Hope in the Dark, Las Mareas edition

Hope in the Dark, Las Mareas edition

Jacqueline Vazquez Suarez – known in the coastal town of Las Mareas as Jacqui – started cooking on a fogon (a traditional Puerto Rican stove) in the days after Hurricane Maria, and an extraordinary community of recovery has grown around her.

Jacqui is a school janitor, and the leader of the neighborhood assembly in Las Mareas, a community of Salinas, on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico. Las Mareas was hit hard by Maria, with about a third of the houses destroyed, and all of them damaged. It has seen very little from FEMA, or the U.S. or Puerto Rican state government. And it was a very poor place to begin with – it felt eerily like the Rockaways, or New Orleans’ 9th Ward. But what Las Mareas lacks in wealth or state-led recovery, it is making up for in solidarity. 

Neighbors quickly joined Jacqui’s cooking brigade, and every day they feed most of the  people in the small village (still without power or clean water, and likely to stay that way a while) – always the seniors and the infirm, and when there’s more food, the whole community. 

Their efforts have called forth broader support. Waves for Water brought a central water tank/filter. Fernando, a remarkable relief connector, found steady supplies of food for their community kitchen. He connected us to them as well – in addition to helping with that day’s lunch, we brought 150 household water filters (as part of Operation Agua, organized by the AFT, AFSCME, Operation Blessing, and the Hispanic Federation), and helped assemble mosquito nets. A group of social work students are going door-to-door, to help people deal with trauma. Jacqui has also been joined by Puerto Rico Al Sur, who that day helped organize sports activities for the kids in town – most of the volunteers were teenagers, who are finding resilience in what they do together. (If you want to see what that looks like, watch this video).

We saw much the same in the other three places we visited. In a student-run community kitchen & study center at the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras. At Casa Pueblo, a 20-year-old community center focused on sustainability projects in the mountain village of Adjuntas, where they are piloting solar power. In Guayanilla, the site of one of the earliest colonial settlements. They were grateful for the water filters, solar lights, and food that we brought. But they are not victims, nor even just survivors. They are creators of extraordinary communities of recovery and solidarity.

I’m very grateful to Melissa Mark-Viverito for organizing the City Council delegation that brought us to meet each of them. Her connections and intuition for grassroots power shone through (especially because they are, understandably, suspicious of elected officials). And we were all blown away by the leadership of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has been extraordinary in the wake of the storm. Among so many other things, she helped the students create the community kitchen and has helped deliver supplies (including the ones we brought) far beyond San Juan. New Yorkers should feel proud that the NYC Office of Emergency Management, Parks Department, HPD, and so many more are on the island helping them. And that the Hispanic Federation and the Hurricane Maria Community Recovery Fund are supporting so many grassroots efforts like the ones we saw.  

To be very clear: none of this excuses the appalling abandonment of Puerto Rico (and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well, though we were not able to go there on this trip) by the U.S. government. Trump’s failure to immediately & permanently repeal the Jones Act, the stinginess with resources, the threat to withdraw prematurely, the failure to move more quickly to restore power and water – they are rooted in racism and colonialism (the people of Houston & Florida see aid without derision). And people are dying as a result, without insulin, without power, without clean water.

It is urgent to call out these inequities, and to demand an equal commitment to recovery – as Melissa, Carmen Yulin, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and many others have done time and again. There must be a recovery effort with a sustained commitment of federal (and philanthropic) resources AND a deep connection to grassroots efforts. Our trip there will help make sure that I’m one more long-term voice for the ongoing commitment that’s necessary, and I know so many other New Yorkers will be as well.

But still, I’m struck most of all by the power in what people can do on the ground.

Those who have been through disasters are likely to have tasted the extraordinary solidarity that can arise. In NYC, we felt it after Hurricane Sandy, at the Park Slope Armory and John Jay HS shelters, in Red Hook, and the Rockaways.  And in a different way, after 9/11 too, in those days when our shock and grief became solidarity and sacrifice. We became, together, capable of things we were not capable of before.

Rebecca Solnit describes this capacity brilliantly (those who have read what I’ve written on Sandy will know I’m a little obsessed with it, but I promise she’s worth reading):

“What startled me about the response to disaster was not the virtue, since virtue is often the result of diligence and dutifulness, but the passionate joy that shined out form accounts by people who had barely survived. These people who had lost everything, who were living in rubble or ruins, had found agency, meaning, community, immediacy in their work together with other survivors. The century of testimony … suggested how much we want meaningful engagement, of membership in civil society, and how much societal effort goes into withering us away from these fullest, most powerful selves. But people return to those selves, those ways of self-organizing, as if by instinct when the situation demands it.” (Hope In The Dark, 2nd edition, xviii).

These moments – as painful as they can be, rooted in pain and even death – offer us “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become. The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure,” she tells us in A Paradise Built in Hell, “is the great contemporary task of being human.” 

(One small coda on that point. A few blocks from the students’ community kitchen is a neighborhood park. Just a couple years ago, it was enlivened through San Juan’s participatory budgeting program – which they copied from New York City, when Carmen Yulin came to visit MMV – with a skate/bike feature, outdoor ping-pong tables, and new play equipment. While most of the other parks we saw were still covered in debris and unused, this one was clean and lively. Participatory budgeting won’t combat climate change, or make us ready for the next storm. But I believe deeply that it will help build the muscles of grassroots democracy that we need for those efforts.) 

There’s no doubt that we need to attend better to the infrastructure of resiliency – like a far sturdier energy grid for Puerto Rico, powered with renewables – and sustainability – like an ambitious mandatory retrofit program for NYC’s buildings. But this week’s trip reminded me yet again of the irreplaceable value of the human infrastructure of our capacity to rise together.

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