Lucas Barreto dreams of a day when the wind and rain of a heavy storm won’t mean power outages across his native Puerto Rico. But he’ll remember the human connections, as much as the electrical ones, from his early efforts to work on the problem.
Barreto, a junior mechanical engineering major from San Juan, was featured in a “What Would You Fight For?” spot aired during halftime of the Notre Dame-California football game on September 17. Back in the spring he was one of 12 Notre Dame undergraduates who spent a week in Puerto Rico through a collaboration between ND Energy and local and alumni-linked partners to install solar panels on 10 homes in Adjuntas, a small city nestled in the forests of the Caribbean island’s central mountains.
Adjuntas is one of hundreds of Puerto Rican communities all but forgotten in the aftermath of 2017’s devastating Hurricane Maria. The storm battered the island with 155-mile-per-hour winds and knocked out the island’s power grid — prone to failure in the best of times.
Even in the capital, San Juan, where Barreto grew up, blackouts are routine, “once or twice a month, maybe more.” He recalls a revelatory trip to the United States mainland to visit family friends when he was young. The little boy immediately noticed one difference at his host’s home: no generator. “What do you do when the power goes out?” he asked. “It’s never a problem,” came the reply.
In Puerto Rico, he says, having a generator is like having a fridge — it's an essential household appliance. And during the weekly class meetings before the Notre Dame students traveled to Adjuntas, Barreto was called on to educate his peers about some other things they would want to know before flying south. He explained the island’s status as an unincorporated U.S. territory, the strained relations with the federal government after Maria, the reasons Puerto Rico fields its own teams in international sports competitions.
More important, he wanted them to understand a few things about the culture. “People notice each other,” he sums up. “There’s a sense of family.” When served a meal, you say “buen provecho” — think bon appetit — even to strangers. Family ties are so strong that most people can introduce you to aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandchildren living in their neighborhood. And when Barreto’s neighborhood lost power and water for weeks in the September heat after Maria, the neighborhood itself became family. One home opened its backyard pool to everyone. Others stepped forward to cook and to begin clearing trees off the streets.
The word for this is cariño. Barreto can’t quite put his finger on the English equivalent.
To learn it, his peers would have to see it. And when they arrived on the island, and met students at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in San Juan, they got a sense of it. But it wasn’t until they arrived in Adjuntas and began the solar installation on the home of Ellyzaida Navarro that they could fully grasp its meaning.
Hundreds of homes in Adjuntas had applied to Casa Pueblo, a local community organization, to participate in the installation, organized by Anne Berges Pillai '77 of ND Energy; the Let’s Share the Sun Foundation, a solar energy nonprofit founded by Bill Jordan ’85 and Nancy Brennan-Jordan ’85; and Luke Lewandowski ’00, who coordinated the support of energy research consultancy Wood Mackenzie. Acute medical need determined the final project list. Navarro’s brother is on kidney dialysis. Power failures at their house are a matter of life and death.
As the students got to work under the supervision of Jordan and the Let’s Share the Sun team, Navarro kept them generously fed with rice, beans, sweet potatoes, fish and banter — stories, endearments, humble gratitude for the transformation they were making to her home. Her affinity for Barreto was immediate. She said he reminded her of her son, who had died in a motorcycle accident.
When the group finished its work on the second day, Elly Navarro gave hugs all around. The biggest of all went to Lucas Barreto. “You’re my new adopted son,” she told him — in Spanish, of course, but the translation was lost on no one.
Let’s Share the Sun had been hard at work well before the students arrived, completing five installations toward the week’s goal. They visited the home of an evangelical minister, on oxygen to support his damaged lungs, and the group prayed together giving thanks for the many gifts received during the week.
The gratitude was mutual. The students weren’t saviors, says Barreto. For him, the story is about working with people “to get the opportunities we all should have.”
“More than anything,” he adds, “it’s the peace the solar brings. The security,” the assurance that when the power goes out, no one’s life is in danger, the lightening of a financial burden in households where paying $150 a month for power means doing without other basics.
Hurricane Fiona, which pounded Puerto Rico September 18-19, left four people dead and most of the island once again without electricity. In Adjuntas, at least 10 homes kept their lights on, machines working, insulin chilled, oxygen flowing, without resorting to temporary generators.
“It gives them the ability to appreciate other things,” Barreto says from Rome, where he is studying for the fall semester. Speaking of Puerto Rico as a whole, where millions still depend on a grid almost entirely fueled by natural gas, oil and coal, he adds, “It’s crazy they don’t have reliable power when it’s so needed in today’s society.”
Barreto interned over the summer with the Troy, New York-based Let’s Share the Sun. He still works enough hours for Jordan to have pulled him into an early September conference call with representatives from Puerto Rico’s Banco Popular. On the table was the nonprofit’s proposal for a $39,000 pilot installation on a domestic violence shelter. The bankers were direct about Barreto’s favorable influence. Without him, “we’d have fumbled at the five-yard line,” Jordan says. “He said all the right things.”
Barreto expects to return home after graduation to pursue a career in renewable energy. He keeps up with his new friends in Adjuntas and at Casa Pueblo. Navarro texts him every day. Over the summer, when the young engineer-in-training returned to spend an afternoon with her, she greeted him with her irrepressible smile, a mother’s hug and a “big, big, BIG plate” of beans and rice — and steak in place of the fish.
She sent him home with food for his family in San Juan. That’s the power of good connections and Puerto Rican cariño.
John Nagy is managing editor of this magazine.