Hostos counselor Lizette Colón knew she could not sit idly by this summer when so much remained to be done in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane María. She initially hoped to serve as a chaperone for the CUNY Service Corps’ trip to the island, but was not selected. So, undeterred and determined as ever, and inspired by the words of Eugenio María de Hostos, “¡Acción! ¡Acción! ¡Acción! ¡Salgamos a toda costa de la inercia! (Action! Action! Action! We must combat inertia at all costs!), Colón organized and led her own service trip to the island.
Through her previous work with Hostos’ United for Puerto Rico committee, Colón connected with Elisa Sánchez of the Centro de Apoyo Mutuo Bartolo (CAM Bartolo). A proponent of service-learning projects, Colón collaborated with Sánchez to organize the trip and recruited student volunteers Leyddy Ogando, Jassiel Mena, Alison Castillo, Joel Rivera, Stephani Javier, and James Cotto, as well as Professor Camilo Almonacid of the Humanities Department, to join her. She then reached out to the González family, who are known donors of the College, to secure a majority of the funding necessary to cover the group’s airfare, food, and other travel expenses. The group also combined their creative forces to design and sell t-shirts to raise money for the trip.
On July 26, the “Hostos to Lares/Vieques: Service Brigade 2018,” as they were called, departed to Puerto Rico for two weeks where they joined the recovery effort in Lares and Vieques, and the surrounding communities.
 “My main purpose with this was to look for ways in which the students could see first-hand, what was happening in Puerto Rico,” Colón explained of her mission. “It is not the same as reading about it, but it is better to experience it and see it through your [own] eyes.” As such, the trip was designed to encourage a positive and symbiotic educational experience for both the volunteers and the communities they assisted.
During their time in Bartolo, Lares, the brigade lodged in an abandoned school that was being converted into a family shelter for single mothers. They bonded with the residents and people from the neighborhood, painted the shelter’s computer room, cared for farm animals in the area, and presented workshops on how to use photography, videography and social media to document their stories.
Additionally, the group spent a couple of days in Vieques clearing debris and learning about the area’s natural resources and ecosystem. There they also met with local activist Roberto Rabín, who shared the history of Vieques and interviewed two of the students and a few of the shelter’s residents about their experiences on his local radio show.
Collecting and documenting oral histories from residents in the community was another major component of the trip. It was this component of listening and documenting that ultimately served as a wakeup call for student Alison Castillo, and as a form of catharsis for the interviewees.
“Something I learned on this trip to Puerto Rico was that not everything is about me,” she shared. “One should also pause for a second and look around and observe what is needed. I also learned to be more supportive and to interact with other people. In Puerto Rico, the elderly people we met during our stay, every time they saw us, they would tell us their history with the hope that someone will listen to them and understand the trauma they have gone through, hoping also that in speaking about the sad reality, they will somehow get relief from it. Although what they had to go through is very difficult to forget, the least we can do is help them.”
The trip has also proved to be transformative for Jassiel Mena, who has been told she appears more mature since returning from Puerto Rico. She is inclined to agree. The Liberal Arts student said the experience has instilled in her a renewed sense of gratitude and humility, as well as a desire to advocate for those less fortunate. “One thing I learned is, we always say ‘I want this, I want this, I want this,’ but we don’t want to do more,” she said. Having seen for herself the enduring trauma experienced by many of the adults and children as a result of the hurricane, as well as the extreme lack of resources available to them, Jassiel said she feels she cannot remain complacent. Looking ahead, she’d like to advocate on behalf of the people she met on the island, particularly the children of Indiera Alta, who have nowhere to play since their sole park has been shut down.
In the end, Colón accomplished her goal; she hoped the students would come out of the experience with a passion for local and global activism.
“If we build activists in our college community, then [they] will be able to serve the people that need so much—especially here in the South Bronx. There are so many things that need to be done, and this is the new generation.”
Business Management student Leyddy Ogando, for one, is already thinking about how she can use her experience in Puerto Rico to influence future activists.
“The only way we can change the world, is by helping each other,” she said. “This is something I can pass on to my kids. I can tell them ‘you can help people, and in helping people you help yourself.’”