Mold is growing on the leather soles of Christine Nieves Rodríguez’s boots. The shoes weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary — simply sitting inside her house. She has had to throw away her mattress too, and seek refuge elsewhere as the mold made her sick. When your house has 80-90% humidity and no available electricity to run dehumidifiers, dealing with mold becomes one of life’s day-to-day problems.
Residing in the mountains of Mariana, Puerto Rico, Nieves Rodríguez (C’10) and her neighbors were among the first on the island to get hit this September by the category 5 fury of Hurricane Maria. Nieves Rodríguez had the option to seek refuge in the United States, but it didn’t feel right to leave behind her native Puerto Rico.
“The windows and the doors exploded — glass was flying everywhere,” says Nieves Rodríguez, who rode out the storm with her partner and his cousin. “We ended up hiding in a tiny bathroom under the stairs. Three adults, a dog, and a cat hiding there for hours.”
Twelve days later, she and her partner, Luis Rodríguez Sanchez, felt ready for the next phase of recovery: not just stabilizing their own lives, but helping Puerto Rico rise stronger out of the rubble of trees and damage. It was also in the backs of their minds that in that blank slate moment of devastation, they might also help address some of the island’s long-standing issues.
Luis Rodríguez Sanchez (left) and Christine Nieves Rodríguez (right) with supplies. (Photo from Nieves Rodríguez's Facebook page.)
Inspired by a mutual aid community kitchen in Caguas, Puerto Rico, they launched Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo Mariana (PAM), which roughly translates to "Mariana Mutual Support Project," on October 9. An initiative to feed their neighbors and build a sense of community, PAM employed Mariana’s deep-rooted tradition of mutual aid.
“We reached out to the older generation who had all the resources – the space, kitchen, cooks,” said Nieves Rodríguez. “And it became therapy for them. They had something to do, they felt useful and like they could contribute. We started serving meals exactly 18 days after the hurricane and we fed 150 people the first day.”
Now that number has increased to more than 300 meals a day, as the organizers continue to extend their efforts. In addition to daily meals for the residents of Mariana, PAM has provided open health clinics with medical volunteers, meal deliveries for residents who are sick and shut in, entertainment from local artists, children’s workshops, and free wifi access.
Volunteers serving meals to those waiting in line. (Photo from Nieves Rodríguez's Facebook page.)
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Communication, Nieves Rodríguez, who grew up in Ponce, Puerto Rico, was an anchor for the Telemundo program En Porta and worked for Factcheck.org before earning a Master’s degree from Oxford in Social Policy and Social Intervention. She then joined the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and was most recently an Entrepreneur in Residence at Florida State University. In 2014, Nieves Rodríguez was the featured speaker at the Annenberg School’s Communication major graduation ceremony.
“Ever since I left Puerto Rico to go to Penn, I’ve been waiting to help translate all the resources and knowledge and wealth that I had access to in the U.S. in order to help Puerto Rico,” she says. “If there are people trying to find new innovative models to fund community work to eliminate systemic poverty in Puerto Rico, I wanted to be a part of supporting them.”
Last year, she moved back to Puerto Rico with hopes of building something that would revive Puerto Rican narratives of resiliency, generosity, self-respect, and dignity. She could not have imagined then the devastation that Hurricane Maria would bring, but it has been a catalyst for Nieves Rodríguez to take her activism to the next level. Stripped of resources, power, and sustainable shelter, she realized that her and her neighbors’ greatest source of support would be each other.
“When technology, water, and energy collapse, the thing that is left is community or lack thereof,” said Nieves Rodríguez. “So what became apparent was that we need solidarity as Puerto Ricans, to figure out how we can come together for survival.”
PAM signage. (Photo from Nieves Rodríguez's Facebook page.)
More than ten weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, a large percentage of the island is still without power and drinking water. In November, Nieves Rodríguez took matters into her own hands; thanks to volunteer efforts, PAM now has a water tower and solar panels. On her Facebook page, Nieves Rodríguez tirelessly chronicles Puerto Rico’s struggles and her local recovery efforts.
They recently achieved a proud milestone: PAM hosted a concert using a fully solar-powered sound system. Next in their sights is a community-run, solar-powered “eco-amphitheater” high up in the hills of Mariana that can showcase Puerto Rican and international performers.
Nieves Rodríguez has attracted an organic response from those who admire PAM’s efforts. Carmen Maldonado (C’91) was among the volunteers from the United States who have shown up to help. Nieves Rodríguez is also accepting donations via Paypal, and friends have been sending everything from solar lamps to children’s books in an effort to help.
Rodríguez Sanchez and Nieves Rodríguez with Carmen Maldonado (right center) and other volunteers. (Photo from Nieves Rodríguez's Facebook page.)
Nieves Rodríguez has her eyes on two horizons: the near term disaster recovery with its mold and scarcity of electricity and running water — still acute problems — but more importantly, the longer-term questions about how to build a stronger, sustainable, thriving Puerto Rico, which has long suffered from crushing debt and brain drain as young people seek better opportunities outside the island.
She has pushed herself beyond exhaustion in an effort to help those around her, and writes openly of the emotional trauma that the hurricane has also left behind for herself and many Puerto Ricans. Knowing her limits to contribute as an individual alone, she is now networking to find people whose skills, advice, and assistance can help her scale up her efforts.
“Financial donations are hugely helpful, but I also need people to help me — both administrative support as well as a team of advisors who can help me figure out models for this kind of sustainable community with an eye to things like environmental policy, architecture [that can better withstand hurricanes], sustainable agriculture, media literacy, and the kind of social infrastructure to deal with disasters — because they are coming.”