo gallery: Getting their masks on for Carnaval
There's Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, and Carnaval in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Carnaval Ponceño draws an international crowd to Ponce, Puerto Rico, for a week-long celebration. The symbol of Carnaval Ponceño, depicted above, is the masked “Vejigantes.”
The vejigante characters are built on the fables, stories and histories of African, Caribbean and Spanish people. Vejigantes once represented the Moors who were defeated by the Spanish. To honor the battle’s leader, Saint James, people would dress like demonic characters. In modern times, this tradition has evolved with the culture of Puerto Rico.
Typical vejigantes costumes are composed of a mask, suit and cape. Other accessories traditionally include inflated cow bladders, which vejigantes strike to create a menacing noise. Less expensive balloons are sometimes substitued for the cow bladders. Vibrant colors, sequins and frills are also essential for the costumes.
Eduardo Cruzeta said the meaning behind his vejigante costume is much deeper than myths and legends. “Even if you look weird or scary, we are people. We are together,” Cruzeta said. “A couple of masks brings a whole family.” Sporting a black and white mask with bright crimson accents, Cruzeta said his dad made the mask he is wearing at Carnaval Ponceño.
The vejigantes are frequently asked to pose for pictures. An unmasked man in his vejigante costume makes a selfie with a festival attendee.
~ Photos by Tina Locurto
Law student turned violinist puts his soul into busking in Old San Juan
Along a small side street with few cars or people, Luis Ruiz played “Yesterday” by the Beatles on his violin.
Standing at the street corner with a violin case full of crumpled up dollar bills and shiny coins, Ruiz smoothly draws his bow across each string, creating melancholic music that sweeps over the quiet cobblestone road.
“I like every song that I play because I put my soul in it,” he said.
Ruiz, originally from Peru, began playing music at 12 years old.
Though originally on a career path to be a lawyer, Ruiz abandoned the justice route to pursue his musical dreams.
He now studies composition at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico. On weekends, he plays his violin to get a few extra bucks for gas money.
“This violin helps me escape [to] other universes or dimensions when I’m somewhere I don’t like,” Ruiz said.
~ Story and video by Tina Locurto