Puerto Rico's Other Storm : Code Switch Long before Hurricane Maria devastated the territory, the threat of financial disaster loomed over Puerto Rico. Now, an old, bitter struggle over who gets to chart the islands' economic future is upending life for everyday Puerto Ricans trying to pick up the pieces.
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Puerto Rico's Other Storm

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Puerto Rico's Other Storm

Puerto Rico's Other Storm

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Meet Leslie Oyala-Rivera (ph).

LESLIE OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: She's studying communications at the University of Puerto Rico, and she really wants to be a sports reporter. Leslie says, if there's one thing that brings Puerto Rico glory on the international stage, it's our athletes.

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: From Roberto Clemente to Monica Puig, all these talented athletes, all from this little island you can drive across in three hours.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

But she wishes more athletes in Puerto Rico got attention before they became superstars. That's a dream - to give those athletes visibility. But she worries that her dream is over. In early August, at the start of the school year, she went to campus to enroll in her classes. And when she walked up to the little window where you pay tuition, she realized she couldn't afford it. A grant she was expecting did not come through. And on top of that, this year, the cost of tuition doubled.

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: Leslie scrambled to find a solution, but quickly realized there wasn't one. Her family's broke. Their home was destroyed by Hurricane Maria. Her mom lost her job because the factory she worked in closed after the storm. Leslie was frustrated and angry at the system, so she did what so many of us do. She vented on Facebook.

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: "My dream ends today," she wrote. "The increase in tuition has forced me out and left me hopeless, my goals unfulfilled. Thanks to the Fiscal Control Board and to everyone who's helped kill our public university."

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. This week marks the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, and 365 days later, it's still affecting Puerto Rico and its residents in a bunch of different ways. Today, we're talking about a story that's been unfolding since long before the storm. It's a story about who's really in charge in Puerto Rico, who gets to make decisions about its future, and how that affects people like Leslie.

MERAJI: Our teammate Adrian Florido has been reporting in Puerto Rico for months, and he's got the story after a quick break. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. Joining us now is Adrian Florido. Adrian, man, welcome back to the podcast. It's been a minute.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Yeah, it's been a while, but here I am.

MERAJI: Before the break, we met Leslie Oyala-Rivera. She's a student at the University of Puerto Rico. Tuition there went up, and she can't afford it. And she blames something called the Fiscal Control Board. Adrian, what is that?

FLORIDO: Well, technically, the name is the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico.

MERAJI: Whoa, say that 10 times (laughter).

FLORIDO: Yeah, that's...

MERAJI: It sounds very technocratic.

DEMBY: Yeah.

FLORIDO: That's the name the U.S. Congress gave it when it created the Board a couple of years ago to deal with Puerto Rico's massive budget crisis. But yeah, most people in Puerto Rico just call it La Junta.

MERAJI: Ah, La Junta. That sounds much more menacing than Fiscal Board.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: Or the other thing you said that had, like, 15 words in it.

FLORIDO: Right. And, I mean, aside from the hurricane and maybe Bad Bunny, it's probably the No. 1 thing that Puerto Ricans talk about.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: So Puerto Rico has been in a recession since 2006. It is about $72 billion in debt, right?

MERAJI: Yeah, and that used to be what dominated the news headlines about Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria.

FLORIDO: It's a huge story. I mean, I - you know, just to get a sense of how much money that is. That's like nine times the size of the general budget for the entire island.

DEMBY: Wow.

MERAJI: Actually, Adrian, there's three islands. There's three. Shoutout to Vieques.

FLORIDO: You're right. (Speaking Spanish).

DEMBY: But wait. Wait. Wait. How did Puerto Rico come to owe that much money?

FLORIDO: So that is a long and complex story. But basically there are two big reasons for Puerto Rico's current fiscal mess. For a big chunk of the 20th century, Congress and the Puerto Rican leadership wanted to make Puerto Rico a good place to do business. So Congress gave businesses huge tax cuts for setting up there.

DEMBY: OK.

FLORIDO: And there was one tax cut in particular that brought all kinds of manufacturers to the island, and those manufacturers brought jobs. But when the U.S. government realized just how much money it was missing out on from Puerto Rico, it took those tax cuts away, factories closed, and the economy started to tank.

MERAJI: But you said there were two reasons why Puerto Rico is in debt.

FLORIDO: The other one is bonds. You know, a bond is when you give the government money, and the government promises to pay you back with interest.

DEMBY: Right.

FLORIDO: Well, with Puerto Rican bonds, you didn't have to pay taxes on that interest that you earned, which meant that a lot of people wanted to buy those bonds. And those bonds helped finance Puerto Rico's government.

MERAJI: Because Puerto Rico's government wasn't getting money from tax revenue from all these businesses that they were giving tax cuts to, so that makes sense to me.

DEMBY: Right.

FLORIDO: Yeah, and so banks bought bonds. Investors bought bonds. And so did a lot of, just, everyday people. And at a certain point, you know, Puerto Rico had borrowed way too much money. So by 2015, the government was buckling under this massive debt. And then one day, the then-governor, Alejandro Garcia Padilla, he goes on TV to address all of Puerto Rico on the state of the government's fiscal health. And his face - it looks like his dog has just died.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEJANDRO GARCIA PADILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: And then the governor drops a bombshell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PADILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: He says, all that debt - it is unpayable. The government is defaulting.

DEMBY: Wow.

FLORIDO: And, yeah, this creates a panic among the banks and investors that own Puerto Rican bonds, among everyday people who put their savings into those bonds. And you know who else panicked? The U.S. Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RYAN: It is vital that we pass this bill. Let me tell you why. Puerto Rico is in trouble.

FLORIDO: This is Speaker Paul Ryan on the House floor. And basically, he and other members of Congress realized that they were in a really bad situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN: About 15 percent of Puerto Rico's debt is already held by middle-class Americans. And if the government can't meet its obligations, these families will pay the price. Even worse, taxpayers could be asked to bail it out. That is simply unacceptable.

FLORIDO: So on the one hand, by this point, Puerto Rico was already shutting hospitals, cutting police protection. And Congress knew that it couldn't just let Puerto Rico collapse. But on the other hand, they didn't want to be the ones to pay all this money that Puerto Rico owed to bondholders. So they came up with a plan - a piece of legislation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN: What this bill will do is allow Puerto Rico to restructure its debts. It sets up an oversight board that will oversee this process. Congress and the president will appoint the members of this board. It will make sure that the government changes its ways.

DEMBY: (In unison) The junta.

MERAJI: (In unison) The junta.

FLORIDO: Right, the junta. The idea was that this board could negotiate with everyone that Puerto Rico owed money to and help Puerto Rico get all that debt under control. But Congress would also give this board complete control over Puerto Rico's spending. It would be able to impose cuts aimed at shrinking the government and turning the economy around. And so it was - as you can imagine, this idea had some pretty harsh critics. And one of the harshest was Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Chicago.

MERAJI: He's Puerto Rican.

FLORIDO: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUIS GUTIERREZ: We're engaged today in a wholly undemocratic activity in the world's greatest democracy. We're debating how we will take power from the people, who are virtually powerless already.

MERAJI: We've talked about this on the podcast before - this powerlessness Puerto Ricans feel. Sure, Puerto Rico has a governor. It has a legislature. But, you know, that's because the U.S. Congress allowed that. But Puerto Rico doesn't even have a voting member of Congress. And its residents, U.S. citizens, can't vote for president. This is why a lot of Puerto Ricans call it a colony.

FLORIDO: And so now, on top of that, here comes this bill that would create this board - this unelected board with the power to tell Puerto Rico how it can spend its money, what it's got to cut, what kind of fiscal policies to adopt.

DEMBY: Yeah.

FLORIDO: Yeah. And one of the ways it tried to sell this idea was by saying that the board would include Puerto Ricans. But Gutierrez, like others, was not convinced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUTIERREZ: And please, don't tell me you're going to put Puerto Ricans on the board. I lived in Puerto Rico. I remember when the sugar cane cutters would cut the sugar cane. Let me assure you, there were Puerto Ricans in charge of exploiting those workers in the sugar cane fields. There have been many times in history when the very same people have been put in charge to exploit their own.

FLORIDO: But this bill got bipartisan support, and President Obama signed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: The people of Puerto Rico need to know that they're not forgotten, that they're part of the American family, and Congress's responsiveness to this issue - even though this is not a perfect bill - at least moves us in the right direction.

FLORIDO: So within a couple of months, by late 2016, the board members had been appointed...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSE CARRION: Good morning. Buenos dias. My name is Jose Carrion. I'm the chair of the board.

FLORIDO: ...With economists, experts in bankruptcy, people from the mainland...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORING)

CARRION: Mr. Biggs?

ANDREW BIGGS: Here.

FLORIDO: And, yes, from Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARRION: Mr. Gonzales?

ARTHUR GONZALEZ: Presente.

CARRION: Professor Skeel?

DAVID SKEEL JR.: Present.

FLORIDO: In fact, Jose Carrion, the chairman, is an insurance man whose family founded Puerto Rico's largest bank. And suddenly, he has arguably more power over how Puerto Rico can spend its money than its governor or its legislature.

DEMBY: Wow.

FLORIDO: So anyway, this board gets to work pretty quickly, trying to tackle Puerto Rico's economic problems from different angles. So it starts negotiating with all those bondholders who want their money now. And the board also starts developing this long list of reforms aimed at turning the economy around and shrinking Puerto Rico's government spending.

DEMBY: So this is like an austerity plan?

FLORIDO: Yeah, exactly. Things like pension cuts, eliminating agencies, cutting government health care, new rules making it easier for employers to fire workers, tougher welfare requirements - should I keep going? - selling off the publicly-owned electric grid, big cuts to education and tuition increases.

DEMBY: Right.

FLORIDO: Remember Leslie?

DEMBY: Yeah.

FLORIDO: We'll get back to her in a little bit.

MERAJI: Yeah. These policies sound like the sort of policies that would really hurt people like Leslie and her family, poor people - people who are broke.

FLORIDO: And, look. I mean, as soon as these policies started taking shape, or at least the proposal for these policies did, Puerto Ricans on the island knew. I mean, they knew that tougher times were ahead because, you know, austerity tends to be tougher on poor people. And in Puerto Rico, about half of the population is below the poverty line. Our colleague Michel Martin and I interviewed Jose Carrion, the junta's chairman, recently, and we asked him so what is the board's goal?

CARRION: The government's function, aside from taking care of the needy, is to create the economic conditions whereby private enterprise succeeds and employs folks, creates wealth. That's the nature of our system. We've been bleeding 66,000 people a year prior to the hurricane.

FLORIDO: So you can hear in his answer that there's a larger theory at play here, right? And that's if you shrink government, cut regulations, privatize public services, cut taxes - if you can make it as easy as possible for businesses to come in and keep their costs low then they'll create jobs and start turning the economy around that way.

DEMBY: So this is supply-side economics. This is, you know, trickle-down theory.

MERAJI: Also I feel like keeping the business sector happy is part of what got Puerto Rico in financial trouble in the first place.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: So Puerto Ricans are just supposed to trust that this fiscal board won't make the same mistakes that were made before?

FLORIDO: And remember that this board is unelected, which means that they aren't really accountable to the public, although Carrion actually sees that as a good thing.

CARRION: Because obviously it allows the control board to make longer-term, difficult solutions that are unpalatable for politicians whose time frame is shorter. Precisely, you know, our electoral cycle.

MERAJI: So to fix the crisis, he says, you have to make really tough, unpopular decisions, which you can't do if you're elected and you have to run for re-election.

FLORIDO: Exactly. And over the past few months, this has actually caused this big, public power struggle in Puerto Rico because the governor, he's got to present himself as being in charge, right? But this board, the junta, it's the one that actually controls all of the purse strings. So there have been lawsuits, and both the governor and the junta have sniped at each other in the press.

DEMBY: What a mess. Oh, my God.

MERAJI: All right. So this board - aka junta - comes up with this turnaround plan, and it tells the Puerto Rican government, start cutting.

FLORIDO: Yeah. They finalized this plan just this past April, and a lot of Puerto Ricans on the island were not happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLORIDO: And so the next month, in May, there were these massive protests against the Junta and, frankly, against Puerto Rico's government, too. Because even though it's publicly feuded with the fiscal board, it has more or less gone along with the board's demands.

DEMBY: Right.

FLORIDO: So teachers and students and government workers and unions, they all took to the streets in San Juan's financial district, which is where the junta has its offices.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

FLORIDO: And people were chanting there are more of us, there are more of us. And they were carrying signs against the board and the governor. And although this protest was mostly peaceful, around mid-afternoon, things started to get a little tense. Some protesters tried to push their way through a line of police, people threw bottles and rocks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEAR GAS EXPLOSION)

FLORIDO: And then the police fired tear gas into the crowd, and then things just got chaotic. Vanessa Rivera (ph) had just escaped the gas when I asked her why she was protesting.

VANESSA RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: And she was like, well, this board, it controls all of us. It's got our government in shackles. The board can demand whatever it wants, and it's like that's just what has to happen.

So just a couple of hours after this violence broke, I got a message on my phone that the governor was holding a press conference. So I race over to the governor's mansion, and when the governor walks out, it's clear from the look on his face that he is furious.

DEMBY: OK.

FLORIDO: And he sort of very dramatically, like, raises up this rock that he says had been thrown by one of the protesters. And he goes...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICARDO ROSSELLO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: And so he basically condemns these people who he said resorted to violence because he says that they tarnished Puerto Rico's good name. And a little bit later, I asked him, why are you so concerned about that? And his response was really interesting. He said, my government is trying to attract entrepreneurs.

ROSSELLO: We see Puerto Rico as a blank canvas with the great opportunity right now to innovate like we've never innovated before. And we're calling upon all those innovators to come to Puerto Rico now. My concern is that they get to witness some of these acts of violence.

MERAJI: All right. So Rossello doesn't want entrepreneurs and businesspeople to think Puerto Rico is a scary place, a bad place to set up shop. I get that.

FLORIDO: Yeah. No, sure. But what actually really struck me about what he said was that he called Puerto Rico a blank canvas. I think that that choice of words gets to, like, the very heart of why people are so upset about this oversight board and the fact that the Puerto Rican government is generally going along with it. And so I went and spoke with an analyst, a man named Deepak Lamba-Nieves, from a think tank in San Juan called the Center for a New Economy. And he told me that the sensitivity around the fiscal oversight board is about much more than it being appointed or undemocratic. And to illustrate, he told me about this man named Rexford Tugwell.

DEMBY: Rexford Tugwell. That was the actual name?

FLORIDO: Rexford Tugwell.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Roll that R.

FLORIDO: Tugwell was an economist and an urban planner who President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed governor in the '40s, back when U.S. presidents still appointed white men to be governor of Puerto Rico.

(LAUGHTER)

FLORIDO: And what Lamba-Nieves told me was that when Tugwell arrived in Puerto Rico, he brought with him all these new ideas as a planner about how to improve what he called, quote, "the stricken island." And Lamba-Nieves said that Tugwell's plan, well, it just didn't work. But this, you know, this was not an isolated incident. This is the sort of thing that has happened time and time again over Puerto Rico's history, outsiders like Tugwell coming in, bringing their ideas to improve the island and failing.

DEEPAK LAMBA-NIEVES: If we look at the historical arc of Puerto Rico and the colony and how a colony has been set up then you start to realize why are people so upset. It has a lot to do with our colonial history and how, at different moments and in distinct ways, colonial projects have been administered on the island and we have been tinkered with and experimented with in either highly racist and blatant ways or in more subtle, less coercive ways. And when you start teasing those out, you get enraged and emboldened at the same time.

FLORIDO: So needless to say, Shereen, Puerto Rico is obviously not a blank canvas.

MERAJI: It's the opposite of a blank canvas. It's one of the most amazing places on earth, and everything we've created - our traditions, food and music - it's this mashup that we've made out of necessity because we're survivors. We're good at taking what we have and making beautiful things with it. I'm really proud of who we are in our culture and this canvas that we've created that's not blank.

FLORIDO: And, you know, so yeah. I mean...

(LAUGHTER)

FLORIDO: ...It's so beautiful.

MERAJI: Sorry. I just went off for a second.

FLORIDO: If I couldn't be Mexican, I might want to be Puerto Rican.

(LAUGHTER)

FLORIDO: And so I mean, like, right - like, what you said is exactly right. And so you can kind of understand how upsetting it might be for someone to see the governor or this fiscal board treat Puerto Rico like a blank slate, like a blank canvas, right? Especially if it means that, on top of that, you're losing your health care, or part of your pension or paying twice as much for tuition.

DEMBY: Like Leslie...

FLORIDO: Yup.

DEMBY: ...The student we met who decided to drop out of school because she couldn't afford this increased tuition.

FLORIDO: Exactly. And that decision to double tuition at the University of Puerto Rico, that was the financial oversight board. It raised the cost of full-time enrollment from $1,300 to about $2,600 a year. And that, it doesn't sound like a lot for a lot of mainland students who pay a lot to go to university on the mainland, but it's a big deal on an island where half the people live below the poverty line.

DEMBY: Right.

FLORIDO: And that's why Leslie posted that message on Facebook blaming the junta, this board. But Leslie said that she did not expect what happened next.

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Her post took off. It was shared hundreds of times across Puerto Rico. And then the messages started pouring in from people she didn't even know saying that, hey, like, don't drop out. I'm struggling, too. We're all struggling through this. And she was encouraged by all these messages, and they actually made her decide to try one last time to find a way to afford her tuition.

MERAJI: This is exactly what I was talking about. I'm so proud to be Puerto Rican.

(LAUGHTER)

FLORIDO: So on the day that she was going to go to campus to see if she could sort of make this all pencil out, she invited me to tag along. It was the deadline to register at her campus in Arecibo, about an hour away from San Juan. So when we arrived to the campus gates, Leslie greets the security guard who is in the little booth.

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: She's the kind of student who seems to know everyone on campus, and there's a couple of reasons for that. For one, she's just, like, super involved. But also last year when that proposal to increase tuition was just a proposal and had just come out of the oversight board, she spent 65 days camping at the university's gates with other students in protest.

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: And so she knows all the guards on campus.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Right.

FLORIDO: Today, though, she's nervous because she is not sure that she is going to be able to make this work, that she's going be able to find a way to afford her tuition 'cause she's got all kinds of things that need to fall into place. She's got to see that there is a campus job available. She's got to go on a payment plan. And all morning, she's been waiting for a call from her mom, who is supposed to deposit $100 into her bank account so she could make the first payment, which is due today.

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Leslie says that ever since her mom lost her factory job, she hasn't been able to help with school costs. But one of her mom's friends saw Leslie's Facebook post, and so she passed around a hat to collect money. And that is where the hundred dollars that Leslie needed to make this first payment, that's where it came from.

MERAJI: Nice.

FLORIDO: And so this phone call from her mom, it's to let Leslie know that the money is there.

So now it's time to go stand in, like, the seven or eight lines that she's going to have to work her way through just to add her classes. Except that when she gets to the front of the second line to request a printout of a document that she needs to take to another window in order to register for her classes, a document that she's always paid a dollar and some change for, she gets a shock.

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: The man on the other side of the window tells her it'll be $5.

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: On top of doubling tuition, the Oversight Board has tripled the cost of printing documents. This is a piece of paper with ink on it.

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: So Leslie backs away from the window, and she tells them, oh, never mind. She is furious, and she storms out of the building into the quad to tell her friends what just happened.

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

(CROSSTALK)

FLORIDO: And she says, I'm not going to pay those extra few bucks. It's the principle of the thing.

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "It's a form of protest," she says. "It's pride."

MERAJI: You're so close, though.

FLORIDO: She says she refuses to continue enriching the rich. And as she says this, one of her friends at the table, Gabriel Soto (ph), who knows that she's really close to graduating - he takes $3 out of his pocket. And he sets them on the table, and he pushes them over to her. But Leslie - she just pushes them right back.

GABRIEL SOTO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: This is a decision that a lot of Puerto Ricans on the island are facing more and more. Do you refuse to go along with the changes that this Fiscal Oversight Board is bringing to Puerto Rico - that it's imposing on the government, on communities - even if it hurts you in the long run, the way that it would hurt Leslie? Or do you just swallow your pride? And do you sort of say, well, we've got to find a way around this? Leslie's friend, Gabriel Soto, says it's a difficult decision that's made even harder because these changes - they're being imposed by this outside board.

SOTO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Soto says that as frustrating as it is, he can't let tuition increases force him to drop out. He says, you've got to find a way to make things work. Now, Leslie, she does find a work-around. She - eventually she calls up an old professor, and she asks if he'll print out the document she needs so she won't have to pay the university for it.

MERAJI: Good.

FLORIDO: He does it for her. He brings it over to the table. She signs up for her classes. She makes a first payment on her tuition. And she says, you know, I'll figure out how to pay the rest of this later.

OYALA-RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish).

MERAJI: Leslie's story has a happy ending. She gets to enroll at the university. But she's quick to remind all of us that there are a lot of students who couldn't.

FLORIDO: Right. And, you know, Leslie's story is not all that happy either. She's not going to graduate this year because she couldn't afford to enroll full-time. She's not even sure she has the money to pay for this semester that she just enrolled in part-time. For now, she does get to keep working toward her dream of being a sports reporter and getting that communications degree. But next year, who knows? The Fiscal Oversight Board says tuition is going to go up again.

(SOUNDBITE OF El GRAN COMBO DE PUERTO RICO'S "LAS HOJAS BLANCAS")

DEMBY: So, Adrian, you're our guest, and so we're going to give you the opportunity to tell us what the song is that's giving you life right now.

FLORIDO: Is it weird that the song that's giving me life is a song about getting old?

DEMBY: (Laughter) OK.

FLORIDO: It's called "Las Hojas Blancas" by a El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, which is one of these classic, old-school salsa groups in Puerto Rico. And so, yeah, this is a song about a guy who's getting old, whose hair is turning white, and who's just sort of reflecting on all the things he's proud of having done and all the things he regrets. And I really like the song because right now, in Puerto Rico, I live in Old San Juan. And there's a little bar over on the corner that has salsa music in the evenings. And whenever this song comes on, all the old couples get up and start to dance.

MERAJI: Oh, I love that.

DEMBY: Nice.

MERAJI: I also feel like it works too because here we are talking about this young woman who's trying to build a life in Puerto Rico. And as we know, there are so many senior citizens in Puerto Rico because the young people have left, because it's been so difficult for them to make their lives there. And I don't know - there's something about this song that kind of works in that context.

FLORIDO: That's true.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAS HOJAS BLANCAS")

CHARLIE APONTE: (Singing in Spanish).

DEMBY: All right, y'all, that's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You can always send us your burning questions about race with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH. Sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever fine podcasts can be found.

MERAJI: Maria Paz Gutierrez produced this episode. It was edited by Sami Yenigun, with help from Steve Drummond.

FLORIDO: Special thanks to Michel Martin and Liz Baker of Weekend All Things Considered, and to Luis Mendez Gonzalez (ph) for connecting us with Leslie Oyala-Rivera.

DEMBY: And a shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates, Leah Donnella and Kat Chow. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

FLORIDO: And I'm Adrian Florido.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

FLORIDO: Nos vemos.

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