As Others Pack, Some Millennials Commit to Puerto Rico

By LIZETTE ALVAREZ

AUGUST 5, 2017

SAN JUAN, P.R. — Two young graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did the unthinkable last summer: They quit enviable jobs in New York and moved back to beleaguered Puerto Rico, bringing their plan for a start-up with them.

“People were like: ‘Are you crazy? Why would you ever do that? Go back way later; you’re basically going into a hellhole right now,’” said one of the graduates, Eric Crespo, 25, who helped create Lunchera, a fast-growing online food delivery and logistics company in Puerto Rico.

As the tide of Puerto Ricans leaving the island continues unabated, Mr. Crespo and his partner and college friend, Bryan Collazo, are part of a small but critical wave of educated millennials who are doing the opposite; they are choosing to return home or stay put on the island.

They are opening restaurants and bars, fueling start-ups and small businesses or jump-starting moribund sectors, like agriculture. They are motivated both by an urge to help lift Puerto Rico out of its quagmire, but also by a profound attachment to the island — its beaches and countryside, its friendliness, its intimacy and the tug of family.

The pull in the opposite direction can be intense, as Puerto Rico reckons with an economic calamity more than a decade in the making. This island of United States citizens, whose finances are now being overseen by a federal control board, is shackled by around $70 billion in public debt, crushing job losses that are expected to deepen as more government workers are laid off, and an unrelenting exodus that includes many professionals, like doctors, engineers and teachers. Since 2004, more than 400,000 people have left Puerto Rico, a United States commonwealth of 3.4 million people.

As the island enters its 11th year of recession, though, the crisis is slowly giving way to new opportunities that are elbowing aside more conventional ways of thinking. Puerto Ricans have long relied on the government for most of their jobs and on the mainland for many of their careers; university graduates have reflexively looked to United States corporations for work or slid into reliable professions, like medicine or engineering. On the island, they call it the “colonial” mind-set, a way of thinking that is tightly bound to Puerto Rico’s standing as a commonwealth.

“We were taught to be employees here — not entrepreneurs,” said Carlos Cobián, an events specialist who is persuading Puerto Ricans on the mainland to come home, and promoting entrepreneurship on the island.

But that is slowly changing. A younger generation, steeped in today’s entrepreneurship revolution, is starting to think differently.

Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, announced in May that the government had certified 260 new companies that would be creating around 1,000 jobs in large part through a program of tax incentives aimed at helping entrepreneurs. They are mostly small operations, and more than 75 percent are run by people under 35, officials said.

“For a long time, there was a mind-set that anything that comes from the outside was better,” said Daniella Rodríguez Besosa, 32, one of a new collection of young farmers who have re-embraced agriculture, a forgotten force on the island, and are helping to bolster agritourism and a farm-to-table movement.

“I feel the crisis is an opportunity; it’s not until you have a dire situation that you have to do things creatively,” said Ms. Rodríguez, who runs a small organic vegetable farm, Siembra Tres Vidas, in the mountains of Aibonito. “Change can happen.”

After moving back to Puerto Rico as a child, Ms. Rodríguez never left, choosing the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez for her biology degree.

“If no one is here to change what’s happening, we will suffer,” she said. “And,” she added, gesturing toward the sea in the distance and the lush mountains around her, “who leaves paradise?”

Just recently, farmers who run small and medium-size farms have started selling their produce to chefs in Puerto Rico’s fast-evolving culinary scene, and a group of millennial women is helping to facilitate that exchange. Buying local is novel here — 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s food is imported — and some farmers are now even selling to Walmart. Others have their eyes on increasing exports.

Calle Loíza and the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce, near the beach, have become the millennial hub for this newfound energy. Once forlorn and dangerous, the area buzzes with just-opened restaurants led by inventive chefs who prize local ingredients.

Lote 23, a former vacant lot, opened in December and is now filled with 16 trendy restaurant kiosks. Its co-founder Cristina Sumaza, 29, gave up jobs at NBC Universal and L’Oréal in New York to come home and jump into entrepreneurship.

“This crisis has forced us to think outside the box,” she said.

The food truck movement is also growing, although slowly. Yareli Manning, owner of the Meatball Company truck, left a job at a multinational company in Austin, Tex., to start a food truck park.

It has been a struggle, she said. There are many obstacles to starting a business on a struggling island overseen by the federal government. Getting laws and ordinances changed — a laborious process before the crisis — takes even longer now, she said. It took two years to get two food trucks in one park. Money is tight, the market is small, and palates can be stubborn. San Juan has nearly 400,000 people, and many are wedded to traditional and fast food.

“You have to have patience, which I have,” Ms. Manning said. “I’ve never been happier, though.”

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