WORDS BY EDMY AYALA ROSADO
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MATT BLACK / Magnum photos
On the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Fiona came roaring onto Puerto Rico. The Frontline digs into the colonial struggle the archipelago still faces—and the people rising up to demand freedom.
I began writing this essay to commemorate the five-year anniversary of Hurricanes Irma and María in Puerto Rico—and the community-centered models born of the hardships faced because of them. Then, Hurricane Fiona hit.
While María wreaked havoc with her 155 mile-per-hour winds, Fiona’s historic rains displayed an unquestionable picture of how colonial powers grip our collective necks and compromise our possible future. Since 2017, three hurricanes, floods, a major earthquake, and the political disasters that have followed each have made it suffocatingly obvious that what’s standing between us and a higher quality of life is our nation’s status.
These hardships brought on by our colonial status and local governmental corruption—which were violently exacerbated by the passing of Hurricanes Irma and María five years ago and, now, Fiona—are being alleviated through community projects.
I knew my people were smart, strong, and determined, but I couldn’t have predicted what I saw in the weeks, months, and years that followed Irma, María, and Fiona.
Being Boricua is amazing—and also truly confusing and painful. We live every day between the absolute assurance of our collective power and the inescapable destitution of our constant crises. Puerto Rican rapper and singer Bad Bunny is a perfect display of this duality. After María, he premiered “Estamos Bien” (“We Are OK”) as a song combining affirmation with prayer. More recently, his latest album Un Verano Sin Ti (A Summer Without You) advocates for what has become our collective vow: staying in Puerto Rico because it is ours.
“El Apagón” (“The Blackout”), one of the album’s singles and the most political, begins with “Puerto Rico está bien cabrón,” (“Puerto Rico is fucking great”) on top of bomba beats. After highlighting some of our best attributes, the song ends with a slow and sweet chant: “No me quiero ir de aquí, que se vayan ellos, que se vayan ellos” (“I don’t want to leave here, let them go, let them go”).
Bad Bunny made the song’s music video into a documentary on displacement—and the communities pushing back. Puerto Rican independent journalist Bianca Graulau led the documentary’s original analysis and reporting, highlighting how white Americans who move to Puerto Rico for its tax exemptions are culprits of gentrification.
Bad Bunny has put Puerto Rican culture on the map globally. His confident, easygoing, and honest personality—alongside his politics—is also a picture of Puerto Rico’s youth. His success shows that the world is listening, and what they’re listening to symbolizes what Puerto Rico’s youth want to see: liberation but never at the expense of abandoning our home or sacrificing our cultural authenticity.
This sentiment has long existed. Hurricanes Irma, María, and Fiona only made everything that much more urgent.
A Hurricane's Legacy
Puerto Rico is a two-time colony, first of Spain and now of the U.S. Life here is hard.
When María hit on Sept. 20, 2017 (only 14 days after Hurricane Irma caused real damage), it was as if we were laid so naked that it connected us precisely to that colonial legacy. And to the pathetic reality that we have never had a chance to truly develop our own skills and powers because colonies belong to empires, and empires own colonies to extract and leverage their resources for their own strengthening. It’s a one-way relationship by design.
While the U.S. acts as the empire it is, our local governments (relentless in their bipartisan politics) serve as a pawn.
After María, both governments left us to our own devices. Food was scarce, homes were decimated, cell phone signals were weak, and the already raggedy electric grid was in shambles. The whole archipelago of Puerto Rico lost power, and it didn’t come back until months after for many—even later than a year for others. The blackout remains the worst ever experienced in U.S. history. The months after María were filled with long lines to buy food and gas. Hospitals couldn’t operate properly. It was cataclysmic.
A study published in August 2018 by George Washington University estimated that 2,975 people died during or after the storm. And in August of this year, a study by the University of Toronto revealed 514 unaccounted deaths of Puerto Ricans in the mainland U.S. who may have moved following Hurricane María. This brings the possible total loss of life to almost 3,500 souls. In the month after María, some 90,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to the U.S., seeking refuge or health services.
The darkness of those days, literal and symbolic, was chaotic.
Then, came Fiona. We again experienced a total blackout. Even over a month after its passing, thousands remain without electricity. Those who have it have reported outages, there has been less assurance and transparency than five years ago. When María hit, our grid was managed by a public corporation called the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Now, it’s in the hands of LUMA Energy, a private Canadian company in a public-private partnership with the Puerto Rican government since June 2020.
LUMA has not improved the energy service, according to the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau. And even while the public has called to annul its contract, LUMA has the support of the fiscal control board, which has managed our budgets since 2016. This board consists of seven members appointed by the president of the U.S., for whom the people of Puerto Rico cannot vote.
“We argue that the systems and politics that are in place are racist by design.”
Dr. Fernando Tormos-Aponte, a Boricua sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has been studying to what extent politics affect energy restoration in the U.S. He and two colleagues published an article last year about the politicization of energy restoration after the blackout provoked by Maria. Tormos-Aponte called this event a “perfect, tragic natural experiment.”
By analyzing the coordinates, demographics, and politics of communities where power restoration crews were deployed in Puerto Rico, the researchers confirmed that communities that voted for the sitting governor “elicit greater government responsiveness.” Meanwhile, the most vulnerable communities waited longer for power. Such an analysis isn’t as simple now because LUMA does not make their crew deployments public. As a public company, PREPA was legally obligated to publish documents that include this information.
“We knew they owed us, and we could sue,” Tormos-Aponte said. “LUMA doesn’t even answer the phone. It’s another animal entirely.”
Hurricanes Irma, María, and Fiona aggravated the social and environmental infrastructure of Puerto Rico, further harming one of the most impoverished child populations in all U.S. states and territories. Even while we still embrace the joy and find some relief through humor, our streets (many not yet lit) have a different air after Fiona.
“We don’t argue that the inequality we observed in our analysis was necessarily the result of people in the background redirecting all crews,” Tormos-Aponte said. “We argue inequality and racism don’t need active agency to produce unequal and racist results. We argue that the systems and politics that are in place are racist by design.”
María’s aftermath broke our hearts and tested our spirits, but Fiona made us angry—very angry—and indignant. We reached a new collective level of awareness around the need for more than “Band-Aid” solutions.
And as the governmental response grows more weak and corrupt with each hurricane, our communities and the nonprofit network they’ve built grow strong and innovative. They have created new ways of organizing. And they’re doing it not only for themselves but for everlasting change. All of that is painting a new abolitionist and sovereign future for all.
We Want Sun
In the mountains of Adjuntas, located in our luscious central mountain range, a revolution has begun—a sustainable and inclusive answer to a national crisis. Casa Pueblo, a community-based organization with more than four decades of commitment to protecting Puerto Rico’s cultural and natural treasures, became a solar oasis for families reeling from María—and, now, Fiona.
The organization was born from rebellious science-based efforts in 1980 when its leaders—the couple Tinti Deyá Díaz, a teacher and environmentalist, and Alexis Massol González, a civil engineer and environmental activist—successfully organized against the government’s plan to start a gold, copper, and silver mining operation. Now, their son and renowned scientist Arturo Massol-Deyá also leads the organization.
Since those early days, Casa Pueblo went on to plant seeds for the archipelago’s solar hopes and dreams, installing a small solar energy system to power its center. In the aftermath of Hurricane María, Casa Pueblo opened its doors to anyone who needed electricity to run medical devices, store medicine, and charge gadgets. After the disaster, the group donated some 14,000 solar lamps and installed solar systems like theirs in many local shops and residences, helping the communities prepare for future disasters.
The group is actively working to abolish the dirty energy system that has long failed Puerto Rico’s people. Instead, the coal and gas that the archipelago runs on is harming our health and planet.
“Casa Pueblo has taught me to grow as a person,” said Rebecca Rodríguez Banch, who joined the organization after María and now serves as the link between Casa Pueblo and the 16 communities of Adjuntas.
Since María, the organization has led more than 250 solar energy projects, according to Rodríguez Banch—and has done so equitably and according to the level of necessity. Those with solar systems in their homes or businesses can now support their neighbors in future times of need.
Sometimes, systemic change seems daunting. Until you have precedence.
But turning everyone onto the sun is not as easy as it might seem. Solar panels are not only expensive, but also an economic gamble due to Puerto Rico’s unstable solar energy market. This year, renowned Afro-Puerto Rican writer and poet Mayra Santos-Febres appeared before the Puerto Rican Senate to share the economic loss she suffered when her photovoltaic system began to fail. Not long after Santos-Febres took out a loan to cover the $27,457 cost, New Energy, the local company that serviced her system, went bankrupt.
Clearly, energizing a whole house can be expensive. Casa Pueblo’s small model, however, may feel more realistic. For less than $8,000, the organization offers six solar panels, an inverter, and four batteries. The group just installed its 100th system, affectionately called Cucubanos after the namesake native click beetle that lights up.
Casa Pueblo is also building one of Puerto Rico’s first community-powered solar microgrids that will provide power to 18 local businesses. I spoke to Massol-Deyá about it. He told me it’s the first microgrid of this scale and magnitude in Puerto Rico. The team expects to finish the grid by the end of the year.
Rodríguez Banch is hopeful: “Puerto Rico is understanding that we don’t have to wait for anyone to move forward. We must start in our home to then tackle great challenges.” The group’s efforts to provide Puerto Rico with 100% clean energy by 2050 through Queremos Sol, a volunteer collaborative that it supports, proves just that.
“Casa Pueblo is important because, for many people, it is an example of what could be,” Tormos-Aponte said. “These examples can open the mind to alternatives that previously were not believed possible even in our consciousness.”
After Fiona, I spoke again with Rodríguez Banch. She told me how on route to her house after the storm, she counted about 17 mudslides that had occurred. Casa Pueblo once again became an oasis. Those the organization had previously helped were creating solar-powered refuges, too.
Casa Pueblo highlights what can be done—and then replicated—when science and technology stand with community needs and knowledge. The group’s main goal was made clear by Massol-Deyá: “Let people free themselves from the centralized model, and let people define the structure that is needed.” Neither LUMA nor PREPA are the answer, he said, because both follow “exploitative models.” What Casa Pueblo exemplifies is a “liberation and economic reactivation model,” he went on.
Sometimes, systemic change seems daunting. Until you have precedence.
We now know how to fight for what we are owed. That’s thanks to community-focused organizations like Casa Pueblo, which jump in and set that precedence.
Everyone Is Owed Their Rights
Another one of these is Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, a women-led nonprofit that provides free and accessible legal education and support. It was born 24 hours after María made landfall, in the corridors of where lawyer Ariadna Godreau Aubert grew up.
The group’s belief is simple: “Power is built when people and communities know and use their rights to transform systems.” This mission leads the legal group’s work, which recognizes that not all people have equitable access to a dignified reconstruction process when disasters hit.
“The challenge today is staying on our islands. The main threat is displacement by design,” reads the organization’s fourth annual report. It seems we are becoming collectively aware of that just by how things never seem to get better.
Godreau Aubert, the group’s founder, knows this to be true. “I see the mentality of, They owe us,” she told me in an interview last year. “People are going through a process of empowerment, hit by hit, sadly. People do know that something is not right … What is missing is knowledge of the law.”
Thousands of families have active federal requests for disaster assistance related to Hurricanes Irma, María, and now Fiona, according to Ayuda Legal. Around 58% of applicants were denied after María. The situation only grew more complicated when we were rocked by an earthquake in 2020 that displaced thousands.
Colonialism, by design, is violent.
Then, the pandemic hit. In September, we surpassed 5,000 COVID-related deaths. In 2021 alone, there were 755 eviction lawsuits due to mortgage defaults and 2,493 foreclosures. And in January 2022, the price of housing increased by 15%.
Colonialism, by design, is violent.
Throughout the onslaught of crises, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico has supported its communities through workshops, webinars, community brigades, translation services, and digital meetings and events. The team also empowers the Afro-descendant communities of Loíza in the northeast through a community paralegal training program where some of the most experienced community leaders learn how to fiscalize public contracts and other government processes.
Recently, Ashley Centeno Betances, an antiracist lawyer, expert in affordable housing and immigration, and a dear friend who works for the organization, told me that the work she and her colleagues do is effective because it doesn’t shy away from Puerto Rico’s colonial history—“where some were given access and power to own land and build dignified homes and others weren’t,” as she put it.
“Today, we still see the results of the racist history that we have—and in public policy,” Centeno Betances said.
The group’s work is a constant reminder of how costly it is for communities when local governments don’t cover their needs. It is common for displaced and historically marginalized communities to rescue land, but FEMA hasn’t historically recognized that land ownership as legitimate. Ayuda Legal developed a sworn statement form that hurricane survivors can use to demonstrate ownership of their homes.
That’s what makes the group’s work so powerful—these lawyers offer free legal education to empower impoverished and vulnerable communities in and outside of the courtroom.
After Fiona, Ayuda Legal again focused its advocacy on supporting impacted and displaced communities on their FEMA applications. I went to a workshop where the group’s main contribution became clear: Ayuda Legal gives us the stamina we need to carry on until we fully understand how to hack this system of oppression and decide our own future.
While we can’t build a sovereign nation on disaster aid, we can leverage anything and everything to platform our collective future.
But First, Food Sovereignty
Vieques, an island municipality of Puerto Rico, is sometimes called by locals “the colony of the colony.” Local crises are felt even stronger because Vieques lacks a hospital, secure transportation to and from the main island, and other basic needs such as fresh foods. When María hit, the people there were hit even harder.
“In Vieques, we were left without communication with the main island or with anyone, neither by telephone, nor by air, nor by boat,” said Elda Lud Guadalupe Carrasquillo, a science teacher-turned organizer. “There was quite an intense despair.”
They did not wait for help to arrive. They built a new model for food sovereignty.
Guadalupe Carrasquillo; Ana Elisa Pérez Quintero, a farmer; and Marilyn López Parrilla, a Spanish teacher, founded and now run La Colmena Cimarrona, an agroecological nonprofit.
With the organization, they lead four interconnected community projects. They launched these projects in response to that despair Guadalupe Carrasquillo saw. The first project is their farm, La Semillera, where they grow food and host another project, The Panal, in which they educate the community through talks and workshops on agroecological methods to grow food in their backyards. Then, there is the Agricultural Collective, which unites four local farms that collectively supply the fourth and final project: a biweekly market called La Sambumbia where they sell fruits, veggies, and even their own honey. The people from Vieques get a 25% discount.
The team chose the name Colmena Cimarrona—a combination of “hive” and “cimarrón,” the name used in the Americas and Caribbean to refer to the brave escaped Afro-descendant enslaved people who ran from colonial domination and then built free communities—because of the symbolism bees hold.
“The truth is that bees are a feminist society,” said Pérez Quintero. “They have a queen, who is really like a matron … For me, she has always been like a matriarch who takes care of her hive and that the bees, if they so decide, can even kill her. Bees are extremely organized workers. And we saw that it was a very interesting model of social organization. We work with bees. Bees inspire us!”
The hive is primarily led by women, which sometimes surprises locals.
“It is in our hands to move our island forward.”
“We, women, are the ones building the country,” Pérez Quintero said. “We are a hive. From that anti-colonial, anti-capitalist work, we are trying to create what we want, which is very difficult within the system we live in, but we are slowly doing it.”
The trio recently hosted a summer camp to empower local girls called the Abejas Reinas, or Queen Bees in English. “We want to promote in them that sense of belonging, of appropriating ourselves, of the power that we have, in addition to being women, being Viequenses,” López Parrilla said with pride. “Many agreed with the thought that we have power. It is in our hands to move our island forward.”
Fiona was benevolent to the people of Vieques. They didn’t experience much, and the water and electric utilities came back quickly. Still, they rallied in support of others. “Even though it’s hard here, we did a small fundraiser to send to those affected in the West,” López Parrilla said when I called her to ask how they were doing. “Fiona was really more practice for organizations like La Colmena, where we help each other.”
I asked her if they consider themselves abolitionists as I, indeed, do. To that, she said, “La Colmena is a balm to bring another vision of what we need so as not to need from the same thing that is affecting us, which is the government.”
It’s Time for Reparations
These three abolitionist movements are only some of the many successful community-centered models that are marking the beginning of a new era for Puerto Rico. As our nation’s status becomes a talking point, these groups and others need to be part of that discussion. Local government officials are rarely the experts. Some have even dared to express concern over local communities’ abilities to handle abundant federal money.
I say they aren’t paying enough attention. With adequate resources and support, our community leaders can and should continue to guide our path.
Our true anticolonial revolution today lies in us building at the community level and serving each other from that same sphere and philosophy. Many of these efforts—although created in the darkness of one of the worst weather events in recent history—have helped local communities steer our reconstruction. They are doing it leveraging academic, historic, political, and ancestral knowledge.
We Boricuas are showing the world a true and noble resistance to capitalism, neoliberalism, and imperialism. Though some may argue the colonial project seems to be working in Puerto Rico, we push back. We level the playing field for true sovereignty. We have turned our grief into action.
Breathing in this hopeful and realistic picture of Puerto Rico makes me feel like I belong to something bigger. I share it with the hopes you feel the same—and that you may join our cause. Much of the world knows about the colonial grip.
And even though we, as a planet, will face more disasters like María (just look at what happened with Hurricane Ian) we know we won’t all suffer the same. And while abolition is also about reparations as a portway to healing, community is and always will be an essential part of the answer. We are proof of that.
The aftermath of a disaster is filled with loss, pain, and worry, but when years pass and the dust settles, all that is left is what the people did to recover—and rebuild. If there is something we humans know how to do, it is to start anew.
October 24, 2022 11:37 am
The story has been updated to clarify that Queremos Sol is a program Casa Pueblo supports, but it is not their program.