In this second episode of our new radio documentary series The Response, we shine a spotlight on Puerto Rico. When Hurricane Maria slammed into the island about a year ago, it resulted in thousands of deaths and knocked out power for almost an entire year. The result was what many consider to be the worst disaster in the United States.
Further, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria exacerbated the ongoing debt crisis that has been crippling the country’s public services for years — a crisis that has forced many communities on the island abandon hope that the government will ever come to their assistance. And so when Hurricane Maria hit, it wasn’t a surprise to many of these already-abandoned communities when the official response was often nowhere to be seen.
This conversation has been told before by many mainstream news outlets. What you might not have heard, however, is the story of the grassroots response that arose after Maria. In the midst of all the austerity and hurricane-driven chaos, a quiet revolution has been slowly taking place on the island. What began as an impromptu community kitchen meant to help feed survivors in the town of Caguas has since grown into an island-wide network of mutual aid centers with the ultimate aim of restoring power — both electric and civic — to the people. We’ll hear from many of those involved in these centers and find out why they are growing so quickly and what they are doing to begin addressing both the acute and chronic disasters that Puerto Ricans are facing today.
Header illustration by Kane Lynch
Listen and subscribe with the app of your choice:
For a full list of episodes, resources to cultivate resilience in your community, or to share your experiences of disaster collectivism, visit www.theresponsepodcast.org.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure.
Judith Rodriguez: My name is Judith Rodríguez. My experience of the hurricane wasn’t pleasant. I was sleeping, when I heard a whistling sound. That whistling sound was the ugliest thing I’ve heard in my life. A whistling that was never silent. It was endless, almost two days.
I thought that my house was in good condition — well, at least I thought that. When I woke up at 2:30 in the morning, I felt scared. The first scare was when the back door went flying off — a metal door that was in the kitchen and just went off flying. We’re still looking for it.
Tom Llewellyn: When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on September 20th, 2017, the mountain town of Cayey, where Judith Rodriguez lives, was, like much of the island, left without electricity for months on end. Winds reaching 175 miles per hour destroyed power lines and tore roofs off of houses. The result was the second longest blackout on record, and what many consider to be the worst natural disaster to ever hit the United States.
No electricity meant that people had no way of doing some of what we consider to be the most basic of things, like cooking food — and not just in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, but sometimes for months. This was true in towns all over the island, and it was a big problem. In the weeks after Maria hit, Judith had heard of an interesting place that had popped up — a kind of community kitchen in the neighboring town of Caguas. They were cooking food for people — and they needed help. She wanted to do something to pitch in. She didn’t have much, but she decided to go up anyways.
Judith Rodriguez: I first came here ’cause I had a lot of dishes in my house, and I said, “well, they’re cooking for a lot of people, what if I donate the dishes that are just lying around in a corner of my house?” I couldn’t do anything with them at the moment anyways. I said “well, how can I help since this project sounds beautiful? People cooperating with each other.”
Tom Llewellyn: Judith wasn’t the only one who had the thought to help. In the weeks after Maria, something sort of remarkable had happened. The community kitchen had taken on a whole new life, and what started perhaps as just a few plates and volunteer cooks had grown into a fully-fledged community center. And in just a matter of months, it grew into an island-wide network of mutual aid centers which, as we’ll see, is quickly turning into a movement to transform Puerto Rico, one person at a time.
You’re listening to The Response, a podcast documentary series that explores how communities come together in the aftermath of disaster. I’m your host, Tom Llewellyn, and we’ll spend our second episode in Puerto Rico.
Judith Rodriguez: I came here to offer the dishes, and I said, “well, I’m in a hurry, because I fell and have a hurt back.” They said, “we’ll help you with that.” That’s when I discovered the amazing experience of acupuncture.
Tom Llewellyn: In addition to providing food, the center in Caguas had started putting on weekly acupuncture clinics to help address some of the personal and collective shock felt throughout the community after the hurricane.
Judith Rodriguez: I thought it was just putting in a needle, telling you something and teaching you how to breathe, and that was it. But, this is much more than that, a kind of way of life. You learn how to live more relaxed, how to do things more calmly, how to have better judgement, and cooperating with others — because we’re a community. Whether we want it or not, human beings are a community. If we’re in China, in Puerto Rico, in Japan, wherever, we’re a community. We have to help each other here in Puerto Rico, which I call the boat. If this boat sinks, we all sink. I don’t sink alone, we all sink.
Tom Llewellyn: Now, almost a year later, the acupuncture clinics are still going on.
Giovanni Roberto: My name is Giovanni Roberto, I’m part of the organizing team here in the Mutual Aid Center of Caguas. Today we’re having the weekly acupuncture clinic. We work with stress and post-traumatic syndrome, addictions, and other health issues.
Tom Llewellyn: Puerto Rico’s healthcare situation wasn’t great before Maria — and the hurricane only made things worse. Many hospitals were left without electricity for months after the storm, and primary care became a luxury that few had access to. According to research published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the death toll, now estimated to be in the thousands, was primarily caused by interruptions in medical care.
And a less visible effect of the hurricane was the trauma it inflicted on the Puerto Rican psyche. Suicide prevention hotlines were getting up to five, even six hundred calls a day after the storm, and physicians were reporting unprecedented numbers of mental health hospitalizations. Acupuncture clinics, like the one here at the mutual aid center in Caguas, made a big difference for a lot of people. Giovanni told us about the experience of one of the women that came to the clinic.
Giovanni Roberto: When the first day she came here she was almost crying, like in a really stressful way. She was the last person that day and since that day, and have never been absent. She’s not crying anymore, she’s sleeping better, she say today to me that when she came here she feels that she’s in paradise. You know, like in a situation in which she feels so good that she forget about all the things in her normal life. And acupuncture did that to a lot of people.
Tom Llewellyn: Similar to how the Occupy Wall Street movement transformed into a disaster relief effort after Hurricane Sandy, the seeds for the center that Giovanni co-founded were also planted by a grassroots social movement. What began with community kitchens for low income students at the University of Puerto Rico quickly gained momentum with the historic strikes that took place in the spring of 2017, where thousands of university students gathered to resist massive budget cuts to the school system.
When Maria hit the island, that network of activists and organizers didn’t waste any time. They knew they had to do something to help, and so they began cooking food. Lots of it.
Giovanni Roberto: Yeah we were serving three hundred, four hundred, five hundred that first week of people in lunch. And sometimes two hundred or close to three hundred at breakfast.
Tom Llewellyn: But they also had a larger vision.
Giovanni Roberto: Instead of calling it just the Community Kitchen of Caguas, we tried to put a bigger name. Because we have an idea of building a center that could be more than just food.
We know that after the hurricane food was a strong necessity, but after a couple of weeks or maybe a month or two, other necessities like health issues arose and people have like, living issues, and medical issues, and other issues that were not related necessarily, directly related to Maria but they were there before Maria.
Tom Llewellyn: The larger vision that Giovanni and his fellow activists had was to create permanent projects that would go beyond basic disaster relief — a way of addressing some of the more chronic challenges people were facing on the island.
Giovanni Roberto: So that’s how we came with the idea of launching a community space called Mutual Aid Center. We did it here in Caguas, but also we were able to discuss the idea with other activists who were already doing things. And through that discussion we came with the idea of doing the same thing in different places. So can we can create a network to make the idea of the mutual aid more stronger in the island.
Tom Llewellyn: So, it’s probably a good time to unpack things a little bit. What exactly are those chronic struggles that exist in Puerto Rico? Where to begin…
If Puerto Rico was a state, it would be the poorest state in the U.S. Forty percent of the island lives below the U.S. poverty line. And maybe you’re thinking, it’s probably relatively cheaper to live in Puerto Rico? Not really. The cost of living in San Juan, the capital, is higher than it is in the average U.S. metropolitan area.
Then there’s the fact that one in ten Puerto Ricans are unemployed. And, of course, there’s the debt. Puerto Rico has been struggling with a potentially illegitimate debt that has crippled the country’s public services. For example, between 2010 and 2017, 340 schools were shut down. On top of that pensions are being cut, healthcare services are being cut… the island is in bad shape.
So, when Maria hit, it didn’t just the tear roofs off of buildings — it tore the lid off of an ongoing disaster. It woke people up. And Giovanni, like many other activists on the island, saw it as an opportunity. A chance to intervene.
Giovanni Roberto: We see our project as a political project. We want Puerto Rico to be different. We want society to transform in some way. That means to transform values, the way people relate, the way people trust each other. The way people see communities. So, we see this space as a way of organizing people to gain in those values, to gain that experience. In our long term vision we want Puerto Rico full of Mutual Aid Centers. If we are able to have an impact in the way people see these kind of spaces, we know we want to develop the concept of popular power which is not a concept developed here in any way yet.
Astrid Cruz Negrón: My name is Astrid Cruz Negrón. I am a high school teacher, I teach Spanish and History. And I am a member of the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico. That is, I’m active in the teacher’s union. I’m an activist and have been very involved in political, social, and environmental struggles in Utuado for as long as I can remember.
Tom Llewellyn: We’re now in Utuado, all the way on the other side of the island, in the Central Mountain Range.
Astrid Cruz Negrón: Utuado was one of the towns most affected by the hurricane. The fact that we have so much water meant that the effects were more visible here, I think it is the town with the most aquifers, with the most water in Puerto Rico. And the floods were huge.
But it’s essential to look at the social aspect as well, which is that Utuado was abandoned by the state and federal governments a long time ago. Poverty in Utuado is very high, unemployment is high, the biggest employer in Utuado is the municipal government and the Department of Education — the schools.
Tom Llewellyn: But schools in Utuado are starting to disappear, just like on the rest of the island. Because of budget cuts, a quarter of the schools in Puerto Rico are shutting down, displacing tens of thousands of students and their teachers. Three schools in Utuado were closed just this year.
Astrid Cruz Negrón: And plus the school isn’t just a school. It is a support center, in the hurricane it was a refuge, it is a social center, it is the library in a neighborhood where there is only one, where the only social worker in the neighborhood is in that school. The school plays such an essential role, so we cannot say that the state government abandoned Utuado because of the hurricane, they had abandoned it long before, and the same goes for the federal government.
Tom Llewellyn: Actually, after the hurricane, the federal government did show up in Utuado. But it wasn’t exactly in the way Astrid had hoped for.
Astrid Cruz Negrón: And yet, during the hurricane, the lines at the gas stations and in the supermarkets after they opened, were controlled by the National Guard who came in and gave the order to close a supermarket. There were trucks filled with water heading to local shops and they seized them. The National Guard seized the water going to the shops, which you might think that if the state seizes essential goods they are going to distribute them around town because that would make sense, but it wasn’t like that. We didn’t see it getting to the community afterwards, they kept these materials that they seized. In the federal post office of Utuado, the National Guard even seized containers to store gasoline, they seized the basic goods that our families in the diaspora sent us so we could survive that difficult time.
Tom Llewellyn: It was in the midst of all this when Astrid and many others came to realize that if they were going to survive, they were going to have to do it on their own. So, she started meeting with other members of her community, thinking about ways to move forward.
Astrid Cruz Negrón: The natural response of each one of us was to ask “what can I do?” Beyond the temporary state assistance and outside of the hegemonic responses from governments and institutions that want to perpetuate the situation that existed before the hurricane. As an activist one hopes for a better world and then looks for ways to not only solve the emergency, but every step we take is aimed at building that world we have always been working towards.
Tom Llewellyn: It was around this time that Astrid ran into a group of community organizers who had just arrived in town from Caguas. They invited her to a meeting, and that’s when things started to really take shape.
Astrid Cruz Negrón: They had seen the example of the center that was emerging in Caguas, so they had stories to tell about this movement or phenomenon on the island. And when we got together there was’’t much to say, we were all on the same page: we had a job to do for the survival of the people, so that the construction of something new and political would transcend from it.
Tom Llewellyn: The Mutual Aid Center of Utuado emerged somewhat spontaneously out of this shared vision for a better Puerto Rico. For a while they didn’t even have a physical space to call their own, and they were just working off the cuff, trying to get donated supplies out as fast as possible and putting on activities in public squares, community centers, and schools.
Astrid Cruz Negrón: We’ve done a lot of activities with few resources. Many deliveries of supplies, health fairs, community kitchens.
We’ve had talks about water purification, filter distribution, civil rights and legal talks. There was a helpful lawyer who led a conversation about the FEMA procedures and the rights of community members. It was very effective and people got very excited. They asked a lot of questions, and we could see that it created a lot of awareness.
We also brought in artistic workshops, we saw the need and people asked us for things other than technology to occupy their time when there was no electricity, activities to relax, activities to promote culture or keep busy, and so there were mandala workshops, origami workshops, plena workshops, given by the members of Plena Combativa, who brought in political themes because the lyrics they used as an example for how to compose a plena were rhymes with a political meaning, and it was really wonderful as people began to compose their plena with a message about their situation, it’s an emotional outlet.
So we also handle the cultural and emotional part, I would say, because there was that outlet, for example we brought in workshops on engraving, healing, massage, acupuncture and natural medicine. We have really done a lot of activities.
Tom Llewellyn: One of their more recent events was a disaster preparation fair with the focus on community education — teaching people skills like rainwater collection and map reading, for example.
Maria isn’t the only hurricane that’s hit Puerto Rico, and it won’t be the last. The reality of stronger and more frequent storms fueled by climate change makes this kind of preparedness incredibly important. But the activists and organizers here also always have an eye on the broader vision.
Astrid Cruz Negrón: The Mutual Aid Center definitely does not want to stay in the emergency mindset of surviving Maria, we want everything we do to build towards a new world, a new, more just, more equal society. We want to empower people to build popular power and gain more skills in terms of education, preparation, and resistance so they can be in a better state for creating and proposing new ideas.
Tom Llewellyn: They also put on musical performances and plays.
Tom Llewellyn: We’re just outside the home of Ramonita Bonilla in the mountain town of Las Marias. A group of volunteers are installing cisterns to catch rainwater — it’s part of a an ongoing program put together by the Mutual Aid Center of Las Marias.
Ramonita Bonilla: They came to put the cistern. Because that cistern is very good, because it fills up of water and you can serve yourself from it. The kids are tremendous, they are tremendous putting the cisterns there and working.
Tom Llewellyn: Perched atop the Central mountain range, Las Marias is very difficult to access — there are steep mountain roads and frequent mudslides, making this area especially vulnerable to extreme weather — and Maria left it devastated. Residents were cut off from food, water, and electricity for weeks. Word spread around the island that Las Marias was in trouble, and volunteers came from all around to help, including a group all the way from San Juan, which is on the opposite side of the island.
Ramonita Bonilla: We, of course. We were here without water forever and then they brought us water. The people were very good the people that brought us water and food and everything, They brought rice, beans, they brought everything. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t had eaten. We would’ve died, yes. And the many that did, was because of that.
Tom Llewellyn: One group of volunteers ended up staying long term. They founded the town’s mutual aid center, and two of them, José and Omar, are organizing today’s event.
José Bellaflores: My name’s José Bellafloras — I’m known as Guri. I’m from the city, from Rio Piedras, and I moved here after the hurricane Maria, to Bucarabones, in Las Marias, to help out with the community and started building from the bottom up a center where we could have cultural development and different types of opportunities for the community and us.
Tom Llewellyn: Before Maria hit, José was working three jobs in and around San Juan. He decided to give it all up to answer the call for help.
José Bellaflores: Once the hurricane passed, I don’t know what was it that my heart was beating fast. Every day, every hour when I went to sleep, just thinking that you know it’s the time. What time? I don’t know. But something was telling me that I needed to make a decision and just focus on the opportunity that we have right now. You know, other than Maria and the tragedy, the austerity measures that are been taken on our country. Well, I don’t know. I felt a drive and I and I just said, “Let’s sacrifice this and let’s see, if I put my strength, my focus, and all my energies on just organizing with the people. I think maybe I could kick off something that might become something bigger than what we’ve been imagining.”
Tom Llewellyn: Over the last few months, he’s seen that bigger vision take form in Las Marias, as community members have become more and more involved.
José Bellaflores: It’s very empowering, and to see people that maybe weren’t so active in life being active here in the center. Being active as a community leader. For me it’s beautiful and I couldn’t be happier to see that.
Tom Llewellyn: An here’s Omar Reyes. He also came all the way from San Juan in those first days, and helped found the mutual aid center here in Las Marias.
Omar Reyes: We have a better hope. Now we still had hope — we had hope before and we will have hope always. But now it’s a better hope. It’s a hope more clearly of our own. It’s our own option. It’s not the option that someone comes and just tell you that that’s your option. No. We are creating our own possibility and our own reality.
Tom Llewellyn: There are now mutual aid centers all around the island. But as their numbers continue to grow, so does the threat of more austerity and state negligence. In a chilling report recently released by FEMA, the agency acknowledged its poor response to Maria and essentially told Puerto Ricans to expect something similar this upcoming hurricane season. Here’s Giovanni Roberto, who we heard from at the beginning of the episode.
Giovanni Roberto: Now the government too here in Puerto Rico is selling the idea that people should do more self-management which is not to the same idea that we are talking. But self-management in the idea of the government is that you take care of yourself.
Tom Llewellyn: Many Puerto Ricans are careful not to let the government off the hook by assuming they’re just too incompetent or that they don’t have the resources to get anything done. And in many ways, there are no substitutes for the kind of large-scale recovery efforts and resource distribution that states can provide.
And the truth is, the government has been very active in many ways. Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló has been traveling around the U.S. in a kind of marketing campaign, promising to open the island up to foreign investors and selling off public infrastructure to the highest bidder. With this growing allegiance to a program of disaster capitalism, and after decades of neglect, it’s no wonder why many in Puerto Rico have little confidence that the administration will ever step up to the plate.
Giovanni Roberto: We don’t want the help of the state right now because, we don’t want it. We we want to build a project that can prove that we can do it without them. And then compete with them in the future, because they have the resources that we should have. So, we are not turning the back to the reality that we need to fight against the state. We are trying to build political power and social fabric so it makes sense to fight against the state. It makes sense because we have an opportunity. Right now we don’t have any opportunity against the state. Because we don’t have political power. No size, no number, no quality organization, values in society, you know, we — it’s gonna take time.
Christine Nieves: Mariana has been an example of a community that refuses to believe that we don’t have power.
Tom Llewellyn: This is Christine Nieves, she helped found the Mutual Aid Center in Mariana in the municipality of Humacao, just off the eastern coast of the island. She had visited the mutual aid center in Caguas in the week after Maria hit, and she immediately knew that she wanted to do something similar.
Christine Nieves: What I saw there just blew me away because I saw people that were together. I saw people that were smiling and happy. And there was color and there were artists playing guitars and there were signs with beautiful bright drawings. And I just took out my notebook and took out my camera and I started documenting everything that I saw.
Tom Llewellyn: Christine decided she was going to take a risk. She and her partner Luis quit their jobs and founded what’s now the Mutual Aid Project of Mariana.
Christine Nieves: So now we are being proactive about creating different economic models that create wealth for people in Mariana with people in Mariana in mind and in engagement, co-designing it. And everything that has been happening in the organizing has started from a place of dignity and saying we we know our rights, we know what we deserve, and we’re going to organize and we’re going to demand it and we’re not going to wait. And if we have to start making it ourselves, we’re going to do it.
So now what we are presenting is an actual example of how government must evolve in the presence of self-governed communities. What we’re doing is actually the government’s job and this is going to present something that’s at some point going to have to be dealt with because we’re building power. And when people are free and people are awake and people know what they’re worth then they’re not being manipulated anymore. And that’s our goal. And I firmly believe that the more of these communities that happen in Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico will change because it’s just a reflection of a different country. And so if we start from the individual the whole community changes. And so that’s where we have to begin.
Tom Llewellyn: This episode was written, produced, and edited by Robert Raymond. Interviews were conducted and recorded by our field producer Juan Carlos Dávila. A big thank you to Vladi, Skew.One, and Papel Machete for the music.
Join us for our next episode where we’ll travel to northern California and explore how the undocumented immigrant community there is organizing against a combination of climate-fueled wildfires, a housing crisis, labor exploitation, and the constant threat of ICE raids.
This season of The Response is part of the “Stories to Action” project, a collaboration between Shareable, Post Carbon Institute, Transition US, Upstream Podcast, and NewStories, with distribution support from Making Contact. Funding was provided by the Threshold and Shift Foundations.
If you liked what you just heard, please head over to Apple Podcasts and leave us. It might not sound like much, but it’ll make a huge difference in helping others hear this story.