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Being Idle is not an Option: Reconciling my Academic and Political Duties


This is the original version of my Working Life Essay published on Science on August 29, 2019. Click here to read the published version.

It was Wednesday, July 17th, and I was alone in my room, in front of my computer with four windows open on the screen. Thousands of Puerto Ricans were marching to Old San Juan that day, demanding governor Rosselló to resign. The leak of the egregious chats between him and his colleagues was the catalyst that motivated people to take their bodies to the streets. Beyond dehumanizing comments, the governor used the chat for political means, a potentially illegal action. Furthermore, and worse, in my opinion, they sneered on those who died because of Hurricane Maria. I stayed up late every night following what was happening. I wanted to talk with all my friends that were marching; with one dear friend of mine who suffered police violence during these protests. Day after day, I was following the news from the time that I woke up; feelings of anger and angst in me were persistent. Especially, the anger that I directed towards myself for being away.

Today, I ask myself if I would have bought tickets to Puerto Rico if I had the money. The answer is Yes. I wanted to be there! I was entirely aware that I had to focus on finishing my dissertation proposal, but the aforementioned thoughts did not allow me to fully immerse. The guilt for not concentrating on my work was one of the many emotions that led me to condemn myself as irresponsible, as someone who did not know how to prioritize time nor focus on being a scholar. I pushed myself to come to the office every day, but even reading articles was hard. The thoughts of how unable I was to separate what was happening in Puerto Rico from my responsibilities here were insistent. Furthermore, memories that strengthen that guilt came to me.

I remembered several instances when academics have pondered on the importance on not engaging in politics. I remember one professor that advised the class to not be advocates for social causes because that leads to bias in research. I can understand their opinions and decisions, to a certain extent, but it is difficult for me to remain idle on political or social justice-related matters, especially those that are close to my heart. Most of our decisions are political in one sense or another; like, for example, in the academic context, deciding to publish open access. I think that, for most of us, our cultural backgrounds and experiences are closely tied to why we choose to be scientists, and the impact we hope our research will have in society. These interests do not mean that researchers will disregard the scientific process in order to answer their research questions―Before I am a PhD student, I am Puerto Rican, and what happens in and to Puerto Rico matters to me. I have a responsibility to get involved.

I spoke all of this with my counselor on campus. In that space, I was able to reflect on how focused I was on what I wanted to do, instead of acknowledging my circumstances and taking into account the resources at hand. After my appointment, I got in contact with my friend and colleague, Bianca Valdés, and we wrote a letter for Puerto Rican scientists to express their support for the governor’s resignation. We emphasized that Governor Rosselló, a scientist, did not represent the scientific community of Puerto Rico. Furthermore, I reached out to my friends in Vermont to call their representatives in support for the People of Puerto Rico, and did my best to give visibility to what was happening.

The governor announced his resignation on the 24 of July, and before that, I had improved on my proposal, and was feeling happy because of the little I did to support Puerto Rico. My feeling of pride towards my people, a people that through peaceful and democratic means demanded accountability, is indescribable. Demanding the governor’s resignation was the first of many exercises Puerto Ricans will pursue to improve our governance. While I write this, the situation there is still detrimental. Political and power dynamics are taking place in the secession of the governor. Conversely to when everything started, I have conciliated my academic and political responsibilities. As students and scientists, we cannot be constrained to the indoors of academia, and alienate ourselves from the issues that matter to us. We must be engaged, and evade neutrality.

This was written on August 14, 2019.

Photo: Por Xavier García Rodríguez; tomada de: https://www.hosteltur.com/lat/130069_protestas-en-puerto-rico-comienzan-a-afectar-el-turismo.html

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