Cultural Influence and Change at a Global Scale

Although, both Illinois and Puerto Rico are part of the U.S., they have very different pasts that were shaped by various groups of people. They wouldn’t be the places they are today without centuries of multinational influence.

The first Europeans to discover Illinois were the renowned French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet. The mighty Mississippi River was their primary method of transportation. After the French and Indian War, the territory was ceded to Great Britain. However, following the American Revolution, the U.S. took possession. Although Illinois was incorporated into the U.S. in 1818, slavery still existed in the southern part of the state. This slave labor ignited Illinois’s agricultural industry that dominated for the rest of the 19th century and early 20th century. In addition to agriculture, trade also dominated Illinois’ economy. The Chicago River linked Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, which was linked to the Mississippi River. Moreover, lake Michigan was connected to Erie canal which eventually reached the Atlantic Ocean. These systems of canals and rivers greatly enhanced trade in Illinois and led to a boom in industries such as coal and oil. Cities grew starting in the south and moving up north to Chicago. Chicago eventually became the state’s largest city. The Great Migration brought many African Americans to Chicago to work in its coal, oil, and meatpacking factories. As the 20th century progressed, the state’s economy underwent a transition from agriculture-based to industry-based. Today, Illinois continues to suffer from severe debt, a lack of natural areas, and high crime rates (predominately in Chicago). Despite these flaws, Chicago is consistently ranked as one of the nation’s most eco-friendly cities.

Puerto Rico has had a dramatically different history. The island was originally home to the agriculture-dependent Taino Indians. Europeans first landed on the island in 1493 during Columbus’s second voyage. It was originally named San Juan Bautista in honor of St. John the Baptist. Eventually, the island was renamed Puerto Rico, but the major port city on the north coast retained the name of “San Juan”. Although Puerto Rico became a colony of Spain, the Spanish were more interested in profiting from other Caribbean islands such as Cuba and Guadeloupe. Spain’s colonization of Puerto Rico brought many infectious diseases to the Taino people. Because of these foreign diseases, many of the natives perished. To replace the indigenous people, Spain brought in African slaves to work the sugar plantations. Driven by the philosophy of mercantilism, Spain was now able to produce goods in Puerto Rico (and other Caribbean islands) and ship them back to the motherland. However, this process was not easy because other world powers (such as the Dutch, English, and Americans) became threats to Spain’s Caribbean colonies. The Dutch very nearly conquered Puerto Rico during the Battle of San Juan in 1625. Now feeling threatened, Spain quickly modified its fort system to be able to protect the strategically-located port city from future attacks. As time progressed, independence movements started to rise throughout Puerto Rico. To mitigate this problem, Spain started to encourage immigration to the island from other European countries. Nonetheless, tensions grew and riots erupted. In the mid-late 19th century a series of activists such as Ramon Ementerio Betances and Segundo Ruiz Belvis advocated for independence from the crown. In 1898, the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War. Thus, Puerto Rico as well as Guam, the Philippines, and Cuba were given to the United States. Throughout the 20th century Puerto Ricans gradually obtained the rights of U.S. citizens. Despite having its own governor and constitution, Puerto Rico is still denied an electoral vote for the U.S. presidential election. Over half of its citizens are unsatisfied with its status as an unincorporated U.S. territory. As far as industry goes, Puerto Rico (much like Illinois) has transitioned from agriculture to industry/tourism.

Both Puerto Rico and Illinois are constantly progressing, but there is still room for improvement. Chicago undoubtedly struggles with crime. The source of this issue goes back to the city’s roots as a popular destination for African-Americans during the Great Migration. Chicago was home to many jobs in the railroad industry, factories, food processing plants and many other businesses. Due to a lack of education and intense segregation that existed in many parts of the city, African-American workers were paid very poor wages. This led to an increase in poverty and crime that still exists today. The same can be said about San Juan – the capital of Puerto Rico. The crime rates of San Juan are significantly higher than those of New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. In addition to a lack of education, civil unrest also fuels Puerto Rico’s crime rates. As aforementioned, many Puerto Ricans are angry about their political status and limited rights. Both places also struggle environmentally. Illinois suffers from a lack of natural areas. Although parks and forests do exist, most of the state’s land has been converted to farmland and cities. These are important for boosting the economy, but our planet needs trees because they act as carbon sinks and help regulate Earth’s climate. Furthermore, natural areas are aesthetically pleasing and can increase both physical and emotional well-being.

I will admit that these problems will not be easy to solve. They will involve a lot of compromise as well as collaboration. It all starts with education. If we educate our community, people could get better jobs, earn more money, and decrease their need for crime. Moreover, people need to start getting involved in clubs and organizations that promote the cooperation that is necessary to make change at a global scale. Also, if we educate our society about the importance of preserving nature and keeping our environment clean, we will be able to create a society in which future generations can live happy, healthy lives. Unfortunately, un inevitable result of activism is opposition. Many people will fight against change, especially in regards to the environment. This is because many businesses rely on activities that degrade the environment. For example, the oil industry benefits many countries economically. However, oil is a major contributor to global climate change. If more people are aware of the detrimental effects of oil and other fossil fuels, enough public support might be gained to transition to clean, renewable energy sources.

Discovering My Place in the World

I have always had an interest in traveling. My traveling adventures started when I was much younger. Every year, my family would take a summer road trip to celebrate the end of the school year. I was always fascinated by the spectacular scenery and the dazzling cities we would pass through. However, what made the trips special was bonding with my dad. One of the things my dad and I have always had in common was our passion for traveling. We would often sit together and map out the summer trip weeks (sometimes even months) in advance. We even set a goal to visit all 50 states before me and my brother left for college. Although we did not hit all 50 states (we came very close), we had an unforgettable time during all our travels. Therefore, I could not wait for college so I could get the opportunity to study abroad and look for ways to change the world. Now, here I am in Puerto Rico doing just that!

This trip to Puerto Rico is my first study abroad experience. I have always wanted to study abroad, but before college, I never truly believed it would be feasible. Although I have been all over the continental United States, I have never been off the mainland to a place as exotic as Puerto Rico. So far, getting to see the island’s wonderful cities and diverse cultures has been eye-opening. There are quite a few aspects of Puerto Rico that surprised me. First, the enormous size of the island blew me away. On a map, it appears like it would only take a half hour or so to drive from end to end. But I reality, it would probably take a little over three hours to drive from the east coast to the west coast. With this immense amount of land comes a wide variety of land uses. I was astonished that most of the land we drove through was heavily developed. As we traversed the island I saw cities, plantations, mines, houses in the mountains, dams, and lighthouses. However, one thing I noticed was the lack of areas completely untouched by man. Even though Puerto Rico has natural areas, they are almost all confined within the borders of El Yunque National Forest. The aforementioned signs of human development are quite remarkable, but they require a lot of space and they eventually degrade environmental quality. People need natural areas because they increase both physical and emotional well-being. Other ecosystem services include water purification, nutrient cycling, climate regulation, biodiversity, and food. To maintain these ecosystem services, it is imperative that we immediately devise some sort of a balance between developed land and natural land. I am happy I got the chance to travel to Puerto Rico because it has made me realize my place in the world as well as my future ambitions: to designate more wilderness areas with the intention of increasing biodiversity and overall environmental health. Moreover, my goal is to initiate progress by bringing people together to realize the significance of land conservation. However, this will not be easy because it will take a global effort. I am confident that my individual efforts will be driven by my passion for traveling the world and determination to preserve the land. The world needs more people who have the same ideals to save natural areas from disappearing forever.

This trip has also been socially beneficial to me. Most of my peers are majoring in a different field than I am. Therefore, it was very interesting to learn a little about their backgrounds and future desires. Each of them are very interesting and I have had a wonderful time being with them in Puerto Rico. It felt great to be surrounded by brilliant minds that are just as eager as I am to develop plans to fix some of the world’s most complex problems.

It is very important to travel the world to get to know other people and their cultures. Furthermore, it is vital to understand what other countries are doing to increase environmental quality and agricultural efficiency. This is because our perspective, as Americans, is considerably limited. Without a variety of opinions, worldviews, cultures, and ideas, it would be nearly impossible to solve some of the world’s greatest difficulties.

I am quite certain that I will never lose my passion for traveling. However, if I do find myself losing motivation, I will reflect on the fun times I had with my family on the road. Furthermore, I would think of the large number environmental problems that exist around the world: the food crisis, the water crisis, biodiversity loss, deforestation, climate change, pollution, waste management, and urban sprawl. Then I would remind myself that the world needs my contribution along with the contribution of others to go out and fix these problems. Obviously, solving these issues will not be easy. However, I am very confident that the people of our world can unite and conserve our environment for future generations.

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Day Trip to La Playa Sucia

During the past week, I have had numerous experiences that I will remember for the rest of my life. It has been amazing to get to experience Puerto Rican culture and their ways of life, while at the same time, learning how to solve environmental problems in the future. So far, my favorite part of the trip was when we went to Playa Sucia (“dirty beach”). Before we left, our professor explained that there would also be about 10 miles of hiking trails. Therefore, we could hike as much or as little as we pleased. I have always enjoyed hiking and viewing the incredible biodiversity along the way. So naturally, I expected to do a fair share of hiking along with enjoying the beach. However, little did I know, we would be hiking up a series of massive, breathtaking cliffs.

The drive to the beach was pleasantly brief. When we arrived, I was shocked to see that the so-called “beach” looked a lot more like a bay or inlet. It was not the type of beach that I had in mind. As we walked along the water’s edge looking for a shady spot to unpack, someone spotted a hermit crab crawling across the sand towards the water. This fascinated me because, before this, I had never seen a crab in the wild. While we observed it, our professor informed us that hermit crabs do not form their own shells. Instead, they inhabit the empty shells of other organisms such as snails and mollusks. When the crabs grow too big for their shells, they are forced to molt it (which greatly increases their vulnerability) and migrate to a new one. After we were finished studying the crab, we dropped our beach equipment in a shady cove and hopped in the sky-blue water. Despite its calm and beautiful appearance, the water was initially cold and filled with sizeable waves. After we adjusted to the temperature, we could venture deep into the water. The beauty of the bay greatly impressed me. The sun was shining so bright and was so high in the sky that it appeared to be directly above our heads. The water was a beautiful aqua while the sky was a deep navy. It seemed like heaven on Earth. Therefore, it was very hard to imagine that at that same moment, there were many places in the world that were cold, overcast, cloudy, and simply unpleasant (including my hometown). I simply did not want that moment of beauty and tranquility to cease.

When we were done with the water a few of us spent time in the sand. We started out building a sand castle, but later we made a small pool. Our goal was for the waves to crash onto the beach and fill the pool with water. We even built a small canal in the sand to make this process more feasible. Although this was a fun, simple activity, it reminded me a lot about the water crisis that exists in many parts of the developing world. It made me realize that people around the world desperately need others to create systems that can transport scarce resources. This moment opened my mind to the numerous career opportunities that exist in environmental science/engineering.

My favorite part of the beach was the hiking. However, this was no ordinary trek along the coast. Not only was there no forest, but the entire hike involved going up a series of rocky cliffs that seemingly led to a lighthouse. This reminded me more of a high adventure only seen in the movies. In the beginning of the hike, we walked along a rocky coast at ground level. As we were walking, someone pointed out group a sea urchins near the coast. Unfortunately, just as I was about to snap a photo, a gigantic wave came out of nowhere and nearly swept my phone out of my hand. That was the last time I got near the water to take a picture! As we trekked along, we saw even more wildlife including eels, lizards, iguanas, and pelicans. Gradually, we climbed higher and higher. A few of my peers asked me to take pictures of them standing on the edge of the cliffs, but my fear of cliffs would not allow me to go closer than 10 feet from the edge. At this moment, it was hard to imagine that we were in Puerto Rico. The rugged, rocky coast reminded me more of the Atlantic coast of Maine. Although the crashing waves seemed violent, the scene was spectacular. I had never seen anything like it before. When I looked down at the beach, it no longer seemed like a bay because I could see the vast ocean from the top of the cliff. My mind was at peace.

When we got back to the beach, I noticed some exotic-looking birds near our beach clothes. Previously, we learned that there were 16 species of birds that are endemic to Puerto Rico. The bird in front of me looked like one of those. It was black with orange on its shoulders and a slender body. I photographed it and found out it was a yellow-shouldered blackbird. It was very cool to get the chance to photograph an animal found nowhere else in the world. Before the exploitation of forest materials and other natural resources, there were many more endemic species to the island. It is my career goal to properly manage natural ecosystems to maintain high levels of biodiversity all over the world.

As the day progressed, I went on to climb more cliffs and take in more vistas of Playa Sucia’s remarkable landscape. This was my favorite excursion because I have a tremendous appreciation for nature. Unfortunately, natural areas are quickly disappearing due to our increasing consumption of natural capital. Due to this trip to the beach, I was given the opportunity to get to know some of my peers better. I greatly look forward to having many more amazing experiences during the rest of my stay in Puerto Rico.

Cultures and Worldviews

Throughout the time I have been in Puerto Rico, it has been truly amazing to experience Puerto Rican culture and the mosaic of subcultures that exist on the island. The speed at which I became physically and emotionally immersed in this culture has been astonishing. I have always had an interest in Latin American/Caribbean culture. During high school, I thoroughly enjoyed my three years of Spanish class and couldn’t wait to apply it in a Spanish-speaking territory. Well, here I am in Puerto Rico, getting immersed in Caribbean culture while at the same time, learning how to solve world problems in the future. I believe that it is very difficult to solve environmental problems because there are many different worldviews. Therefore, it involves people from all over the world coming together and compromising. It has been very interesting getting to understand some of the worldviews Puerto Ricans have because my personal worldviews are quite limited. The United States of America was originally founded on the philosophy known as the “American Dream”. This popular idea meant that Americans were destined to prosper by getting well-paying jobs, owning vast quantities of land, and spending more money. Therefore, people started living by this philosophy regardless of the cost. One of the major costs was environmental degradation. Forests and wildlife started disappearing, greenhouse gas levels started rising, and the air and water quality began suffering. It wasn’t until the 1970s that America began taking action by forming environmental agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (1970). Despite the influence of these agencies, many Americans carry very little regard for environmental quality. Instead, they have a mindset that is geared toward achieving economic growth. However, I have a worldview that differs from that of most Americans. I profoundly believe in conservation of the environment for our own benefit. It is crucial to have access to clean water, biodiversity, and abundant energy sources. Without these resources, it will be nearly impossible to ensure a high quality of life for future generations. I am not saying I am totally against the American Dream philosophy. I agree with some parts such as our opportunity to initiate progress. However, I believe that progress should be made at a national (environmentally-friendly) level as opposed to on an individual (profit-seeking) level. In my opinion, the motive should be to transform America to a sustainable society that uses clean energy sources and disposes of waste in an efficient, nontoxic manner. This will limit pollution, increase health, and lead to a higher quality of life for humans and all other organisms. Obviously Puerto Rican worldviews are different from those of the U.S. mainland. Puerto Rico has a different history, therefore, it wasn’t found on the same philosophy as the rest of America. After the island was ceded over to the  U.S. in 1898 following over 400 years of Spanish colonial rule, its citizens were forced to undergo an uphill climb in search of their identity as a people. Although Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory (officially a commonwealth), it only gets some of the rights of a state. For example, the commonwealth does get a governor along with its own constitution. However, Puerto Rico does not get an electoral vote for the United States presidential election. Regardless of this, the United States president still has executive influence over the island. Due to these limitations, most Puerto Ricans are unsatisfied with the current political status of their homeland. While some believe that their commonwealth should become an independent nation, most feel like it should be incorporated into the nation as an official state. Although I disagree with independence from the United States, I believe that Puerto Rico is more than ready for statehood. It exceeds the population requirement, possesses its own governing body, and has its own constitution. Moreover, the Puerto Rico is a united community (with many cultural influences) that has been fighting for the same rights for over a century. Over the past few days, I have greatly enjoyed walking the streets of San Juan and Cabo Rojo. These communities were filled with music, dancing, costumes, and an overall sense of enthusiasm. It was clear that these people have finally defined themselves. All they are waiting for is Congressional support. Although Puerto Rico is making significant progress, civil unrest has caused an increase in crime and poverty throughout the major cities, where many citizens struggle to make a decent living. In fact, the average household income is only about half of that of the U.S. mainland. As these issues continued, the environmental quality waned. Most of the environmental degradation was a result of development. The clearing of rainforests and other natural areas resulted in the shrinking populations of the many beloved animals such as the critically endangered Puerto Rican amazon. Although efforts have been made to preserve wildlife, the political crisis rightfully gained priority. Environmental issues cannot be solved without a good, stable government.

In my short blog, I explained my worldview, the worldview of an American, and the worldview of a Puerto Rican. I personally believe in a global conversion to clean energy, clean water, and protected natural areas. For the United States, although conservation efforts exist, they are in constant battle with the capitalistic worldview of the nation as a whole. For Puerto Rico, the severity of the political situation hinders its ability to completely solve environmental issues. To mitigate this problem in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the rest of the world, I believe it is important to visit other countries. It is beneficial to become familiar with different cultures, worldviews, and ways of life. This is the only feasible way we can solve climate change, deforestation, pollution and other global problems. In summary, as a global community we must unite, immerse ourselves in each others’ cultures, and work together to solve issues that are threatening the quality of our environment and future of our planet.