Meet The Women Going Back To Puerto Rico Despite The Debt Crisis

Would you move home to a place that’s sinking under the weight of a $72 billion debt?

For Puerto Ricans, there’s no easy answer.

An average of 230 people leave the island every day due to the lack of economic opportunities tied to the debt crisis, according to data published by the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute. Gov. Alejandro García Padilla has called the situation the “worst economic and humanitarian crisis” in the commonwealth’s history.

The government is facing its biggest challenge yet — being forced constitutionally to make an $800 million payment on Friday, even if that means cutting down on essential public services.

Puerto Rico’s complex political relationship with the United States means that islanders are U.S. citizens, which makes moving to the mainland as easy as hopping on a plane. But they don’t enjoy the same protections as the 50 states — such as the ability to vote during presidential elections — or get the same federal funding for programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. And they can’t restructure their debt without Congress’ input.

It’s not all mass emigration, though. There are a number of locals bucking the trend and returning home despite the economic crisis. Among them, there are women who believe the next step in their paths is helping to create a renaissance in spaces such as the arts, agriculture, and technology. Many of them were met with skepticism, but that didn’t stop them from taking up the challenge.

Ahead, meet the inspiring Puerto Rican women who've returned home despite the economic crisis.
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Courtesy of Sheilla Torres-Nieves
Sheilla Torres Nieves, PhD, 34 — Cofounder & CEO, Sunne Cleantech Labs

“It’s a mistake!” and “Are you guys crazy?” are among the many things Dr. Torres Nieves and her husband heard when they announced they were planning on moving back to Puerto Rico.

But it certainly didn't stop them. The couple always knew they wanted to go back home, even after a very successful decade living stateside.

In 2011, Dr. Torres Nieves graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, and relocated to Connecticut to work, focusing on aerodynamics at Pratt & Whitney. But the dream she shared with her husband while studying — launching their own company, creating their own invention and patenting it — never left her mind.

So, in July 2015, the couple went back to Puerto Rico and founded Sunne Cleantech Labs, a company focusing on creating solar energy products. This is an area in which the island has a lot of potential, and the 34-year-old’s experiences have only been positive since they moved last summer. The debt crisis hasn’t impacted their startup either.

“I think there’s a misconception about what’s happening. Yes, there is a sector that’s being affected by the crisis. But there’s also a sector that’s taking up entrepreneurship and being successful,” she says.

Besides working at Sunne, Dr. Torres Nieves is also teaching at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus, hoping to give her engineering students the skills they need to stay in the island, something that’s important to her.

“This is the best way to move the economy in the right direction. We need more companies to establish themselves in Puerto Rico and keep a social commitment with the island,” she says. “This is the make-or-break moment.”
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Courtesy of Tatiana Cobián
Tatiana Cobián, 33 — Founder, Committed To Grow

Tatiana Cobián is part of a new crop of young farmers trying to revamp the food industry in Puerto Rico.

The cofounder of Committed to Grow — an urban farm located in San Juan — moved to New York City in 2006. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology and worked in the industry for seven years. She realized she needed a new challenge in 2013 and returned to Puerto Rico without a specific plan in mind.

“Everyone thought I was crazy, but I felt like I was ready,” she says.

It took her a year to get used to the island’s slower pace of life. She used the time to research the market and found out there was a void to be filled in the agricultural industry.

“Almost 90% of our food is imported. Many [chefs] were yearning to buy local, organic products,” she says.

In 2014, she launched Committed to Grow, growing microgreens — such as basil, arugula, and red cabbage — on rooftops all over Old San Juan.

“My number one accomplishment is replacing an imported product with a local one on the chef’s table,” she says.

The 33-year-old has seen an uptake in the “grow local, buy local” movement, with a jump in young people interested in becoming farmers, and farmer’s markets in the city, drawing more interest.

“For change to happen, one needs to create change,” she says. “We can create our own path. It’s an exciting time to be here as a young entrepreneur.”
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Courtesy of Melissa Jiménez Germoso
Melissa Jiménez Germoso, 27 — Founder & CEO, Merodea

Even though she enjoyed living in New York City, Melissa Jiménez Germoso always knew that the city “wasn’t home.”

“I looked at my bosses and saw this lack of balance between their professional and personal lives,” she says. “I would travel constantly, and one day at the airport I asked myself, ‘What am I doing? I’m so young!’ I didn’t think it was a healthy situation.”

So in 2013, four years after leaving for New York, Jiménez Germoso moved back to the island. It was a bold move but she never looked back.

“I thought I would be able to grow professionally in Puerto Rico as much as in [New York City],” she says.

A couple of months after establishing herself in Puerto Rico, her website Merodea was born. What started out as an e-commerce venture and a space to provide support to the local stores and designers, has become an online fashion and lifestyle community.

“There was no place to promote the local fashion industry,” she says. “We created something that was innovative and that would help them.”

Jiménez Germoso’s team is composed of young people, who are all committed to trying to create change despite the debt crisis.

“Everyone in my New York circle has come back, looking for something different to do,” she says. “Those who want to move ahead [in life] are able to.”
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Photo: Carmen Dallas
Mariángel Gonzales, 40 — Photographer & Visual Artist

The first time Mariángel Gonzales left Puerto Rico, she was a fresh-faced 17-year-old going to college in Pittsburgh. The year was 1993. Following graduation, she returned home, but not for long: a relationship lured her back to the U.S.

That fizzled. In 2001, she made the jump to New York City, calling Brooklyn home for almost 15 years. But slowly, the things that excited her about the city lost their magic.

“My life in New York was the same every day. Hopping on my bike. Biking to 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, by Bryant Park. Be at HBO all day. Finish my work day. Bike back to Brooklyn,” she says. “It got old, my routine bored me.”

So, she did the unthinkable: In the summer of 2015, she returned to Puerto Rico. She moved back in with her parents at the age of 39.

"I felt like I had missed so much about the island. I had been away for almost 20 years," she says. “I was happy in New York, but it was my time to go.”

Now, she is one of the leading voices of the island’s arts scene. The 40-year-old will launch an art fair in 2017 and wants Puerto Rico to become a mecca for Latin American, Caribbean, and European artists.

The visual artist has a renewed sense of purpose, but nothing has moved her as much as inspiring a friend to return home. Gonzales understands that the number of people that leave the island is much greater than the number of returnees, but she holds out hope about the type of Puerto Ricans that come back.

“I think it’s important the people in Puerto Rico — and any other country, to be honest — leave home for a period of time and then return to implement what they learned abroad," she says. "If you come back, look for opportunities. And if you can't find them, create them."
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Courtesy of Lucía Merino
Lucía Merino, 30 — Co-owner, Lucía Pâtisserie

Lucía Merino has been in love with baking all her life. That passion drove her to leave Puerto Rico at the age of 17 to attend culinary school and eventually live in Miami, Madrid, Barcelona, and Dallas. All of her adventures have been alongside her high school sweetheart, Johan Villafañe.

At the end of 2014, the couple decided they were ready for a new journey: opening up a bakery called Lucía Patisserie. They were determined to do it at home.

“The more we moved around, the more we missed Puerto Rico,” she says. "They all told us we were insane."

Returning to the island in August 2015, they started to build their brand and launched a Kickstarter campaign in March to finance the cost of opening a retail space. To their surprise, they ended up raising almost $25,000.

“If that’s not a sign that the people in Puerto Rico wants to help out and move ahead, I don’t what is,” says Merino.

For the last 10 months, they have been baking out of an commercial kitchen and sending out deliveries while remodeling their space. When asked about the crisis, she takes a moment before answering.

“The shadow of the crisis is there, every day. But we try not to pay too much attention to it,” she says.

Right now she is focusing all of her energy in moving ahead with opening Lucía Patisserie's doors this summer.

“There’s nothing bad about leaving the island. But for me, being away for so long made my desire to come back even stronger,” she says. “When people stay in Puerto Rico all their lives they don’t understand how lucky we are.”
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Photo: Erika P. Rodríguez/Open Society Foundations
Je García-Matthews, 37 — Founder, Finca Pajuil

If there’s something Je García-Matthews has never been good at, it’s staying still. During the 17 years she lived in Miami, she went from being an architecture and landscaping student to working in all kinds of arts and music events to embracing urban farming and all of its possibilities.

But even after all that time away from home, something bothered her.

“Whenever I came to visit, I always saw it was very difficult to obtain local, in-season products,” she says.

So, from Miami, she started planning what would become Finca Pajuil, a sustainable farm located in her town of Hatillo, about an hour-and-a-half from San Juan. It took her an entire year, during which she traveled back and forth between the island and the States to develop her project.

In July 2013, she returned and the farm finally opened. Over the last couple of years, not only has Finca Pajuil grown, but agriculture has had a renaissance in the island.

“This resurgence of agriculture is very important, not only for farmers, but for people that can just have their own home garden and grow their own food,” García-Matthews says. “We must re-educate people about buying local, consuming local.”

Finca Pajuil barters tinctures and medicines with other farmers or service providers. Despite the debt crisis and the current conditions in the island, García-Matthews is incredibly grateful to be home. It hasn’t been easy, but for her the experience has been worth it.

“I wouldn’t change being here right now for any other moment in time or any other place,” she says. “It’s a blessing to be back in Borinquén.”
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Courtesy of Sofía Maldonado
Sofía Maldonado, 31 — Artist & Professor

Sofía Maldonado had been living in New York City for eight years and returning home wasn’t exactly in her plans. But in late 2014, during what was supposed to be a short stay to do some work on commission, she says something changed.

“One day, I realized I could stay and work from here. So many people are leaving, but who’s staying to teach the new generation after us?” she asks. "Months passed and I didn't return to New York."

She returned the winter before the brunt of the debt crisis would be made known to the world in late June of 2015. But even under the shadow of the crisis, Maldonado has been able to stay focused on her multiple projects and committed time to working with young people.

It’s one of the reasons she opened a studio in the city of San Juan and lets student collectives showcase their work. Besides working on her art, she is also a professor at the School of Plastic Arts of Puerto Rico.
After all, in her eyes, the arts are a tool for social change.

“Thanks to the crisis, a lot of people are trying to help each other out in different industries,” she says. "There's a level of collaboration that has grown with the crisis."

“I don’t blame those who have left. I mean, I was gone for eight years,” she says. “But those who come back are courageous. They have an agenda, they are committed to enacting change,” she adds.

Just like she is.