By Emma Spring
When discussing his roots growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Alejandro Rodriguez-Putnam cannot ignore the pervasive impact of colonialism, a silent force that shapes his worldview and daily life, evident in the crumbling infrastructure, the lack of safe spaces for biking, and the alarming rate of community displacement. Puerto Ricans living outside the island now outnumber those residing within, a consequence of systemic obstacles that impede the economy and hinder commercial agreements with neighboring countries, according to Rodriguez-Putnam. He firmly believes that these challenges are not coincidental but rather part of a well-designed scheme.
“[Colonialism is] sometimes very implicit, but sometimes it’s very, very evident. It’s like a sickness that is killing you every single day. You don’t do anything about it, but it affects every aspect of your life,” said Rodriguez-Putnam. “This isn’t something that is happening out of the blue, this is all by design.”
Rodriguez-Putnam path to his current field of study in public health was shaped by his formative years at the University of Puerto Rico. It was during his studies that he became fascinated by the intricate workings of psychosocial colonialism in the Puerto Rican context and a passion for activism.
“Because colonialism is not just economics, geopolitics, exploitation of labor, outmigration and gentrification–it is also demoralizing psychologically and presents real barriers for both individual’s personal development, but also more broadly on our nation’s capacity to interact with other countries in our region and the world,” said Rodriguez-Putnam.
During his freshman year of college, marked by a massive strike against budget cuts that threatened the future of their university, Rodriguez-Puntam actively participated in protests and strikes. After an eye-opening seminar led by an Afro-Caribbean professor deeply invested in community work, Rodriguez-Puntam had a deeper understanding of health systems and the importance of community engagement.
“The work provided psychosocial support to the homeless community and general members of the community that are impoverished,” said Rodriguez-Putnam. “Folks think that all you can learn is inside a classroom. The experiences you have in the streets with real people doing work; that just goes above and beyond what you can learn in theory versus in practice. If you can combine those two experiences in the public health field, I think it’s essential.”
Joining the ATLAS team was an unexpected yet serendipitous opportunity for Alejandro. The job posting appeared on the American Public Health Association’s network, discovered as he mindlessly scrolled through LinkedIn. Intrigued by the team’s research and the intersectionality of physical and mental health, Rodriguez-Putnam saw lives and the potential impact that their research could have on individuals.
“When I look at data, I don’t see numbers. I see people. I see lives. I see the impact that whatever we do with these numbers can have,” said Rodriguez-Putnam.
Drawing from his own personal experiences, including the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the struggles of his family members, Rodriguez-Putnam’s understanding of mental health and his desire to contribute to the field became the driving force behind his decision to join the team.
“My experience researching Hurricane Maria mortality investigations, specifically, looking at hospital deaths, was very intense because I went through that experience of living through the hurricane. Everybody knows somebody that either died directly from the or indirectly from the hurricane,” said Rodriguez-Putnam. “My [family has] struggled with mental health issues. Having studied psychology, I [am] always interest[ed] in how I can be a support to my family and community. I can always try and contribute to not obviously a solution to problems, but better understanding them.”
Rodriguez-Putnam’s personal journey, rooted in his direct experiences and familial connections has shaped his dedication to public health and research pursuits. With a commitment to learning and professional growth, Rodriguez-Putnam remains driven by a deep empathy to better understand, firsthand, the complex challenges faced by individuals and communities in the sect of public health.
“I want to be able to work, live and die in my country, and that for some of my peers [has] become increasingly more difficult. There are more Puerto Ricans outside the island than there are inside, and the island’s population is increasingly aging,” said Rodriguez-Putnam. “This, and many other factors make me want to develop myself and work towards a better future and health system for my country, both in the present and in the future.”