September 2022 will mark five years since the destruction and misery caused by Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, and the National Weather Service is forecasting a very active and dangerous hurricane season for 2022.
To understand lessons in resilience learned from the hurricane and the response from community-based organizations, I talked at length with Tania Rosario Méndez, Executive Director of Taller Salud, a grassroots organization based in Loíza, Puerto Rico. Taller Salud’s mission is to improve women’s access to health, reduce community violence, and support Loíza’s economic development through activism and education. Like many other women-led and community-based organizations in Puerto Rico, Taller Salud has taken up the recovery and resilience development in their communities to face the acute climatic, economic, and social crisis that Puerto Rico is facing after the devastation caused by Hurricane María in 2017. Taller Salud works from a feminist perspective that prioritizes the autonomy and self-determination of women, gender equity, intersectionality, and anti-colonialism.
Here I provide an edited transcript of our conversation based on a few questions I asked Tania.
Please describe for us the community you serve.
Taller Salud is based in the town of Loíza, Puerto Rico. It is located some 16 miles east of San Juan. To its north is the Atlantic Ocean, and to the south are mangrove wetlands and the Río Grande de Loíza channel. Loíza is joined to part of the San Juan Bay estuary. It’s like an islet connected by bridges to the island of Puerto Rico.
In the 19th century, both freed and escaped slaves (cimarrones) settled in Loíza because they could easily remain hidden in the complex mangrove environment, and these geographic conditions had political implications. Certainly, Loíza is not the only example of communities formed by freed or escaped slaves, but in Loíza the community includes the whole town and not just sectors or wards (barrios) as in other towns in Puerto Rico.
So Loíza became an Afro-Puerto Rican enclave, where its geographic isolation fostered the development of a unique culture whose strengths are anchored to that culture, for example, its food, its community-based social fabric, music, folk art, and religion. The sense of Afro-Puerto Rican identity and its tools make Loíza a unique community in Puerto Rico.
But that isolation also resulted in a lag in socio-economic development. It’s as if the rest of Puerto Rico has never forgiven Loíza for daring to exist, denying it access to any services. There are no shopping malls, supermarkets, higher education institutions, or hospitals. Disinvestment is abundant and this has had consequences: Loíza is one of the Puerto Rican towns with the highest rates of violence, rates of people who don’t finish high school, and rates of poverty.
Loíza is an afro-Caribbean community with a unique history and cultural tapestry, as well as a beautiful and rich coastal and riverine environment that has long been sought after by many interests. Can you tell us a bit about how such interests have affected the quality of life and environment of the people of Loíza?
Loíza’s coastline has not been the target of much development (there are no hotels, for example). But after Hurricane María, we could see from afar the fangs of disaster capitalists. The [federal] long-term recovery plan rests on the notion that people will leave and not come back, in the creation of factors that artificially lower property values (this is one effect of flood maps), in order to promote massive land transfer that afterwards, magically, allow for flood risk mitigation and real estate development of those lands. This was seen very clearly after the hurricane.
Also, environmental racism can be seen as something that is very concrete. Literal redlining of flood-prone areas that are disinvested so they become worthless, handing out lots to outsiders, all that worsened by the fact that federal [disaster recovery] programs provide funds only for relocation. But increases in housing costs do not allow people to relocate.
I often hear the question “Why don’t they leave if it’s not safe [to live in flood-prone areas]?” And I think to myself, “Wow, how cruel, how callous, how narrow-minded can someone be to say something like that?” Well, they don’t leave because their mother-in-law lives right above them, their mother lives next door, the sister lives across the street, the kids walk to school, and any one of these could look after the kids. If you work three hospital shifts as a nurse, well, there’s your support. No one will ever go hungry. They have built their support network—the one that the government does not provide—and they have built it themselves.
Five years after Hurricane María, how does Taller Salud evaluate your own community work to face the disaster and its consequences?
Well, the first reflection that the Taller Salud staff engaged in was that, along with the community we serve, we were also survivors of the hurricane. But during those moments [in the immediate aftermath] we did not see ourselves as such because we did not lose our homes or our jobs. And we set out to fulfill two tasks: first, to survive as people, and second, to avoid deaths among a community that had been abandoned.
In these tasks we did the most feminist thing we could do given the circumstances and we never considered doing work that was not feminist. Our lenses to comprehend everything and our moral compass for decision-making were, and are, defense of the autonomy and self-determination of women, equity, intersectionality, and anti-colonialism.
And this reflection on the work we did after María has served to reaffirm a position completely rooted in environmental justice that we did not have before the hurricane.
For example, access to safe housing was something that, before the hurricane, we had not considered an issue that Taller Salud had to engage in. Before María, the problem of access to safe housing was seen by us as necessary only to support the healing process of victims of domestic violence, and not as a basic asset whose absence endangers the lives of all Puerto Rican women, but especially Black Puerto Rican women. The hurricane catapulted us quickly towards issues that we were already on track to tackle.
Naively, we assumed that help from the federal and Puerto Rican government would promptly arrive, so we postponed handing out tarps, for example. But as we know, help never arrived. And after Hurricane María, it rained for days, so the waters did not recede and many homes in Loíza were submerged by the waters. We organized brigades for collecting and distributing food while we waited for rescues that never came. The community took that upon themselves and rescued survivors and bed-ridden people in dinghies, jet skis, and kayaks.
In that moment, we were very disconcerted by the circumstances, and we did not understand that all of this happened in a context in which the response capacity of the government had been depleted and dismantled purposefully.
An aggravating factor, for example, was the creation of a Department of Public Safety six months before María, which functioned as a bureaucratic umbrella [under which the disaster response of Puerto Rican government agencies was centralized], with little clarity and lots of internal disagreement about who had authority to make decisions.
Describe for us the work of Taller Salud right after Hurricane María
Our immediate focus was to save lives. We collected food, water, basic necessities, and we visited shelters in order to identify special needs, for example, among women victims of domestic violence.
Taller Salud’s logistical plan was finalized before the hurricane. It allowed us, as the organization’s leadership, to hold in-person meetings and make decisions barely two days after María. Three days after the hurricane we were driving a truck full of supplies to Loíza. We created a check-in system with community leaders to receive their input about all the decisions that Taller Salud made.
In order for us to continue operating, we prioritized Taller Salud’s collaborators, leaders, and staff [which were all female]. We visited them at their homes or shelters, and surveyed their needs so we would have information to guide distribution of material aid to them. For our staff, as Executive Director, I fundraised among our supporters to secure four months’ worth of their wages.
Once we were able to meet with our [all female] community leaders, we encountered something wonderful. With low formal education and no epidemiological training, they had conducted surveys with categorical data useful to prioritize saving lives. They knew the locations of diabetic individuals, where insulin refrigeration was needed, where and how many bed-ridden persons were on their own and with family members, pregnant women in their last trimester, babies under two years of age. They multiplied the efficiency of the distributed aid because they knew where the needs were.
One of the things that stands out in Taller Salud’s work is the defense of the autonomy and self-determination of women and of equity as a principle. How did you apply those principles?
We elevated the existing local knowledge and leadership, and we were very careful not to impose modern or orthodox ways of doing things. For example, we didn’t say to them “You need to do that in Excel”. Our practice was respectful, horizontal, equitable, and prioritized the protection of lives above the protection of material things (that is the logic of capitalism). Our practices are tied to feminist principles.
To give you a clearer idea of how we applied community feminism, I’ll tell you that in an assembly we held in December of 2017, our community leaders submitted a proposal to form groups of promotoras de salud comunitaria (female community health advocates) to identify both the social determinants of health and risk factors. They wanted to bring theoretical frameworks and tools from public health to strengthen the practices they had already developed, with the goal of creating programs to promote community health based on this knowledge. Before 2017 ended we had trained them and in February 2018 we launched a funded program.
And this way of working in community starkly contrasts with the model of response to disasters and other needs that emerges from government. The governmental model lacks a gender perspective, which prioritizes aid on a first-come, first-served basis, and not by need. The first persons to fill out the FEMA application for aid are the ones who can communicate in English, who are proficient with a computer or on the internet. The obstacles [to access services] are immense and are designed so that people get frustrated and give up.
What are the main obstacles to increasing the quality of social, economic, environmental wellbeing and to face climate impacts in Loíza?
I see structural obstacles, some of which cannot be solved within Loíza. The first structural obstacle is the fact that Puerto Rico’s sovereignty resides in the United States Congress. The second is the Financial Oversight and Management Board [FOMB, established by the PROMESA law]; the third is the recent restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt [of more than $72 billion] to pay the bondholders. This is very worrying because that debt is going to be paid by present and future generations and the working classes. The mere notion that there is a board from Congress that has more power than the elected government is a very big obstacle.
I also see that another great obstacle is the unconscious bias present in racism in Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico there is not an easily-identifiable racism that has been codified by law and accepted. But there is a racism that is part of the unconscious biases through which people are denied services and opportunities. And there are three particulary troubling manifestations of this unconscious bias.
First, there is environmental racism, visible through poverty in the most climatically and geographically vulnerable areas, where garbage and discharges of toxic pollutants are common, for example. Second, there is a racially-biased gender-based violence whereby Black women are the most exposed to such violence. Finally, there is the racism produced by the school-to-prison pipeline in Puerto Rico, which creates the conditions for Black and Afro-descendant youth to not finish their secondary education, to be criminally prosecuted as adults, to having a criminal record, and not being able to get a job. There are no data collected to quantify this racism, but it is evident when visiting a penal institution or a school.
Unconscious bias is a major obstacle because it prevents political mobilization towards the eradication of racism in Puerto Rico. There is political mobilization for defending the rights of incarcerated people and abused children, for just trials and to uphold the prohibition of the death penalty. But the bias is unconscious and political mobilization is issue-based; the racialized bond that binds all these issues is not seen. Therefore, it does not produce a claim for the eradication of racism. Another obstacle is that there is a lot of citizen demobilization; mass mobilization only occurs when dangers are imminent–for example, teachers are about to lose their pensions, or a gas pipeline is already under construction.
On the other hand, I see many challenges to develop community political consciousness and organizing. Among the challenges, in Loíza there is a great deal of exposure to violence at an early age, whether as witnesses of violence, objects of violence, or subjects of violence against others. This has cognitive and developmental consequences.
For example, the Informe sobre Desarrollo Humano en Puerto Rico (Report on Human Development in Puerto Rico) finds that there is an increase in toxic cortisol levels among children chronically exposed to stressors such as violence. Despite the lack of reliable data, our experience in the community tells us that violence is normalized from an early age, and that this contributes to the inability to understand how it relates to the multiple forms of violence experienced by the people of Loíza.
Imagine that the community of Loíza could implement its vision of a resilient future to address the challenges it faces. What do you think that future would be like, how would the community be transformed?
Despite the sadness and bewilderment caused by the hurricane, during the first year after it we went through a process of building community relief and recovery networks, planning for reconstruction, creating community disaster recovery plans—not only for individuals or families. That can’t be easily undone, because it impacted people’s lives and built power.
New forms of oppression can be invented, but they cannot make disappear what has already been built. In Loíza, this is anchored to the fact that the people who assume leadership roles somehow have some historical awareness of what they are trying to heal. I have seen it in Loíza: the formation of networks of leaders, coalition work, learning about specific environmental risks that allow them to differentiate the risks of erosion from the risks of flooding, or the need to dredge a channel. It is knowledge acquired in the process of planning the reconstruction of their communities.
I’ve also seen it in the context of articulating economic development that serves the needs of the community. There have been small-scale projects where we have seen success. If we maintain the same feminist criteria that we applied to protect the community during the critical situation of the disaster, these same criteria must be used to plan the true economic recovery.
Tania Rosario Méndez is the Executive Director of Taller Salud. She has a Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus, Puerto Rico.