Bronx native feels Puerto Rico’s pain
Andrew Boryga has never stopped working to become a writer. The oldest son of a Puerto Rican mother and a Polish father, Boryga grew up in Bedford Park as a teenager at Mount St. Michael, and early in life, found his passion through the ink of a pen.
It wasn’t long before he got his foot in the door with a scholarship at The New York Times. But through those years, and long after, he worked summers freelancing and bartending and doing whatever he had to do to support his single mother and two younger sisters.
“For millennials of color, and millennials of the working class, it’s an uphill battle,” said Boryga, now 25 and a freelance journalist working on his own book about growing up in the Bronx. “Pa’lante, for me, means never giving up.”
Pa’lante – translated from Spanish as “forward” or “onward” — was coined as street slang in the 1960s to describe the fight for Puerto Rican self-determination. Fast forward to present day, and the word has become less about politics and more about resilience.
It is also the title of a new photo series by local photographer Edwin Torres. Shooting with film and publishing on social media, Torres uses striking black-and-white portraits to contrast the strength and determination carried by Puerto Rican millennials like Boryga in the face of an uncertain economic future.
“Portraits of Resilience” pays tribute to the newest generation of Puerto Rican youth, from the island to the streets of New York City and many places in between. The citizens of Puerto Rico are in the midst of an economic crisis and many are migrating to the US, leaving little hope behind.
“I wanted to make a connection between voices on the island and the mainland,” said Torres, 26, a native of Hunts Point. “What would they tell each other?”
Using a 30-year-old Hasselblad camera, Torres creates timeless portraits of each subject, posed but natural. Through his lens, Torres has captured the eyes of writers, teachers, entrepreneurs, the unemployed, and everything in between. Torres hopes the portraits will eventually link generations of the Puerto Rican diaspora.
“When you think of the millennial youth, you think of the future, yeah, that’s true,” Torres said. “But at the end of the day we are all just working too.”
Torres was raised by Puerto Rican migrants on Coster Street. He attended St. Anthony School in Yonkers and graduated from All Hallows High School. After pursuing a degree in American studies and literature at Colby College in Maine, Torres found his voice through photography and turned it into a career. Since then, he has been photographing what’s closest to him. “I focus on stories that are emotional because it’s so close, people can relate more.”
Puerto Ricans have been migrating to the United States in search of jobs and a brighter economic future for decades, but the number of departures from 2000-2010 marks the largest migration wave — at 300,000 — since the 1950s, when close to a half-million migrated to the mainland. According to the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics, this population shift is mainly due to the 2006 recession that is still punishing the island’s economy.
Over 80,000 migrants left the island last year alone. The territory is facing bankruptcy, a 60 percent unemployment rate, and a relatively high cost of living compared to a falling 5 percent unemployment in the United States. Experts worry that Puerto Rico is losing the next generation of its middle class to the US, draining the island of its talent and wealth.
Torres believes it is easy to focus on statistics and overlook the individual stories behind this recent surge of immigration. He has shared his portraits at the Ground Truth Project, a non-profit publishing platform based in Boston; and plans to exhibit his series towards the end of the summer.
As both groups navigate through an uncertain socioeconomic climate, Torres says he tries to shed light on the beauty of the struggle.
“Diasporas happen because of opportunity, but when the culture gets lost, what’s left?” he asks. “It’s important to dig deep and cherish that.”