For decades, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure has struggled to effectively safeguard its communities. Growing up on the island and experiencing this firsthand, Héctor Colón De La Cruz drove off the traditional civil engineering path and into public policy to spearhead the first Puerto Rico Infrastructure Report Card. His goal – to fix Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and improve residents’ quality of life.
ASCE has honored Colón De La Cruz, EIT, A.M.ASCE, as a 2021 New Face of Civil Engineering.
From a young age, Colón De La Cruz recognized his community’s failing infrastructure conditions. Driving over a pothole should not put travelers at risk, like it did his family. Nor should the daytime sky turn dark because of falling ash from a nearby landfill, as it did when he was five.
“Some [of the] key moments throughout my life in Puerto Rico that made me want to become a civil engineer are things that should not be happening in society,” Colón De La Cruz said.
Dedicated to his homeland, he made the difficult decision to decline a job offer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Instead, he focused his attention on the Report Card. Taking on such a task was not something he did for recognition. It was something that needed to be done. So, he stepped up.
But he wasn’t alone. A trailblazing team of about 20 people helped support, motivate, and inspire him. And thus, the Puerto Rico Infrastructure Report Card was born. It now serves as an important tool for the government in reconstructing Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria’s devastation and reinventing what its future will look like.
The report has since garnered international media coverage and has been notably referenced by U.S. President Joe Biden during his 2020 election campaign.
Now a civil engineer for O&M Consulting Engineering in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Colón De La Cruz’s commitment to local infrastructure, the profession, and ASCE extends beyond his work on the Report Card. In 2019, he reinstituted, reformed, and, at 25, became the youngest president of the ASCE Puerto Rico Section. And as a part of the Section’s Infrastructure Committee, he’s leading a charge to solve an ongoing water supply crisis impacting the island.
He spoke recently with the Civil Engineering Source about his career.
Civil Engineering Source: How did you develop the idea to produce Puerto Rico’s first Infrastructure Report Card?
Colón De La Cruz: It all started when I applied for the 2017 ASCE Legislative Fly-In. I called Maria Matthews to see if she could arrange a roommate for me or put me in contact with other Puerto Ricans for the Fly-In. She told me, “Well, I’m more surprised than you, because you’re the first Puerto Rican to ever apply for this.” [When] I got to the Fly-In, I saw the opportunity to make an impact on Puerto Rico. So, I volunteered as the chair for Puerto Rico’s Report Card.
Source: What was your biggest challenge while working on the report card?
Colón De La Cruz: I think the biggest challenge was finding information, motivating my peers to help, doing the work, and facing the public media and telling them that Puerto Rico’s infrastructure grade is in very poor condition and almost failing. I was part-writer of the Report Card. It’s worth mentioning that I was fresh out of school, but I did have some experience with internships and clubs as a student.
Source: What is the motivation behind your work?
Colón De La Cruz: Like Neo from The Matrix, I am the chosen one. I got the right opportunity at the right moment and had the right perspective. I took the chance despite many hurdles, challenges, and people telling me not to do it. I just said, “I’m going to do it.” Something told me. I think God told me to do it, and I did it.
If it weren’t for our team [working on the Report Card], Puerto Rico’s future could be looking worse than today. Most of my team members, who I’m very grateful and thankful for, have given me a lot of help and advice, and want to help Puerto Rico.
My motivation is to try to keep doing this, make a positive change, invigorate other people, and to be an example for future engineers and future generations, so that they can be trailblazers. So they can make a change in the world. Civil engineers are the founders of society. If you look around, most of the things you use today are based on civil engineering work and design, and are the things needed to have a good quality of life.
My message to civil engineers is, “Let’s do it!” We can actually do public policy. We can go from a normal civil engineering career in design or construction, into making a better society because we’re the actual people who design it. We just need to learn government first and make it happen.
Source: What does the future of civil engineering look like to you? How do you see yourself contributing to it?
Colón De La Cruz: The future of civil engineering is interesting because now we face climate change. In civil engineering, we are used to designing for the same thing. We’re learning from past errors or past studies. But in the climate change world, we must anticipate. We must design for the future. And I would like to see civil engineering that includes sustainable design.
I want to see civil engineering that extends its design considerations past monetary or federal restrictions and more into sustainability. If it’s going to help us, then that’s good. That’s what we’re in this world for – helping society and making it better. I chose a different path as a civil engineer. I’m trying to go toward public policy, and I can see other engineers doing that. There are other civil engineers doing that.
Source: If there was a movie about your life, who would be the actor playing you? What would it be called?
Colón De La Cruz: The actor would be Denzel Washington or Leonardo DiCaprio. Both actors are great in their job, but they take their power and their voice to give a much louder message. Leonardo DiCaprio, for instance, is a climate change activist. Denzel Washington is a Black actor who has given a ton of speeches about pursuing your dreams, working hard, and believing in yourself.
The name, I don’t really know. It would be something creative like The Wolf of Wall Street or Perks of Being a Wallflower. Not a typical name, but something creative and amazing.
And another thing I like about Leonardo DiCaprio is that he has his own foundation. I want to open a foundation if I become a billionaire. But on a more realistic level, if I have the wealth and God gives me the grace to do it, I would like to set up a grant for civil engineering students [who] are trailblazers. Those whom people often deny the opportunity because they are not the typical engineer or student. I would like to give them the opportunity to achieve their dream.
So just believe in yourself, keep working, and as Elon Musk says, “Have a high pain threshold.” Trailblazing is not easy, but it’s definitely worth it.
Read more about the 2021 New Faces of Civil Engineering.