As Puerto Rico struggles to recover, a principal sticks to her principles: ‘You cannot play with children’s lives’

By Coco McCabe
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Sister Magna Martinez Jimenez, principal of the Colegio Maria Auxiliadora in San Juan, Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria devastated the island, her school led the way in the community in opening its doors, finding and providing clean drinking water, and assessing needs in the neighborhood. Coco McCabe/Oxfam

It was just before Thanksgiving and the afternoon was winding down when we arrived at the Colegio María Auxiliadora, a school of 400 students from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade in Villa Palmeras in Península de Cantera, a neighborhood of San Juan in Puerto Rico. But for the principal—Sister Magna Martínez Jiménez, whose day starts at 6:30 a.m.—no rest was in sight.

The voices of kids echoed across the courtyard as they darted past her door. The thud of a bouncing ball and laughter drifted up from a game nearby. And hovering over it all was the lingering excitement of a just-run race whose winners, 30 boys and girls in different groups, each took home a donated turkey. Right away we got the feeling that this was more than just a school; it was a magnet for the community.

We were visiting the colegio as part of Oxfam’s ongoing assessment of needs in poorer parts of the city following Hurricane Maria. The late September 2017 storm had hammered the island, decimating its power grid, ripping roofs off homes, and leaving countless people without access to clean drinking water. So severe was the destruction and so faltering was the US government’s response that Oxfam decided to step in and help local leaders meet their community needs. Clean water was one of the most pressing ones, and after learning about the colegio’s struggles, Oxfam equipped the school with two extra community water filters.

Martínez Jiménez ushered us into her office—as spotless and white as her flowing habit—and pulled out a stack of papers with columns printed in a careful hand. The lists tallied the destruction her extended school community was living with. Windows, doors, ceilings, even whole houses—all wrecked. Fridges, stoves, cars, beds: ruined. And worse, jobs were gone. Forty-seven mothers were out of work; so were 29 fathers.

Right after the storm, Martínez Jiménez, 46, and others from the school had fanned out through the neighborhood to gauge the damage. They quickly realized they needed to make their building available as soon as possible so kids would have a place to go while their parents cleaned up after the storm. The community needed a gathering place, too, and so the colegio opened its doors to neighborhood families.

Then house by house, staffers visited all 400 students, noting each family’s losses and recording T-shirt and shoe sizes to help replace clothing. Circled in blue on the front page of the staffers’ census was this imperative: “Many families need food.”

And so began the wait in long lines for everything—fuel, food, water. Ensuring there was enough clean drinking water for all the students was one of the things that worried Martínez Jiménez the most. On one nearly day-long hunt, she traveled between emergency command and distribution centers, waiting for hours, only to return with eight 24-bottle boxes of water. Undaunted, she divvied it up and the entire school had a portion to drink.

Sister Magna Martínez Jiménez is determined to make the case for the practical integration of education in emergency plans. Coco McCabe/Oxfam

Finding the good in the hard

That quest for water tells you a great deal about Martínez Jiménez and her commitment to the kids—and the community—she serves. Her attachment has been lifelong: the colegio was where she, too, went to school as a girl, though it was a high school at the time, and the rooms brim with memories as strong as ever.

“I feel the same happiness,” said Martínez Jiménez. “This place holds a lot of my secrets.”

Some of the secrets, she admitted, were not so happy. She was a teenager, after all. But those adolescent challenges were also opportunities for growth, and in a way, that outlook—that determination to embrace what’s difficult and find the good in it—has informed her professional life, too.

Take her first assignment as a nun. Martínez Jiménez was sent to a rural community where a new school was being built. Without knowing anything about construction or finance, she had to step in for another nun who had been there for 17 years. And even more unnerving, she suddenly found herself in charge of a crew of men, all of whom were older than she was.

Laughing about it now, Martínez Jiménez said she cried a lot at the start of that first assignment. But she also learned an enormous amount about school construction. Years later, she put that firsthand knowledge to good use in Haiti after a devastating earthquake there destroyed great swaths of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. She went with engineers from Puerto Rico to help rebuild Haitian schools run by her religious order.

Lessons: schools during emergencies

It was during that time in Haiti that Martínez Jiménez had another defining experience, one that fires her up today as Puerto Rico struggles to rebuild. It was about the importance of ensuring that education, and the stability that schools provide, continues for kids in the aftermath of a disaster. So clear was that lesson that Martínez Jiménez, who had started a PhD program, switched her thesis to focus on that theme.

And that’s why, on this afternoon in late November two months after Hurricane María hit, Martínez Jiménez voiced so much concern about the fate of some of the island’s public schools.

“There are many that have not opened and many that have closed permanently,” she said, rising from her seat to dig through a file drawer. From it she pulls her doctoral dissertation, “Modelo de integración práctica del componente educativo en los planes de manejo de emergencia,” which she has been reviewing in hopes of meeting with Puerto Rico’s secretary of education. Martínez Jiménez is determined to make the case for the practical integration of education in emergency plans.

At the colegio, Martínez Jiménez and her staff have done as much as they can to ensure school life goes on as normal, even during the long weeks they were without electricity. Though it had recently come back on, it was still sporadic. To manage, the staffers hauled desks into the halls where there was better light and the kindergarteners had their classes in the auditorium, where it was cooler. And concerned about the mental health of students, Martínez Jiménez had just helped to organize a school health fair.

For Martínez Jiménez, the lesson in this disaster response couldn’t be more important: “You cannot play with children’s lives,” she said simply. It’s a view that should inform every emergency response in every vulnerable place on our planet.

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