Returning to la isla del encanto

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By Mc Nelly Torres

In mid-September, 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated my native island of Puerto Rico. I finally managed to travel to the island in November, when I spent two weeks cooperating with local journalists on behalf of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists with the support of the Knight and Ford foundations.

In order to help tell their stories, we delivered satellite phones and wifi hubs to local journalists working under dire conditions while covering the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Communications had become a daily struggle and these journalists needed to communicate in order to perform their jobs.

As many Americans living outside the island, I watched on TV and online as Hurricane Maria ripped through the small southeast town of Yabucoa, just miles away from my hometowns of Patillas and Arroyo.

The nearly Category 5 hurricane enveloped the whole island like a giant blanket and spent 30 hours precipitating chaos and massive destruction.

Never before had the people of Puerto Rico experienced so much fury in one storm. The damage to property and communications was unprecedented and the blackout that came before, during and after has been a nightmare for all Puerto Ricans living in the island but also for the millions of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. mainland as well.

We didn’t know if our friends and relatives survived the catastrophe. We didn’t know if they had food and water. There was no electricity or communications whatsoever. The blackout hindered social media too.

I could no longer see posts from my friends in social media about ordinary things like daily thoughts or pictures and special moments like birthdays. All their Facebook profiles were frozen in time just before the storm – some of them managed to post that electricity was out before the storm arrived.

I had no news from my cousins and my mother. And this went on for days and weeks. I was afraid for the whole island.

Last summer, I had made a four-day visit to the island. After landing, my husband and I  drove straight from San Juan to the east and south coasts, where we stayed in Guardarraya. This vibrant part of the island, known for good surfing, is a beach community in Patillas, where most of my family is from.

When I returned in November, I found myself in a different place. Instead of an island, known for its beauty, wonderful people and tasty food, I found a desolate landscape devastated by Mother Nature as it had never been before.

All that remained of the little boutique hotel we had stayed in Guardarraya, Caribe Beach Playa Resort, was the bare concrete structure; most of its windows had been ripped out. The locals tell me Maria had brought a 20-foot storm surge that had swept everything in its fury, including most of the hotel.

People are still traumatized by their experience. And each day that passes without electricity is a reminder of what took place in September.

Life will never be the same.

This post is to share pictures and short videos I took to show how the people of Puerto Rico survived the worst hurricane on record to hit the island and how they have been  neglected by their government.

And how, under difficult circumstances, amid struggles and challenges, even as electrical power has been slowly restored throughout the island, they get up every day to clean up, find solutions and survive. They are not waiting for a savior, even though they are justified in feeling like second-class citizens.

As I traveled the island, spoke to people and documented what I saw, I felt as if I was visiting a foreign country. How can a place so beautiful look so different now? Nature can do that.

I saw hundreds of light poles knocked down by the storm and wires everywhere on the side of the road and on top of houses. Trees and property flattened.

I saw sadness.

I saw resilience in people who were and still are trying to make the best of a bad situation. I saw despair in the face of the unknown as thousands of people left the island looking for a remedy they can’t find at home.

I also saw strength in those left behind as they repeat the new mantra “Puerto Rico Se Levanta,” an assertion for themselves and for outsiders that there’s no choice but to look forward to a brighter future.

Those are my people. That’s Puerto Rico. Still and always my enchanted island.

Mi isla del encanto.

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Helping Create Data Journalists in Latin America and Beyond

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By Mc Nelly Torres

Víctor Hugo Michel was excited and overwhelmed at the time of the training I provided for journalists at the IberoAmericana University in México City several years ago.

Michel’s mind ran wild thinking about all the stories he would be able to report and write using the data analysis and investigative tools he learned in October of 2012.

“I never thought I could organized data, ranked it and compared it electronically to find new trends and information which is not easy to see with the naked eye,” said Michel, a reporter for the newspaper Grupo Milenio in México City. “These tools are like using a new set of glasses with three-dimensional vision providing me with something I didn’t even know existed.”

Since then, Michel has produced data-driven stories that have garnered him many awards. He keeps in touch with me through Twitter (@WatchdogDiva). But Michel listened to a piece of advice I gave him at the time after I introduced him and others to the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization. Join the organization, I said, attend the workshops and conferences. But more importantly, get involved. It will be worth it. I promise.

I’m a long-time member and I was serving as a board member at the time.

And while this might sound bias, I truly believe in IRE’s mission which is to train journalists investigative techniques through workshops and annual conferences. What has been truly remarkable about IRE since I joined in the 1990s has not been limited to the training, but to the great mentors and long-lasting relationships I’ve made over the years.

I said to him: Make it to the annual conference because it’s an investment to your craft, work and future.

Michel listened.

Then in 2013, he gave me an awesome surprise when he tapped my shoulder before the International Luncheon at the IRE annual convention in San Antonio.

Back at the training session in Mexico City, Alejandra Guillén, another journalists who traveled from Guadalajara, Jalisco (eight hours away from México City), had said at the time that the training introduced her to technology that she can use in her daily work.

“I usually don’t have the time to analyze data manually so my work has always been superficial,” said Guillén, who works for El Informador, a daily newspaper in Guadalajara, México. “But now I understand how I can use these tools to be more efficient.”

Michel and Guillén were among 25 journalists who spent three days with me learning data analysis tools and investigative techniques as part of a workshop sponsored by the Periodistas de a Pie, an organization based in México City.

I always feel inspired after a day of training journalists. I love to watch their eyes spark with excitement when I show them the roadmap I used to build a story using data analysis tools. Curious minds marveled at the screen as I show them how they can too use these tools.

I also love to mentor young journalists of color which I do every year at the IRE annual conference.

So when Periodistas de a Pie invited me to teach a three-day workshop on data analysis and investigative reporting, I felt honored and excited about the possibility of spreading the gospel of data journalism.

Founded in 2007, Periodistas de a Pie is a network of journalists in México which mission is to defend freedom of speech, the pubic right to information and improve the quality of journalism in the country by offering training. Periodistas de a Pie’s focus is also to help and protect journalists working in dangerous areas in the country.

In a country where most data is not easy available like in the U.S., these journalists face numerous challenges –sometimes even dangerous ones that could cost their lives – to inform the public. But they are passionate about the work and it didn’t take long for them to understand the potential of these tools as we began to work together on hands-on lessons.

The visit to México City has been one of numerous trips I’ve made in recent years including Venezuela, Honduras, Bolivia and several times to Puerto Rico, where I was born and raised, after El Centro de Periodismo Investigativo de Puerto Rico invited me to teach data analysis tools to local journalists.

In San Juan, I see familiar faces each time I’ve been invited also sponsored by CPIPR.
Jackeline Del Toro, a reporter who works for El Vocero who also attended my sessions in 2011 and 2012, during my last training in Puerto Rico to express how the session I taught in 2012 changed her approach she once had when working in complex stories.

“It helped me to see beyond the data I have in front of me,” Del Toro said, as she shared a project she produced about transsexual people in Puerto Rico.

Del Toro has seen positive results in her work. The project won an award for special report from the Association of Journalists of Puerto Rico.

In 2014, the Education Writers Association invited me to spend a day in Dallas, Texas to teach data analysis to Spanish-media journalists who cover education. There I met journalists from all over the country who are starving to learn these tools. And last year, I spent an afternoon in my own backyard -Miami- speaking at a workshop in Spanish sponsored by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

As I teach these workshops, one of my objectives is to change the culture among journalists who said they hate numbers and math. To me that’s absurd. Journalists report on numbers. If we don’t understand budgets, statistics and numbers, how can we do our jobs with integrity and accurately? If I can change one reporter’s mentality, I’ve done my job.

Daniel Edith Rea Gómez was one of those journalists.

“I’ve always shied away from numbers because I’ve considered them the enemy,” said Gómez, who works for the newspaper Reforma and a member of the Periodistas de a Pie, said. “But this training showed me how data can be used to write high impact stories. Now it is my responsibility to build onto what I learned and work in my own investigations.”

Mission accomplished.