By: Alexis Farmer
A square block of tires serves as a fortress, protecting the browned soil. It is the only space in the immediate area that isn’t completely littered with plastic bottles, wrappers, napkins, and other garbage. The trash is a distraction from the colorful murals in the underpass and greenery. Melba, owner of the ecotourism company Excursiones ECO and 4th generation community member, tells us the youth of El Caño Martín Peña created the barrier and the mural to promote beautification in their community. They know they must do what they can to help themselves.
10 Harvard Law School students traveled to Puerto Rico as a part of Harvard Law School’s Pro Bono Spring Break. 2019 was the second year Harvard Law School has partnered with organizations in Puerto Rico to help with hurricane relief efforts and other legal services needs in the community. As the Communications Coordinator for the office that organizes the trip, I joined the students mid-way through the break to document their experience and to highlight the community-initiatives active in Puerto Rico.
On Puerto Rico’s Emancipation Day, the students and I learned about the communities along El Caño. Half of the group spent the week working at an organization that provides social programming and legal advocacy for these communities. It was important to learn about the communities they were serving for the week and to see how communities were still crippled from the devastating hurricane.
The eight communities along El Caño Martín Peña, a 3.75-mile long tidal channel in San Juan, Puerto Rico are among the most impoverished communities in San Juan. U.S. Census Bureau data shows that in 2017, the average median income in Puerto Rico was roughly $19,800. A site historically polluted and neglected, the communities are facing critical public health and environmental challenges as a result of Hurricane María. El Caño was already in critical condition prior to the hurricane, but once the storm hit in September 2017, the need for environmental sustainability became even more urgent.
Many of the pastel colored homes are without roofs. The lush greenery surrounding us feels refreshing, but Melba tells us murky water nourishes the roots. Power lines bend towards the street, weathered and weary from Mother Nature’s wrath. The channel is clogged with debris and sediment. In a written testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives, Lyvia Rodriguez, executive director of ENLACE said that the lack of a sewer system and storm water system has led to pollution in homes and flooding. If it rains hard enough, El Caño floods tread back into the community, exposing residents to polluted waters.
Approximately 130,000 people, nearly 4 percent of the population, left Puerto Rico for the U.S. mainland after the hurricane, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. But for many with low-incomes, moving is not a possibility. “It’s not sensible,” said Estrella, the Environmental Affairs Manager of ENLACE. “It would cause mass displacement, [particularly] for low-income communities.” The Corporación del Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martín Peña is organizing an ecosystem restoration project, which includes dredging the water. Estrella, a tall young woman, is passionate about making a change. She’s been supervising five HLS students over the week as they conduct legal research on whether ENLACE can access federal community block development grants to help rebuild homes and help residents access formal banking. She fervently remarks on how gentrification damages communities and that ENLACE’s goal is to improve the conditions of where people already are. Estrella asserts that the organization is committed to help residents avoid eviction and ensuring the community reaps the benefits of new investments.
To further complicate matters, many residents of El Caño cannot access FEMA assistance because they cannot prove they own their homes through titles of deeds. Last May, FEMA only approved 40% of applicants for disaster assistance to fix their homes. Michelle Sugden-Castillo, a housing nonprofit consultant in Puerto Rico, told NBC News that some homes were passed down through generations and didn’t get properly registered. According to the agency’s guidelines, those who cannot prove ownership can still meet FEMA requirements by providing alternate verification of home ownership, including mortgage payments, property tax bills or receipts, a bill of payment record, or some proof of occupancy (a credit card statement, utility bills, driver’s license, etc).
Community members are intent on staying. Ana is a community legend. A small, silvered hair woman, began a community garden in her neighborhood, but not without a fight. She used to see people dumping trash in the empty lot across from her house, until she began to chase them off. Other community members noticed her efforts and joined her – organizing a plan to begin a garden. The garden now covers nearly two New York City blocks. Students come to help tend to the garden. It is now a source of food and fellowship.
Outside of her tangerine flat, Ana shares limbers, a tropical twist on Italian ice, with her neighbors and those who pass by. The sweet treat is a nice relief in the sweltering heat and blissfully sunny day. Melba, a young activist herself, shares Ana’s story. Melba has been active in the community fighting for ecological and environmental justice since she was 17. She started off with the Sierra Club, but has since joined ENLACE and started her own ecotourism company. Melba is small, but mighty. She is committed to staying in her community and helping it improve. “We understand the value of the water way and we want to restore its value.”
Life along El Caño still exists. Turtles and fish swim in the water. Plantains and vegetables are among the shrubbery between homes. People sit outside on their porches, watching kids ride bikes and others walking the smooth pavement. The work to rebuild is already set in motion. It is clear that El Caño is a recreational, economic, and environmental asset of Puerto Rico. It is not only for the people, but will be reshaped and developed by the people.
- EPA: Urban Waters and the Caño Martín Peña ENLACE Caño Martín Peña: A Restoration and Resiliency Project: An opportunity to transform the San Juan Metropolitan Area
- Forbes: Why Hurricane Maria Is No Match for This Mighty Community in Puerto Rico
- Proyecto ENLACE del Caño Martin Peña: Restoring an Ecosystem and Building Resilient Communities in Puerto Rico
- Think Progress: Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable communities work together to survive, post-Maria