Rick, Marie-Elena, Susan and Sherly just returned from a trip to Puerto Rico in cooperation with a group called "the 3 Puerto Rican Imams Project." Working with many grassroots organizations including the Papel Machete Cultural Center, the Montehiedra Masjid, and Villa Esperanza (Village of Hope), they lent their hands and ears to a different kind of storm recovery - one that prioritizes rebuilding the links between the people and the land.
The following reflections include our personal opinions about the challenges Puerto Ricans are confronting in the wake of Hurricane Maria. These impressions, which have political implications, were shaped as we met and spoke with many Puerto Ricans as we traveled. We share them with the assumption that we have a great deal still to learn, and also with a commitment to provide deeper stories and analysis than one can typically find in the popular media.
Saturday, December 9, 2017
We left home at 3:15am and arrived in San Juan on time about 11am. As soon as we had settled in, we had our first task: Imam Wesley and Susan and I went and loaded the two vans full to the brim of food he had ordered ahead of time – rice, pasta, farina (like cream of wheat), tuna and canned beans. After a brief nap while Imam Wesley went and picked up Imam Daniel at the airport, we went to the Papel Machete Cultural Center where we spent the better part of four hours unloading all the food, bagging it to be distributed in individual family packets, and reloading the vans.
Here are the two things I really want you all to know. First, we really like the two of the “the three Puerto Rico Imams” (as they call themselves) whom we have met so far. They are good humored and easy going, they work hard, and they have huge hearts and solid commitments to justice work matched by good political analysis and what I would call “good theology” if they were Christian. Susan’s instinct that they would make good partners to us seems to be right on the money.
Second, the cultural center where we did this work last night made me feel like I was back in Mexico. As we worked, there was a steady flow of left-leaning artists and activists who wandered in to introduce themselves and help for a while. On the wall there was a handmade chart showing all of the community kitchens around the island that they have been working to support, and there were many posters about popular art exhibits and puppet theaters that they have put on. This project was started by a guy named Jorge who lived in Boston for many years and who has gone back and forth supporting the ongoing work of Papel Machete in both places. Sujeily, Imam Wesley’s cousin, was really something: smart, funny, committed and engaged in the real work of community organizing long before Hurricane Maria hit. It made us dream about how the Art Space could nurture that kind of political engagement back in Rockland County.
All in all, it was a great way to start out. We were exhausted at the end of the day, but the four of us still sat down late last night to process together, and we all agreed that it felt like just the kind of experience we had been hoping to have.
One of my strongest impressions of our first few days is the memory of going to CVS with Imam Wesley to purchase $1000 worth of rice, pasta, farina, beans and tuna to be distributed this week to communities hard hit by Hurricane Maria. It seemed odd to be purchasing groceries at a pharmacy, but Imam Wesley’s contact there had allowed him to order and load onto palates all of the nonperishable items prior to payment and with some discount. So when Rick paid at the cash register, the food was swiftly transferred with dollies to a loading dock and put into the 3 Imam’s van and our minivan rental. It was clear that the CVS manager was in solidarity with the work the 3 Imams were doing. In this regard, another impression I was left with was that there is a general feeling of unity that resembles nationalism among Puerto Ricans, and this is particularly evident in the aftermath of the catastrophic hurricane. Later that evening, the vehicles were unloaded at the Papel Machete Cultural Center where Rick, Marie Elena, Shirley, Imam Wesley, Imam Daniel and I spent four hours packing the items into plastic bags. Surrounded by the cases of food, we worked tirelessly unpacking the boxes and filling the bags like machines. My impression of this night is a visceral one, something like a boot camp, in which we worked with high energy, focus, stamina, satisfaction and urgency in the hope of making our trip worthwhile by bring relief to people in need.
Sunday, December 10, 2017
Sunday was a fulfilling and stimulating day and something of a humanitarian relief whirlwind at the site of the Montehiedra Masjid on the outskirts of San Juan, which lost its minaret in the hurricane. We witnessed half a dozen relief organizations gather from the US mainland and Puerto Rico to participate in the food, clothing, blanket, flashlight, baby formula, and hygiene item distribution event. These included 2 of the 3 Imams (Imam Wesley from Passaic and Imam Daniel from Houston, who organized the event), the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) Relief, CAIR, an Orlando LGBTQ Pride representative, a woman from a local NGO that supplied generators during the disaster, and of course we were there too. The reason that the event was held today is that finally, after being held by the government at the San Juan port for more than two months, ICNA’s container full of donations was released. What was most heartwarming for me was that the majority of the humanitarian aid recipients were not Muslim, but from the local community; and it was wonderful to witness the Islamic Center’s focus on helping the neighborhood recover, in spite of the fact that the Muslim community in Puerto Rico is small and lacking in resources. It was also a great pleasure to meet Imam Ayman Fareh, the Center’s new Imam, who inspired me with his embrace of the prophetic tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), while speaking of the need for Muslim unity, nonviolence, reconciliation, and inclusivity. After the distribution, Imam Ayman, Imam Wesley, Wilfredo Amr Ruiz of CAIR, Jane Aslam of ICNA Relief, Rick and I spoke about our shared humanity and responsibility to take care of each other.
It was an amazing day, however some of us were left with the sense that, in spite of all of our well-intended efforts, more aid could have been delivered; and its delivery could have been executed more rapidly and efficiently were it not for a number of factors and circumstances we are trying to wrap our heads around.
Monday, December 11, 2017
What really impacted me today was hearing how corporations are taking over Puerto Rico in such a destructive way. I wasn’t surprised because this is what happens in a lot of marginalized and impoverished communities but I was surprised to see how aggressive it is. Driving on the highway in San Juan all you see is American stores the most pervasive being Burger King, San Juan has got to be the Burger King capitol of the world. We spoke to 3 different farming collectives that are trying to bring back farming to the Island. Puerto Rico has been importing 85% of it’s food stuffs and now because of hurricane Mariah it is importing 100% of it’s food stuffs from the “main land”. These farming initiatives are trying to bring back agriculture as a form of economic and food sovereignty and teach the younger generation to preserve their roots. We also learned the plight of the Indigenous people on the Island and what they are doing to preserve their communities and ways of life.
I could go into statistics and facts but I will let someone else do that. What I felt today was how universal our stories were, and yet how fragmented and disorganized we are. There are only small amounts of people who choose to act on the intersectionality of our collective oppression. The rest are focused on their individual struggle and may feel that they don’t want to take away from their cause by coming together with others or worse that there is little trust in each other and that if “we’’ take the time to help “them” then they will take the help and we will be left with nothing when “we” need it.
That is what Empire does best — it pits us against each other by giving us very little resources and agency so that we are just surviving and even if we do lift up our heads to fight that we do not come together to do it. Whether it’s our rich pitted against our poor or it’s our struggles fighting each other for scraps to build with things are designed to keep us as each others overseer’s and to keep us in competition for a dream and a promise that isn’t ours.
What I saw, heard, felt and tasted today was not just Puerto Ricans coming together for Puerto Rico only but a recognition and need for a Pan Caribbean movement. I saw a will to get back to the soil to feed our bodies and spirits, to regain our dignity and economic power and regain agency of our culture and ways of life. It made me look at food justice differently and see why this is so important and why it has to be at the forefront of our struggles for justice. I once heard someone say that economics is true freedom. Food justice isn’t just economic freedom. It embodies so much more and it is important for us to learn more about it and share our tactics with each other. I am both happy and impassioned by what I saw today and hope to get together with the community to talk about ways we can build bridges between the different communities we are involved with to work together to share information and make some real changes as well as build real networks with each other.
“ The only chains we can stand is the chain from hand to hand” – Sweet honey in the rock ( Eyes on the Prize)
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
My biggest worry about any kind of relief work is that it often doesn’t make the transition from emergency assistance that is necessary in the immediate aftermath of a disaster to the kind of partnership and support that gets to the heart of the concerns that break down community and make people dependent. In fact, I’ve seen too many instances where it simply encourages unhealthy dependency and opens the door for wealthy and more secure folks to step in and take advantage. For instance, there were a number of conversations yesterday about what is happening – or is likely to happen – as people receive only loans which they can’t afford from FEMA, and then end up losing their homes that are bought be wealthy people from the U.S. in a sick version of Puerto Rican gentrification.
Yesterday was so meaningful to me because Imam Wesley’s amazing network put us in the heart of a nascent movement of people who are working to reclaim their indigenous roots, develop their own local food production through coop approaches, and build enduring community organizations. These folks are woke, and they are really clear that their small efforts in places like Lares and Camuy are designed to be shared through a network of community organizer/promoters to sweep across the island. They’re asking for help with things like building a cooperative greenhouse or helping to pay the modest wages of community organizers to spread the model – with the ultimate goal being to become self-sufficient – which Sherly has described eloquently above.
One last thing – perhaps the most discouraging thing we have heard so far is reports that FEMA is inaccessible and out of touch. There’s lots to be said about this, but the most obvious example we’ve heard so far is that my friends Edwin and Flor received 1,000 “meals” from FEMA yesterday so that they could distribute them in their networks. They were boxes that each contained twelve of said “meals”, along with an inventory sheet in each box that listed the contents (12 meats, 12 starches, 12 fruit, and twelve desserts – and twelve plastic sporks). However, Flor showed us a picture of what the meal consisted of – (and I am not making this up) – one can of potted meat (pork), one bag of cheezits, one fruit roll up, and one bag of vanilla crème cookies. Nabisco’s name was all over everything. I had been cautious about accepting stories we were hearing about FEMA distributing skittles instead of meals – not wanting to spread what I assumed had to be urban legend. However, this was proof that my skepticism was misplaced. There’s lots to be said about the “help” industry – and so far not much of it positive…
On Tuesday we went to the other side of the Island through beautiful mountain passes and sleepy tiny villages. It sounds idyllic except this has always been the poorest part of Puerto Rico made all the more poor by Hurricane Maria. In Haiti being called a mon mone (mountain person) is seen as an insult because that is where you truly see the poverty of the nation and its forgotten people. Driving through the villages in the mountains I couldn’t help but think of this — except instead of the stigma I thought of how we dismiss and throw away people and then demonize them for our lack of compassion and our lack of resources to help them and ourselves. We can’t escape the ills of our world in the mountains, there we are forced to face the wrongs of the Nation and sometimes that is too hard to do. The good thing about this natural disaster is that it gives us a scapegoat for the human disasters that we try to ignore. The people of the mountains and the small villages around them are not only receiving help and their dignity back, but they are also receiving compassion and solidarity. That makes me hopeful not only for Puerto Rico but for Haiti as well because in times of great duress we come together as a people and that can make all the difference not only in the economics of an area but in the struggle as a whole.
The first village we went to is a small village with a beautiful mountain range at its back. The village was completely devastated by the Hurricane. A lot of homes were wiped out and of the ones that remained a majority of them had only tarps as roofs. The spirit of the people however was amazing. They are as resilient and hopeful as ever. I felt a mix of sadness and hopefulness at their situation it seems really unfair for this to have happened to them but it may be a Godsend. I was so proud of the three Puerto Rican Imans because they are putting together a plan to help this village. With one house in particular they are already buying materials and organizing workers to come and rebuild it. I wish this was the face of Islam that is shown in the media, but I am happy that it is the face I got to see because it’s what my soul needed.
One of the Imams that we met - Imam Ayman - said to us earlier this week Islam doesn’t need an Advocate, it just needs Muslims to live their Deen. I am so happy that these Imams are putting feet to their faith and showing Muslims and non Muslims alike what Sadaqa truly looks like. I’m happy that the people in this village don’t feel forgotten by its people even thought the bureaucracy is still failing them. The Government of the United States wants Puerto Rico but not Puerto Ricans. It is up to the Puerto Rican People to fight for their land, culture and each other. I am blessed to be a part of a community that will not only bear witness but join them in the frontline. As we send more delegations to Puerto Rico I hope that we can do something to really help the people in these villages and that they are given the space to have voices heard in the resistance.
“The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have the world to win. Workingmen of all countries unite. — Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Today, Wednesday, was a relaxing day as it was the first without an agenda for Sherly and myself. We went to the beach and found a quiet strip and went swimming. It was sublime. Marie-Elena spent the day reuniting with her Dad in La Parquera on the southwestern coast. Rick, however, has had a full day brokering the potential receipt of 14 containers of relief items that are suddenly available at the San Juan port, as well as determining their contents. Imam Wesley of the 3 Puerto Rican Imams was offered the containers by an NGO in NYC, and Rick is working his Presbyterian connections to find communities in need to receive them.
For today’s reflection, I would like to provide a brief update on Hurricane Maria and how it connects to the Puerto Rican Liberation Struggle. [Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico on September 16th, was the worst natural disaster on record. In 1898, a similar storm struck PR, and the effects were also devastating, however its effects were not well recorded. At that time, most of the infrastructure was low-lying without utilities, however it is likely that the death toll was higher due to the nonexistence of shelters (other than caves) and nonexistence of meteorological data predicting the storm.]
Hurricane Maria hit the island from the southeast corner and plowed through the center of the mainland exiting the northwest. The death toll is recorded at 64 by the US Government, however records from morgues indicate that the actual number is 1,300 and growing. San Juan’s infrastructure, electricity and other utilities, and that of other coastal tourist destinations (as well as the US military bases including a massive one underground, and multinational agricultural corporations such as Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland) have been greatly restored giving the superficial impression hat the situation is greatly improved. Or, to quote Trump, FEMA’s response was “amazing” and “a great job”.
Nonetheless, three months after the storm hit, poorer areas of San Juan and other coastal cities, and much of the island’s interior, are without electricity and clean water. In our travels across many regions the past few days, we had the blessed, inspiring and humbling opportunity to meet with many grassroots communities and farming cooperatives, and speak to villagers and organizers who portray the US Government’s neglect of Puerto Rico as a planned and willful way to force people out of the countryside into the cities or the US mainland so that the multinational corporations continue the land grab started in 1898 by Domino Sugar and other companies. At that time, in the wake of the hurricane, they bought up large swaths of land and set up haciendas on which the indigenous Taino population would be relegated to tending to land they no longer owned in exchange for shelter and access to their land’s harvest.
Today, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, an increasing number of Puerto Ricans are actively resisting what is going on, although there are, as is the case wherever oppression exists, certain sectors and individuals that benefit from privilege, power and access that inclines them to deny or even sell-out their own people, even if it means the very survival of the Taino nation depends on it. Moving forward, it would be great, if possible, for members of the farm team to take part in subsequent delegations to learn about the Puerto Rican people’s struggle and efforts to achieve liberation from US colonialism, oppression and degradation through their connection with the land that Allah gave them, and through intentional efforts to achieve at micro and macro levels agricultural self-sufficiency and sustainability to hold onto and reclaim their farms, their lands, and their island. Existence is Resistance, and the worst thing to do is give up the land.
Thursday, December 14, 2017:
It is said that when you have 10 Puerto Ricans in a room, you have 1000 opinions. Add me, Sherly, Marie Elena, Rick and three Imams and the number of opinions grows even larger, particularly when talking about topics such as Palestine, Yemen and Sharia Law. Although to be fair to Rick, during our week in PR, he did a lot more listening than opining.
Concerning Puerto Rico, there are three main opinions: 1) It should remain a US Commonwealth; 2) It should become the 51st state; and 3) It should rise up for independence and tell the US Empire to get the _ _ _ _ out and stop its ethnic cleansing of the island’s indigenous Taino people and culture. What is agreed upon is that Puerto Ricans want control of their land, culture, history and political destiny. Strategies on how this can be achieved most often depend on the privilege, economic desperation, or denial (of either access to privilege and resources or of the reality of US oppression) of the Puerto Rican you ask.
There are more than 10.5 million Puerto Ricans, seven million of whom are in the diaspora. When and why the majority left the “Enchanted Island” has most often been a function of the following: 1) the US invasion and occupation in 1898, just one year after Spain granted the island independence; 2) the establishment of the American Colonial Bank in 1899 followed by a series of measures which devalued and crippled the Puerto Rican Peso; 3) granting full U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917 and instituting measures to make English the island’s official language; 4) the “promise” of the US mainland, where the “streets were paved with gold”; 5) predatory lending instituted by the US Federal Reserve to the government and people of Puerto Rico whereby they lost their properties and farms and migrated to the cities or US mainland; 6) disastrous category 5 hurricanes in 1899, 1928 and 2017, after which the US Government and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did squat to rebuild; and 7) the continuous land grab of big business starting with Domino Sugar (formerly known as the American Sugar Refining Company owned by PR’s first civilian governor from Massachusetts Charles Herbert Allen 1900-01 a.k.a. “the man who stole Puerto Rico) and ending with Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and other multinational corporations today which continue to acquire swathes of 108-mile-long, 40-mile-wide island in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s aftermath and the US Government’s willful neglect.
Our first day in San Juan, the 3 Imams introduced us to an amazing Taino woman of spirit and opinion whose vision for Puerto Rico is one of liberation and independence. Pluma Barbara Moreno is a nationalist who speaks for the soul, conscience, struggle, resistance, resilience and survival of the Puerto Rican people, which is integrally connected to the land and sea. We, the Community of Living Traditions delegation that travelled to Puerto Rico, hope to get to know her better and develop a relationship of solidarity, accompaniment and support of Pluma and her people, in sha Allah.
December 20, 2017
“Suministros” - The Container Aid Saga
One of the things I have experienced in disaster relief work in other places is that very little is predictable – and often the ability to access material aid is simply about being in the right place at the right time and being able to jump. So here’s a quick example of that from this week.
On Tuesday morning, Imam Wesley received an email from the director of an organization in Brooklyn called “Urban Health.” They knew of him because of a connection between his daughter and the director of the organization. Somehow (I’m not sure how), they had received information that there were 40 shipping containers of aid (the Spanish word is “suministros”) that had been blocked in the ports for weeks, were now released, and that had to be distributed in a matter of days. They were looking for places to distribute the containers where they could be unloaded by volunteers in a matter of a few hours in order to return the containers to the ports, and where they could be confident that the aid would reach people who really needed it.
There were a lot of unanswered questions. Where did the containers come from? What did they have in them? Who had sponsored their collection? What was the timing likely to be on delivery? Organizing potential recipients seemed like something that we could take on to relieve the pressure on the Three Imams, who schedules were jam-packed.
Without attempting to provide all the detail, I’ll share that this task ended up consuming most of the rest of my week, entailing more than twelve hours of focused effort to develop a database of thirteen churches, mosques and community organizations. Even three months after Hurricane Maria the ability to communicate on the island is quite challenging, and I used a combination of texting, phone calls, FB messaging and emails to try to coordinate and pull information together. About halfway through the process, as I tried to probe to get more information about where the aid was coming from, I discovered that FEMA had some role in the process, though I couldn’t tell what the role was (providing the material, helping to collect the material, shipping the material, simply advising the material was released, etc.) All I was told was that the containers were thought to hold “food and water.”
Coming on the heals of learning that FEMA had been distributing Nabisco Snacks and Military Rations (MRE’s) and calling them “meals,” this worried all of us a great deal. It is a lot of work to receive and distribute one of these trailers, and if the overstretched organizations receiving them were about to be given food with little or no nutritional value, perhaps we should think twice about the gift. Too make a very long story short, we vacillated. We hemmed and hawed. We probed a little deeper and learned that what was most probable was that these containers were filled by volunteers in different cities across the U.S. in the immediate aftermath of the storm, and that the contents were not likely to be snack food but there was no way to no what they really were. We also learned that we probably had until the end of December to distribute the containers rather than the two to three days we initially understood as the timeline.
In the end, thirteen of the fourteen organizations we had originally contacted said they were pretty desperate and were willing to take their chances. On Friday night at about 11pm I finally finished up the database providing the name of the organization, contact name, phone, email, street address, and notes on how to actually find the location, and sent it off to the organization in New York City. I have not heard anything since then, and have no idea whether this will come together or not.