The post-María crisis isn’t over. Though most of Puerto Rico now has electricity and water, those factors aren’t the end-all litmus test for progress. A full recovery goes beyond darkness – it’s about bringing to light the problems that plagued the island pre-storm and have worsened in its wake. Flipping a light switch won’t instantly reveal a better quality of life. Real recovery includes finding long-term solutions to a system that continually fails the people – and solidarity among communities has proved the only reliable, sustainable route to permanent repair.
As bureaucratic inefficiency at both local and federal levels leaves survivors of the storm in limbo, grassroots organizing has become crucial. From cleanup brigades to clear debris to the delivering of supplies throughout the archipelago in the days, weeks, and months after, the people themselves compensated for the critical gaps in relief efforts.
Activists and organizers had plenty of experience to cull from: Political and social movements have gained ground throughout a decade-long recession. Last year’s May 1 National strike took place while another University of Puerto Rico protest was underway.
Today, Puerto Ricans face more of the same problems. A massive march to the Capitol in the name of public education this week didn’t reopen the nearly 200 schools closed in 2017, and it didn’t stop legislation to implement charter schools – a move the Federation of Teachers vehemently opposes – from senate approval only hours later. The privatization of Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority is in the works, too.
The merciless whittling away of quality of life continues in Puerto Rico.
This chipping away has been continuously present in Puerto Rico’s history, including the white-knuckled grip of port control and taxation via the Jones Act – lifted only temporarily for post-storm relief. The list of aggressions and oppressions is discouragingly long – from cutting pensions to actively encouraging multinationals and outside corporations to dominate the economy with huge tax cuts that are specifically unavailable to locals, to the selling of private lands and natural resources, the contamination of the people through toxic ash, to a widely criticized Secretary of Education, Julia Keleher who, despite the island’s incredible debt, was contracted at a rate of $250,000 per year. (For reference, that’s about $50K more than Betsy DeVos.)
But people power in Puerto Rico hasn’t faltered. In fact, it’s growing and gaining strength.
Community initiatives – some sprouted out of need, some existed decades prior to the storm – have evolved to address long-term needs. Sparked by the evident reality that, even after a natural disaster, the government won’t adequately support the people it purports to serve, there’s a strong shift toward detachment from bureaucracy – this includes the nonprofit sector – and toward the people’s genuine autonomy.
Puerto Rico’s legal status as a colony may never change, but regardless, autogestión facilitates the concentration of power in the people, rather than in government. It may bring solutions to many of those colonial oppressions. A wholly self-sufficient Puerto Rico certainly won’t happen overnight, or maybe at all. But something close is possible, and community-focused collectives like the three detailed below have already begun the work.
El Hormiguero: Centro Social Autogestiónado
Slowly, a small group is converting an abandoned, deteriorating building in San Juan neighborhood Santurce into a community center. Once a government office, a private developer – who apparently changed plans – later bought it and left the three-story building to rot. Eight years later, in December of 2016, El Hormiguero began to take shape.
Gabriel Hatuey joined the collective during the summer. After putting a dent in rehabilitating the space, the group began hosting public events, but its work accelerated post-storm. El Hormiguero currently has three programs steadily running: Cine Hormiga nights, where it screens films and documentaries; sporadic lectures, discussions, and study groups centered on political and social topics, like last week’s intro to Italian Marxist philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci; and martial arts and self-defense classes, dubbed Hormigas Bravas.
“The idea of Hormigas Bravas is to develop in participants a feeling of confidence, empowerment, where they feel they’re educated and have the tools to respond to injustice,” says Fredi Cortés, who heads up the classes.
Self-defense isn’t confined to protecting yourself from physical violence, it’s also about preservation of the political movement. Officers remove arrested protesters from their work, whether temporarily or permanently.
“We lose a foot soldier,” he says. “What [we’re] telling people is we have to learn how to be smart in the way we participate. One way or another, we have to be sure we have the tools to be effective; in certain circumstances, don’t allow yourself to be arrested, and to defend yourself in front of abuses of the state.”
Mitigating a potentially hostile environment, if arrested, is another topic. Improving a person’s physical condition, Cortés adds, also helps them avoid participating in the medical-industrial complex. “Sickness is lucrative,” he notes.
Soon, El Hormiguero will debut an entire floor as a library, with meeting rooms and a kitchen open to students, activist groups, and anybody else. While El Hormiguero runs on donated funds and goods, the group won’t turn away anyone who can’t contribute. A health clinic with a holistic focus is also forthcoming.
“If one thing is clear, it’s that we don’t have power, and that people don’t feel like they have power or control over their lives,” Hatuey says.
The collective hopes El Hormiguero will help Puerto Ricans reclaim that power, and amplify it massively – and foment more occupations. Hatuey reminds, “Juntas la hormigas nos comemos al elefante.”
Also in Santurce – sandwiched between bars, colmados, and apartment housing – is El Almacén. The warehouse-turned-workshop, founder Javier Rodríguez says, is on the way to becoming a hackerspace. “It’s about taking something that’s not being used and giving it life with other pieces from something else,” he says.
Just inside, sparks fly around a metalsmith who’s mid-project. Workshops and discussions occur in an adjacent room; there’s a kitchen attached. In the rear, piled high along the walls beneath the loft where Rodríguez sleeps, sit heaps of discarded electronics: Monitors, CPUs, speakers, all waiting for upcycling. A walk-in cooler, situated beside the woodworking area (complete with a computer-driven cutting tool), contains spray painting and other messier work.
Rodríguez first began using the space in December 2016 when El Departamento de la Comida, a sustainable agriculture project (at one time, a restaurant), relocated. He needed somewhere to finish a woodworking project for a local business; he shared the space with another person, as well as chefs and cooks from a nearby food truck lot, who used the space for food prep. Rodríguez officially took over the lease last summer, just before Hurricane Irma and right after acquiring a load of discarded solar panels.
“I didn’t know anything about solar energy. I didn’t know anything about what equipment they required, nothing,” he says. So in the moment of not having light for days, I started inventing, to see what I could do. Later, the light came, and then Maria came.”
Through donated equipment and funds, Rodríguez got the solar energy system going, and immediately opened El Almacén as a cafe of sorts for folks looking to charge their phones or laptops. “I thought, if they gave me this money, I need to use it for services for people, to give something to the community,” Rodríguez says.
More tradespeople began using the workshop, including a fashion designer, a woodworker, and a printing press crew. They became collaborators, hosting workshops and assisting those led by others: Woodworking, soldering, visible mending of clothing, graphic design basics on Illustrator, stencil cutting, and poetry. An ongoing solar energy series in particular could help people get off the electrical grid either partially or entirely, and at the very least, provide a backup during failures.
El Almacén’s programming constantly changes: In earlier months, bands had solar-powered practice sessions there; movie nights are organized regularly; there’s been educational discussions about the native and rare species of trees, and the environmental impact of the hurricane. Rodriguez is contemplating a beer-and-knots night, where attendees can master essential knots. But while the subject varies event-to-event, each one contributes to an overall DIY ethos – a sturdy bedrock for autogestión.
Centro de Apoyo Mutuo – Caguas
In the downtown pueblo of the municipality of Caguas, located in the island’s center mountain range, between 50 and 100 residents arrive three days a week for breakfast or lunch at the Centro de Apoyo Mutuo. Those are the numbers now, six months post-storm. In the beginning, says organizer Giovanni Roberto, it was between 300 and 400. “These are people who were in crisis before María,” Roberto explains.
Launched in September – just after the hurricane’s passing – it originally came to exist in one abandoned building. The collective of volunteers moved to another – also formerly abandoned, but with better ventilation and easier repairs – in December. Currently, around 10 people collaboratively work in the space, which also holds a weekly auricular acupuncture clinic.
The building isn’t fully rehabilitated yet. The Maryland-based organization Ridge to Reefs set up a cistern for rainwater collection, but it’s yet to acquire a solar energy system for sustainable power. (Right now, CAM runs on a generator.)
This community center was the first by its name – now, Roberto counts 10 Centro de Apoyo Mutuo iterations altogether. Popping up one by one, it’s spread throughout Puerto Rico, in areas like Utuado, Las Marías, Humacao, and on the smaller island of Vieques. Operations vary, as each is independently run; at another CAM, which serves the communities around the western municipality of Lares, in addition to offering meals, also houses multiple families in its once abandoned school property.
“What we thought is that using the name would give us a political perspective,” Roberto says. “That it would create a dynamic of solidarity.”