On the second day of the Crisis Convening, participants Raquela Delgado Valentín, Luís Rodriguez, Jessica Santos López gave an overview of mutual aid and other efforts in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. This article is adapted from transcript notes taken by Liz Barry, Willow Brugh, and Ayako Maruyama.
People were mobilizing before, during, and after the hurricane. We are here sharing these stories as examples of how the island and its surrounding islands collaborate with the diaspora in Boston, New York, and elsewhere. Sometimes when unrelated people feel like there is something happening on the island, they want to go there. But so many people are already there. In reality, the Puerto Rican network is dense, and we don't have to focus all effort in one place (by physically going to San Juan). Keep supporting the people.
When we knew the hurricane---a Category 5---was coming, people in the diaspora were already in place and having drills about what to do. Many people who were becoming active had previously been active in Occupy Wall Street movement and after Hurricane Sandy---there are many connections there between Puerto Rico and the U.S. I was making sure I was sharing information with family. The Red de Apoyo Mutua _Post Maria _(post-Maria mutual aid network) was basically a conference call. Phone calls were happening all over New York City. We knew what areas would be extremely affected and we were getting ready to support those regions.
After the hurricane, we knew nothing. Desperation. Anxiety. Most Puerto Ricans in the diaspora suspended their daily lives to be supportive. We collected bits and pieces of information. If you could talk to your mom, cousin, friend---those five minutes had to be extremely strategic: what they needed, what they lost, who they were in touch with. We gathered this into lists: who is missing, what tools do people need, what medicine people need, what roads are not connected, where heavy machinery is needed, where there is no food. Information started to flow.
Because the communication infrastructure was so terrible or nonexistent, you had to do the work yourself. The diaspora started to visit Latin organizations who had gathered information from family members who were able to connect to other family members for five minutes; this was how we pieced together information. We shared information on daily calls. Most of the work that had to be done was emotional support: story circles, healing circles---because people didn't know about their families. It usually meant heavy crying before people could get themselves into a place to talk, then sharing information about what was needed and how it was needed.
Because there was so much information and exchange going on in the diaspora, the many unrelated people who wanted to immediately go to the island could have just connected with us first. We didn't know much, but we were being strategic about what was needed on the island; if someone on the island said they needed something, that's what was taken care of first, not what we decided they needed.
In Puerto Rico there are 3.5 million people living on the island. There are 5.5 million people in the diaspora. You have more people living outside of the island. It's really important to understand that point, because if it weren't for the diaspora, lots of support would not have been possible. Overall, the five boroughs of New York City are 10% Puerto Rican.
This all connects to the independence movement: El Puente in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn; UPROSE in Sunset Park, Brooklyn; and Loisaida Center in Manhattan. These organizations are thinking about both social and environmental justice. To help an island with no electricity and no clean water, they have tools to think about what's needed. Don't just send bottled water, but also focus on water filters. Don't just send batteries, send solar lamps. Think strategically, long-term. Think about who we support, and how. People were gathering materials, but there was an issue with distribution. It was a smart and quick response, quite strategic, but because of our colonial situation, all the things that were sent were stuck in ports. We knew that people on the island were moving around and helping each other, creating rescue teams and clearing roads, but we knew they needed tools to do those jobs.
At the same time there was no communication. At the time there was just one radio station functioning. People were calling from all over the island into the one radio station asking, "Is my dad OK?"
Not even the government had communication---for weeks. One of us didn't speak with their dad or sister for a month. The diaspora's big role was to reach each other and tell each other what they needed. Knowing the necessities is still hard. We didn't know if ports were distributing what we were sending. Our communication was a disaster for a few weeks. We couldn't communicate with each other, and had to travel to see each other face-to-face. My cousin in Humacao couldn't see his son or wife across the island in Mayagüez because the roads were closed or didn't exist. They had to rebuild the road to get through.
We were strategizing around how to use planes there, and how to use boats to bring the food. Slowly, boats started to get through with goods. Many of these local organizations didn't stop working---they're still working. There are fundraisers for these them. They're thinking about how to deliver assistance to the islands at this moment.
It is important to say that community/grassroots organizations were doing a good job before Hurricane Maria. After the hurricane, some people in political groups decided to create organizations to decide how to allocate support for the reconstruction. Those groups are highlighted in the map to the right.
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