Lourdes Torres, dispatcher, Campus Police

Lourdes Torres knows how to get help to those in trouble. That’s what she does as a dispatcher for Amherst College Campus 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, who prepped a more elaborate donations table and got word out to the College community.

Soon after that, Torres joined a 24-person email staff support group for those 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 where, to quote the national anthem, un cielo siempre nítido/le sirve de dosel: “A constantly clear sky serves as its canopy.”

When that constantly clear sky turned inconstant, Torres panicked for her extended family, who are spread out from San Juan to Utuado to Corozal to Carolina: “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. You have to wait until the storm dies down, wait for family members to contact you and say they’re okay. My hands felt tied, like I was desperate.”

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

To that end, on Sept. 26 and Sept. 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” Spotify 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 for sale: cupcakes topped with red, white and blue icing arranged to form the Puerto Rican flag, plus T-shirts, and pins that Ramiz-Hall had just bought to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month, which began days before the hurricane.

Eva Cordero ’18 (in white dress) staffing a table accepting donations in Keefe Campus Center.

Eva Cordero ’18 was one student who worked the table, accepting money, batteries, flashlights and first-aid kits. On the island, three of her aunts were unaccounted for: one had a generator and so could run a refrigerator, but no one had heard from the others. “It’s not an easy situation,” she said. “They’re running out of drinking water.”

D.J. Williams ’20 learned of the Keefe table while at a meeting for the African & Caribbean Students’ Union. “I wanted to find a way to help with disaster relief,” she said, having just bought a cupcake and a pin. “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 first-hand, such as in Haiti and Jamaica, offered their knowing empathy as well as donations.   

“It’s been beautiful to see the community show up,” says Ramiz-Hall.

The money ($1,500 and counting) and goods will be distributed to two aid organizations, Hispanic Federation and Unidos Por Puerto Rico. The MRC is also working with the swim team—they are known to train in Puerto Rico—to schedule more tabling around campus after fall break, during homecoming and at the first swim meet.

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 service assistant; Luis Hernandez, Director of IT Support Services; and Yesenia Vega, custodian.   

Many had not met except through the email group, where they’d been listing their families’ towns and sharing the latest on hurricane damage, emergency relief and flight information. But authentic emotions cut through any initial awkwardness. “Everyone was kissing on the cheek and saying ‘Cómo estás?’” recalls Torres, smiling. At lunch, all in the room introduced themselves and spoke of their particular worries, some in tears. Most were still in the dark about their families’ fates, with nearly all cellphone service down: Rodriguez had 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.”