Three months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, roughly half of the island’s 3 million people remain without power. Meanwhile, residents of the Mexican states of Pueblo, Morelos and the greater Mexico City area are still rebuilding following a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that killed 370 people and injured over 6,000 others. The natural disasters occurred back to back — the earthquake Sept. 19 and the Category 4 hurricane sweeping across Puerto Rico the following day — both spurring Rice’s Latin American Graduate Student Association (LAGSA) to action.

A fundraiser held Oct. 19 collected $3,322.07 for victims in both Puerto Rico and Mexico. After taking time to find the best beneficiaries of those funds, LAGSA recently split the money among three nonprofits — one in Mexico, two in Puerto Rico.

LAGSA student members

Members of the Latin American Graduate Student Association raised over $3,300 for victims of back-to-back natural disasters in Mexico and Puerto Rico. (Photo courtesy LAGSA)

Physics graduate student Eduardo Ibarra García Padilla, whose family and friends live in Mexico City, was in class Sept. 19 when he began receiving text messages and phone calls from his parents, his brother, even previous co-workers, all letting him know they were safe. Safe from what, he didn’t yet know.

“A few minutes later, I saw in disbelief the videos that my family and friends sent me of buildings collapsing during this earthquake,” García Padilla said. “That same afternoon, another Rice friend from Mexico City and I recognized the cruel ‘joke’ that the 1985 earthquake, which also caused severe damage in Mexico, happened Sept. 19 — 32 years ago to the day,” said García Padilla, who called the anniversary “a heartbreaking coincidence.”

That earlier earthquake killed close to 10,000 people, injured 30,000 and left between $3 billion and $4 billion worth of damage in Mexico City. “The 1985 earthquake was an event in our parents’ generation that tested their resolve and their ability to unite and bring out the best in themselves,” García Padilla said. “The recent earthquake felt like such an event for my generation, and I cannot convey with words the frustration that all of us living abroad felt because of not being able to be present and respond in the way any caring citizen would.”

The next morning, he contacted his fellow LAGSA members and told them he wanted to organize a fundraiser. “Even though we are hundreds of miles away,” García Padilla said, “we could still do our part and send help from Rice.” And when news of Puerto Rico’s devastation reached Houston, LAGSA — which represents graduate students from all parts of Latin America — saw fit to raise funds for the island’s hurricane victims at the same time. Their plan? A taco night at Valhalla, with all proceeds going to Mexico and Puerto Rico.

With the help of the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies and Dean Seiichi Matsuda, LAGSA students were connected with Sarah Finster, executive chef at the Sid Richardson College Kitchen. Biomedical engineering graduate student Amada Abrego, also from Mexico and a member of LAGSA, teamed up with Finster on food prep. Finster and her team at Sid Rich ordered the necessary ingredients and made the taco fillings; Abrego and her team formed the assembly line, building the tacos one by one.

“For this task, students from different backgrounds came together,” García Padilla said. “It was not just students with strong roots in Latin America, but also students from different backgrounds who empathized with the cause and were willing to help.” Members of the Society of Latino Alumni of Rice (SOLAR) had helped to spread news of the fundraiser in Houston’s Latin American community, and that night at Valhalla, hungry grad students and sympathetic supporters alike gobbled the tacos down — many throwing in extra donations as they ate.

The teamwork didn’t stop there, either. Afterward, LAGSA teamed up with Professor Luis Duno-Gottberg, associate professor and chair of the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, who had also helped to raise funds for earthquake victims through the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Mexico Center. “We decided to join our efforts and split in half the total money raised for both causes,” García Padilla said.

Funds for Mexico went to InfraRural, a nongovernmental organization building houses for one of the poorest communities in Puebla that was severely affected. Founded in 2011 by students from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana and Instituto Politécnico Nacional, InfraRural has since spearheaded several campaigns to help the most marginalized communities of Mexico. After the earthquake, it started a new house-reconstruction campaign in Puebla, where the donation from Rice University was allocated.

Funds for Puerto Rico were sent by Duno-Gottberg to Casa Pueblo, an organization dedicated to community empowerment and the protection of natural and cultural resources, and also to Organización PRO Ambiente Sustentable, an environmental organization that focuses on education and management of sustainable resources.

“The event brought together the Latin American community on campus,” García Padilla said, “but more importantly it allowed for meaningful interactions among students, faculty and staff who joined forces to support the people of Mexico and Puerto Rico in the wake of the disasters.” He counts the fundraiser among the many acts of goodwill on campus in a year defined by both catastrophe and generosity.

“I’ve been amazed by the response of the Rice community in the face of adversity,” García Padilla said. “During Harvey, they showed incredible zeal to help people in need, and during the fundraiser, a lot of people showed up and donated. For the few months I’ve been here at Rice, I’ve had the pleasure to see how the community demonstrates that Rice is not only a place with high academic standards, but also with great human values.”

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