Skip to content

Beyond Relief

After Hurricane Maria, a mutual aid movement grows

It took 328 days for power to be fully restored in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria slammed into the island on September 20, 2017. This was the second-worst blackout in history, and many communities were stripped of their most basic necessities for months. Food and shelter were no longer a guarantee in many parts of the island. Basic health care services became a luxury of the few. The result was that, despite the government’s initial casualty count of sixty-four, 2,975 people died.

The official entities tasked with relief and recovery in Puerto Rico were glaringly absent in many of the communities where they were most needed. When the federal government did show up, its presence often felt more like an occupying force. Astrid Cruz Negrón, a highschool teacher in Utuado, described how the National Guard arrived in town only to close supermarkets, seize trucks filled with water and gasoline, and then fail to distribute those resources within the community. This was not uncommon.

President Trump, who on his visit to the island launched paper towel rolls over a crowd in San Juan like a ham-fisted T-shirt cannon, insisted that the United States did “a fantastic job in Puerto Rico.” But the Federal Emergency Management Agency released an internal report this summer acknowledging its own failure to adequately respond to Hurricane Maria. This wasn’t some left-wing nonprofit looking to discredit the Trump administration—this was FEMA. Their message, essentially, was, “Yeah, we messed up. No hard feelings?”

When the federal government did show up, its presence often felt more like an occupying force.

But Puerto Ricans are used to being expendable to the state, and to many, this failure to respond—and the attitude that went with it—was hardly shocking. Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States in all but name. The United States’ invasion of Puerto Rico in 1898 eventually led to the island’s absorption into the U.S. economy. By 1930, a third of the cultivated land in Puerto Rico was devoted to sugar cane production, an industry dominated by U.S. capital that forced many Puerto Rican farmers into the position of sharecroppers. For decades, the island also served as a kind of sacrifice zone for the United States, which used it as a testing ground for military training—including chemical testing on the island of Vieques. The forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women was also rampant throughout much of the twentieth century. And in the 1950s and 1960s, Puerto Rico saw an influx of U.S. manufacturers looking to take advantage of cheap, offshore labor and special tax incentives. It’s an old story, one that has left both the Puerto Rican population and landscape deeply scarred.

More recently, any semblance of Puerto Rican self-determination vanished completely when in 2016 Congress passed the PROMESA law, which created a Financial Oversight and Management Board with members appointed by the U.S. president. The board is an independent body that makes many of the most important economic decisions for Puerto Rico, and it has absolutely no accountability to the Puerto Rican people. PROMESA was imposed on the island after it was left reeling from an illegitimate debt-fueled crisis that resulted in a program of extreme austerity. But PROMESA has only made things worse, as Puerto Ricans continue to be threatened with pensions being slashed and their health care services being cut while public schools disappear at an alarming rate.

It was into this largely U.S.-manufactured economic hellscape—this deadly mixture of chronic and acute disaster—that Hurricane Maria made landfall.

Caguas is a city of approximately 130,000 located about an hour south of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan. It’s home to an organizer named Giovanni Roberto who, before Hurricane Maria, had been running a grassroots center that provided food and other basic necessities to low-income students at the University of Puerto Rico. When Maria hit the island, the organizers at Roberto’s center transitioned into disaster relief—with a focus on providing meals for those affected by the storm.

“We were serving three, four, five hundred people at lunch in the first week,” Roberto recalled. “And sometimes two hundred or close to three hundred at breakfast.”

There were just a handful of organizers tasked with running the kitchen, and as the scale of the need became more apparent, a system of collaboration began to take shape between the organizers and those who were receiving their services. “Imagine feeding five hundred people only with a few organizers,” Roberto laughed. “It’s impossible. We had to ask some of the people in line, we need help today with the cooking, we need help with serving, we need help cleaning—that’s the system that we tried to establish. A system of collaboration between those who are already in the project with those who are receiving the service.” In other words, they had to establish a system of mutual aid.

Mutual aid is an organizational theory premised on the principles of cooperation, collectivism, and solidarity. It has been used extensively throughout history by anarchist, socialist, and other emancipatory movements, from trade unions to cooperatives. In the United States, one of the earliest mutual aid organizations was the Free African Union Society. Founded in Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1780s, it was formed to provide cultural and material support to newly freed blacks in largely exclusionary and hostile communities. More recently, the Mission Asset Fund in San Francisco was formed to facilitate lending circles in immigrant and low-income communities often preyed upon by payday loan providers. As a method of disaster relief, mutual aid emphasizes horizontality by blurring the line between victims and volunteers, unlike national agencies such as the Office of Emergency Management, whose policy dictates that victims should not respond to emergencies. In contrast, many grassroots disaster relief networks, from Occupy Sandy to Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, use the slogan “Solidarity Not Charity.”

The organizers wanted to address the chronic, structural problems that had afflicted their community long before Hurricane Maria ever hit.

As they began introducing mutual aid principles into their work, Roberto and his fellow organizers found that people were more than willing to put themselves in the service of others. Because many of the those involved with the kitchen came from already existing activist networks, they were able to reach out to effectively spread the word about their services and needs, and it didn’t take long for a community to emerge around the kitchen in Caguas. People from surrounding areas began to show up, offering anything they could to help out. Soon, there were even artists painting colorful murals on walls which live music would reverberate off of well into the night. In addition to food, the kitchen was beginning to serve the emotional and relational needs of a community hungry for connection and civic engagement.

Their model of mutual aid worked quite well. So well, in fact, that they were soon ready to expand their operations. The organizers occupied an abandoned building—what had once been the city’s social security office—and despite being threatened with arrest and eviction by the police and city officials, settled into their new space and increased their output substantially.

They were also able to broaden their scope. From the project’s inception, the organizers had envisioned their kitchen growing into something much larger than simply a place that provides food. Their long-term intention was to build a permanent project that would serve a wide range of community needs—from housing to mental health and beyond. The organizers wanted to address the chronic, structural problems that had afflicted their community long before Hurricane Maria ever hit the island. They named their project the Centro de Apoyo Mutuo, or Mutual Aid Center of Caguas, and they set out to build a movement.

“When you cannot go to the government, and you cannot ask the town or the mayor to actually help your community, you have to start thinking, what are we going to do by ourselves?” Roberto explained. “So what we want with the Mutual Aid Center is to be a space to organize people to be able to fulfill their immediate necessities—but we see our project as a political project. We want Puerto Rico to be different.”

Like many other grassroots movements in Puerto Rico, such as the feminist health care justice organization Taller Salud or the collectively managed food distribution network Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico, the Centro de Apoyo Mutuo has broad social and political aims. “We want society to transform. 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 and to gain that experience,” Roberto said. “In our long-term vision we want Puerto Rico full of Mutual Aid Centers. . . . We want to develop the concept of popular power.”

One of the early activities organized by the Mutual Aid Center of Caguas was a series of auricular acupuncture clinics to help those suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress. The aim was to create a space where the community could begin healing from some of the collective trauma brought on not only by Hurricane Maria, but by the psychological toll that colonization and austerity had already taken on the island’s psyche. Judith Rodriguez is a regular at the clinics. She had originally come to the center looking to donate some kitchen supplies but was subsequently offered acupuncture after making a casual remark to one of the organizers about her hurt back.

“I thought it was just going to be putting in a needle, telling you anything and teaching you how to breathe, and that was it. But this is much more than that—a kind of way of life,” Rodriguez said. “You learn how to live more relaxed, how to do things more calmly, how to have better judgement. Also, you learn to cooperate with others, because we’re a community.”

In the last year, Mutual Aid Centers have popped up across the entire island.

Roberto and his fellow activists see these clinics as a way of democratizing a particular service in a time of great need. But with a health care system already failing many before Maria, they also see their efforts as laying the groundwork for a future campaign to demand a better health care system in the country.

Over time, it has become apparent to Roberto that the Mutual Aid Center model lends itself to the organic radicalization of its volunteers. “That consciousness is a precondition for mobilization,” he emphasized. “Some of these people were not activists before—they were never in protests. Some of them even saw protesters and activists with no confidence. Now they are working side by side with people who are activists, so their minds are changing on activism, the way they see the police, the way they relate to the state.”

In the last year, Mutual Aid Centers have popped up across the entire island—all in coordination with the original center in Caguas, but all responding to their own unique contexts. There are now at least eight of them, stretching from the far west to Mariana, just inland from the eastern coast of the island, and up into the town of Las Marías, high in the Cordillera Central mountain range.

After Maria hit, more remote areas like Las Marías were completely cut off from water, so the Mutual Aid Center there has been putting together community-run rainwater catchment installations. A center in Utuado, which has less than a quarter of the population of Caguas, has been especially active. In addition to organizing a community kitchen and a number of acupuncture clinics, they have also put together civil rights and legal workshops, workshops on healing and massage, a whole variety of artistic events such as workshops on engraving and origami, plena workshops, musical performances, and plays. Many of the centers have organized events around disaster preparation as well, particularly as the threat of more frequent and powerful hurricanes becomes a reality as a result of climate change. But for most, this is just one part of a much more ambitious program.

Cruz Negrón, who helped found the Mutual Aid Center in Utuado, explained that “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 gain more skills in terms of education, preparation, and resistance so they can be in a better state for creating and proposing new ideas.”

While all of this community building and popular education is taking place within a void created by a negligent government, it is not happening within a vacuum of power. Certainly the state has abandoned its post when it comes to disaster response and many other essential public services, but it is still very much involved in protecting the interests of the disaster capitalist class—who have a very different idea of what the future of Puerto Rico should look like.

Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló seems hell-bent on auctioning off the island’s infrastructure to the highest bidder, while tech billionaires and Bitcoin fetishists have their sights set on turning the island into a libertarian dream state that could rival the Chicago Boys’ experiments in the southern cone of South America. If that wasn’t enough, an earlier draft of this summer’s FEMA report obtained by the New York Times did more than simply acknowledge the agency’s failure to respond to Maria—it told Puerto Rico to expect a similar fate in the future: “The 2017 hurricane season showed that all levels of government—and individual families—need to be much better prepared with their own supplies, particularly in remote or insular areas where commodities take longer to deliver.” Or, as Donald Trump callously tweeted, Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them, when it should be a community effort.” Of course, the fact that most disaster relief on the island was in fact a “community effort” is certainly lost on the president. 

The state is still very much involved in protecting the interests of the disaster capitalist class.

“We are not turning our back to the reality that we need to fight against the state,” Roberto acknowledged. “We are trying to build political power and a social fabric so it makes sense to fight against the state. 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—it’s gonna take time.”

As the forces of neoliberalism and disaster capitalism march on, it’s not clear how much time is left. With the power back on across the island, the movement for a people’s Puerto Rico will now have to operate under a different kind of blackout—this one of the media variety. The coming months and years in Puerto Rico will likely see an escalation of an already raging battle over who the island belongs to. Will the vision of solidarity, collective well-being, and self-determination that animates the mutual aid centers be able to challenge a brutal legacy of plunder and profit? The stakes couldn’t be higher. What is clear is that any real and lasting change on the island will come from the grassroots efforts of everyday people—not from the corridors of concentrated power.

Some of the interviews featured in this piece originally appeared in The Response podcast.