I come from an island that basks under the watch of a life-giving sun. Her Sunday mornings shake in the wake of a boisterous chinchorreo, or quiver to the rhythmic chants of worship and prayer.
It is an island prone to block parties and natural disasters. Summer afternoons are clouded with the ebb and flow of traffic, Saharan dust, and, after yet another power outage, the diesel-powered hums of tens of thousands of generators.
When the smog clears, though, I swear you can see La Perla to the north—multicolored homes crumbling and huddling together on a salty precipice—all the way from the plantain-stained mountaintops of my grandmother’s youth.
Afternoons are laughter. They are salsa on a busted-up radio. They are arroz con habichuelas eaten on cement blocks and front-porch rocking chairs because there is always more than enough food but never enough space at the kitchen table.
Nights are boundless. They are still, resting in the unceasing chirp of the coqui. In that little frog’s unbroken hymn, we remember that perhaps our people, our land—our pueblo—can be unbroken, too.
That is my story—one grounded in the landscape and the humanity of an island. But it juxtaposes against another story—learning about Puerto Rico in the weird, other-world of academia.
The disconnect between research and reality
It started in a freshman college classroom. My professor had been championing the merits of Atrévete-te-te—a perennial megahit of reggaeton artist Calle 13 and, as I had come to find out in lecture, an apparent commentary on U.S. colonialism—for a week.
He pointed to the Spanglish lyrics, the snarky jabs at Latino pop-rock, and the whitewashed suburbs of its music video as evidence of the song’s resistance to the American mold. My heart raced with excitement as I listened to the celebration of my home with such precision.
But I was also confused. I grew up with reggaeton blaring from my cousins’ sound systems, dancing and singing along to lyrics that were relatively depthless; if I listened too closely, the words could also express gender violence, anti-LGBTQ sentiment, and sexism. Where my professor saw revolutionary rhetoric, I had always seen the male gaze digging itself into my skin. Back then, I did not know how to marry those two perspectives: one personal, ingrained into my lived experience, and one theoretical, cleansed and newfound.
As a doctoral student in nutritional epidemiology, academic research and training continued to feel oddly disconnected from reality.
Courses in biostatistics taught me to analyze human beings as isolated, independent and identically distributed. Real-life social interactions between individuals were treated not as meaningful but, instead, as mere threats to a research study’s validity.
Across the hall, classes in behavioral theory blamed bad decisions as risk factors for disease and—by neglecting the role of structural inequities such as poverty and racism—wanted to nudge what they saw as irrational, illiterate individuals toward healthy ‘choices,’ perhaps at their doctor’s office or in a supermarket.
At their surface, these ways of thinking seem appealing—perhaps because they were thrifty—leaving deep-rooted injustices within food and social and ecological systems relatively untouched.
At the other end of the ivory tower, conversations about ‘marginalized populations’ and their perpetual suffering overlooked the power and purpose people could have over their lives. Individual and community agency—their choices, interests, priorities, and desires—were, bizarrely, left out of decisions concerning their own health and well-being.
As I dug into peer-reviewed papers for myself, I also noticed my Latin American culture highlighted—in some instances praised for having high levels of ‘social support’ and, at others, chastised for valuing family and social well-being over individual health.
Many of these scientific narratives felt so abstract and ‘objective’ that they rang false.
I wanted to be true. I wanted to hear truth. So, I went home.
Reclaiming the ability to feed ourselves and our land
As my own research in food and nutrition began, I re-grounded myself in Puerto Rico, documenting the efforts of rural communities—my community—seeking to reclaim and rebuild the agricultural landscape of the island.
I listened, and I learned that my island’s food story was simple. We were once self-sufficient. We have now been made dependent. Despite a robust backbone of agriculture and food traditions, histories of colonial extraction—initially, by the displacement of subsistence farmers by cash cropping and, more recently, by the backing of industrialization, urbanization, and tourism—have severely debilitated local food production on the island.
The introduction of resource-intensive livestock operations is also rooted in colonialism, bolstered by a misguided twentieth-century ‘global health’ assumption of persistent protein malnourishment in the Caribbean.
To overcome what is, paradoxically, a fertile land devoid of food, inexpensive and energy-dense products such as rice, canned meats, and other ultra-processed foods are now imported, benefiting the economy of the mainland U.S., not our own, and increasing the risk of chronic disease.
Yet, I also saw power and peace. I listened to farmers tell stories of their land, passed down from generation to generation; of their neighbors, who, after Hurricane Maria, cooked meals for each other on a makeshift firepit; of the 20-something different fruits and vegetables and herbs and fish they cultivate in their gardens and ponds. Our research also found that those on the island who purchase locally produced foods are more likely to have higher quality diets. They consume more fruits, vegetables, and dietary fiber as well as less saturated fats compared to those with a more import-reliant diet.
In the midst of disaster, disease, and dependence, the idea of self-determination is simple: to reclaim the ability to feed ourselves, our land, and our people. To reclaim the Puerto Rican food system is to recognize that individuals and communities, in their collective power, are not helpless victims.
It would mean admitting that ‘resilience’ was a word reserved for populations marginalized by centuries of disinvestment and manipulation—which distracts us from making the changes needed to never experience disaster again.
Yes, Puerto Rico has drowned in floodwaters; it cries out from a hunger in its belly and in its heart for self-determination. But it is an island that knows it is not vulnerable—that it has been made vulnerable.
Puerto Rico would not need to be resilient if it had not been robbed of its resources, its land, and its farms. Requiring resilience as a prerequisite for living only glorifies oppression and distances those who actually have a role in perpetuating it.
Resisting research norms
I was met by a seemingly unassuming criticism from my fellow researchers: ‘Self-determined diets cannot exist.’
The comment came from a place where they were convinced that individuals—isolated and buried within their social, political, and economic contexts—could not possibly exert any power over their lives, much less their plates. It came from a place that had been teaching me—since freshman year of college and into my graduate training—to forego reality for the sake of abstract theory, methodology, and peer review.
So where was I coming from?
I come from an island, defiantly holding on to its farming and food traditions and, now, demanding food sovereignty and security.
It is an island whose memory runs in the veins of its diaspora—whose palm trees and mangoes and underground rivers are as integral to our collective identity as second-second-cousins, mothers, and ancestors.
My home taught me that individuals and systems are irretrievably intertwined—that one feeds the other. As they brewed coffee for their neighbors, my aunts and grandmothers showed me that self-reliance and communal cooperation are not mutually exclusive—they cannot exist without the other. They defied every statistical and theoretical model we measured them up against.
They had been living—thriving, really—in kinship and in the forest long before any white-savior scientist came to document their plight.
Centering people’s power in health research
I know now that sometimes science can be way off-target in characterizing humanity and its health. But I also want to believe that theory and evidence-building, done well, can also approach some semblance of the truth.
I want public health scientists to understand that the way we talk about systems and suffering is disordered.
I want theory in nutrition to see that entire food systems can be self-determined. That food sovereignty and autonomy are objectives that are not only achievable but desired by the communities we serve.
It is not enough to imagine individuals at the very innermost of concentric circles—representing their social, political, or ecological systems—rendered helpless to the structural determinants around them.
Communities own their own health, and it is through their social and cultural and political and ecological spheres that they do so, coalescing a shared and sustainable power to enact change.
Individuals do not lie dormant at the center of systems. They create them, flourishing in agentic community, self-sufficiency, and ecological abundance.
In my work, centering power and agency in food systems means reclaiming neo-traditional approaches to health and environmental sustainability in small islands like Puerto Rico, looking to local knowledge systems to promote regenerative agriculture and nutritious diets.
I ended up realizing that Calle 13, that old-school reggaetonero, was speaking to our liberation; in 2019, he inspired hundreds of thousands of protestors to fill the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico to demand our governor’s resignation. I was one of them. But unlike the fanciful scholarship in my undergraduate course, our words and our actions were actually leading to change. And that is because we were a part of it.
We need to own and contribute to the research that is about us, because we are the ones most impacted. And, often, because we are the only ones who will act.
Knowledge generation must be in the hands of those whose lives are at stake. As researchers, we must learn that power already exists among the marginalized. We do not ’empower’—we help activate and advocate for the un-suppression of that power.
In Puerto Rico, our branches may be bare, but our roots are well-grounded in community and the wealth of our land. I was raised to have faith.
We will eat, we will dance, and we will rebuild, under the tender watch of a life-giving sun.
Abrania Marrero is a PhD candidate in Population Health Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, specializing in Nutritional Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Her research investigates the ramifications of global environmental change on human and planetary health in small island food systems. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This essay was produced through the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice fellowship. Agents of Change empowers emerging leaders from historically excluded backgrounds in science and academia to reimagine solutions for a just and healthy planet.
Banner photo: 2019 gubernatorial protests, San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Credit: Abrania Marrero)