03458_000_007The voice of LDS youth in Puerto Rico rings out pure and clear.
The melodious, double-tone chirp is the only sound that moves the moist, heavy night air. The tiny coqui frogs, indigenous to Puerto Rico and a few surrounding islands, seem to be adding their sweet song to the marvelous event that is about to occur.
The song floats through the open windows of the church, where a large crowd has gathered. They sit quietly, expectantly, as the ceiling fans lazily rotate, stirring the palms that decorate the building.
A movement at the front of the room breaks the stillness. Two young men, dressed in white, descend the steps into the baptismal font and face each other, smiling. An arm is raised. Hands are placed just so, and a strong, youthful voice rises above the sound of the coquis.
“Habiendo sido comisionado por Jesu Cristo, yo te bautizo en el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espiritu Santo. Amen.”
One young man is submerged in the water by the other, and he rises with a new smile on his lips. It is reflected on the face of everyone who watches. Another youth in Puerto Rico has taken upon him the name of Christ.
Gerard Aquirre, 18, the newest member of the San Juan Ward, has only known Pablo Chavez, 17, a few weeks, yet after attending family home evening with the Chavez family, it seems like they have been brothers forever. It was only natural that he should ask Pablo to baptize him. Pablo was ecstatic, yet more than a little nervous. After all, it was the first baptism he’d ever performed. But he’ll assure you it won’t be his last.
Pablo and Gerard are typical of the LDS youth in Puerto Rico. The native language on the island is Spanish, yet everyone takes English in school and many are fluent. Some, like Pablo, have been members for years, and have even traveled to the mainland to be sealed to their families in the temple. Others, like Gerard, have only recently been introduced to the teachings of the Church. Yet their lives and their examples seem to add radiance to their culture, as the song of the coqui adds brilliance to the night.
Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth that lies on the border of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, nearly 1,000 miles southeast of Florida, received its first missionaries about 15 years ago. Since then the Church has grown and flourished on the island’s tropical shores, and it now boasts three stakes and dozens of districts. Within those divisions you’ll find young people who are excited to learn and share the gospel.
“The thing that brings me the most joy in life,” says Jeanette Morales, 15, Mia Maid president in the Trujillo Alto Ward, “is to live the gospel. All the teachings help me so much. Everything is just fine when you know that God lives, and that he loves us.”
Jeanette and her sisters Lidi, 18, and Dioni, 16, joined the Church with their parents about five and a half years ago. “We entered the Church at an important time,” says Lidi, who is currently serving as the first counselor in the Young Women presidency and teaches a Beehive class. “It was just when we were becoming teenagers—the age when temptations really start.”
By being obedient to the teachings of the Church, the Morales sisters say they have been able to set an example to their nonmember friends. Other LDS teens are leaders in their schools and in their communities. Belinda Berrios was named Miss Puerto Rico National Teenager in 1984, and the Morales sisters have served in many class offices. They are often asked by their friends and teachers, “What makes you so different?” Usually their friends’ interest is respectful and curious, but on occasion that gives way to derision and mockery.
“But that doesn’t embarrass us,” says Dioni, the first counselor in her Laurel class and seminary secretary. “We use it as an excuse to teach them the truth about the Church. When the people see we’re not ashamed of it, they want to hear more.”
The Morales sisters have watched an incredible chain being built as they’ve introduced their friends to the Church, and those friends have introduced other friends. The ranks of LDS youth have often been fortified this way.
Although everyone on the island is not familiar with the teachings of the Church, many are at least acquainted with it through LDS television commercials.
It was thanks to those commercials, in fact, that newly baptized Gerard found out about the Church in the first place. The tall, handsome youth wrote to the address that flashed across the screen, inquiring if the Church had representatives in Puerto Rico. Missionaries were sent to visit Gerard, and he was soon taking the discussions.
“When I heard the story of Joseph Smith,” said Gerard, “I felt just like him. I was confused too, and I went to an area where cactus grows, found an open, flat space, and asked the Lord to guide me. I felt the most wonderful spirit then. I felt that same spirit when the missionaries talked to me. I’d never had much religious training before, but once the elders started teaching me, it didn’t take long for me to realize that this is the truth. It was like I’d always known it.”
The missionaries introduced Gerard to Pablo, his 15-year-old brother Mario, and their parents. Gerard instantly became a part of the family. That’s not uncommon among Church members in Puerto Rico. The adults and the teenagers mix as if they were all best friends. They talk to each other with affectionate respect, and at social gatherings, you’ll seldom see the teens separated from the adults.
The Chavez family was happy to help teach Gerard the gospel and were elated when they heard one of the first things Gerard asked when he decided to be baptized: “Can I be a missionary?” It’s a question that a lot of young people take very seriously in Puerto Rico. Pablo has been working feverishly in his father’s frame shop for the past several years to earn the money to fund his mission. At 17, he’s just about reached his goal. And when the time comes to serve, he’ll be well prepared in other ways, too.
The ward youth leaders emphasize both spiritual and temporal preparation for missionary work and have set aside a two-hour block of time on the third Sunday of each month to give the boys workshops in such areas as cooking and nutrition, grooming, bicycle and auto maintenance, sewing, and etiquette. Also included in that time span are talks by missionaries and other Church leaders.
This is just one of the many activities the youth in Puerto Rico enjoy, however. Like LDS teens all over the world, they love their road shows, and each year they can’t wait until the next youth conference, which is usually held at a university campus or a country club. They’re also heavily involved in stake sports tournaments, especially volleyball and basketball. Scouting programs are just now getting started, and speech competitions, firesides, and sunrise services are regular activities. One advantage to living in Puerto Rico is that a lot of the activities can take place at the beach, which is never very far away.
The youth are involved in a good number of service projects as well, such as visiting and producing shows for the elderly and for the orphans in the community. They also help clean disabled members’ homes and take great pride in maintaining their meetinghouses, which sport a variety of flowers, ferns, and palms year-round.
And whenever the LDS teens aren’t involved in organized activities, you’ll usually find a few going on team-ups, or “intercambios,” with the full-time missionaries. Last year in Cabo Rojo, a countryside community, the ward goal was 70 baptisms. But because the young people helped the missionaries almost double their work, they attained over 100 baptisms.
No wonder ward leaders insist that “the youth are definitely the strength of the ward.”
When they’re not involved in church work, Puerto Rican teens, like others worldwide, love talking to friends, dancing, listening to music, going to malls, and, of course, eating. Their food ranges from the ordinary, like hamburgers and pizza, to tostitos, an everyday food to the Puerto Ricans that some might call exotic. Tostitos are made from large, green bananas sliced in chunks, fried, smashed down to little patties, and fried again. They’re more popular than french fries or chips on the island, and since they’re not made from the small, sweet bananas most people are accustomed to, they’re rather tasty salted and fried.
It might sound like a breeze living in Puerto Rico, where the weather is so warm year-round you never have to wear a jacket. But the teenagers there have their problems too. Peer pressure, however, which teens in other places cite as the worst problem of all, is not the main concern of Puerto Rican youth. “We look for friends that believe the way we do, and they don’t really put that much pressure on us,” says Lidi, echoing the sentiments of many of her LDS friends.
The real problem, most of the youth on the island will agree, is the pressure that comes from the world in general. “Today the world says that to be cool you have to be tough, you have to be rich, you have to do things that are morally wrong,” says Pablo. His brother Mario agrees, saying “everywhere you look there are things and people that encourage you to go against the teachings of the Church.” Both boys say that Church activities and programs like family home evening, plus personal scripture study, all help them to keep their priorities in line.
The youth use the teachings of the Church to fortify themselves from worldly influences just as their Spanish ancestors used the island to fortify their holdings in the new world. Puerto Rico, the name itself meaning “rich port,” was once a strategic stronghold in Spain’s Caribbean empire. Majestic forts dot the island’s coastline, and from their thick walls the Spaniards protected themselves from marauding pirates.
Today, the dedicated young people help to make Puerto Rico a stronghold in the Church. Geographically speaking, it’s not a large one. The entire island is 3,435 square miles, about the size of the state of Connecticut. But you know, the voice of the LDS youth in Puerto Rico is a lot like the song of the coqui. Although the tiny frog is two inches at its largest, its clear, sweet song adds a peaceful melody to the night.