Puerto Ricans turn to life-saving self-help in Maria's aftermath

Lester Jiménez
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A volunteer prepares meals of rice and pigeon peas in a community kitchen in Mariana, a neighborhood in the town of Humacao that was hard-hit by Hurricane Maria neighbors opened after September 20, 2017

Desperate and alone -- and with the US government nowhere to be seen -- many Puerto Ricans turned to each other for salvation as they faced the furies of Hurricane Maria one year ago.

In the dark weeks that followed they also discovered something precious: a sense of fellowship and belonging that today brightens places like Mariana, a neighborhood transformed by adversity in the storm-ravaged town of Humacao.

"Many of us came to help others, but also to help ourselves. It was an escape, we unburdened ourselves," said Aida de Leon, a volunteer at a community kitchen in Mariana that arose from the disaster.

The enticing scent of fried pork and rice with pigeon peas, a classic of Puerto Rican cuisine, emanates from the kitchen where de Leon prepares meals with two other women.

"It was an exercise in healing, to recharge batteries and keep fighting," she recalls.

Bitter debates still rage over the failings of the US government's response to the Category 4 storm in Puerto Rico, a US territory, and the terrible human toll it took -- officially nearly 3,000 dead.

But the story of Mariana and the citizens who banded together in a life-saving, grassroots, self-help organization is one of regrowth and resilience.

The community center they founded in a former school sits on the crest of a wind-beaten hill overlooking the Caribbean. In the distance are the islands of Vieques and Culebra.

San Juan is only 35 miles (57 kilometers) away, but for weeks after the storm Mariana was cut off from the outside world, without power, drinkable water, or communications.

- Regrowth and resilience -

The center has grown organically over the past year from storm shelter to communal kitchen to a fully functioning solar-powered facility that serves the neighborhood.

A community garden, whose volunteers also work in an agro-forestry project, supplies the kitchen with vegetables and legumes.

Crucially, in the aftermath of the hurricane, the center was where stranded residents went for medical attention.

"This is where they found the insulin I needed and they had a refrigerator where it could be stored," said Enid Rodriguez.

"Like me, many people came for respiratory therapy and other necessities. I don't exaggerate when I say they saved our lives," she said.

Rodriguez buys a meal at the community kitchen for $4, a price of her choosing.

The kitchen opened just days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 17, when it became clear that the inhabitants of Mariana were on their own.

With the help of the Mariana Recreational and Educational Association, a group calling itself Apoyo Mutuo, or Self-Help, formed and set up the kitchen, initially with donations from Mariana residents themselves and Puerto Ricans living off the island.

Volunteers served up to 400 meals a day in the months after the hurricane.

Today, they feed only about 20 people a day, but have kept the kitchen going as a self-sustaining program, in which people pay what they feel they can afford for a meal.

The kitchen's slogan: No one leaves Mariana without a plate of food -- the same as it was a year ago.

"We use other methods of exchange. Not just money. It could be time, skills, donated food and lastly, money," said Christine Nieves, a founder of Apoyo Muto.

- A learning experience -

"Our intention was to turn our house into a shelter, but we realized that many people had nothing. There were people who were eating spoiled food because they had nothing else to eat," she said.

Over the past year, Apoyo Mutuo has expanded its efforts, taking over the school and adding a communal laundry, a library and rooms for workshops in art and music as well as guest rooms where volunteers can spend the night.

"If it wasn't for the things that have been done here, a lot more people would have died," said Edwin Soto, a community leader.

Dozens of similar initiatives have sprung up in other communities around the island, often accompanied by public education campaigns.

"I think we've all learned from this experience. We learned empathy, solidarity, to believe in ourselves," Soto said.