No Man Is An Island: An Unlikely Friendship

Jonathan Sheperd-Smith

Photo of Javier courtesy of Jonathan Sheperd-Smith

When I first met my roommate Javier this summer at the Ford School of Public Policy, there were a multitude of reasons for us to have said our introductions and never have another meaningful interaction. As far as we were concerned, we were from different planets; Javier,  a junior accountant from a humble home in a very rural area of Puerto Rico with roots in opera, and myself, a Division I athlete with a flair for hip-hop, born and raised in Atlanta, with no experience outside of mainland USA.

Initially, we both thought there was little chance of us becoming close friends. We were wrong. Meaningful interaction came much earlier than I expected, when one night Javi decided he trusted me enough (still virtually a stranger at this point) to tell me he was gay. I admittedly was caught off guard. I was cordial with members of the LGBTQ, but had no real experiences as intimate as sharing a living space. I could tell that Javi was nervous too, and I understood why; men of my demographic (Baptist raised, southern, straight, and black) were not known for being the most open group. I, in a manner void of any elegance, relayed my stance on the matter and assured him it made no difference to me.

From that awkward response bloomed a real friendship. The change in Javi from that night was astonishing. The mostly reserved roommate from before transformed, literally overnight, to the spirited, charismatic, and sometimes cheeky young man he really is. And while I was happy to see this change, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pain in the bottom of my stomach. As a black man, I thought I knew what it felt like to operate in society’s margins. From Javi’s metamorphosis, I saw the intensity of managing his daily experiences within these margins. To so fear condemnation from society that you feel as if you must hide that much of your personality was unimaginable to me. I felt ashamed that I had contributed to an environment, knowingly or not, that made him feel this way.

While that night was the catalyst for our relationship, Javi’s sense of conviction for the betterment of Puerto Rico is what maintained it. Between two stark opposites, our common ground has always been a spirit for service, or what I like to call, “giving a damn.” Anybody who has ever heard Javi speak of Puerto Rico knows he gives a damn. It is why he left his rural hometown to attend the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. It is what brought him to the Ford School despite already having a high-paying job offer. It is why we were both sure we would remain friends long after the summer was over.

So, when I heard of the devastation on his island after Hurricane Maria, I was shaken to my core. When I was finally got in contact with Javi, I became enraged, hearing of the lack of support and distribution of aid on Puerto Rico. I had heard whispers of this from local news sources and social media, but hearing it first hand from someone living it was a completely different experience.

Javi describes, “Many stories and memories from post-Hurricane Georges Puerto Rico remained calmly in the back of my head as I rushed through a supermarket aisle in search for water and supplies three days prior to Hurricane Maria. I repeated to myself ‘Our people have been through this before, and we overcame. The sun will rise and help will come if needed.’ Repeating those words like a mantra gave me the strength to cut down trees on the road to visit my grandma after experiencing 30 continuous hours of rain, winds and thunder. I hoped for the sun to come up and help to come in. Bureaucracy and class divide tore down my expectations for recovery, and it humiliates me to see some elected officials took this crisis as a photo-op tour.”

The next time I spoke with Javi,  it was no surprise that he was out working for his island. Javi shares, “43 days after the hurricane, I write this message in a house with no electricity and take classes on plastic chairs under a canopy tent. However, I know many people around me are in a much worst situation, and I cannot go on with my life without helping others get back on their feet.” With a contact in D.C, Javi had found a way to circumnavigate the stagnate relief efforts and deliver aid to some of the most underserved areas in the region. He has organized a “Day of Giving” scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend where he will distribute clothes and food on the ground with the Puerto Rico Help Team, a group from the University of Puerto Rico he has assembled. Javi explains, “Since we [Puerto Ricans] are known for celebrating the longest Christmas in the world, there is no better moment than Thanksgiving to bring a smile on people’s faces and remind them not all is lost.”

As unlikely as our friendship at first seemed, Javi and I were able to come together through a mutual sense of responsibility for helping others. For me, our relationship serves as a reminder that no man is an island; the underlying humanity that connects us to one another is far stronger than any perceived differences. If you would like to get involved in Javier’s effort, there is a canned food and luggage drive that I am running on campus.

Jonathan Sheperd-Smith ’18 is an Economics and Anthropology double-major from Atlanta, Georgia. Contact him at josheperdsmith@davidson.edu.

Contact Javier Pineiro at javierpineiro3@gmail.com.