A 45-minute drive from where Bianca Graulau lives in Camuy, Puerto Rico, sits her favorite beach. Beige specks of sand stretch along Crash Boat Beach in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, where you can surf and munch on some local food. This is where Graulau, a 31-year-old puertorriqueña, spent her summers and Christmas breaks as a young adult.
She wasn’t there for any of the hype, though. Graulau would often go to catch up with her aunt, who preferred a spot away from the crowds right along some rocks. That used to be her routine — back when that part of the beach still existed.
It’s gone now. The ocean’s eaten it up.
“The water hits the rocks now,” said Graulau over Zoom with her long dark hair in its signature style: natural loose waves down her shoulders. “I visited the beach again, and I was like, ‘Oh, my god. Where did the beach go?’”
This topic — sea level rise and erosion swallowing Puerto Rico’s beaches — was the subject of Graulau’s first YouTube video in 2019. Since then, the journalist has accrued nearly 40,000 subscribers on YouTube and more than 326,000 followers on TikTok.
Graulau continues to cover the transformation of Puerto Rico on her various platforms. It’s a transformation she’s now dedicating to capturing, documenting and sharing with the world. That first video now has over 1.4 million views.
“That video really resonated because everyone is seeing it,” Graulau said. “If you’ve grown up in Puerto Rico going to a specific beach, you have been seeing it slowly disappearing.”
That’s what makes Graulau’s storytelling so special: She connects. She dares to do what few other journalists would on camera: She gets personal. “It allows me to communicate with my viewers and followers as a fellow human,” Graulau said, “as a fellow Puerto Rican who’s going through the same issues as the rest of the population here.”
She often talks directly to local community members and experts in her videos. She loves to hop on the latest TikTok trend, but she also asks the hard questions. Graulau is unapologetic and unafraid.
She has worked hard to reach this place where she’s comfortable and confident in her own skin. She spent years doing TV news where bosses told her to straighten her hair and lose her accent. Image was everything. In 2020, she finally quit. She wanted to work for herself and call the shots.
“I think being independent sort of removes that part of you that’s always asking, ‘Oh, what are the bosses going to think about this?’” Graulau said. “Now, I worry about my audience.”
She focuses mostly on the issues at home — and she’s already leaving an impression across the archipelago. Ivonne del C. Díaz, an environmental economics professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, used Graulau’s video on sea-level rise in the classroom.
The video isn’t just about the oceans rising. It also shows the economic disparities that exist in Puerto Rico — and the varying ways climate change impacts different communities. While private developers can afford to buy up beaches, local families who have had these views for free for generations must now wrestle with the reality that they may lose all they have.
“You can see her concern,” Díaz said in response to the video in Spanish. “This work is important because, sometimes, we talk about these issues in the classroom, and it feels distant to students. After seeing these types of videos, the students can see how much she cares, and it feels more real.”
Díaz can’t recall how she found Graulau’s work, but she remembers enjoying how original and interactive it was. The economics professor knew the video would help her students link economic issues to environmental and social problems, too.
And that’s all intentional in Graulau’s stories. Lately, she’s been thinking a lot about colonization and the way that history interacts with the ongoing climate crisis. Her latest pieces reflect that interest: “Does the United States still own colonies?” is the newest video on Graulau’s YouTube channel.
However, the effects of that first sea-level rise video — the one that kicked off Graulau’s independent career — are still rippling throughout her own life. One of Graulau’s best friends, America Arias, worked on the video with her. Arias, a fellow TV news producer, makes an appearance taking notes while Graulau interviews a local oceanographer. The pair met in Puerto Rico some 12 years ago at a conference for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The two Latinas didn’t kick it off right away, but they became inseparable after 2012.
Graulau and Arias were both living in Sacramento, California, working at local stations and feeling professionally unfulfilled. By 2016, the two journalists took a risk that changed their lives. They spent a month creating unpaid content just for themselves. They went to North Dakota for a week to cover the Standing Rock movement. They visited the U.S.-Mexico border together. Arias hadn’t been since she crossed illegally as a little girl and she wanted to tell stories from the region.
Despite having protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Arias was nervous. The sound of helicopters was triggering. By the third visit, the team got enough for a story.
And yet Graulau never pushed her. She was always patient. And the stories truly mattered. “We were so happy to be chasing the stories that we really cared about,” Arias said. You can hear the respect in her voice when she talks about how far her best friend has come since those early days in California.
Graulau was a fast-fashion consumer back then. She’d buy a ton of cheap clothes and jewelry to look the part and keep her superiors pleased. Nowadays, she makes videos on how to buy less. Graulau walks the talk. Her birthday in March was the last time Arias saw her. The birthday girl “hates buying new stuff,” Arias said, so she gifted her used items she collected from garage sales over two months: ceramic planters, clothes, a rug. She also packed the ingredients to bake the perfect vegan, gluten-free cake. They stayed up late that night, eating cake and catching up.
“We had a moment where I told her I was really proud of her,” Arias said, her voice breaking. No gift she gave the birthday girl could measure up to what Graulau has gifted her: the opportunity to witness her grow and thrive. Arias described her friend not as a different person but as “the person she always needed to become.”
“How lucky am I to witness that?” she said, “and she’s just getting started.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.