By Craig Martin
Torrents of rain came down but it was the incredibly high wind that scared many living across the island of Puerto Rico during hurricane Maria. Sure, Puerto Ricans had experienced many hurricanes in the past but this was the storm of all storms. Residents described the winds as terrifying and unrelenting. All told, Maria hammered Puerto Rico in September of 2017 and left more than 3,000 dead in her wake. Historically, the island seems to have been under assault by terrestrial battles between wind and rain’s evil twin, the hurricane.
Originally named Boricua by the indigenous Tainos who populated the island, Puerto Rico has experienced many reboots throughout their history. For centuries, inhabitants of this 100 long by 35 mile-wide paradise have had to reinvent themselves. As the longest running colony in history, Puerto Rico was “acquired” by the United States in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. The power dynamic that exists as Puerto Rico fights for decolonization plays out both physically and figuratively on a daily basis.
There have been many reboots over the years for the island. Sadly, in some cases that reboot never happened. In the case of the Tainos, they were nearly killed completely off by the neighboring Kalinago or Carib indigenious tribe of nearby islands. During early European colonization there were wars to control the island and over recent years their economy has been deeply impacted by the collapse of the sugar cane industry, the withdrawal of pharmaceuticals due to changes in US law and most recently the decimation of the coffee crop by Maria. Yet, there has been a resilience and determination that has kept things moving forward because of a people who will never quit.
There’s no more symbolic and practical beacon of hope in this terrestrial battle than Casa Pueblo. Casa Pueblo, located in the small mountain town of Adjuntas, is not just a “house” it is a complex that includes a radio station, theater, medical laboratory, music school, art gallery and an adjoining farm all powered by the sun.
Arturo Massol-Deya is the Executive Director and follows in his father and mother’s footsteps in advocating for the surrounding environment and sustainability. His father, Alexis Massol-González, won the coveted Goldman Environmental Prize in 2002. His mother Tinti Deyá Diáz was the “heart of Casa Pueblo.”
According to Arturo, “energy is power.” He explains, “knowledge itself is not enough. We know about climate change. We know about global warming. What we have been promoting is energy generation at the point of consumption. You are democratizing energy generation…energy as power.”
This point was most evident after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. Even though three years have passed, there are still some places on the island that are suffering from the storm.
While the rest of the island struggled because they were connected to the US-Puerto Rican power grid, Casa Pueblo was back up and running directly after the sun came back out. They had power to run the radio station for much needed communication. They had power to share with the community. And, they had “power” in all of it by not relying on the Puerto Rican and US government to keep things running. Casa Pueblo had created a community independent from the government.
Arturo likes to talk about the concept of “self-decolonization.” If you aren’t dependent on outside controls, mountain communities like Adjuntas can survive and even thrive on their own. Arturo says, “what you see in Puerto Rico now is a model of dependency. Part of our mission is to break that model of dependency. And, energy self-sufficiency is one way to break that model.” Arturo goes on to talk about sales of things like their own coffee and the need to break away from economic dependency along with energy dependencies. “Taking control of our own destiny is also a pathway for self-decolonization.” Arturo had a healthy grin when those words left his mouth.
In Puerto Rico, the main urban centers are often the most immediate to get assistance from both the US federal and local Puerto Rican governments. In the case of Hurricane Maria, there were mountain communities left without power for nearly a year. Instead of waiting for politicians to solve problems, Arturo wants to create an independent community that can live off of its own infrastructures. He sees a day when residents of Adjuntas can lead happy lives even in the aftermath of a massive storm without outside help. They can be self-decolonized, disregarding current politics.
The terrestrial battles that haunt Boricua also come to the rescue. After Hurricane Maria, the sun came out, Casa Pueblo was energized and ready to help others. While the geological outlook in reversing climate change looks bleak, the future for Casa Pueblo – and Adjuntas at large – is hopeful. They just need the sun and a more moderate amount of the wind and rain.