By: Daniel Oyolu JD ‘21
When I first learned that there would be a Spring Break Pro Bono trip taking students to Puerto Rico, I felt compelled to apply. I had followed the slow recovery of the island post Hurricane Maria and was excited to have an opportunity to do pro bono work in service to the island. My partner, Brian Beaton, and I worked with the municipal government of Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico.
We helped the municipality interview residents who were in need of FEMA assistance, but did not have the titles to their home. We learned more about each client’s story and updated their files to ensure the transfer of title occurs properly. According to Reuters a 2007 study found that an estimated 55 percent of properties on the island are informal.
In Puerto Rico, many homes have been passed down for generations, built without permits of a title. Community members found undeveloped plots of land had not yet been developed and began constructing their own residences without formal permission. Many residents have lived these communities for decades, but do not have a proper deed of title to the land. In the event of a natural disaster like Hurricane Maria, not having title to your land complicates and potentially eliminates the possibility of receiving resources from FEMA. The Municipality of Ponce has been working to grant land titles and transfer ownership to one of its informal communities. The residents had been organizing for decades to get land titles from the Municipality and it felt like finally they had reached the final stages of the process. Since the hurricane, the process has been expedited. If another natural disaster occurs, the residents will hopefully not face the same obstacles in receiving relief.
The trip also functioned as a primer on Puerto Rican local government. We spent most of our time with Ponce’s legal department who managed the project of title transfers. Additionally, we had the opportunity to meet the mayor of the city, Mayita Melendéz, who welcomed us to Ponce and encouraged us to take in all of Ponce’s beautiful colonial architecture. We met members of the municipality’s legislature (the equivalent of a city council) and sat through a live session. All of the legislators graciously welcomed us and allowed us to listen and observe as they deliberated over different proposals to move Ponce forward economically. Despite the conversation getting contentious at times, it was clear that the legislators shared a sense of camaraderie. We also sat in on a couple of cases in a local court and met a judge.
Overall, our trip allowed us to see different layers to Ponce, from the ordinary citizen making ends meet, to the government officials deciding the direction of the city. Although the impact of Hurricane Maria could still be felt, the people of Ponce have resiliently weathered the storm. Their hope in the future of their city seemed as strong as ever. They welcomed me with open arms, and readily shared their life experiences, while curiously listening to my own.
We study law, not in a vacuum, but in a world where laws directly impact the lives of citizens no matter who they are. Our trip to Ponce allowed us to see an initiative in which city lawyers were working to respond to the needs and concerns of the citizens and prepare them for the future. I’m thankful to the City of Ponce, Licenciada Lorraine Bengoa Toro and her team of lawyers, as well as the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs for this incredible opportunity.