Due to her notable achievements in bringing awareness to human trafficking, she was named one of three finalists for the International Children’s Peace Prize this past year, becoming the first Puerto Rican to be nominated for the award. In addition, she has also been recognized by the Department of State of Puerto Rico, the Senate of Puerto Rico, and the Consulate of the Dominican Republic in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Community Engagement Manager of the Caribbean Society, Mayra Gottardi, reached out to Jeanesha to discuss her accomplishments and her goals for increasing opportunities and improving the well-being of young Puerto Ricans.
How were you inspired to begin your fight against human trafficking?
My work began with the Girl Scouts of Puerto Rico. The organization is often perceived as a group whose primary focus is to sell cookies, although the reality is that I have been able to do much more than that. In my case, the organization inspired me to begin a project to combat human trafficking. This issue has always been of interest to me, in part because my mother is from the Dominican Republic, and through the years I have been in contact with people who come to Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic as undocumented immigrants. Human trafficking profoundly affects these individuals, as they become highly vulnerable due to their immigration status.
How did you transform your interest in this cause into an active role as young leader who fights against human trafficking?
When I was seven years old, I saw a movie here in Puerto Rico which sparked my interest, and it was my father who then gave me greater detail into the reality of human trafficking. This coincided with me joining the Girl Scouts, where I was taught what it means to be a leader, how to speak to a public audience, and how to combat issues in my community. Using what I had learned, I completed my project on human trafficking and received the Silver Award, one of the highest honors that can be achieved in the Girl Scouts organization.
My project took place in Puerto Rico and focused on immigrants from the Dominican Republic. I received support from the embassy and large news outlets, and we completed the project with the assistance of the Ricky Martin Foundation, whose staff members have become my mentors throughout the years.
However, once the project with the Girl Scouts was completed, I made an important decision: I had to continue my work. The fight against human trafficking could not stop simply because I had finished my project. That decision gave rise to further efforts to determine what more could be done and what additional support could be obtained to continue this fight.
Through my search I discovered Hillary Clinton’s ANNpower Vital Voices Initiative. Her organization invited me to attend a forum in Washington, D.C., where as part of the program I was given training on how to become an international leader, and how to make the jump from the local level to the global level. My project had begun in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, and because many were not aware that human trafficking even existed there, in that way I was able to begin making small but important changes in people’s lives.
That path later led me to be invited to Trust Women, a forum held in London where I represented the United States. Afterwards I became a grantee of the organization and I was awarded funding to continue my project, which provided the means to organize and implement the project in Puerto Rico’s Dominican community. I was already an adult literacy teacher, and since many of the Dominicans who arrive in Puerto Rico are illiterate, I was able to utilize my position to inform them of their rights and help them become less vulnerable. I was even able to build a library and provide workbooks for the students. Thanks to the support of the Civil Rights Commission of Puerto Rico, conferences covering the topic of human trafficking were also offered. Later I returned to working with the Ricky Martin Foundation, where I currently serve as a speaker and youth representative.
When did you begin your work, and how strong was the support of the community in Puerto Rico?
I started about four years ago with all of these projects, and the community was very receptive to my project against human trafficking. Here in Puerto Rico, before 2012, people were not familiar with the concept of human trafficking, at least not in those terms. Cases were often labeled as felonies, but there was not a legal recognition of those crimes. After 2012, the criminal code was altered to officially recognize human trafficking as a criminal offense, and once that change was made, I found support from the community and local organizations
What are your future goals for these projects, and where do you see yourself in the next few years?
My only goal at the moment is to study international relations at the University of Puerto Rico. This issue has interested me so much, and I want to continue and make this my life’s passion by studying a combination of both human trafficking and international conflicts. I aim to keep moving forward with my projects and take them to new levels, not just to stay inside of my country or in the United States. I would also like to be able to visit places in South America, where this crime affects many people; particularly in such a way that I would be able to help victims and work to combat this crime.
As a young leader who organizes campaigns against human trafficking, what do you think of the opportunities that currently exist for young women in Puerto Rico?
The opportunities are there. There will always be opportunities, but young girls are the ones who have to go out and look for them. Because if their decision is to stay at home watching television or be stuck to their cell phones, then they will never be able to find opportunities.
You have to go out and fight for what you believe in and fight for what you want. Going out and looking for answers and ways to immerse yourself in your community is the best way to make opportunities emerge.
You are a unique figure given your many accomplishments and your young age. Based on your experience, do you think there is any program that could encourage young people to participate in their communities, so that in the future there are more young leaders like yourself?
There are many organizations, such as Girls Scouts, that work with girls and young women who want to make a difference. Some young women still may not have discovered the potential they have, and organizations are always looking for potential.
There should be more independent organizations dedicated to this type of work, but governments should also play a part in driving initiatives. Young people’s opinions should be taken into consideration because we matter, and we are only just starting to get involved. Just imagine when we become the adults – those who hold influence and those who are well educated – the change that we will be able to accomplish.
An article in Metro Puerto Rico referenced the recent “talent drain” trend in Puerto Rico, describing the phenomenon of islanders leaving to pursue educational opportunities or careers abroad. Resolutions have even been introduced to the Puerto Rico General Assembly to investigate the drain on skilled labor and the lack of opportunity for younger workers.
Why do you think this phenomenon is occurring? Do you agree with the resolutions that claim that young talent is leaving Puerto Rico due to a lack of opportunity?
Last week I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion at my school featuring the Governor of Puerto Rico, and that issue was very controversial among my senior class because it is a phenomenon that we have witnessed now for years. Many claim that it is a cultural phenomenon, but what the governor told us— and it really made an impact on me because I agree with his description of the reality of the situation— is that unfortunately many mistakenly think that the grass is always greener on the other side. The problem is that here in Puerto Rico no publicity is given to what we have to offer like it is given to other places. We have natural resources and great universities. In spite of that, American educational institutions or Canadian natural resources are consistently promoted, when here we have natural resources, work, and opportunity.
As I emphasized earlier, all opportunity emerges when you look for it, but you have to be the one to make the effort in seeking them out. And I think that the problem is that we are continually being sold the idea that the United States is an easier place to live. I point to the United States because it is the most frequently referenced example, but not the only one. We are constantly thinking of the life that is being sold to us, which could be better than the life we have, and we have not learned to value what is ours: our land. Many Puerto Ricans are not aware that the problems that we have here also exist abroad. We think there is no poverty abroad, but when many emigrate they find themselves in more precarious conditions than the ones they left behind. Not everything is perfect abroad.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, women have been sharing equal rights with men for many decades. Nevertheless, in many sectors of the population, the belief is still held that women have less opportunity than men, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has stated that Latin American women suffer disproportionately from poverty and violence.
From your perspective as a young woman deeply involved in her community, how do you feel about where Puerto Rican women are today?
Puerto Rico is very much under the cultural influence of the United States. We share a heritage with other Latin Americans that comes from Spanish colonization, but we have improved noticeably in these areas due to our American influence. In Puerto Rico, women are very feminist, and as Latin American women we have a very strong character, so machismo has never fully developed roots here. Puerto Rico has been strongly influenced by American culture and by the feminist movement that has developed there, and it is clear that women here are inspired by American women and view them as role models. An unfortunate reality that still persists is that although there are many strong Central and South American women that have a great impact on their communities, often they are not given the recognition that they should have, and their stories do not resonate with a greater audience as much as the stories of American women.
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Note: This is the English translation of the original interview, which was conducted in Spanish. Please refer to the original for any citations.