I am a Puerto Rican female scientist pursuing my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. I was raised in Puerto Rico alongside my family. I spent my childhood, teen years, and early adulthood on this tiny little Island, surrounded by Spanish, loud music, parties for any reason, kiss-on-the-cheek greetings, and delicious food. I completed my degree in chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, where I fell in love with atoms, light, colors, Jablonski Diagrams, and energy. I decided that I wanted to become a scientist and pursue a career as a researcher.
There were two layers of difficulty in pursuing that goal locally. First, the education system in Puerto Rico has not been prioritized by the Puerto Rican government. There is a serious lack of space, facilities, faculty, equipment, and funding. Completing a doctorate degree under those conditions would have been challenging, to say the least.
Second, I am a woman. Puerto Rico is known to be a profound patriarchy. Although this is gradually changing (I think… I hope), the general, antiquated, but still very present expectation is that men are the ones who hold power positions. Men are the ones who are heard. Women… Well, we just “let emotions take over and complain.” So, in order to have a better shot at following my dreams of becoming a scientist, I decided that I needed to move to the mainland.
As a relevant point of information, Puerto Rico is the oldest colony in modern history. We were colonized by Spain in the 1400’s and then we were “shipped over” to the United States in 1898, after the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans became American Citizens in 1917. Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, the continental U.S. is our mainland, and we, Puerto Ricans, are kind of “friends with benefits” (if I may) with the United States.
Although this complicated relationship does not allow us to vote for the president, it does allow us to travel freely within the United States. So, with my U.S. Passport in hand, I flew over the Atlantic and arrived at my new home: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
There were mixed feelings with this move. In the process of applying to graduate school, I was accepted at all five institutions where I interviewed. I felt validated as a prospective graduate student and I was certain that I was going to become a scientist. My parents were extremely proud –making Hispanic parents proud is the epitome of achievement — and they were even prouder when I decided to pursue my degree at an Ivy League institution. I was proud, too. I still am. Being admitted to Penn has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me, and I am extremely grateful. However, I am still away from home. I am away from my language, my culture, my food, my kiss-on-the-cheek greetings, my music…
Being admitted to Penn has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. However, I am still away from home. I am away from my language, my culture, my food, my kiss-on-the-cheek greetings, my music…
As soon as I stepped out of the plane, it was as if a label was put on my forehead that said ”Diaspora.” I have been away from home for three years, and the last two years have posed an interesting and unexpected political awakening. I lived through Hurricane Maria away from my family, observing the devastation from a safe but almost unbearable distance. I watched the President of the United States throw paper towels at my Puerto Rican brothers and sisters, while thousands of people lived their last breath. I saw our governor (soon-to-be former governor) turn a blind eye, while millions of people suffered and starved. Now, I see my fellow Puerto Ricans protest and revolt against a homophobic, misogynistic, and insensitive governor that accidentally gave us evidence of the corruption that we always suspected existed. Hugging my Puerto Rican flag, I saw the local newscast from my apartment in Philadelphia, announcing that the governor had resigned after 12 days of massive protests. I lived through a historic moment in my homeland, while being miles away. I was both proud and heartbroken.
I lived through a historic moment in my homeland, while being miles away. I was both proud and heartbroken.
As part of the diaspora, I have felt more Puerto Rican than ever before. Being away, however, has forced me to live by the “show must go on” rule. If my heart travels too close to home, while my body is in my research laboratory, I do not perform to my standards. I must say, the standards of the people in the diaspora are high. We are not only representing ourselves; we are representing our Island while trying to dissolve all of the stereotypes that have been built around us and our identity as Puerto Ricans. We are Hispanics, but we are also Americans, and at the moment, those identities seem to go together like oil and water.
Paying too much attention to what is happening in Puerto Rico gets in the way of my success as a scientist. I find it hard to concentrate and my experiments don’t go as planned. I have a hard time being productive, and that is the opposite of what success means in this career. On the other hand, when my heart stays focused on my work, although I perform and I get closer to my dream career, I disregard my love for my Island, I stay quiet in the face of oppression, I ignore my role in Puerto Rico’s reconstruction, and I force the new generations to leave, just like I had to.
Without expecting it, I found a way to thrive in these two places at once by becoming an advocate and taking action. I organized hurricane relief efforts with Puerto Rican colleagues from Penn. I was part of videos and marches organized by the diaspora, during those two weeks of protests. Most importantly, I took the time to explain what was happening to my friends and peers in the United States in order to increase awareness.
Without expecting it, I found a way to thrive in these two places at once by becoming an advocate and taking action.
There are endless ways of being Puerto Rican and I am creating a new one. My heart is in two places at once, and it is filled with love. Love for my Island, love for my science, love for my people, and love for my work. This political awakening is marked by the paradox of choice but leveled by a deep desire to scream against all the voices that conform and with all the voices that say we will make this better. Puerto Rico is a beautiful place with amazing people. We deserve honest, compassionate, and dedicated politicians, and we deserve to be heard. Together, regardless of where we are, our voices will find a way home.
Science Rising is a network of partners and advocates coming together for one purpose: to fight for science, justice, and equity in our democracy leading up to the 2020 election. Anyone can participate in Science Rising. Learn more at www.ScienceRising.org.