After an initial delay due to weather concerns, Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies, “Centro”, held the second annual Puerto Rico Diaspora Summit on October 26th, 2018 at the University of the District of Columbia School of Law.
The focus of the event was to gather Puerto Ricans from across the nation, of all ages and professions, to discuss important topics facing the island at the local level, as well as the actions we can take at the national level.
Margarita Varela, Cenadores de PR Board Member, hosted the event alongside other Puerto Rican leaders from the NGO sector. The two-day event featured a number of different panels tailored around the idea of rebuilding Puerto Rico after the devastating effects that Hurricane Maria took on the U.S. territory’s infrastructure and economy.
The first day of the event consisted of opening remarks by the organizers of the event, as well as a screening of the documentary “Bancarrota”. The documentary features a series of interviews to key figures from the government and non-government sectors discussing Puerto Rico’s debt issue, which reached its peak when it declared bankruptcy bank in May of 2017. The Director of the film, retired University of Puerto Rico Professor José Umpierre, was present during the screening and answered questions from the audience.
The summit continued on October 27th, which coincided with the celebration of the first Puerto Rico Day in Washington DC. Mayor Muriel Bowser had issued a proclamation declaring the special day of recognition before the summit began.
“The Diaspora Summit was a historic event for our community in Washington, D.C., in which we celebrated the first ever Puerto Rico Day in the nation’s capital. I am grateful for all the sponsoring organizations for making this event happen,” said Margarita Varela, Puerto Rican Diaspora Summit-Washington D.C. Chairperson, who also serves as Commissioner of the DC Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs.
Dr. Edwin Meléndez, Director of Centro, then went on to give a presentation on the status of the Puerto Rican migration to the mainland. He estimated that between 160,000 and 175,000 Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, had left the island in the year after María, mostly to the mainland United States; another 100,00, he argued, are expected to leave this coming year.
The program continued with four consecutive panels focused on training members of the Puerto Rican diaspora regarding the actions that can be taken to spur economic development and promote good governance in Puerto Rico. A panel titled “Good Governance, Accountability, and Transparency” moderated by National Puerto Rican Agenda co-founder Gretchen Sierra-Zorita was among the most attended of the day. The panel discussed the importance of implementing policies and regulations within the government of Puerto Rico which prevent fraud and increase accountability and effectiveness, especially due to the increased amount of federal funds that have been pouring into Puerto Rico since Hurricane María. Mario Marazzi, the Director of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics, also argued the importance of enacting Open Data laws in Puerto Rico which increase accountability.
The day ended with a workshop hosted by BoricuActivated and titled ‘How to be the best advocate for Puerto Rico’. The workshop featured prominent staffers from multiple congressional offices, which were assigned to different working groups with the goal of simulating a real-life meeting. Attendees were given the materials and talking points needed to prepare their arguments, and staffers gave feedback on how to best prepare for and approach these meetings in a real world scenario.
Overall, the summit was a highly-attended event that featured prominent leaders from all sectors. It ended with a selection of traditional Puerto Rican food, including a selection of local rums which was hosted by Friends of Puerto Rico, a nonprofit organization that helped funnel supplies to the island in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria.