Zulia Martinez ’20 Writes from Puerto Rico

A student sits on a wall overlooking a city below.
August 20, 2018

The final postcard from our 2018 “Dear Wellesley” series comes from Zulia Martinez ’20, who is writing from Vieques, Puerto Rico, where she’s interning at the Institute of Culture of Puerto Rico at Fortín Conde de Mirasol through the Global Citizenship Program, a Wellesley-funded internship. Check out the Wellesley College Instagram account to follow Martinez on her journey. 

Dear Wellesley,

Saludos from Vieques, Puerto Rico! My internship is drawing to a close this week and it’s bittersweet. I have had such an amazing time this summer, and it will be hard to get on the plane, leaving behind new friends, the blue tropical waters, and the island that I’ve come to love because of its warm people and perseverance in the face of great injustice.

What drew me to Vieques was its long history of struggle. The U.S. Navy took control of two-thirds of the island after World War II and used it to test weapons and train soldiers. The Navy occupied Vieques until 2003 and, according to Dr. James Porter [a coral reef expert from the University of Georgia who has written extensively on the topic], dropped approximately 1 trillion pounds of high explosive ammunition (including munitions of mercury, depleted uranium, and Napalm), even renting the land to other governments and companies, allowing them to test experimental weapons. To this day, the struggle continues to fight this environmental injustice and get the U.S. to fully clean the land and give proper aid to those suffering from the ill effects of the bombings.

The local Viequense struggle is exacerbated by American gentrification, which has taken over key real estate and many tourist industry jobs. This has created additional tensions because most restaurants in the tourist area do not even allow their employees to speak Spanish! At the same time, Viequenses struggle to rebuild homes and livelihoods after Hurricane María with little aid from the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments.

After learning about the health concerns caused by these struggles, I chose to do a project for the Institute of Culture of Puerto Rico at the Fortín Conde de Mirasol, a Spanish fort built in 1842. My work has been in the archives, where I have created an annotated bibliography in Spanish of all the research done on the island related to health and the military activity of the U.S. Navy. I documented over 20 studies to show the breadth of research that is in the archives and bring to light this academic work for the public and future researchers.

My boss, Robert Rabin, lovingly called Bob or Roberto by the local Viequenses, is a noted figure in Puerto Rico for his protests against the Navy in Vieques, and it has been a privilege to learn from him. This summer, I have watched him deal with many different federal agencies to get them to reconstruct the parts of the fort that were damaged by María, partner with different organizations to help digitize the archives, manage the community radio station, Radio Vieques, and help organize different events to bolster community outreach and cultural awareness. I have learned from him what it means to love a community and how to build collaborative relationships to work for social justice.

While my main focus was the archives, I have also benefited from being flexible. I co-hosted a radio program on Wednesdays with my friend Shaney, a recent university graduate, called “Gozando con Shaney” (Having Fun with Shaney), helped at events the fort has hosted (meeting many important figures, including the consulate general of the Dominican Republic), and attended protests and community meetings to learn about the problems the island faces.

I have learned a lot from my time in Vieques, and I look forward to sharing the last week of my internship on the Wellesley College Instagram, where you can follow me at my work, on Shaney’s radio program, and going to the beautiful beaches for the last time.

Thank you, Vieques, for teaching me a lesson in the Viequense spirit: resilience, resistance, having a good time with friends and family, and never showing up quite on time. It has been so fun to live in a community where everyone knows everyone, and to learn key gossiping skills that have aided me in forming relationships all over the island that enabled me to experience things like touring the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world and hiking a secret path to one of the most important archeological site in Puerto Rico, so I am forever grateful.

Thank you, Wellesley, for giving me this opportunity. I miss Wellesley and all my friends, and I can’t wait to return in the spring after studying abroad to tell everyone about my adventures.