UConn School of Social Work facilitates panel on human rights in Puerto Rico


On Thursday, the University of Connecticut School of Social Work kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month with “Human Rights, Health, Self-Empowerment and Hope in Puerto Rico,” a panel aiming to spread awareness on the current state of Puerto Rico, and how to help their situation. Focused on health – both physical and mental – the talk aimed to find ways to deal with and to help with the socioeconomic disparities of the U.S. territory.  

One of the night’s panelists, Dr. Marinilda Rivera Diaz, began the conversation talking about her research. She studies the inequalities of physical and mental health care services among Latinx families and their children, as well as social determinants of health among Latinx people. Diaz spoke about the history of Puerto Rico and its adoption into the US as a territory. She discussed how the colonization of Puerto Rico created a basis for inequality in health services in the territory and a lack of opportunity for citizens to receive said services.  

By discussing the economic and socio-economic state of the island, Diaz touched upon how recent crises have harmed Puerto Rico. Recently, COVID-19 and devastating hurricanes have ravished the territory. This has created substantial disparities among Puerto Rican citizens. In particular, she focused on the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and explained how bad the situation is. Millions lost their homes and basic resources. Diaz explained that the media has covered up just how bad the living conditions have become. She said that news outlets have not presented truthful statistics about the death toll of these natural disasters, and still, two years later, millions are left without electricity.  

Diaz said the US has ignored the crisis in Puerto Rico, and local citizens lack water, power and proper healthcare. She also touched on the lack of mental health care in Puerto Rico. According to Diaz, there is a substantial failure on the part of the healthcare system to provide mental health services, evident in the approximate 3,000 suicides in Puerto Rico.  

“I urge the Puerto Rican and Latinx audience to push and uplift our people, advocating for human rights and medical equality for all,” Diaz stated. With the awareness of these issues, however, Diaz believes that social workers can examine the disparities in minority care and work to improve the futures of the Puerto Rican people.  

The second panelist of the night, Dr. Catherine Melinda, vice chair of the Connecticut Commission of Health Equality, focuses on policy and the awareness of health inequalities. She has worked extensively with women and people dealing with substance abuse disorders, seeking to uplift Latinx voices.  

In her talk, Melinda focused on women in Puerto Rico. When discussing the situation on the island, she stated that the natural disasters plaguing the territory are both natural and man-made. While the hurricanes were the catalyst of the damages to Puerto Rico, the governmental infrastructures set in place have made it nearly impossible for them to recover properly. She discussed how the damage in Puerto Rico has affected women, particularly in the cases of domestic violence survivors. The rate of murders related to domestic violence has nearly doubled since Hurricane Maria. This, paired with the lack of help the Puerto Rican police force provides, allows the violence to continue, Melinda explained. 

The struggles that the territory faced with COVID-19 lockdowns and lack of basic supplies has amplified the pain these women go through. Melinda also discussed the failures of the Trump administration to help the Puerto Rican people.  

“His response to the situation was to travel to Puerto Rico and throw paper towels into the crowd. The people of the island are still suffering. Little has been done to help,” Melinda  said.  

Both presenters facilitated an enriching discussion on the situation Puerto Rico is struggling through, as well as ways to help. Some hope was sprinkled throughout the conversation, with Medina stating that almost 90% of  Puerto Rico is vaccinated against COVID-19, the highest rate in the US. Both researchers commended the adversity of the Puerto Rican people and are hopeful that eventually the situation will improve in the territory. With a new class of social workers, thoroughly educated in the different disparities minority groups face, change will soon occur.  

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