SAN JUAN – A thin, ponytailed girl complains that there’s no butter for breakfast; a short, seemingly sleep-deprived young woman washes dishes under a blue tarp; a Che Guevara look-alike tries unsuccessfully to light up a propane camping stove to hopefully make a grilled cheese sandwich.
Nearby sits a barricade of scrap wood and trashed chairs, not far from heavily armed police riot squads guarding the gate.
It’s morning in Camp Vietnam.
These picnic-meets-war scenes are now a usual sight at the University of Puerto Rico, where striking students have kept the island’s top state-run higher learning institution shut down for 50 days.
“We’re all living as if we were members of a commune,” says Erika Torres, 21. “There’s basically no privacy, but we have learned to live without it as a family.”
In all, UPR has approximately 65,000 students and 5,300 faculty members, and 10 out of its 11 campuses across the island are on strike.
Their goal: convince the UPR Board of Trustees, which oversees all the campuses, not to implement the proposed dramatic budget cuts, halt any privatization effort of its campuses and boycott a tuition increase of more than 150%, among other mainly financially related issues.
Camp Vietnam – thus dubbed for the barricades and police riot squads – is one of the several makeshift campgrounds scattered in the lush century-old gardens of UPR’s main campus in Río Piedras, a section of San Juan.
On a recent weekday morning, this improvised tent city of some 200 students on 2-4/7 alert slowly wakes up to face the day’s new challenges – attending press conferences, negotiating with the Board of Trustees or staging a protest in front of the governor’s mansion in Old San Juan.
“After so many days of camping out here, it’s mentally and physically draining,” says Torres, a third-year business major who is one of the leaders of the campground.
“But we also hold a lot of artistic events during the day and at night to keep us entertained and up to date with what’s going on in the outside world.”
Among the daily chores assigned to Torres’ group are keeping the campground area clean, as well as the university hall where they sleep, eat and bathe, and overseeing the recycling process and the pickup of waste.
“Everyone has a job to do, and if it’s not done then he or she will be sanctioned,” she says. “This morning, one of us forgot his night watch, so we sent him to wash dishes.”
Like a good ole military battalion, Torres’ clan has nicknames, and all of them make reference to food: “Captain Jack,” “Ponderosa,” “Bimbo” (local cookies) and “Coco” (coconut).
The collective of students has been praised by outsiders for its organized structure and peaceful ways.
Not all protesters live on the campus full time. ZchiZchi Aslesha, 24, who graduated two years ago, is volunteering to take care of “Huerto Huelga” – one of the three organic gardens started by the striking students – after her day job at the San Juan Botanical Garden.
“I’m showing my solidarity,” says the heavily tattooed and pierced Aslesha, rejoicing after seeing the first baby eggplant grown in the garden.
“I’m also in charge of giving the garden tours,” she adds. “When I finish my day’s tasks, I play guitar with my boyfriend, cook dinner, listen to Radio Huelga [the striking students’ online radio] or read the newspapers.”
The educational oncampus activities include everything from stress and massage seminars to civil defense workshops and painting classes. There are also dance workshops, poetry and theater nights, folk rock concerts, drum circles, pool games, soccer, domino tournaments and martial arts demonstrations.
“Skateboarders and cyclists are having a blast because they have the whole campus to themselves,” Torres says.
The Board of Trustees has said that the university is facing a deficit of $150 million to $200 million and has no choice but to hike the current tuition of $1,300 – for 15 credits per semester – by at least $500.
The strike has not been incident-free. A melee broke out in mid-May between the police and parents of the students when they were not allowed to deliver food to the children. The students responded by offering flowers to the riot squad.
A few days after the food incident, Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño ordered the police riot squad to leave the perimeters of the striking campuses, leaving only regular police officers.
The Board of Trustees had vowed that the campuses would reopen on Monday, but the deadline came and went.