by Aida Haddad
July 30th was our last full day of programming in Puerto Rico. The next day, we departed to our homes across the United States. I was ready to spread the news of Puerto Rico’s gift for rapid organization in the face of climate disaster and, in more recent history, government corruption. However, I also had a strong desire to stay and listen more. Part of me wanted to sit with the Puerto Rican people through the approaching hurricane season; to be another set of hands capable of moving debris, distributing potable water, or setting up solar lamps. But, this delegation intended to sit, to learn, to ask how we could best repent as a church & as U.S. citizens complicit in the archipelago’s colonization, and to leave--sharing what we learned with our local communities. We were always meant to go home and share. I was never meant to stick around and ‘fix’ anything.
Before medical school, I attended seminary. I may have finished my M.Div., but my affinity towards the pastorate dissipated as I realized I did not possess the spiritual gift of sitting with grief. Of course, this is something I developed in my personal relationships anyhow. I ultimately decided to pivot towards a career that would, more times than not, allow me to fix problems from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. rather than grieve them.
Anyway, here is what our last day in San Juan included:
Our day began at Proyecto ENLACE and the Fideicomiso Caño Martín Peña--a cooperative endeavor between two non-profits in San Juan, ensuring the health and prosperity of the area’s vulnerable populations living along the Martín Peña canal. Proyecto ENLACE has partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the Martín Peña canal, thus protecting families along the canal from flooding; the Fideicomiso (or land trust) will prevent predatory land grabbing after the canal is restored. The canal is on a very desirable piece of land that the wealthy will attempt to gentrify as soon as its dredging controls flooding. We met with Estrella Santiago, a biologist and lawyer who serves as the environmental area manager, once we arrived at their headquarters.
Estrella began by telling us the history of the informal settlement which surrounds the Martín Peña canal and Hurricane María’s effect on this community. For context, Puerto Ricans moved to this area in the mid-20th century searching for employment after the United States abandoned rural sugar cane industry subsidies. Their descendants now call this place home. For Proyecto ENLACE and the Fideicomiso Caño Martín Peña, this is reason enough to restore the canal thus ensuring that home remains a home. And right now, home is threatened by pollution-driven flooding, capitalism, and climate change.
In the wake of Hurricane María, the families living along the canal--a flood zone--were wholly neglected by the municipality, the commonwealth, and the federal government for weeks. Estrella fought tears as she recounted reasons for fatalities in the area. Due to the lack of electricity and potable water, the community lost many elders who suffered from lung conditions, cancer, or being homebound. She mourned the total rejection of Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable populations in the wake of climate disaster.
We sat with Estrella as she continued to share. She told us the stories of round-the-clock work for weeks on end and the transformation of their headquarters to a storage facility for emergency supplies. Finally, Estrella confirmed the countless lives saved because of the organizations’ community development work beginning thirteen years before Hurricane María’s landfall.
Left with much to think about, some of us spent the afternoon wandering La Perla on the coast adjacent to Old San Juan. La Perla is a historic neighborhood that once contained a slaughterhouse alongside homes for slaves and non-white servants. As we walked its streets, we noted a juxtaposition of María’s destructive forces and gentrification (feigning resilience). Signs of humanitarian disaster and displacement overwhelmed the senses. Murals offered a space for lament, and visions of hope and justice for the future. As I let my mind wander, I could not help but think of what was lost in La Perla--lives, health, homes, or any sense of security--without groups like Proyecto ENLACE and the Fideicomiso to fill the first responder disparity and protect the neighborhood’s families from ensuing disaster capitalism… without Puerto Ricans caring for other Puerto Ricans.
Puerto Rico is filled with artists, biologists, social workers, physicians, laborers, geologists, organizers, theologians, clergy, and congregants--all of whom acted as first responders after María and whose stories we should have shared sooner than this delegation. I returned one week ago, and I have only just started crying when I remember Estrella’s tears and La Perla’s reality almost two years after Hurricane María made landfall. My reluctance toward sitting in grief with strangers was fast eroding as I researched Puerto Rico’s healthcare crisis before the delegation; the barrier was then completely dismantled as we sat in classrooms and churches across San Juan, learning from Puerto Rican first responders on where they think we need to take the conversation on relief, recovery, and resilience.
Our teachers never asked us to fix anything. Instead, we asked the experts questions--potentially giving a new perspective of their already comprehensive recovery efforts, but more likely reassuring them that they were not screaming futilities into a void. If anything, we attempted to convey that we see them, we aim to understand them, and we will carry their stories across time and geographies. As Michelle Muñiz-Vega shared in anticipation of the delegation, “It is our hope that delegation members better understand [the Puerto Rican] cultural context, therefore harnessing the ability to identify methods of advocacy around topics like our island environment, societal colonialism, etc. while also developing a direct connection with the leadership in el Presbiterio de San Juan. In short, this delegation will give us the platform to amplify the struggles of the Puerto Rican people, within and apart from climate change natural disasters.” With this commissioning, I will continue to openly grieve María and the hurricane season to come, from afar, by whatever means asked of me.
You are invited to take part in this commission, as well.
So, what does communion with our Puerto Rican siblings look like for you?
What will you do?
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