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As hurricanes put Puerto Rico's government to the test, neighbors keep each other fed

Lorraine Arroyo Román serves "asopao" during a protest against LUMA Energy in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico on Saturday. Román is illuminated by the lights of police vehicles.
Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
Lorraine Arroyo Román serves "asopao" during a protest against LUMA Energy in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico on Saturday. Román is illuminated by the lights of police vehicles.

On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane María, the worst natural disaster to strike Puerto Rico in modern history, made landfall on the island as a Category 4 storm. This year, a few days before that storm's fifth anniversary, Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico, striking the island's southern and western coasts hardest.

Fiona, a Category 1 hurricane, brought floods, landslides and collapsed roads. In the wake of the storm, it feels like history repeats itself: blackouts, long lines for essential resources like water, food and gasoline, and negligence by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and other government agency leaders.

Often, those agencies blame their poor response on Puerto Rico's complicated topography. However, for the mutual aid networks that were born out of Hurricane María, the 2020 earthquakes and the pandemic, there is no topographic challenge that can't be beaten to bring warm meals to their communities.

The coastal communities of Salinas near the Rio Nigua experienced massive flooding during Hurricane Fiona.
/ Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
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Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
The coastal communities of Salinas near the Rio Nigua experienced massive flooding during Hurricane Fiona.

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Loirad Ortiz Cedeño cooks during Huerto Callejón Trujillo's "sancocho comunitario" event Saturday in Ponce Playa.
/ Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
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Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
Loirad Ortiz Cedeño cooks during Huerto Callejón Trujillo's "sancocho comunitario" event Saturday in Ponce Playa.

"I think mutual aid is what has kept us going all this time, because the government abandoned us a long time ago," says Yira Rodriguez Martinez, 33, who is part of the Huerto Callejón Trujillo initiative, a reclaimed community space in Ponce where they plant, hold educational workshops and cook in community. Whenever they host an activity, they make it a point to cook a meal together. This time was no different.

On Saturday, people all over the island drove down to the community of Ponce Playa, hauling avocados, plantains, plates and even instruments for the gathering. Everyone that dropped by assumed a task: they cooked, tended to the children by offering them a space to draw and play, and delivered sancocho door to door.

"The idea of making the sancocho is that we can sit down and talk to the neighbors, learn about what is happening, because although the hurricane has us in these circumstances, we know that this is something that is ongoing. This is like building a network, from the roots, not just coming in and leaving, but creating a nucleus," she says.

The painting station for children during Saturday's "sancocho comunitario" event.
/ Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
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Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
The painting station for children during Saturday's "sancocho comunitario" event.
The painting station for children during Saturday's "sancocho comunitario" event, which was hosted by Huerto Callejón Trujillo in Ponce Playa, Puerto Rico.
/ Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
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Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
The painting station for children during Saturday's "sancocho comunitario" event, which was hosted by Huerto Callejón Trujillo in Ponce Playa, Puerto Rico.
Loirad Ortiz Cedeño cooks during Huerto Callejón Trujillo's "sancocho comunitario" event Saturday in the community of Ponce Playa, Puerto Rico.
/ Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
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Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
Loirad Ortiz Cedeño cooks during Huerto Callejón Trujillo's "sancocho comunitario" event Saturday in the community of Ponce Playa, Puerto Rico.
A plate of food at Saturday's "sancocho comunitario" event.
Gabriella N. Báez / For NPR
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For NPR
A plate of food at Saturday's "sancocho comunitario" event.

In Pozuelo, Guayama, TropiShack, a small acai and smoothie shack, has become a community diner. Nicolás Matta Cordero, 31, and Cristina Muñoz Laboy, 28, were contacted last week by the Chef Pau Rocio, who was looking for a space to cook for the communities most affected by the hurricane on the southern coast of the island. Since then, they've become a hub for moving resources in Guayama and cooking meals for the residents of Guayama, Salinas, Arroyo, Patillas and anyone else who happens to be passing through.

"I think cooking a meal unites everyone," says Cordero, "getting the ingredients, preparing the food and distributing it is done in community." Laboy agrees, adding she considers the initiatives a part of the practice of collective healing. "I believe that to really heal, we need to do it collectively — if I can help you, then let's do it; if I can't help you, then let's find someone who can — mutually, we have to hold space for each other," she says.

Una estación de comida y cocina en Tropishack en Guayama, Puerto Rico.
/ Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
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Gabriella N. Báez para NPR
A cooking and food station at Tropishack in Guayama, Puerto Rico.

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Residents of the Pozuelo community in Guayama, Puerto Rico, pick up meals at the Tropishack.
/ Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
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Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
Residents of the Pozuelo community in Guayama, Puerto Rico, pick up meals at the Tropishack.

After the first approach by Rocio last week, Cordero and Laboy have continued to mobilize food and other resources through their social media platforms. They haven't stopped receiving requests for space, donations and information. Since then, they've been opening their kitchen every day for cooks and communities across the island. Their hope is to continue expanding these networks by creating a space where neighbors can meet and learn about each others' needs.

On the west end of the island, in Aguadilla, Lorraine Arroyo Román, 28, distributed asopao during a protest against LUMA Energy, the power company responsible for power distribution and transmission in Puerto Rico. "My way of communicating and demonstrating what I believe in is through food," Román says.

In the aftermath of Hurricane María, Puerto Ricans experienced the second longest blackout ever recorded, and in previous months, under the administration of LUMA Energy, customers continued to experience power outages and damage to electric equipment. In the wake of Hurricane Fiona, the island was again left completely without power, and 44% of customers — including hospitals and other medical clinics — are still without power.

The state route 155 that runs from Coamo to Vega Baja through Orocovis and Morovis is currently being cleared after landslides caused by Hurricane Fiona blocked access.
/ Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
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Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
The state route 155 that runs from Coamo to Vega Baja through Orocovis and Morovis is currently being cleared after landslides caused by Hurricane Fiona blocked access.

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Norimar Maldonado and other participants of Saturday's "sancocho comunitario" event, hosted by Huerto Callejón Trujillo, deliver food door to door in Ponce Playa.
/ Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
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Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
Norimar Maldonado and other participants of Saturday's "sancocho comunitario" event, hosted by Huerto Callejón Trujillo, deliver food door to door in Ponce Playa.

"What better support than offering a warm meal to the people that are putting themselves on the line to demand better living conditions? It is unnecessary that we don't have power right now. A lot of people have electric stoves and don't have access to a gas stove to cook a warm meal. Food is sustenance and it is necessary every day. Access to food is a matter of life or death," says Román.

In between chants and speeches over the megaphone, Román served bread, asopao and water to anyone who dropped by her table. She urged them to take leftovers for when they get hungry at dawn, for their neighbors and for their family members at home.

To eat is to create community. In the end, there is a map, a web, a landscape of networks. The topography of the island is transformed according to the exchanges of warm meals.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gabriella N. Báez
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