How to Talk About Puerto Rico With Your Students

The crisis in Puerto Rico is complicated and tied to its history with the United States, but educators can address it with students and inspire empathy.
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Photo by Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In times of crisis and extreme need, the extension of empathy and humanity should not come with prerequisites or qualifiers. And Puerto Rico—left in the wake of horrific hurricane damage—is in need.

Yet, an us-versus-them mentality has affected the empathy and aid extended to Puerto Rico. According to a recent poll, merely 54 percent of U.S. residents know that people born in Puerto Rico are also U.S. citizens. Among the youngest demographic polled (18-29), this number drops to 37 percent.

Why does this matter? Puerto Rico needs aid, and people have a greater tendency to give when they sense a connection to those in need. That same poll found that 81 percent of people who knew Puerto Ricans were U.S. citizens supported sending aid (versus 44 percent of those who did not know their citizenship status). And support for sending aid increased when poll participants learned that Puerto Ricans are also Americans.

So if our goal is to prepare our students to one day lead a diverse, humane democracy, inspiring empathy for those in need is paramount. And in Puerto Rico’s case, it’s an immediate call to action.

Puerto Rico’s history, including its history with the United States, is complicated. Its culture is rich, its past and present part of an integral thread in the American fabric. But educators do not need a vast knowledge of Puerto Rico’s history to discuss its current humanitarian crisis with students and inspire empathy.

Here’s how.


1. Erase “us versus them.”

Begin a discussion by telling students that people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. Consider these questions in getting your students to think critically about the responsibility of U.S. government and citizenry in helping Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

  • Now that you know people from Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, does that change how you feel about sending them aid?
  • Do you think Congress has a responsibility to support Puerto Rico in the same way it supported efforts in Texas and Florida? Why or why not?
  • What do you or your classmates or people in your community have in common with people from Puerto Rico?

Also help students understand why—when compared to the outpouring of help to the Houston area after Hurricane Harvey and to Florida after Hurricane Irma—the response to Puerto Rico’s need seems less steadfast and the news coverage less comprehensive.

This includes explaining that Puerto Rico has largely lost power and paths of communication, making it more difficult to broadcast the harrowing footage. People are more likely to respond to a crisis when they can see and hear what’s taking place.

Ask students to consider how they would raise awareness or funds on behalf of Puerto Rico’s people.


2. Define “humanitarian crisis.”

The present situation in Puerto Rico presents an opportunity to teach students what it means when we say a disaster has created a “humanitarian crisis.”  

The Humanitarian Coalition defines a humanitarian crisis as “an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people, usually over a wide area.” Help students wrap their heads around this definition—especially its implications for vulnerable populations who, without steadfast aid, may face extensive displacement and death.

Explain to students that Puerto Rico faces a crisis beyond what we saw in Texas and Florida due to an alarming scarcity of resources like drinking water, food, fuel, shelter and power.

And then you might consider reading or listening to testimonies from people in Puerto Rico and having students discuss their reactions to these stories.


3. Engage in empathetic conversations.

Guide a discussion that allows students to empathize with people in Puerto Rico. Questions should allow them to consider how they would process such a dire situation but remain sensitive to students who may have experienced disaster and trauma or are currently experiencing poverty.

Ask students what would change in their lives if…

…they had to live for months without power?

…they had no access to drinkable, fresh water?

…they did not have shelter to protect them from rain or bugs?

…they could no longer communicate with friends, family or officials by phone or internet?

Allow students the space to answer out loud or more privately. For students who are inspired to help, allow them to explore ways they can take action.

Puerto Ricans gained U.S. citizenship 100 years ago, and since Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act shortly thereafter, the island has remained fairly isolated from the United States. The good news is that, as of September 28, the shipping restrictions of the act have been lifted. This will allow both U.S. and foreign vessels to more easily bring fuel and other much-needed resources to the island.

But Puerto Rico has been isolated from curriculum as well, and educators can address this by teaching a more complete American narrative, inspiring young people to recognize their fellow citizens—and act accordingly.

If you would like to donate funds toward helping Puerto Rico recover from recent hurricane damage, visit the Hispanic Federation’s website.

Collins is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.

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