Bronx Photojournalist Captures Hope & Despair Among Puerto Rico’s Millennials on The Island & Our Borough

Ground Truth Project: Bronx Millennials October 2015 Zuly Molina, 28, on Southern Boulevard neat Hunts Point in the Bronx. After years surviving domestic violence Zuly decided to work as a resident assistant at a Woman's domestic violence shelter.
Ground Truth Project: Bronx Millennials
October 2015
Zuly Molina, 28, on Southern Boulevard near Hunts Point in the Bronx. After years surviving domestic violence Zuly decided to work as a resident assistant at a Woman’s domestic violence shelter./©Edwin J. Torres

Bronxite Edwin J Torres, a Puerto Rican photojournalist born and raised here in The Bronx, has launched ‘Portraits of Resilience: Puerto Rican millennials face economic meltdown with a spirit of pa’lante’, a beautiful photo-essay showing the plight of Puerto Rican millennials—both in Puerto Rico and in The Bronx—as the United States territory faces one of the largest economic meltdowns in history.

Puerto Rico is facing a massive brain drain along with a massive migration of these US citizens (by birth even on the island) in numbers unseen since the 1950s.

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The situation is so dire that in 2010, for the first time in history, Puerto Rico registered a drop in population of 2.2% (roughly 85,000 people) and since then it has shrunk by almost 400,000. Every 10 years since 1930 through 2000, Puerto Rico’s population was increasing by roughly 300,000 people and now, in just 5 years that many people have fled the island in search of a better life.

Edwin writes:

“In Puerto Rican culture, from the island to the Bronx, [pa’lante] it is steeped in meaning, and roughly translated from Spanish as “forward” or “onward.” It was coined as street slang amid the community activism and fight for Puerto Rican self-determination that grew out of Spanish Harlem in the late 1960s. And these days the word has become less about radical politics and more about economics and resiliency.

And these days, pa’lante is about a new generation of Puerto Ricans recognizing that their spirit of moving forward, of hustling and persevering is an important collective culture train that is much needed these days as the economy of Puerto Rico is in a historic meltdown.

The territory of one of the wealthiest countries in the world is now teetering on bankruptcy and hoping for a bailout during hearings on the matter in Washington which are underway this month. The commonwealth’s economic relationship with the mainland has become increasingly unfavorable in recent years, contributing to one of the largest population exoduses in the Western Hemisphere.

With a relatively high cost of living, an oppressive level of debt and a 60 percent unemployment rate, Puerto Rico is losing the next generation of its middle class to the U.S. in a “brain drain.” And a new surge of immigration has begun. “

Keznr Jewelry Guaynabo, PR December 2015 Maria Laura Martinez, 25, founded Keznr Jewelry. Utilizing 3D printing and design, her latest collection won her 3 awards at a London Design competition. "I started with the economy as bad as it is so I don't have a comparison of how it would have been better. In reality I think my pieces are worth more than their price but i cant say I would have made this much more if the economy was better. People don't value things that are Puerto Rican. Things from the U.S. are more valued. We need to value ourselves more. " "Your from Puerto Rican your not legit or believable. The Jewelry started moving when I won a prize in London. It required a validation for people to see it here on the island and that it was worth it. That is what is keeping Puerto Ricans back. 85% imports to the island is from the U.S. Anything that the U.S. does is good. It doesn't have to be designed or anything specific it just has to be United States. Puerto Ricans we don't have the the confidence of what we do is good. Of what we are is good. The confidence is not there because Puerto Ricans don't know who we are in terms of a sense of identity. We are not a state and we are not completely independent. We are like in the middle so until we know who we really are, that confidence is not going to come and that why a lot of Puerto Ricans that are good at what we do leave.." "You yourself create the confidence I am a confident women now because I know who I am and I know what I can do. I found what I love and I know and have the validation that I am doing good things. it just comes from us individually." I started 6 months learning with online classes on how to do 3D printing. I approached my partner, Vicente, with my ideas to make a Jewelry printing company. Keznr has been running for a year and the first few pieces were experimental. We wanted to see what limits we can push the 3D printing medium to make very complex designs that are not possible with
Ground Truth Project: Bronx Millennials Keznr Jewelry
Guaynabo, PR
December 2015
Maria Laura Martinez, 25, founded Keznr Jewelry. Utilizing 3D printing and design, her latest collection won her 3 awards at a London Design competition.
“I started with the economy as bad as it is so I don’t have a comparison of how it would have been better. In reality, I think my pieces are worth more than their price but I cant say I would have made this much more if the economy was better. People don’t value things that are Puerto Rican. Things from the U.S. are more valued. We need to value ourselves more. “
©Edwin J. Torres

In his portraits, Torres captures the spirit of the Puerto Rican people—hope in the darkest of moments coupled with survival.

“I realized that so many Puerto Ricans in my generation were doing incredible things—despite adversity—and I always wanted to pay tribute to them and have a dialogue with them on the important issues of our time…I personally wanted to tell stories within the diaspora and celebrate it,” said Torres when asked why he decided to pursue this project.

He added, “At the same time, my eyes and ears were open to the economic issues on the island and the new generation of Ricans coming to the United States to find success. I was interested in a dialogue between Boricuas from the Bronx and Boricuas from the island. I wondered what advice they would give each other and what would be the common thread between the two. Finally the word Pa’lante came to mind,  a deeply cultural word that meant a lot of things but now more than ever is collective memory for all Puerto Ricans in the struggle trying to make their dreams come true and always moving forward.”

And Torres’ journey in creating this series also had an impact on himself.

“Visually, I learned to shoot with feeling than just content or composition…The word Pa’lante has always been a timeless word and I wanted to match that feeling with the portraits. As a writer, I developed a stronger voice. It’s more personal now. I am discovering that if I have the privilege of representing my community I am going to tell the story with “ganas” (a deep desire) and the way I want to tell it. I am driven by love for my people and the frustration of our history in the United States.”

The story of the Puerto Rican people is one that many ethnic groups can relate to when yet at times so alien. Puerto Ricans have lived in limbo for 118 years as a colony of the United States and for 99 years as full-fledged citizens of our country. They have been drafted into every major war since WWI and fought valiantly for our country and now that very country’s congress has failed 3.5 million United States citizens of the island commonwealth of Puerto Rico not to mention the 5.2 million Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland.

Ground Truth Project: Bronx Millennials October 2015 Isaac Baum, 18, is a senior at All Hallows High school in the Bronx. Given his experience as a school television anchor he hopes to pursue a career in public speaking.
Ground Truth Project: Bronx Millennials
October 2015
Isaac Baum, 18, is a senior at All Hallows High school in the Bronx. Given his experience as a school television anchor he hopes to pursue a career in public speaking./©Edwin J. Torres

“It’s a message of Hope. Pa’lante is something that you can only feel when you come from the bottom and aspire to move up and forward. To never give up. You can’t go up if you are already at the top. Its a feeling of perseverance which is ingrained in the people who work hard, have the odds against them but find clever and witty ways to make it.” said Torres of his project.

Torres added, “Its time we start celebrating these people. They show us that dreams do come true. These portraits are proof of our success stories.”

Take a look at the entire photo essay over at The GroundTruth Project and let us know what you think.

How has the economic crisis in Puerto Rico impacted you? We’d love to hear your stories.

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