We did it then, we can do it again: A love letter from the UPR diaspora to our homeland

Margarita Benítez
Senior Associate
Excelencia in Education

“’We’re all anxious, we’re all desperately seeking information and we’re all on call
to help Puerto Rico and give it whatever it needs’”
(Far from the Destruction, with Few Ways to Get News from Back Home, NYT, Sept. 22, 2017)


Shall we try to ascertain which pain hits us the hardest?  The ruthless DACA threat; the pitiless earthquakes;  or the fierce hurricanes?  These dangers stalk our homelands, be they the United States for the DACA recipients, the Mexican earthquakes for our Chicano brethren, or the equal opportunity hurricanes that span Texas, and Florida, and Louisiana, as well as the Caribbean, where so many of us hark from, and feel at home.  

As José Martí wrote, the people of the diaspora have lived within the behemoth, and know its innards well.  “Viví en el monstruo y le conozco las entrañas.” We speak the languages of empire: Spanish, English, Dutch, French, with our distinctive accents, while our music, our food, and our various complexions, bear witness to our African and indigenous heritages.  We fight among ourselves, and joke about each other, yet we all come together in adversity.  And we are facing ADVERSITY today, tomorrow, and in the days ahead.

Our focus now, and in writings to come, will be on the role the University of Puerto Rico can play in the reconstruction of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean after the devastation wrought by hurricanes Irma and María, and how we in the diaspora can be helpful.

For inspiration, today’s blog reviews the role that UPR, and specifically the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts at Mayagüez--  “el Colegio,” for short--, played in the swift transformation of our “stricken land” seventy years ago, in the forties and fifties.[1]  A young cadre of idealistic, hardworking, and competent men and women were summoned to public service by our great leader Luis Muñoz Marín, to spearhead a collective effort of national uplift that became known as “Operation Bootstrap:”  lifting ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

Every solution brings its own problems, and modernization is no exception; but no one can deny that in creating the infrastructure for economic progress, and giving Puerto Ricans a new standard of living, Operation Bootstrap was a huge success. And Operation Bootstrap would not have been possible, successful or sustainable without the University of Puerto Rico, and particularly, without the contributions of “el Colegio de Mayagüez.” 

In the best tradition of land grant universities, for practically every problem that our country was facing, el Colegio’s faculty and researchers developed a solution, and trained both men and women—also a major step forward--to put it into practice.  So it was with agriculture, public health and nutrition, cattle and livestock raising, physical infrastructure, transportation, industrialization, machinery and technology. El Colegio’s experiment stations improved and diversified crop varieties; developed pesticides and fertilizers; and made possible canning and processing techniques for fruits and vegetables that preserved their flavors as well as their nutrients.  Meanwhile, el Colegio’s network of extension services spread the word throughout rural areas about hygiene, nutrition, and healthy living practices. 

This application of scientific knowledge and the scientific method to agriculture and industry yielded important sources of revenue to the Puerto Rican economy.  A small pilot distillery established in 1953—Planta Piloto de Ron—operated as a scientific lab to analyze all aspects of the rum making process, and made the results of its research available to rum distillers around the world.   For decades, the rums of Puerto Rico have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to our economy, as the taxes on rum sold in the U.S. mainland were returned to the Puerto Rican treasury.

The roads, the dams, the bridges, the factories and housing that were the building blocks of modern Puerto Rico—so many of which were brutally battered by Irma and Maria!-- were put in place by engineering graduates from el Colegio de Mayagüez.  UPR did a great job then. We can do it again.

At present, the Mayagüez Campus is the hub of earth, air, and water science research in the Caribbean region. In partnership with federal and state agencies, it hosts the Seismic Network for Puerto Rico and the Caribbean; the Puerto Rico Water Resources and Environmental Research Institute; the Caribbean Atmospheric Research Center; and the Caribbean Coral Reef Project, among others.  As a major gatekeeper to the Latin American and Caribbean food markets, Mayagüez has developed state-of-the-art laboratories for food quality inspection and protection.  NASA and NOAA in particular, but also EPA, USDA, Energy, and Defense recruiters are frequent visitors to the Mayagüez campus, drawn by the quality of its graduates.  Besides its land grant status, Mayagüez is a sea grant institution, with marvelous marine science graduate programs.  At the time of this writing, we don’t know the damage it has suffered.  But it will rise again, I have no doubt.

Our Governor has pledged that together we will lift Puerto Rico again.  We in the diaspora are eagerly heeding his call. It now behooves the UPR leadership to deliver a message of unity, hope, and imagination in service to our beloved island in its time of great need.

In memory of a man I knew well, who loved and served the University of Puerto Rico until the day he died, I close with a stanza from Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

[1] The Stricken Land was the title of a powerful book about Puerto Rico in the forties written by Rexford Tugwell, our last and best American governor.