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Help out with my next Contributoria project: Puerto Rico’s New Makers’ Movement

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Francisco Collazo
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Ring made by a Puerto Rican artisan, on sale at Localista, a new design shop featuring all-local designs, located inside the recently reopened Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Ring made by a Puerto Rican artisan, on sale at Localista, a new design shop featuring all-local designs, located inside the recently reopened Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that over the past six months or so, I’ve been experimenting with the use of the platform Contributoria as a way of funding longform features I want to research, write, and have published, as well as a means of expanding my audience.

For the most part, this has been successful. While the site could improve in some significant ways, it has allowed me to work on projects I’d otherwise be hard-pressed to actualize with limited resources, including one about The New York Botanical Garden, one about the Blaschka glass collection at Harvard, and the most recent one about the enduring fascination with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Not every one of my proposals has been successful. A project about c-sections has proven to be challenging when it comes to attracting widespread support, and both times I’ve proposed it, I’ve failed to attain the backing needed to be able to pursue it. Yet each month opens with the opportunity to propose a new project, and my goal for 2015 is to do my part to propose a compelling project each month and then hustle as much as needed to round up the support to get each project fully backed.

If you’re a newer reader, I’ll explain again how Contributoria works. As I mentioned a couple months ago, “Contributoria is akin to crowdfunding, but supporters don’t pledge any of their own money to back a project. Instead, they use their monthly allotment of 50 points to ‘back’ projects they want to see funded by the site. You sign up for a free account at www.contributoria.com and allot your points as you wish. Contributoria doesn’t send out any spam and neither do I– just a monthly notification when I’ve listed a new project proposal and when I’ve published a project.”

My current project is about an emerging makers’ movement in Puerto Rico. As with my previous projects, this one requires quite a bit of backing– about 200 more supporters by the end of the month. I’d appreciate it if you’d take a look at my proposal and back it with your points if you feel so inclined. A full description of the project is on the same page where you have the option to back it.

You can sign up for an account on Contributoria’s main page.

And feel free to spread the word! I’m @collazoprojects on twitter.

Thank you.

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Help Wanted: Back My March 2015 Contributoria Project (No Money Involved!)

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Francisco Collazo
**

A mural on a Head Start  preschool in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

A mural on a Head Start preschool in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

One of the most common challenges writers and journalists face is that of funding the research phase of their work. Unless you’re on staff (and even then, there’s no guarantee), it can be tough to cobble together the money that allows you to do the work that’s necessary to investigate and report a story responsibly and thoroughly. All too often, we pay out of pocket in the hope that our investment will pay off– that we’ll be able to sell the story once we’ve committed money and time into writing it.

It’s a gamble I’ve made time and again, but one that has become harder to make now that I have three children and more financial responsibilities. Investing money in a project that may not have a sure outcome isn’t the best business strategy when you’re a writer.

That’s why I’ve been very grateful for Contributoria, a platform that supports journalists and writers by funding their project proposals. I’ve been able to research and report two stories thanks to their support, one of which has been republished in The Guardian, which is a partner of the platform.

The way Contributoria works is akin to crowdfunding, but supporters don’t pledge any of their own money to back a project. Instead, they use their monthly allotment of 50 points to “back” projects they want to see funded by the site. You sign up for a free account at www.contributoria.com and allot your points as you wish. Contributoria doesn’t send out any spam and neither do I– just a monthly notification when I’ve listed a new project proposal and when I’ve published a project.

My March 2015 project is about c-section rates in Puerto Rico and requires quite a bit of backing– about 200 more supporters by the end of the month… which is just a few days away. I’d appreciate it if you’d take a look at my proposal and back it if you feel so inclined. You can sign up for an account on Contributoria’s main page.

And feel free to spread the word! I’m @collazoprojects on twitter.

Thank you.

Guide books aren’t going to die. Online guides & apps aren’t necessarily up to date.

My right eye is twitching.

I’m 32–almost 33–and I don’t wear glasses or contact lenses. Never have. But these might just be the two projects that change all that. I’ve even taken a weekend offline (well, mostly offline) and the visual fatigue doesn’t seem to be getting better.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been fact checking and updating an online travel guide. The work involves scanning the seemingly infinite fields of an Internet database and making sure all the information–address, phone number, website, days/hours of operation, and lots of little details–are all current. I tick off boxes, delete defunct URLs, and switch between screens to enter information, usually while running back and forth to the kitchen to make verification phone calls (the kitchen is the only place where we get decent phone reception). Finally, late on a Saturday night, the work is finished. For today, at least, we can be sure that the information about the 225 businesses is correct.

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I’ve also been working, for months now, on an iPhone app. I have complete control of the entries I want to include, but the same basic information has to be sourced and verified for each. More phone calls, more (usually fruitless) Googling. More cutting and pasting, and squinting at the computer screen for hours. Can the person on the other end of the line repeat the days and hours again? And again?

“Well, keep in mind, these are only seasonal hours,” one restaurant owner tells me at the end of a call. “This will all change next week.” “Things have been slow lately,” a shopkeeper tells me. “So we close at 5, sometimes at 6.” I hang up the phone and rub my eyes. Again.

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There’s a pervasive myth that printed guide books are soon to be relegated to obscurity, destined to become curious historical artifacts that document our 20th and 21st century travel interests. The myth spreads because people believe the Internet and apps provide a logical, real-time replacement of the guide book. The information in a guide book is outdated before the book even hits the shelves. The information on the Internet, in contrast, is considered  up to date.

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Having worked on all three types of guides now–the traditional printed guide book, the online travel guide, and an iPhone app–I know that the argument is largely baseless… at least for Puerto Rico. A business’ days and hours, the payment methods it accepts, its very existence… they’re all subject to quotidian developments like rising rents, corporate takeovers,technological innovations, owner fatigue, and seasonal slumps. Phone numbers get disconnected. Mindspring email accounts are replaced by gmail. 300 slot machines are now 324. Believe me, that may not , matter to you, but it matters to someone, and they’re going to be pissed if the information you provide is wrong.

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When it comes right down to it, these three forms of guides aren’t all that different.

The business travel guide to Guadalajara I updated in 2008–which is online–has just come up for a revision. That’s two full years–about the same life cycle as an update for most guide books. The information on the iPhone will only be as current as my updates are. I’ve got the ambitious goal of doing a monthly update, but setting up the architecture for a fact check system is more time-consuming than you’d think.

The take-away for people who depend upon travel guides should be obvious enough. Don’t rely on the guide book, the online travel guide, or the mobile app to contain up-to-the-minute information that’s 100% accurate. Don’t even depend on a business’ website for the current information. Call and confirm.

Places are like people: They change.

My first interaction with a guidebook writer was in 2006 and I was not impressed.

We were sitting around a table at my friends’ house up in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico; Francisco was cooking dinner for said writer, who’d had no qualms about asking my friends if he could get a comped night or two at their guesthouse.  They declined his request, explaining to me (though not to him, I think) that they received many such requests, and as a two-person operation with limited accommodations, it made little financial sense for them to respond with invitations.  I understood; their property consisted, at the time, of a couple guesthouses. One person in the guesthouse meant that the whole house was off the market. And a single night in the guesthouse meant that my friends would spend the  next morning cleaning it…all for what? No promise of a review of any sort.

Nevertheless, they were friendly and generous with writers, often inviting them to take a look at the property and sit down for coffee or, in this case, a meal, to just talk shop and answer any questions the writer might have.

At the time, I was just starting my career as a professional writer, and I was under the same illusion that many people have about guidebook writing (that it’s a fun and lucrative job. Fun: Yes. Lucrative: Usually not).  Also, my honeymoon period with Puerto Rico hadn’t quite worn off yet, so I was curious about the writer’s itinerary and wanted to hear about where he planned to travel on the island, what he planned to include in the guide, and how he handled the logistics of his job.

“Oh, El Yunque?” he said, as Francisco served the meal. “I went there a few years ago. But I mean, it’s a rain forest. It hasn’t changed. No, I’m not going back.”

I was either too dumbstruck or too polite to respond. I’d been working as a tour guide on the island for an educational travel company; my work had me in the rain forest every week and every single visit, I noticed changes. He hadn’t been there in several years, but he assumed that nothing had changed.

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I thought of the writer today as I headed out to Catano, site of the Bacardi Rum Factory. Two large wind turbines had been installed on the property–the first on the island. Both were new. The Holiday Inn in Isla Verde is now the Verdanza Hotel. Author Jared Romey and I went out for dinner at Ummo, an Argentinean restaurant in Condado– if it wasn’t new, I hadn’t noticed it when I was here last June and again in July. The Raices fountain on the Paseo de la Princesa is broken. The storefront that used to sell shoes in Plaza de Armas has apparently been a restaurant since last summer, but it’s closed. The taxis don’t line up in front of Toro Salao anymore; they’re across from the Casino (which is not, by the way, a casino).

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I’ve mentioned before how important it is to go to the places we write about. Sometimes, I think that statement is painfully obvious, but for some people, it’s not.  Earlier today, I realized that I’d fallen into the same mental trap as that guide book writer.  I left Puerto Rico in 2007, deeply frustrated with and conflicted about this country.  Though I returned frequently for various assignments, I often kept seeing Puerto Rico in the same tainted light I’d looked at it when I lived here.

Curiously enough, it was writing my features for the Fodor’s Puerto Rico guide book that helped me see Puerto Rico with fresh eyes. One of my assignments took me into Puerto Rico’s little-explored interior; other features compelled me to interview local artists, who (more than anyone or anything) helped me rekindle that early flame I had when I first moved here. I thought about that writer again and wished he could be excited about rediscovering the island.

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Tonight, I talked with a woman who was born and raised here, but who left 20 years ago.  She entertained me for an hour with stories about picking coffee as a kid on her grandfather’s farm, about her husband carrying plantains and milk to cement factory workers in Ponce when he was a boy. She told me about her 10 brothers and sisters, and how they’ve upheld important cultural traditions like bomba y plena.  “You’ve got to record these stories,” I said, my synapses firing with a dozen story ideas.

“It’s amazing,” I told her, when she was done. “Twenty or thirty years–hardly anyone farms anymore. And I’ll bet no one carries plantains and milk to the cement factory anymore.” A silence hung between us for a few moments. Maybe she felt nostalgic, I don’t know. I did- I always do when people tell  me their stories.  The thought that so much had changed in so little time really did blow me away. And made me grateful anew for the time I’ve spent here to witness the things that change… as well as the ones that stay the same.

To Ph.D or Not to Ph.D

It’s November, which means it’s time–again–to make a decision: will I continue my PhD this year?

Back in 2005, when we moved to Puerto Rico, I decided to start a doctorate degree in Latin American literature–in Spanish. I was feeling an intellectual deadness in my environment, I missed being in school, I’d always wanted to study for a degree in my second language, Spanish, and I really had no excuse not to do it: the nearest PhD program was a five minute walk from our apartment, it was an inexpensive program, and the courses were small and intimate.

I enrolled in the PhD program at Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y El Caribe, where I started developing my dissertation idea: narratives about place and identity and the ways one shapes the other in Latin American writing.  It was heady stuff and I loved it… coming home and sitting in the rocking chair in our library/office  (yes, we had a library!), reading literature and theory and discussing my classes with Francisco. I loved writing papers–I’d always loved that–and I loved forcing myself to speak up in class as the only non-native speaker in the program. I took a heavy courseload each semester and I did well in all my classes.

And then I put it all on indefinite hold.

I got sick–just as I did in my Masters program–with the egos of academe. I’d enrolled in the program for the sheer pleasure of learning– I didn’t have any plan to actually “use” my degree. I wasn’t pandering to faculty to eventually land a job in one of the few universities in PR and become their colleagues. I really wanted to discuss and debate what we were reading. I wanted to know, for instance, why we were always reading European literary theory when we could (and should, in my opinion), have been reading Latin American literary theory.

Conveniently, I had a job that made going to school difficult. I proposed a course of independent study to the dean, who declined, citing the fact that none of the faculty were full-time and that they would need to be paid extra to facilitate an independent study as the reason why I couldn’t finish my degree that way. Then we decided to move again and that was that. PhD on permanent hold.

Every November, though, as deadlines loom large, I stare down the decision again: will this be the year I decide to just buckle down, bite my tongue, and finish this degree? Francisco says I should. My friend’s dad, a Spanish professor and department head, says I should. My former high school Spanish teacher, now a professor specializing in Afro-Caribbean studies, says I should. But until this year, I’ve thought about it for a couple days and then decided no. A PhD program would tie me down to a place. It would probably require that we penny pinch even more than we already do. I still didn’t plan to use the degree. I’d have to have a schedule (gasp!). I’d have to commute.

But here we are again and it’s November. And this year, I’ve decided to do it. With a husband who has immigration issues and a baby , I won’t be doing much far-flung travel for a little while. I still love the classroom, and I do miss it. I could study all this stuff on my own, I still don’t know if I’ll use the degree, and I know that the ego stuff will continue to bother me (now more than ever, since we’re talking about Columbia and NYU), but why not finish the degree? I’ve already done two years of work toward the PhD and I’ve gathered lots of material and contacts in my travels and time living abroad to write the dissertation.

I’ve run out of excuses not to do it this year.