After Hurricanes, Corruption, and Earthquakes, Puerto Rico’s Class of 2020 Stares Down COVID-19

University of Puerto Rico 2020

Image via AP/Ricardo Arduengo

By Ileana Rodríguez

April 8, 2020

It is not clear if there will be a graduation ceremony at the University of Puerto Rico this year, but the Boricua students have already mastered resilience.

“I feel like I need to get ready for another hurricane,” were words from a student that weighed on Dr. Mayra Vélez Serrano, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras. Dr. Vélez Serrano had gathered her students to discuss how to finish the semester as the university was shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were sad but ready to rally against yet another challenge. This prompted her to tweet a list of all that they had overcome and let them know how much she believes in them.

The tweet hit me hard. I graduated from the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez in 1990, a time of ephemeral prosperity propped by tax incentives to U.S. corporations to establish operations in the island. The student activism movements that characterized the 60s, 70s and early 80s had dissipated into occasional peaceful demonstrations about tuition increases and privatization. Many of us went off to graduate schools in the U.S. with our broken English but a great education and welcomed through Affirmative Action efforts at universities that sought to address the legacies of historical discrimination. But, as Dr. Vélez Serrano shared, the path to graduation of these Boricua students has been entirely different.

  • The Strike. Students across the university system demanding an audit of Puerto Rico’s debt, no tuition increases, and no budget cuts, shut down the university for 3 months. They saw their activism criminalized, and their demands ignored, spending the summer catching up with their studies.
  • Corruption in the Light of Day. They witnessed how in their moment of need corruption didn’t rest, with revelations of contracts to fix the power grid going to unqualified businesses and exposing an inept government that didn’t have their best interest at heart.
  • The Governor Had to Go. In July 2019, chats between Gov. Ricardo Rosello and his closest allies, exposed a lack of regard for the people of Puerto Rico as they laughed at their expense. The students were among the 500,000 people that flooded the streets in protest, leading to Rosello’s resignation
  • The Earthquakes. On January 7 2020, the island woke up to a massive 6.4 category earthquake that destroyed homes, sending them and their families to live outdoors while aftershocks continued for months.
  • And Now, COVID-19. Just a couple of months shy of graduation, they are living through the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting state of emergency and closing of the university until further notice. 

RELATED: Coronavirus: Just Another Chance for Puerto Ricans to Keep Waiting

It is not clear if there will be a graduation ceremony at the University of Puerto Rico this year. The prospect of caps and gown, pictures with friends, teachers, and proud family, are in limbo.

Class of 2020, I see you. Any one of these crises and heartbreaks can tear you down or build you up. It is unfair to expect that you remain resilient and empowered, and yet you have. I see everything that you have done to reclaim Puerto Rico as your own. I see your fear of a crumbling economy and commit to do what I can to turn this around. I am grateful for your activism. We need your leadership in the years to come. We believe in you. We love you.

RELATED: UPDATED: This Map Shows Where And Who Coronavirus Has Hit The Hardest In Puerto Rico



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