When a scandal broke surrounding the former Governor of Puerto Rico this past summer, Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz wanted to be back home among thousands of protesters who took to the streets. The AAAS Member is completing his PhD in Food Systems at the University of Vermont — more than 3,000 kilometers away from his hometown of Juana Díaz, located in the south of the main island of Puerto Rico.
Frustrated to be so removed from an important situation back home, Rodríguez-Cruz decided to take action from Burlington, Vermont. Along with a friend he met at an AAAS event the previous year, he started an online letter denouncing then Governor Ricardo Rosselló on behalf of the Puerto Rican science community. The letter received more than 100 signatures in just a few hours.
"I don't want to say it gave me power, but that process made me more aware of the resources that I have and how I can get involved in the issues that matter to me," explains Rodríguez-Cruz, 28, who recently described this experience in a Working Life piece in Science.
Rodríguez-Cruz has also stayed connected to Puerto Rican policy by helping to create the Puerto Rico Science Policy Action Network (PR-SPAN), a non-profit group dedicating to advancing Puerto Rican related science communication and policy.
"PR-SPAN provides a platform so that, together with other people, we can then get involved in that decision-making, that policy-making process, in a meaningful way," Rodríguez-Cruz explains.
One of the key founders of the network, Adrián Rivera-Reyes, reached out to Rodríguez-Cruz, who readily agreed to help out. For PR-SPAN, Rodríguez-Cruz went on to create policy alerts related to agricultural and natural resources-related bills in Puerto Rico, publish op-eds, and help organize workshops for Puerto Rican students and practitioners.
How did Rodríguez-Cruz develop such a passion for politics? "In Puerto Rico, politics is a national sport," he says with a laugh, "so everybody is very vivid about their political ideology."
But there is another major Puerto Rican influence that remains prominent in Rodríguez-Cruz's personal life, as well as his research: food.
He majored in biology for his undergraduate degree and completed his Masters of Science in Food Systems and Technology at the University of Puerto Rico. For his PhD, he initially planned to study how policies affected Puerto Rico's food security.
In 2017, he moved from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico to Burlington, Vermont to start this new chapter of his studies. At first he was eager and determined to delve into a new realm of research — but within two weeks he was desperate to get back home. Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 20 of that year, causing widespread devastation and a one-week blackout period in which Rodríguez-Cruz could not connect with friends or family members.
"That's when I started questioning myself, if that was the right choice [to stay in Vermont]," says Rodríguez-Cruz. He struggled with his situation emotionally and considered quitting his postgraduate program to move back home. He received counseling and spoke with friends, ultimately deciding to persevere with his studies.
But besides affecting him on a personal level, Hurricane Maria also caused a shift in the focus of his research. "Hurricane Maria truly changed what I was looking at," he says. "With connections that I have with the Extension Service at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, my advisor Meredith Niles and I did a collaborative project that assessed farmers' experience with Hurricane Maria."
This initial survey hints at the devastating effect of the hurricane on local farmers. Of 405 survey respondents, 42.5 percent reported a total loss of their crops in the following months, and 45.5 percent reported significant losses.
Rodríguez-Cruz also used the survey as an opportunity to explore sociopolitical barriers that farmers faced during recovery. He found that a large majority of farmers who participated in the survey (nearly 90 percent) faced at least on obstacle; and more than 30 percent cited government-related obstacles such as lack of aid and assistance as a barrier. More than 20% reported utility-related obstacles, such as a lack of power or water.
Now, his dissertation is focused specifically on Hurricane Maria's effects on farmers, with aim of gaining a better understanding of the sociopolitical factors that are implicated in improving their resiliency and food security outcomes, such as government assistance and insurance.
Just like politics, food is important for Rodríguez-Cruz, who grew up across from a cattle ranch. It's a way to maintain a connection with his culture. His favorite go-to meal is funche, a corn porridge with coconut milk and cinnamon that is a sweet reminder of home. "My grandmother has made me that since I was little, so I think the importance of food in terms of connection," he says. "Food is more than food. It's not just something we eat — it's multidimensional."
While he continues his passion for Puerto Rican food and politics remotely through his personal and academic life, Rodríguez-Cruz plans to bring his skillset back home after his PhD is complete. "I want to go back to Puerto Rico, and continue the work I am doing now on food systems research, and science communication and outreach," he says. "I want to become part of — or build — a platform from where I can have a fluidity in terms of my work. I think I am on the right track."