Lourdes Torres
Dispatcher Lourdes Torres. Photo by Maria Stenzel

Lourdes Torres knows how to get help to those in trouble. That’s what she does as a dispatcher for Amherst College Police—and that’s what she did after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. 

Indeed, she acted with dispatch, immediately reaching out to La Causa, Amherst’s Latinx student organization, to put out a donation box in their José Martí Cultural Center. Then she collaborated with another Amherst staffer with ties to Puerto Rico: her good friend Bulaong Ramiz-Hall, director of the College’s Multicultural Resource Center (MRC), who prepped a more elaborate donations table and quickly got the word out to the College community.

Soon after that, Torres joined a 24-person email support group for staffers of Puerto Rican descent, jump-started by Eva Diaz, registration assistant/receptionist in the Office of the Registrar. The group was occupationally diverse—groundskeepers, professors, IT and HR staffers, prep cooks and more—with one overarching concern in common: each yearned to hear from and assist loved ones on the island.

“There is no worse feeling than coming to work and sitting at Dispatch, looking at a small TV, seeing live what was happening on your island, everything blowing everywhere,” says Torres, whose family is spread out from San Juan to Utuado to Corozal to Carolina. “My hands felt tied, like I was desperate.”

Torres’ fears, of course, were echoed among a huge diaspora; there are more Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland (5.1 million) than on the island (3.5 million). Ramiz-Hall, who has family in Ciales, in Bayamón and beyond, explains the plight of her compatriots at the College: “We wanted to not just feel hopelessness.” 

So, on Sept. 26 and 28, the MRC set up its disaster-relief donations table at Keefe Campus Center, focused on Puerto Rico, but also collecting for other locales reeling from recent natural disasters, from the Caribbean to Mexico to Texas. 

As a “Made in Puerto Rico” playlist filled the air with the bright throb of salsa music, students streamed to the table with the Terras Irradient logo. There were several draws: cupcakes for sale, topped with icing that was arranged to resemble the Puerto Rican flag, plus pins that Ramiz-Hall had bought to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month.  

Amherst students staffing a donations table
Eva Cordero ’18 (in white dress) works the donations table. Photo by Takudzwa Tapfuma ’17

Eva Cordero ’18 was one student who staffed the table, accepting money, batteries, flashlights and first-aid kits. On the island, three of her aunts were unaccounted for. “It’s not an easy situation,” she said as she worked. “They’re running out of drinking water.”

D.J. Williams ’20 bought a cupcake and pin. “I wanted to find a way to help with disaster relief,” she said. “I figured I’d give up my usual bubble teas for a while, and be less consumerist and make at least a small impact.” 

One student handed over $100. Others who had experienced hurricanes firsthand offered their knowing empathy as well as donations.  

The money ($1,500 and counting) and goods went to two aid organizations. The MRC is also working with the swim team—they are known to train in Puerto Rico—to schedule more tabling around campus. 

That same week after the hurricane, Chief Human Resources Officer Maria-Judith Rodriguez, whose office features a giant blue ocean-and-sky photograph of her native Arecibo, organized a lunch for Puerto Rican staffers. About a dozen attended, including Professor of French Rosalina de la Carrera; Juan Cruz, dining services assistant; Luis Hernandez, director of IT support services; and Yesenia Vega, custodian.  

Many had not met except through the email group. But authentic emotions cut through any initial awkwardness. “Everyone was kissing on the cheek and saying, ‘Cómo estás?’” recalls Torres, smiling. Most were still in the dark about their families’ fates, with nearly all of the island’s cell phone service down. Rodriguez brought a large map of Puerto Rico, and they each marked their places of special concern.  

In spite of the stress and sorrow, “it was great to have that sense of community,” says Torres. “It was like no titles mattered, no education level: You’re as human as me. You are affected the same way I am affected. There were no barriers.”