Examining U.S. Colonialism
and the Re-development of Vieques:

A Volunteer Delegation or 3-credit University
Level Course combining history and politics,
culture and music, tropical ecology, and  
community service work.

Puerto Rico is a fascinating place politically, culturally,
and ecologically. A U.S. colony since 1898, the island
provides students and volunteers with a case-study of
the cultural and economic effects of U.S. colonialism
and military occupation.

Unlike many programs that offer a passive, touristy
experience, our itinerary gives participants the ability to
live, work, and learn in rural communities, learning first-
hand about the Puerto Rican struggle for self-
determination, cultural autonomy, and environmental
and economic sustainability.

The cultural identity of Puerto Rico is constantly
evolving and is the product of Latino, Indigenous,
African and American pop cultures. The island is a land
of contrasts: farms and textile factories, horses and hot
rods, colonial villas and fast food, salsa and hip-hop,
black, white, and brown. This program is extremely
multidisciplinary, incorporating, history, politics,
ecology, agriculture, natural history, and the
interconnection between all of these topics.

In an attempt to better understand the social,
economic, and cultural effects of U.S. colonialism, the
largest part of the trip will be spent on the island of
Vieques, just off the coast of the main island. Until
2003, Vieques was, not only a tropical paradise, but a
U.S. Navy bombing range and weapons-testing site.
The Navy abandoned Vieques after sustained popular
protest and civilian occupation of the bombing range
effectively stopped military operations. This was the
first time in world history that a non-violent, solidarity
based political movement succeeded in ousting a U.S.
military operation. On Vieques, we will learn from the
activists, students, old ladies, and fishermen
responsible for the movement’s success, as well as
scientists currently working to quantify the effects of
military-toxins on public health.

Other activities and topics include:

  • The Puerto Rican independence movement

  • Santaria religion and Afro-Puerto Rican
    drumming and spirituality

  • Salsa music and dance

  • Participation in a community service project

  • Viejo San Juan. The oldest part of Puerto Rico’s
    capital has a village atmosphere in an urban
    setting. Here students can explore one of the first
    Spanish forts in the New World, visit a multitude
    of art and culture museums, giggle at the hordes
    of cruise-ship tourists, and see world class Latin

  • Guanica Dry Forest. This is one of the world’s
    few dry tropical forests and an ecological
    anomaly. This is, coincidentally, the same area
    that U.S. Marines first set foot on during the 1898
    invasion of Puerto Rico. We will have a workshop
    on the birdlife and ecology of the dry forest with
    a park ranger.

  • El Yunque. This mountainous, unlogged tract of
    rainforest is the only tropical rain forest managed
    by the U.S. Park Service. We will have several
    tropical ecology workshops with park staff
    members. Students can hike, swim in waterfalls,
    study the flora and fauna, and visit/volunteer at
    an experimental planned community and
    agricultural center just outside park boundaries.

  • Casa Pueblo. This community organization that
    started in the 1980’s to protest a proposed
    copper strip mine near the mountain town of
    Adjuntas. The group was successful, and today
    the area is a locally-managed forest preserve.
    We will stay in the reserve and meet with
    community members. Topics will include
    community organizing, the economics of the
    copper industry, and the story of Casa Pueblo.

Learning Goals:

  • To become familiar with the diverse natural and
    human ecology of Puerto Rico

  • To learn about environmental and conservation
    issues facing Puerto Rico

  • To become familiar with Puerto Rico’s history and
    contemporary popular culture

  • To understand the economic, social, and military
    dynamic between Puerto Rico and the United

  • To understand the environmental consequences
    of military operations

  • To use Puerto Rico as a case-study through
    which to view global socio-political and economic

Suggested Readings

  • The Puerto Ricans: A Documentary History,
    edited by K. and O. Wagenheim, Markus Weiner
    Publishers, 1999.

  • The Disenchanted Island, by Ronald Fernandez,
    Greenwood , 1996.

  • Islands of Resistance, by Mario Murillo, Seven
    Stories Press, 2001.

  • The Line of the Sun, by Judith Ortiz Cofer,
    University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Sample Itinerary

Day 1- Arrive in San Juan late; go to hotel in Viejo San

2- am: walking tour of Viejo San Juan including El Morro
and the Cultural Heritage Museum; lunch; pm:
organizational meeting and introductory talk on the
history of Puerto Rico and current events. pm: Santaria
drumming and dance seminar

3- am: drive to Guanica; visit the Guanica Dry Forest
and beach; lunch; pm: travel to Adjuntas and Casa

4- am: Casa Pueblo educational program and
community roundtable; talk with Don Antonio Cruz, one
of the early founders and participants in the modern
Puerto Rican independence movement

5- am: travel to Ponce, visit the National Museum of
Music and have lunch. pm: historical tour of Ponce

6- Visit the world Famous Caves of Camuy and Taino
ceremonial site.

7- travel to Fajardo; ferry to Vieques

8- am- free time; pm: roundtable with leaders of the anti-
Navy movement; dinner

9- Vieques work project; pm: night trip to the Vieques’
world-famous Bioluminescent Bay

10- Vieques work project; pm: beach time

11- am- return to the main island and drive to El
Yunque National Park; lunch. pm- hike and/or swim in
waterfall; return to San Juan.

12- Last day. Free time in the morning to shop, relax,
or go to the beach


Puerto Rico is hot and sticky (90F high/75 low).
Torrential downpours can, and do, occur at almost any
time of the year.


Pay phones will be accessible for most of the trip but
students should not plan on having access to phones
on a daily basis. The best idea is to plan on calling
family and friends at the beginning and end of the trip
in San Juan. Internet access will not be available during
the trip.


  • Peter Shear is the project organizer and bi-
    lingual Volunteer Delegation guide/Course
    Instructor. He is a part-time Political Geography
    instructor at the University of Vermont, Director
    of Inter-American CASA and Coordinator of
    Intichakiñan--a community based tourism project
    based in Ecuador.

  • A healthy attitude and willingness to work in
    solidarity with a poor community are the only
    requirements to participate. Although a working
    knowledge of Spanish certainly enhances your
    experience, it is not required. Your bilingual
    guide will be available to translate talks,
    instructions, and conversations.

  • Besides the experiential education that comes
    from volunteer work, participants will learn about
    the culture, history, ecology, and politics of
    Puerto Rico, as well as community and state rolls
    in international geo-politics and the global

  • Nothing ever happens on time in Puerto Rico.
    Accept it and enjoy your trip!


Inter-American Center for the Arts, Sustainability,and Action

Centro Interamericano para las Artes, el Sustento, y la Acción