Puerto Rico! I set out to join the Sierra Student Coalition's Summer Leadership Training Program -- and discover my homeland along the way.
I landed in San Juan with no contacts, no addresses and only a vague idea of what I would be doing on this beautiful island. What I did know, however, was that this was my family's homeland, and I was here to discover it for the first time.
I walked outside the airport and spotted a guy about my age nervously checking his cell phone. I'd heard that an SSC envoy would be meeting me and, since he looked the part in khaki shorts and a pink T-Mobile tank top, I went up to him.
"JOAQUINNN SOSAAA!" he exclaimed. "Welcome to the island!" I had made my first friend of the week -- Jose Coss.
That evening was a perfect kickoff to the week --- we ate arroz con habichuelas (rice and red beans cooked by Jose's mother) while gazing out over the bustling city of San Juan. Later, we loaded the jeep and headed inland to Adjuntas, where the SSC training program would take place.
As the road wound upward into the mountains, dense fog engulfed us -- so bad we had to reduce speed and put on our emergency flashers. Some drivers seemed less concerned and raced by, only visible for seconds before they disappeared in the mist. Jose was on edge and asked me to play some music to help him relax. So to boost his courage I played "Hero" by Nas. The song worked more like a caffeine boost, however, and inspired him to stop being a wimp in the right lane and drive like a man, meaning in the left lane.
The only advantage of driving in the left lane is that you are farther from the steep precipice waiting to claim your life. We got to Adjuntas, possibly on prayers alone.
Over the weeklong summer leadership program, our group of 32 students and leaders brainstormed strategy, campaign planning, grassroots outreach, and other topics vital to youth who want to create change. When not in learning sessions, we ventured into central Puerto Rico's rainforests, or "bosques," to learn about the plants or search out hidden pools to swim in. I was shocked to hear that these same forests have been in the sights of both big mining and natural gas companies. So far, though, local campaigns have thwarted their efforts.
By the end of the week, I felt really at home in Adjuntas, where the mountains keep the weather cooler than on the rest of the island. My very limited Spanish proved not to be a roadblock in connecting with my new friends, and I was already thinking of ways to return to the island in the future.
On my last day, before flying on to Texas, I explored Old San Juan, the city of my grandfather, and Cataño, the city of my grandmother, with my friend Mario. As I watched the sun set from Castillo San Felipe del Morro, I reflected on adventures past and contemplated the future -- on to Austin!
The Sierra Student Coalition (SSC) is a broad network of high school and college-aged youth from across the country working to protect the environment. The SSC is the youth-led chapter of the Sierra Club, the largest and most effective grassroots environmental organization in the nation. With more than 13,000 students and 250 groups nationwide, the SSC develops environmental leaders through our award-winning grassroots trainings programs. For more information, please visit http://www.ssc.org.