First and foremost, let’s welcome the birth of the year 2017! It seems as if most people were waiting for the beginning of this year not only because the number 7 looks and feels better than number 6, but also because 2016 was a year full of shocking events for cultures around the globe. And let me tell you there is no surprise in that. We elected a maniac to be the president of the most powerful country in the world, climate change is increasingly the biggest threat to survival, wars spiked in the Middle East and xenophobia seemed to be the most common social trend. These may be reasons to feel hopeless and even depressed, but really these are just 21st century challenges that we need to reflect on. Now, enough of 2016. The main reason for this blog post is not to dwell on what happened this past year but to reflect on what I believe should be Puerto Rico’s focus in 2017.
As I do every year for Christmas, I flew to my beloved island of Puerto Rico to celebrate the holiday traditions with my family. As any Puertorican will tell you, there is no better place to spend Christmas than home. This year turned out to be quite a different experience. Even though everything appeared to be exactly the same at surface level, when I scratched deeper I realized they were not. I guess turning 30 made me realized that partying until 4:00am in parrandas is now a bit out of my league. Gone are those days when I could easily bounce back from a hangover after drinking Medallas, cuba libres and pitorro all night. I’ll admit it, your 30s are not your 20s. So without parrandas to attend, and no hangovers to cure, what could I do in Puerto Rico to have a bit of fun? I had to resort to a different strategy, I had to become a tourist in my own country.
Looking at your island from the perspective of a Puertorican tourist, the issues on la isla del encanto start to become more real. We stop living in the illusion we experience when we visit the island only to reunite with old friends and have a good time at the chinchorros. One starts to recognize what 100+ years of colonialism look like. My eyes were opened to what is actually happening in the island. Our energy infrastructure is decaying at an unprecedented rate, roads continue to deteriorate and abandoned buildings paint our landscape. Crime continues to rise, our population is aging and our unsustainable economy continues to open new Walmart’s and fast foods chains. However, not everything is bad. The barrio of Santurce is revitalizing itself. Buildings are being restored, new bars and restaurants opened and the arts are taking over the walls.
So I asked myself, what can we do? What are possible economic and social strategies that the country can benefit from? On an island where the vast a majority of the infrastructure is built and land is a scarce resource, what can we do to revitalize our country? I came to a conclusion while talking to two of my friends at a Mexican restaurant in Santurce. We need to create jobs and opportunities that many of us consider “useless”. Jobs and careers that are important to running a western civilization, but don’t receive high compensation due to the ignorance of our government and our people. No we don’t need more and more engineers, lawyers or accountants. We need environmentalists, farmers, naturalists, adventurers, artists, mental health providers. We need jobs and careers that focus on managing our human and natural resources in a sustainable manner. We are facing a society that has evolved with severe social and mental disorders along with great insecurities, and we can’t bypass that issue on our way to recovery. Yes, there are some of us who were lucky enough to be born from the middle income baby boomer generation, but the vast majority of Puertoricans did not receive that advantage.
Our government has done a great job at selling our land and natural resources to foreign companies but it has done an awful job at creating opportunities for our people to grow in accordance to what its environment offers. We need to mimic countries like Costa Rica and even Nicaragua, where the country invests in its people to sustain the local economy. We already know what happens when we provide benefits to big corporations – the human aspect is quickly dismissed. Puerto Rico is a beautiful island, and will continue to be, but our people cannot be forgotten. The answer doesn’t lie in leaving the island. The answer lies in how we can continue to educate Puertoricans to develop better lives on their own. Education is the biggest weapon against poverty and we are not using it effectively.