Last December, 18-year-old Fior Peña stepped onstage with her peers inside Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and gave the performance of her life. It was a poem about an undocumented immigrant and her desire for a Social Security number.

“And I felt like this was an opportunity to, like, reveal something about myself that I don't really tell much people,” Peña said. “It was like a big deal for me to have to present it in front of a lot of people.”

Peña wrote the poem titled, “He Is Freedom,” after school at the youth development program of Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion, a nonprofit in Boston’s South End that also provides employment and guidance for teens. But after the pandemic hit, Pedro Cruz, IBA’s youth development program director, said priorities shifted.

“We wanted to make sure that our participants and community members had access to the internet, a safe place to stay at home since they’re not going to be going to school, access to food on a daily basis,” Cruz said. “So, we just really focused our first weeks’ efforts on just making sure that the basic essentials were met. Once we covered that with our participants, we shifted over to okay, how can we continue providing the services that we promised during these times?”

Traditionally, IBA ends its year with a large community event in May. But Cruz and his team saw an opportunity that would allow these kids to continue their work while learning a valuable life lesson.

“Adapt, adapt, adapt,” Cruz said.

These 19 teenagers had to create an end-of-year project together — but remotely, from their homes. The result: a multimedia project made up of photography and spoken word that captures the lives of these teens before and after the pandemic hit. It’s titled Life As We Know It.

This collaboration, Peña said, provided a much-needed respite from feeling trapped inside.

“Just talking about our day, our struggles. You know, things that's going on at home and also in school, and also our future. It made us, like, bond even more,” Peña said.

Fior Peña, 18, is part of the youth development program Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion.
Courtesy of Fidelis Teixeira, Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion

But they had their work cut out for them. On top of doing school work and helping care for her sister’s baby, Peña had to capture life before and after COVID-19. All she had was her smartphone camera.

“I was really not a picture person. I just snapped pictures like, okay, this is good in my eyes. This program made me get out of my comfort level and try to use new techniques and new angles to capture pictures,” she said.

Peña’s baby nephew Kaycen is featured in many of her photos. She said being able to spend all this time with him has been a bright spot.

“It was just like, this is my center of attention right now during quarantine. I would be at school for like six or seven hours. And so I'm going to make the best out of it,” she said.

Photos taken by other peer youth leaders also offered casual and intimate views into their lives under quarantine, like pictures of meals they’ve prepared or selfies of mundane rituals like teeth-brushing.

The multimedia project has a melancholic and at times remorseful tone about not appreciating what most people take for granted — the simple things, like hanging out with friends under the sun.

“Distance becoming so normal. Not enough room to escape reality. When lying under the sun becomes a crime, we must realize we’ve done you wrong…” is one line in the three-minute project.

It wasn’t what they had originally planned, but Peña walked away from the experience with a strong sense of resilience. Now she and her fellow peer youth leaders have a record that captures their perspective and perseverance during this historic moment.

“My takeaway is like, anything's possible. This pandemic hit. We're just like, OK, what do we do?” she said. “And then boom — solution. Like, we didn't give up on each other. A pandemic was not going to stop us from continuing our program.”