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So Much History

By Manuel Rivera-Ortiz ’98

In 1933, The Puerto Rico Emergency Relief Administration (La PRERA) was born out of the Great Depression and the New Deal, rescuing a starving Puerto Rico by distributing food surpluses and emergency unemployment aid. Barely one year later, a third of all Puerto Ricans relied on La PRERA for their very subsistence.

Fast forward to 1974: I was six-years-old when Mamá y Papá took me to La PRERA to stand in the long line of mothers, fathers, children, circling the block across the old cobblestone pueblo street from the old courthouse (la corte de la municipalidad de Guayama). The streets there were crowded with the faces of the needy, all heading to claim meager brown box food rations (two if you were lucky or had many little mouths to feed). Inside the heavy box usually were a plethora of silver cans — sweet peas, peanut butter, canned fruit (if you were lucky), a hunk of bread, some small white heavy paper bags of rice (Sello Rojo) sewn shut at the top, a large red and white colored box of powdered milk stamped "Carnation”, which I got to carry, a large tin can of Rovira crackers which, in my house, doubled as a sitting bench for kids, and a bag of Snow White sugar from the big factory in nearby Aguirre. Many of the cans were stamped “USDA” in bold black lettering, a stark reminder of who we were and where we were.

We arrived early that morning. Mamá, Papá, me, my little sister Rosita, in an old rickety patch-work of a Jeep Papá had Frankensteined from found parts and reconstituted metal cutouts culled from rusty cars salvaged out of the City Dump — not too far from our casita in the shanty of Pozo Hondo. It was in barrios like that, some suspended over stinky marshy swamps, where the ultra poor like us lived in boxy little shacks propped up on stilts, with corrugated tin roofs that leaked like colanders in the rains and retained the oppressive heat of summer.

My family relied on La PRERA. Without it I wouldn’t be here. La PRERA meant not going hungry another night. It came to mean happiness, comfort, for a little while at least, then off to the line again we all went.

‘Till this day I am not too fond of peas; so many childhood years, so many heavy helpings. As for the powdered milk, there are still days I crave my mother’s creamy concoction and her skill at turning nothing into something to fill our bellies at the end of hot summer days.

‘Till this day I find it hard to believe that so much history has come to pass in such a short life as I have lived. Sometimes it all seems strangely surreal; going to New York, speaking English, working for publication, interviews, Columbia Journalism, a foundation, a career driven by the people who see my work as inspirational. Sometimes I become emotional that it’s all either happening much too fast or simply just not fast enough, all at once.

The men behind the tall heavy La PRERA counter yelled out our number, his voice cutting through the hustle-bustle. Mamá handed him her rations paper, then forth came our box. It was an exciting time for me. I knew that Mamá would soon make my favorite peanut butter cookies. That’s what La PRERA means to me even today.

116th Street was a long way from the dirt floor shack in Pozo Hondo. Even now as my world vacillates between a life that was, is, and that could be, I look toward a future with my Columbia Journalism degree serving as a reminder of what marvelous things can occur when you truly believe. At Columbia Journalism School I learned to grow up a little more, to listen, refine, interpret and express my view of the world. I was blessed with exceptional professionals around me — an amazing faculty, incredibly talented fellow classmates, a leadership second to none in the field of communications and reportage — who nurtured my ideals that good things can come from perseverance, hard work, sharp goals, passion and compassion for all of humanity.

Posted by: AlumniAlumni June 2012

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