100 Days Since Hurricane Maria by Bianca Fortis

Photos by Elaine Cromie; Words by Bianca Fortis


On Sept. 20, a Category 4 hurricane battered Puerto Rico, leaving much of the island in ruins and its more than 3 million inhabitants helpless.

Hurricane Maria is the worst natural disaster to hit Puerto Rico and recent reports indicate the death toll may be over 1,000.


Recovery has been slow. Though today marks 100 days since storm hit the island, a U.S. territory, still more than 30 percent of the population lacks electricity, even in some metropolitan areas. According to one estimate, the damage to the island may cost up to $95 billion.

Puerto Rico's economy was already struggling, and only time will tell how long it will take for the island to rebuild itself. Small business owners in particular are struggling, and those located in San Juan will impacted by a lack of tourism.


Today we are taking a look back at some of the stories we covered in Puerto Rico when we visited in the weeks following the storm. For more of our work, some of which was published by Vox on Instagram, search #dispatchesfrompuertorico on the platform.

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Javier Lopez is 18-years-old but a severe case of Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome leaves him unable to walk, talk or be at all independent.

"He's like my eternal baby," his mother, Zaida Lopez, told us. 

The storm has left their home in Barranquitas, located in the central, mountainous region of the island, without electricity or even running water, potentially life-threatening circumstances for Javier. Lopez and her husband Luis are considering relocating to Florida to better care for Javier, as well as their 14-year-old daughter Angelica who was out of school because the building was being used to house refugees. They're hoping that the electricity and water will restored soon so they don't have to uproot their lives. Read more about the Lopez family in our story for the Detroit Free Press.

Finding drinking water proved to be a challenge. Many stores didn't carry it, and those that did rationed their supplies. Many people, especially in more areas, collected water from outdoor streams and rivers. But some of that water was contaminated with Leptospirosis an infectious disease that is transmitted through animal urine. Originated The post-Maria outbreak is is thought to have begun in Canóvanas, a small coastal municipality located just outside the capital of San Juan.

On our final day of the trip, we came across a line of what looked like 1,000 people waiting to register for FEMA disaster assistance. The event was chaotic; no one knew when FEMA would arrive and there were limited bathrooms and food available. One woman waiting told us that she’d been able to find drinking water in stores, but had been collecting rainwater for bathing and other uses inside her home. 

Despite all of the hardship we witnessed, there was one common theme we found whenever we interviewed someone: resiliency. Puerto Ricans know they have a long road ahead, but they are prepared to do whatever they need to survive. The people we spoke to expressed gratitude that they were alive and in relative good health. We met many people who had come up with clever ways to work and make money, including a pair of brothers who moved their barbershop outdoors so they could connect their equipment to car batteries since they didn't have a generator inside their brick and mortar shop.

Muslim Converts Find New Way of Life in Tijuana by Bianca Fortis

Story and photos by Griselda San Martin

Patricia Villarreal sits in the women’s section of a mosque in Playas de Tijuana, studying in preparation for her conversion to Islam.

Villarreal was born in Mexicali but resides in National City, California – just a year ago she was a Jehovah’s Witness. Her daughter converted several years ago, which Villarreal had difficulty understanding or accepting.

“When she started dressing like that, the whole family was shocked,” she said. “On 9/11, I was very angry because she was out there dressed in this way and on top of that she had my granddaughter with her covered with the hijab. I was really frightened.”

On Saturday March 26, Muslims from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border gathered at the Mosque of Omar in Playas de Tijuana. Each month the non-Muslim community is invited to learn about Islam and see how it differs from the mainstream media’s generally negative portrayal of it. The event featured Khalid Yasin, a popular Islamic scholar from Harlem.

The center, also known as the Islamic Center Masjid Omar, is maintained exclusively by private donations from Muslims in California.

“Here we do not tolerate those that speak of Jihad,” Nagi Alaraj, the administrator of the mosque, said. “We try to be better people because Islam is not only a religion. It is a way of life.”

According to Alaraj, the Muslim community in Baja California is made up of approximately 250 people, most of whom are Mexican nationals. That number also includes some American expats as well as individuals from Muslim countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Yemen and Palestine. The majority of the women are Mexican-born and have discovered Islam through their spouses, friends and family or even social media.

Juana Reza, who is almost 80 years old, converted to Islam only 5 years ago, after becoming interested when her friend and neighbor Irma Morales invited her to a meeting.

“Before Islam we visited several Christian churches but I really didn’t like it,” she said. “They yell too much. And cry too much. And then they ask for money. And they also faint and wake up speaking in tongues. I like everything from Islam. There’s only good people here. They are very friendly.”

Catholicism faces a serious crisis worldwide and continues to lose followers in Mexico in favor of other religions that are seemingly more adept at addressing the challenges facing ordinary people. According to recent polls, between 19 and 23 million Mexicans are no longer Catholic. Like Juana, some of them have discovered Islam as an alternative to Catholicism, which does not seem to offer answers to their spiritual unease.

Maryam Alvarez, along with Amina Rivera, began practicing Islam in Rosarito, 15 miles south of Tijuana, in her living room.

“We started meeting at my house because there was no other place,” Alvarez said. “At first, there were two of us and then there were 25. That’s when we started looking for a new location.

Alvarez is now the administrator of the Al-Wahid mosque, which will open its doors to the public on May 27 of this year. The construction has been financed and supervised by Viva Islam, a British charity that is also building the first islamic foster home in Mexico. They are currently looking for an imam who speaks Spanish fluently.

Besides the language limitations, the Muslim community in Baja California and Mexico, especially its women, face bigger challenges. Just like Muslims in other western countries, they are victims of Islamophobia and constant discrimination.

Four years ago, after her older son Sebastian passed away, Fatima Castañeda fell into a deep depression. She found the peace she needed in Islam.

But being a Muslim in Mexico is hard. She has been called a hypocrite, taliban, terrorist and sex slave. She has been thrown out of restaurants and has been fired from jobs. She said people have pointed and laughed at her and have even wished death upon her. Her young daughter Nahomi has also had a rough time of it. Nahomi is 10 years old and converted to Islam at the same time as her mother. At first, she was happy to wear her hijab to school but what she found was major disappointment and discrimination from classmates and even her teachers. Now she only wears her hijab when she goes to the mosque.

Family acceptance is also a major obstacle for many new converts.

“I still haven’t told my parents,” Leslie Orozco, who converted to Islam just two months ago, said. “I don’t exactly know how they are going to take it.”

Orozco discovered Islam through some friends and quickly became interested.

“What I like about Islam is that there are so many values and so much respect for people and I think that is something that has been forgotten by many of the other religions,” she explained.

Wanda Velazquez comes down periodically from Los Angeles to show her support for the Latino Muslim community. She was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in San Diego. She converted to Islam 15 years ago, when she was in high school.

On the last Saturday of every month she shows up with a van full of reading materials in Spanish and donates them, along with clothing, scarves, and prayer mats that she distributes among those that come to gatherings.

Alejandra Fuentes sits patiently during the sermon and throughout the service and prayers. She is 79 years old and cannot read or write. She never went to school. She never learned English, let alone Arabic. But for the past two years she has been attending services faithfully every Friday and Saturday and has been paying close attention to Islamic instruction and is painstakingly trying to learn all of the teachings.

“I pay attention, but I forget,” she said. “I am very old. My brain is drying up.”

At the end of the bi-national gathering, Sister Fatima takes Fuentes all the way to the doorstep of her very humble little house, next to a giant garbage dump. Getting out of the vehicle, she responds to her sister’s farewell of “See you next Friday.”

“Inshallah,” she replies.

Farmworkers in Mexico, Facing Human Rights Abuses, Prepare to March in Protest by Bianca Fortis

Photos and story by Griselda San Martin

Cecilia Sanchez, 25, has two children and is pregnant with her third. When asked how far along she is, she simply tilts her head and shrugs. She doesn’t know because she hasn’t been able to see a doctor yet. She lacks the money for the bus to get to the clinic.

Sanchez’s husband works as a farmworker each day, sometimes spending more than 12 hours in the field. This month he is picking strawberries. He earns 700 pesos – about $35 – each week.

On March 17, 2015, thousands of farmworkers from the San Quintín Valley of Baja California went on strike during the peak of the tomato and strawberry picking seasons. They marched en masse all the way to the Mexico-U.S. border, setting up roadblocks and barricades along the way to protest against abuses, low pay and poor working conditions. The violent demonstrations captured international headlines at the time but after nearly a year of striking, the farm workers’ demands have yet to be met. The workers are now preparing to march again.

"We demand a collective bargaining agreement where the rights of the workers are acknowledged and protected," Gloria Gracida, a teacher and spokesperson for the laborers, said.

Gracida knows about the working conditions that the farmworkers endure because she would go to the fields during the weekends when she was ten years old.

"I have seen with my own eyes the exploitation that they suffer," she said. "I’ve seen people growing old in the fields with no rights."

San Quintín, located about 200 miles south of San Diego, is a rich agricultural region which ships most of its produce across the border to the United States. The modern productive processes still require human hands to harvest the crops, and thousands of indigenous workers are "hired" on a daily basis as a source of cheap and flexible labor. They endure long hours hand-picking produce in extremely hot temperatures with no gear to protect against pesticide exposure. They make as much in a day as they would make in the U.S. in an hour.

Laureano Santos, who works at BerryMex, a large berry operation, said most of the pickers make about 7 dollars a day after working shifts of up to 14 hours. And in many cases, those individuals have to support families of six or more people.

The farmworkers’ want an independent union contract with the right of a collective bargain agreement, fair wages, overtime pay, safe working conditions, an end to sexual harassment, and to end child labor. In their own words, they demand an end to the the "modern slavery" conditions they now endure.

"Besides the demands for better working conditions, we also insist on better living conditions," Octavio Lopez, member of the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice, said.

"The children of farmworkers are alone all day and in the streets while their parents are working in the field making no more than 9 dollars a day," he said. "And that is not enough to satisfy their basic needs of decent housing, healthcare and education, one of the most crucial things a child can use to overcome poverty and build a better future."

The areas where the farmworkers live are difficult to access through unpaved dusty roads. Large families are crammed into small rooms in makeshift houses made of little more than cardboard and plastic. They live without electricity or running water and their front yards are often full of dirt, trash and burnt garbage.

From Thurs., March 17 to Sun., March 20, thousands of farmworkers will march from San Quintín up to the border at Playas de Tijuana where they will meet farmworkers from the U.S marching in solidarity with them in an event known as la Marcha de las dos Californias. The purpose of the march is to commemorate the first anniversary of the strike and to publicize that after a year of striking, their demands of establishing measures to ensure their labor and human rights are respected in accordance with the law, have not been met.

The National Democratic Union of Independent Farmworkers and the the Alliance of National, State and Municipal Organizations for Social Justice are also asking American consumers to show solidarity with the farmworkers of San Quintín and boycott Driscoll's berry products, as it purchases most of the fruits that are harvested in the valley.

Halloween and Día de los Muertos in Tijuana: Where faith and culture collide by Bianca Fortis

Written by Bianca Fortis; Photos by Elaine Cromie and Griselda San Martin

The San Diego-Tijuana border is the busiest crossing in the world, making the surrounding region ripe for transculturation. The month of October proves to be evidence of this: both Halloween and Día de los Muertos are celebrated in and around Tijuana, and the two complement each other well. 

Halloween and Día de los Muertos are two unique holidays with distinctly different origins that just happen to fall within a day of one another. But the act of celebrating them both serves as proof of what those who live along the border region know: that while a physical wall may prevent migrants from crossing the border, it cannot stop the blending of two cultures.


Electronic dance music is blasting at Papas and Beer, a nightclub popular with Americans, that’s located in the coastal resort town of Rosarito, just south of Tijuana.

The high season for local nightlife peaks over the summer, beginning with spring break and ending around Labor Day, but the crowds return for Halloween.

Eddie Estrada, a Los Angeles resident who visits Rosarito frequently, traveled down just for the event, he said, because the multi-level open-air venue is so much bigger than clubs in LA.

The beachfront club accommodates several thousand people and boasts mechanical bull riding, space for volleyball games and even hosts pool parties.

At around midnight the music pauses for the Papas and Beer costume contest; a scantily-clad Minnie Mouse, a Catrina – a female skeleton that has become a symbol for the Day of the Dead – and a banana are among the top contenders competing for cash and other prizes.

Tijuana, too, was bustling all afternoon and evening with Halloween events, including an annual Zombie 5K. The streets of el Centro were crowded with children and adults alike dressed in costume – most of which were American characters – except for a few Catrinas, and a street vendor dressed as El Chavo, a famous character depicted by the Mexican actor Chespirito.

Groups of children race up and down Calle Emiliano Zapata trick-or-treating (called “tricky tricky” here). Perhaps nowhere was the overlapping of the two holidays more apparent than here, a block better known as La Calle de las Flores, or the Street of Flowers, named for the dozen or so flower shops located along it.

The kids stop at each storefront, each of which is filled with colorful floral wreaths in preparation for el Día de los Muertos.

Día de los Muertos

In between passing out candy to groups of costumed kids, Hugo Collado, the owner of Florería Lucerito, sits outside his shop waiting for customers in need of flowers for the next day.

Collado, who has owned his shop for ten years, said the trick-or-treating is an annual occurrence. Halloween is as popular as Día de los Muertos in this border region, he said.

“It’s beautiful,” Collado said. “It’s the combination of Día de los Muertos and Halloween. What happens is something magical, something different. But something beautiful.”

During the two-day Day of the Dead celebration, families visit cemeteries with musical instruments, flowers, food and beer, a markedly different, and more cheerful, approach to remembering the deceased than in the United States. The holiday originated in southern Mexico, where visitors stay in cemeteries all night long.

Numerous local events marked the holiday too: the Katrina Fest in Rosarito offered food, music, dance performances and crafts. 

Santa Muerte

An orange light emits a glow along an otherwise dark street in Tijuana. Bathed in the light is a skeletal figure, clothed in a blood-red satin dress and lace veil, and carrying a scythe. At 10 p.m. visitors arrive with flowers, candles and even wine and beer to pay tribute to La Santa Muerte, or the Saint of Death, a female folk saint who represents death, mortality, healing and protection.

On the first day of Día de los Muertos, hundreds gathered in front of the altar to honor and pray to La Niña Blanca, or The White Girl.

Santa Muerte, a blend of indigenous Mesoamerican beliefs and Catholicism, has only a small following, but its popularity is growing throughout the world, especially in Mexico and Central America, from where it originated.

In the past, thousands of followers have attended the Tijuana ceremonies, but on this particular night, government officials had scared away many of the guests before the event even began. The choice to follow Santa Muerte is a controversial one: because of its associations with the occult and black magic, the Catholic church as well as the government condemn its practice.

Santa Muerte does have a big following in prisons, among drug-trafficking narcos and those with less than pure intentions – just a week prior to Día de los Muertos, a human arm had been left as an offering at another altar in Tijuana – but most of its practitioners, including members of the LGBT community, are members of the working class who are either disillusioned with traditional religion or who practice Santa Muerte as a complement to their other beliefs.

But like the other events this weekend, the Santa Muerte ceremony was joyful, a testament to how differently death and mortality are perceived in Mexico.  

El Rodeo: a Thriving Mexican Tradition by Bianca Fortis

Words and photos by Griselda San Martin

The tradition of rodeo has a long history: it originates from the practice of herding cattle in Spain and Mexico. But in Baja California, the sport of rodeo began as recently as 1978; it has been cemented as a growing cultural tradition that is shared between generations.

Rancho Casian is a family ranch that organizes monthly rodeos.

About 3,000 people, from the state of Baja as well as the United States, attended one of their events on Sunday afternoon. This event marked the ninth anniversary that Rancho Casian has been in business. October's event will celebrate women in the industry.

After a quiet Independence Day, thousands march for peace in Tijuana by Bianca Fortis

Photos by Elaine Cromie; Words by Bianca Fortis

In Mexico, sustained drought has significantly reduced the country’s agricultural production. Poverty persists. Nearly one year has passed since the disappearance of the Missing 43 in Iguala and still most of the students have yet to even be identified.

And although there is no official tally of the number of casualties in the Mexican Drug War, at least 164,000 people have been victims of homicide since 2007, according to a July PBS report based on data from the Mexican government. Experts believe it likely that that number is far higher.

It is no question that the North American country is plagued with a number of pressing social issues.

Mexico’s Independence Day was last week, and typically the country’s streets are filled with celebratory whoops and hollers during the anniversary of el Grito, the event that marked the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence. But this year, in Tijuana, the city was noticeably quieter, perhaps a testament to the country’s bleak political climate.

But on Sunday, thousands of the city’s residents did fill the streets — during a rally for global peace.

Peace One Day, which serves as an international annual call for peace and as well as an effort to institutionalize World Peace Day, takes place today. In Tijuana, participants — including United States military veterans who have been deported, as well as DREAMer moms, the deported mothers of DREAM youth activists still living in the United States — also used the event as a platform for their individual social justice issues.

Thousands gathered at the Paseo de los Héroes and marched in solidarity up to the Mexico-U.S. border.