CENTRO and Princeton launch Second Group of Mellon Bridging the Divides Fellows

Study Group convenes an interdisciplinary hub of researchers to imagine Post-Disaster Futures for Puerto Rico and its Diaspora

The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, in partnership with Princeton University, is proud to announce the launch of the second iteration of the Bridging the Divides Fellowship, generously funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation. Building on the success of the inaugural fellowship cohort, which focused on the critical theme of Decolonization, the second group of fellows will delve into projects centered on Puerto Rico’s Post-Disaster Futures. 

An external review committee meticulously selected 11 exceptionally talented artists and scholars hailing from Puerto Rico and its diaspora. These distinguished fellows will embark on a year-long journey of collaborative research, contributing their unique perspectives and expertise to imagine and shape the future of Puerto Rico.

This second Study Group, which will run from September 2023 to May 2024, will be led by Yarimar Bonilla, former CENTRO Director and Professor at Princeton’s Effron Center, and Deepak Lamba-Nieves, Research Director & Churchill G. Carey, Jr. Chair in Economic Development Research at the Center for a New Economy. They will build a partnership between CENTRO and Princeton that, alongside alliances with other institutions and programs, will support this Study Group’s intersectional approach to disaster impact and recovery. 

The group will examine how race, sexuality, and social belonging are currently being re-imagined by Puerto Ricans. “This study group is a unique opportunity for those of us thinking about reconstruction policies and programs to engage in thoughtful reflections, and imagine different post-disaster futures that effectively lead to a just recovery for Puerto Rico and its people,” said Lamba-Nieves.

Following the model established in the inaugural year, the Bridging the Divides Fellowship program will empower these individuals to work on both individual and collaborative projects. It will also involve convening external experts to present their insights at public events, contributing to a digital media hub, and forging new conceptual pathways. Under the steadfast support of the Mellon Foundation, these study groups are designed to fortify the humanities, arts, higher education, and cultural heritage sectors across Puerto Rican communities. 

The culmination of each Bridging the Divides study group will be a collectively authored publication, as well as concrete policy recommendations for Puerto Rico’s political, economic, social, and cultural future. By fostering an environment of cross-disciplinary collaboration and open dialogue, the program aims to effect meaningful change and develop equitable futures.

CENTRO and Princeton are thrilled to announce the new recipients of the second Bridging the Divides study group fellowship:


[Head shot/ Credit: Roberto Rivera Sánchez]

Luis Guarionex Morales Matos is an arranger and composer who has written numerous a cappella choral works. In 2001, he established Orfeón San Juan Bautista, a professional choir currently under his co-direction. His opus also includes art songs, film scores, choral music with instrumental accompaniment, choral-symphonic works, ballet music, and opera. For nine years, Morales Matos served as the radio announcer, scriptwriter, and producer for Mayormente a Capella, a radio series specialized in choral music aired on Radio Universidad, the University of Puerto Rico’s radio station. Morales Matos holds a bachelor’s degree in public communications and a master’s degree in cultural management and administration, both from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus.

Morales Matos’ project, entitled The Star under the Shadows, focuses on the role of an imposed citizenship in a Latin American country. How does the USA’s legal identity, dissociated from Puerto Rican Hispanic culture, subject our archipelago’s population to specific rights and responsibilities within the context of its seeking for a “post-disaster” and political future? The project explores how said Anglo-Saxon citizenship serves as a migratory escape valve to decompress and weaken the emergence of social outbreaks that would catalyze Puerto Rican political and social changes. Using the language of bomba’s rhythms and chants, Morales Matos will represent this subject in a choral video-art piece.

[Head shot / Credit: Joe Colón]

Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez is a graphic novelist most notably recognized as the writer and creator of the critically acclaimed and bestselling superhero series La Borinqueña that is part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian. He is the recipient of the Comic-Con International Humanitarian Award for his philanthropic work in Puerto Rico. As the Creative Director and owner of Somos Arte, a Brooklyn-based creative services studio he has worked with such notable clients as Marvel, Sony Pictures, Atlantic Records and Columbia University. In addition, Miranda-Rodriguez is a curator of art exhibitions, including three original Marvel comic book art exhibitions and a La Borinqueña art show, that has traveled from Puerto Rico to the United States.

Miranda-Rodriguez will develop an original manuscript for next installment of the critically acclaimed best-selling superhero series La Borinqueña. Thematically, La Borinqueña #4 will push further into areas of corporatization, gentrification, and displacement in Puerto Rico addressing, not just the tragedy facing Puertorriqueños, but the hope the people embody. This project will continue to highlight our La Borinqueña’s superpowers and adventures connected to speculative storytelling rooted in a Diasporic, AfroBoricua, Taino, and Nuevo Rican identity.

[Head shot/ Credit: Xiaoyue Zhang]

Natalia Lassalle-Morillo is a visual artist, filmmaker, theatermaker and educator whose work reconstructs history through a transdisciplinary approach. Melding experimental film, live performance and installation, Lassalle-Morillo’s practice centers on excavating imagined and archive history, decentralizing canonical narratives, and foregrounds collaborations with non-professional performers and writers. Her multi-platform projects explore familial and citizen relationships in the context of Caribbean collective memory and the resulting imperialism oppression that has altered generations of material and spiritual trajectories. She has participated in artist fellowships and residencies at the Smithsonian, Amant Foundation, Fonderie Darling, and Pioneer Works. Her work is part of the KADIST collection, and she has exhibited it in the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Tenerife Espacio de las Artes, SeMa, Walt Disney Modular Theater, among others. She has taught film and interdisciplinary performance at Bard Microcollege, Calarts and MICA. Natalia was born in Puerto Rico, where she is currently based. 

Lasalle-Morillo’s project, En Parábola/Conversations of Tragedy, reimagines Sophocles’ Antigone with a cast of non-professional performers residing in Puerto Rico and New York City, a critical outpost of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Developed through a multi-year process of collaborative scriptwriting, rehearsal and experimental filmmaking, the cast collectively rewrites and performs their own version of Antigone based on their lived experiences of migration and colonial resistance. Taking the form of a multi-channel film installation and live performance series, En Parábola seeks to connect these communities, after decades of geographical fragmentation, and cumulative environmental, economic and political tragedies.

[Headhot/ Credit: Erika P Rodríguez]

Erika P. Rodríguez is a freelance photographer based in Puerto Rico. She has documented her homeland extensively for international media since the government’s bankruptcy in 2015. Rodríguez’s work is conscious on countering the Caribbean paradise visual stereotype, and seeks to grab the implicit tension in daily life that is a result of the island’s colonial status. Rodríguez’s work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and NPR, among others.

Rodríguez’s project is a documentation of la plena, an autochthonous Afro-Puerto Rican musical genre that is characterized by its expression of the oral and experiential histories of the working class. The project focuses on plena songs performed in the streets of the Puerto Rican archipelago and its diaspora, that respond to our current socio-political landscape. In collaboration with plena practitioners, she will compile a visual and oral history record to serve as a memory and resistance tool, that will stand as a testimony of the people—countering or complementing the current official narratives. This compilation will culminate in a book of the collection of photographs and plena songs.


[Headshot/ Credit: Patrick Tam]

Aixa Alemán-Díaz is a cultural anthropologist interested in the intersections of culture, environment and health. She examines the multiple social relationships that co-exist between residents and coastal and karst environments in Puerto Rico. Alemán-Díaz’s and Dr. María Alejandra Pérez’s ongoing NSF project investigates the history, present, and future directions of the exploration and conservation of coasts and karst natural systems in Puerto Rico. Alemán-Díaz also brings ample experience in public and nonprofit sectors. For example, in 2021, she joined the UNIDOS US Advisory Committee to complete “Closing Latina Wealth Gap report.” Aleman-Díaz was born and raised in Puerto Rico and obtained a bachelor’s in anthropology and psychology from the University of Michigan, a master’s degree from Rutgers University, and a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from American University.

Alemán-Díaz will work on two funded interdisciplinary projects. The first ongoing project is NSF Ecologies of Participation. This research project addresses the critical need of assessing how island communities (leaders and local organizations) experience environmental and geologic change in various regions of Puerto Rico. The second 2024 NEH project is an ethnography about the ways humans experience, understand and reframe their sense of meaning and purpose in response to “unusual geological encounters” in the southwest of Puerto Rico with a focus on environmental humanities.

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 Elizabeth Aranda’s research addresses migrants’ emotional well-being and how they adapt to challenges posed by racial and ethnic inequalities, legal status, and other challenges associated with adaptation in a new place. She has published two books, Emotional Bridges to Puerto Rico: Migration, Return Migration, and the Struggles of Incorporation (2007), and, with Hughes and Sabogal, she is lead author of the book, Making a Life in Multiethnic Miami: Immigration and the Rise of a Global City (2014). Her current work is on how Puerto Rican climate migrants construct home in new places, and on the lives of undocumented young adults and how they navigate the terrain of immigration policies and exclusion. She has been the recipient of three National Science Foundation awards.

Aranda will work on the book project, Re-Making Home, about climate migrants who left Puerto Rico for Florida after Hurricane María struck the archipelago in 2017. Using data from the National Science Foundation-funded Puerto Rican Post-Disaster Migration Project, of which she is the Principal Investigator, Aranda’s book will examine the challenges that climate migrants confronted when establishing their homes in Central Florida, and the circumstances that led a quarter of her sample to return to Puerto Rico, only to confront the homes in disrepair that they had left behind. Re-Making Home engages debates about citizenship, race and ethnicity, emotions, place-making, and im/migrant incorporation, all woven into stories about Puerto Ricans’ lives that were forever changed by Hurricane María.

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Érika Fontánez Torres is a Professor at the University of Puerto Rico Law School and a public intellectual in matters concerning the relationship between law and society. She teaches courses in Property Law, Contracts, and Jurisprudence and Legal Theory. She collaborates with various interdisciplinary projects and currently serves as Visiting Scholar at the Center for Social Research (Centro de Investigaciones Sociales) at the UPR-RP. Her research work adopts a socio-legal approach to topics such as property, land access, housing, and the relationship between law and political theory. Fontánez Torres is the author of multiple articles and three books: Derecho, Acción y Política en Hannah Arendt (2020), Casa, Suelo y Título: Vivienda e Informalidad en Puerto Rico (2020), and Ambigüedad y Derecho: Ensayos de Crítica Jurídica (2014). Additionally, she is the co-author of the book Derecho al derecho: grietas e intersticios del poder judicial en Puerto Rico (2012). She has been honored with the Nilita Vientos Gastón Medal by the Puerto Rico Bar Association (2014).

Fontánez Torres’ project comprises a collection of essays, titled “Legal Premises,” that reflect on various legal aspects of contemporary Puerto Rico. It will employ a critical and interdisciplinary legal approach, providing legal professionals and citizens with tools to question the unarticulated hegemonic legal premises in Puerto Rico aimed at fostering transformative change. The book will address cross-cutting themes vital to post-disaster Puerto Rico, including collective rights, the notion of law and order, diverse advocacy types, legal education, and new legal concepts emerging from broad democratic premises and life sustainability.

[Headshot/ Credit: John Peters]

Marcelo López-Dinardi is an Assistant Professor of architecture at Texas A&M University. He is interested in the scales of design, the role of the public and commons, and in architecture as an expanded media. He is the editor of Architecture from Public to Commons (Routledge, 2023) and Degrowth (ARQ, 2022). In 2022, he was nationally elected At-Large Director for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture’s (ACSA) Board of Directors for 2022-2025. He holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico (cum laude) and an MS in Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices for architecture from the GSAPP at Columbia University.

López Dinardi’s project critically examines the material, extractive, climatic, and cultural realities of cement in its combined role of casting dreams of modernization and condemning the archipelago to the material that, while heroic to resist hurricanes in concrete form, is one of the worst in heat transfers and embodied carbon. “Cemented Dreams: Material and Ecological Stories in Puerto Rico” will be an exhibition that looks critically at concrete’s entangled histories and aims to uncover connections between Puerto Rico’s architecture and the “pre and post” disaster life of ruins, the coloniality of disaster, and the paradoxes of life conservation and climate adaptation.

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Sarah Molinari is a cultural anthropologist, educator, and public scholar who works at the intersection of ethnography, critical disaster studies, feminist geography, and digital humanities. She holds a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center and is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) where she is working in Puerto Rico on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration project called the Caribbean Climate Adaptation Network. Her current book project analyzes the politics and lived experiences of debt and disaster recovery processes in Puerto Rico, specifically how community organizers and debt activists negotiate compound crises through mutual aid, spatial rescue/occupation, legal tactics, and protest. She has taught interdisciplinary courses at the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey and Hunter College, CUNY and is a co-advisor for WPI’s Puerto Rico Project Center. Sarah is a Co-Founder of the Puerto Rico Syllabus, the Editor-in-Chief of a public anthropology project called Home/Field, and a collaborator with the Red Regional de Apoyo Mutuo, a network of grassroots organizations in Puerto Rico. Molinari’s publications appear in both scholarly and popular outlets such as Urban Geography, Climate and Development, CENTRO Journal, Aftershocks of Disaster, Truthout, and Anthropology News.

Molinari’s project focuses on school rescues and occupations in Puerto Rico. She will be conducting research and preparing a journal article that expands on her ethnographic work around the spatial and gendered politics of mutual aid in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The project explores the place-making practices of school rescues taking place across the archipelago in recent years marked by school closures and education reform. She is interested in examining how school rescues might unsettle conventional property logics to assert creative ownership claims that resist austerity, as well as the care relations, ecological practices, and alternative social infrastructures that emerge.

[Headhot/ Credit: Dr. Norma Peña]

Raúl Santiago-Bartolomei is an Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Planning, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. His research focuses on housing, economic and community development, infrastructure planning, post-disaster planning, and climate change adaptation.

Santiago-Bartolomei’s project is titled “Disasters as new frontiers for platformed financialization: Housing dispossession and displacement in disaster-ridden Puerto Rico.” It will delve into the following question: How do disasters, the networks of intermediaries, and digital platforms enable new pathways for housing financialization and community displacement in post-disaster Puerto Rico? Santiago-Bartolomei will ascertain how trends in neighborhood change and residential displacement relate to the proliferation of short-term rentals, uneven post-disaster reconstruction rates, and property purchases by Act 60 and corporate investors. He will also assess how different intermediaries use and/or develop digital platforms to gather and share information and guide their real estate decisions.

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Fernando Tormos-Aponte is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. He earned his Ph.D. in Political Science from Purdue University and a BA from the Universidad de Puerto Rico—Río Piedras. Tormos-Aponte specializes in environmental and racial justice, intersectional solidarity, identity politics, social policy, and transnational politics.

Tormos-Aponte’s project aims to investigate the social, political, and public health consequences of energy inequality in Puerto Rico. Tormos-Aponte will simultaneously nurture and strengthen relationships with community partners actively involved in initiatives to develop and maintain community food, water, and energy infrastructures. The Bridging the Divides Fellowship will play a pivotal role in advancing the educational and public intellectualism objectives of the Social Vulnerability and Resilience Lab (SOLVER Lab).