The “Autogestión” of Puerto Rico
After Hurricane María devastated the island, people from all walks of life — chefs, farmers, artists and activists — sprung to action to provide food and a sense of community to survivors. Today, a new consciousness, based on “autogestión” (self-reliance), has taken hold in Puerto Rico, where grass-roots movements are looking not just to rebuild, but to shape a more resilient future.
Yareli Manning (right) owns the gourmet food truck The Meatball Company and her sister, Xoimar (left), operates Yummy Dumplings. They joined the post-hurricane food-relief efforts spearheaded by chef José Andrés — a fleet of 10 sturdy kitchens on wheels that braved flooding, fallen trees, broken traffic lights and debris-blocked roads to get to the hungriest of people. “José Andrés told us, ‘We’re going to give out a million meals,’” Yareli recalls. “I thought, ‘This guy is crazy!’” They made what turned out to be millions of ham-and-cheese sandwiches and hot meals of rice and chicken.
Elena Biamón sees an opportunity to advance agroecological farming — sustainable, ecologically sound crops that currently are just a fraction of the local output. A leader in the farmers group Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica, Biamón says the hurricane has brought new attention to the need to diversify food supplies, strengthened alliances with international groups like Climate Justice Alliance, and drawn donations to help farms pay for damage and to promote agritourism.
Rómulo Burgos Jr. Ortiz, a former electrician with the public power company, now belongs to a group of neighbors seeking to form a cooperative to install solar panels on rooftops and set up their own energy microgrid. In its rebuilding plans, the Puerto Rican government favors leapfrogging into renewable energy, including wind and hydropower, and expanding generation to as much as 45 percent of all electricity, from a mere 2 percent before the hurricane.
Within days of the hurricane, a dozen members of Agua, Sol y Sereno (Water, Sun and Evening Mist), an arts group known for its stilt-walkers and life-size puppets, fanned out to shelters around the island. The artists played ballads to the adults and held painting workshops for children. “They had lost everything, and they were in shock, but they started smiling,” says cofounder Pedro Adorno Irizarry. “We laughed together, and we cried together.”
The prominent painter and graphic artist Antonio “Toño” Martorell chose to commemorate the dead — 2,975 fatalities, according to researchers at George Washington University — in the powerful exhibit “In Memoriam.” “The first step to make a change is to confront reality,” he says. “We are becoming more aware that we have to solve our own problems. People here are responding.”