By Carlos Jiménez, Puerto Rican Agenda
Sunday, August 12 th , I was walking through United’s O’Hare terminal in Chicago when I
ran into a cousin I had not seen in a while. She was on her way to Puerto Rico to deal
with an urgent family matter. When she found out I was also going to the island on the
same flight, she was elated, as was I. She already had her coffee in hand, she does not
eat breakfast. However, she accompanied me to get mine.
Once at the gate, I inhaled my morning chow, walked over to the counter and asked the
gate agent if she could move my cousin to the empty seat next to mine in the exit row
that I spotted on my app. She did and my cousin and I had plenty of time to catch up on
the five-hour flight.
The flight itself was uneventful. She shared about her family’s emergency. Her uncle
(from her father’s side, her mom is my aunt so I am not related to her uncle) is
hospitalized. The family has decided to pack everything, sell the house and move to
Chicago so that her uncle can get proper care. Sadly, that has become the norm in
Puerto Rico. Many elders relocating to the United States because of the aftermath of
the storm, which crippled medical facilities.
I shared the work the Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago with its “3Rs for PR” campaign
has done since the hurricane ravaged the island last year on September 20 th . I live in
Río Grande. I happened to be in Chicago as Maria tore through and did not see my
home until January of this year, that is when I had my first opportunity to return and see
the damage the storm did to my house. I was there at that time on a mission for the
Puerto Rican Agenda where we distributed small grants to a few cities and we also
visited eight towns in ten days to assure that the children would celebrate Three Kings
Here I was, on another Agenda mission to PR. As the plane descended over San Juan
and the wheels touched down on the runway, no one clapped. No. One. Clapped. It
caught me off guard. I was not ready. The silence was deafening. For those of you who
are unaware, whenever a plane lands in Puerto Rico the locals in the aircraft erupt in
applause. I look around and it hits me. I was surrounded by Americans. Only a few
Puerto Ricans. And those few did not have anything to clap for. This is a different
reality. One where the total of Boricuas leaving the island far outnumber the ones going
back. Not hearing people clap broke my heart.
Monday, August 13 th , I met up with José López and Juan Calderón, both members of
the Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago. We discussed our game plan for the week over
breakfast at Mallorca in Old San Juan. We picked up another member, José Vélez,
before driving to Loíza, a coastal city which happens to be the most Afrocentric town on
the island and was hit hard by the hurricane. Loíza suffered a lot of damage. The
Agenda has been assisting this municipality from day one with micro grants and other
We met with Mayor Julia M. Nazario in her office. Oscar López and Luis Rosa,
members of The Agenda, also joined us. In this meeting, the Mayor updated us on
current projects involving The Agenda, and also her short/long term plans for the
municipality. The majority of the meeting was focused on the Mayor’s trip to Chicago at
the end of the month. The Mayor will be accompanied by a contingency of roughly
seventy people. The musical groups, Bebelé and Junte Loiceño, will bring their talents
to Paseo Boricua at this year’s 25 th Anniversary Fiesta Boricua. We went over logistics.
After the meeting, the Mayor took us to Artesanías Castor Ayala. The home of the
famed Ayala family who are known for their vejigante masks and bomba. Loíza is
unique in how they make their masks because they use coconuts. They invited us into
their home. A lot of artwork was purchased. This home is rich with history.
Then the Mayor took us to the community center nearby where architectural professor,
Frank Flury, and a group of his students from the Illinois Institute of Technology spent
five weeks earlier this summer. building a gazebo for the community for activities. It is a
beautiful structure. This is a project IIT and Flury took on and their experience was so
good, they plan to return for another project.
Tuesday, August 14 th , we met again in Old San Juan. This time we had breakfast at
Bombonera. Present were José López, Juan Calderón, José Vélez and Luis Martínez (a
member of The Agenda). From there we walked over to la Escuela de Artes Plásticas y
Diseño. This is a four-year undergraduate institution. EAPD is another project of the
Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago. During the hurricane, their roof was destroyed. Many
artifacts in the library were in danger of being permanently damaged. The Agenda
presented the institution with a micro-grant to assure the roof would be fixed. However,
we are doing more than repairing the school. We are creating a pipeline for students to
study both in EAPD and in Chicago.
We met with the Chancellor, Ileana Muñoz Landrón. We discussed plans for repairs and
future expansion. Following the briefing, the Chancellor took us on a tour of the
university. It is very impressive. Some of the programs offered include; printmaking, art
education, painting, digital art and design. Aside from books, the library also contains an
assortment of priceless art.
We drove to Loíza to have a lunch meeting with the Mayor. She then took us to a park
in the heart of the town. This park is amazing! It has a cave that at one time was under
the ocean. There is still evidence of stalactites and stalagmites. What is even more
impressive is the amount of beehives in the cave. They have discovered a black bee
that the Mayor believes may be a new species. They have sent a specimen to
Switzerland for official identification. Unfortunately, the hurricane destroyed more than
half of the hives. There are seventeen hives left.
The park is also home to four ceiba trees, two of which are incredibly impressive. The
ceiba is revered in Puerto Rico. The Mayor has even personally named each tree. This
park is special and important to the community. There are several pavilions for families
to barbecue and throw parties. The Mayor had the townspeople decorate and paint the
park so as to share ownership. She feels they will take care of it because of the energy
and sweat they put into it.
The park also has a museum that will reopen at the end of the month. The Mayor
opened it for us. All the art collected and displayed was made by Loiceños. There were
many vejigante masks, photographs, sculptures and paintings. I saw a few works from
Samuel Lind, a prominent artist from Loíza.
From Loíza we drove over to Comerío. We spent the night at the Media Luna Hotel,
which is owned and operated by the municipality. The town of Comerío is another focus
for the Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago. We have a great relationship with the Mayor,
Josian Santiago. We have a few initiatives with Comerío, all connected to our “3Rs for
PR” campaign. We were joined by another Agenda member, Ivis García Zambrana.
Wednesday, August 15 th , we had breakfast with the Mayor. Congressman Luis Gutiérrez
joined us. After breakfast, we were taken to the location of “The House on the Hill”
which is the site for one of our dearest projects. It was an emotional day. The backstory
is that we met a lady and her daughter in May of this year that were living without a roof,
and under a blue tarp.
We happened to be in Comerío on one of our missions when we met them. Less than a
month before the hurricane hit last year, her husband passed away. The storm hit and
her house was destroyed. After seeing their living conditions, we left in tears. We
decided then and there to get involved.
So there we were, The Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago in Comerío breaking ground on
the location of where her new house will be built. The project will cost $25,000. YOUR
donations made that day possible. Thank you! From the bottom of our hearts. We have
said from the very beginning that our mission is a permanent one. We have a presence
on our island to help rebuild it. We cannot do it without your generosity. This is your
dollars at work!
From “The House on the Hill” we went to the barrio of La Juncia, where we broke
ground on yet another project. Earlier this year, Mayor Josian Santiago came to Paseo
Boricua and at a press conference at the National Puerto Rican Museum, The Agenda
presented him with a check for $40,000. This would go toward rebuilding and
reimagining a community center that would provide the community with services in
cases of emergency like the hurricane last year, such as; doing laundry, cooking,
refrigeration, showering, etc. During non-emergency times, the center can be used for
community and private events, meetings, etc. This goes in line with our initiative to
rebuild the island.
After the press conference, we did a walking tour of the city. A city official was kind
enough to open one of their museums for us, the Centro Comunal El Cielito, which
exhibits la Exposición Permanente Fotográfica y Cinematográfica. Then a local icecream shop owner opened up for us after closing, so that we may experience a unique
Thursday, August 16th, breakfast with the Mayor, his wife and some of his staff. We said
our goodbyes and drove to Ciales. We spent a moment at a rest stop dedicated to Juan
Antonio Corretjer, the poet who wrote “Boricua En La Luna.” There is a bronze image of
him and his famous poem is engraved on a sculpture next to it. The view is amazing.
We made it to our destination, el Museo del Café. It is our belief that part of rebuilding
Puerto Rico also has to do with stimulating the local economy. The owner gave us a
tour of the museum. We stopped at the outdoor coffee shop and drank coffee. We also
bought a lot of coffee.
We were hungry and wanted to eat at a restaurant called Arturito’s which is popular in
the area and sits on top of a peak. The owner of the museum called up Arturito to make
sure he had his restaurant open because he was on vacation. Arturito was gracious
enough to open for us. The owner of the museum took us in his vehicle. The view was
spectacular! The food was phenomenal. And it turns out that Arturito was a famous
singer. He played a video of one of his performances on the television.
Friday, August 17 th , our last day in Puerto Rico. We drove to Loíza to meet with the
Mayor once more to finalize details and logistics for her trip to Chicago for Fiesta
Boricua. She also did a formal “Entrega de Bandera” which means she presented The
Agenda with an official Loíza municipality flag.
Before heading to the airport, we had one more stop to make in Loíza. We visited the
home of Samuel Lind, world-renowned artist. His home is like a museum full of his
works, paintings, sketches, statues and sculptures. He was closed, but graciously
opened his doors to us. After a tour of his home and workshop, some art was
purchased and commissioned.
Our trip was complete.
This time I would fly back to Chicago alone. As the aircraft descended over the Windy
City and touched down on the runway, a weird thing happened. People clapped.
People. Clapped. It caught me off guard. I was not ready. For those of you who are
unaware, whenever a plane lands in Puerto Rico the locals in the aircraft erupt in
applause. However, this is Chicago. I look around and it hits me. I was surrounded by
Puerto Ricans. Some scattered Americans. This is a different reality. One where the
total of Boricuas leaving the island far outnumber the ones going back. Hearing people
clap broke my heart.