or a lot of folks, 2020 has served as a year of introduction to theories and practices of mutual aid. In the US, mutual aid networks spontaneously began popping up in large cities beginning with the  Covid-19 lockdown in March, and quickly spread in the wake of the national civil uprising against anti-Black police brutality in the last days of May. From pandemic induced food aid networks in hard hit cities like Seattle and New York, to post-national guard activation item drop off sites in south Minneapolis and beyond, practices of mutual aid have seemingly become mainstream like never before. However, many people living in the US territory of Puerto Rico have been nurturing practices of mutual aid for several years now, in response to the archipelago’s ongoing financial crisis and recent natural disasters, including Hurricane Maria in 2017 and a devastating series of strong earthquakes earlier this year. In this conversation, Drs. Sage Ponder and Melissa Rosario talk about how mutual aid intersects with pre-existing decolonization practices and care networks on the island, and what the mainland can learn from how mutual aid has taken root in Puerto Rico.

Sage: I first became acquainted with Melissa and her San Juan-based organization, CEPA, Center for Embodied Pedagogy and Action, through mutual acquaintances affiliated with the Detroit-based Allied Media Conference.(CEPA is one of Allied Media’s sponsored projects.) At the time I was in Detroit, looking for ways to begin researching the connections between the municipal bankruptcies of Detroit and Puerto Rico. I soon realized that for a lot of people I met there, they held an intuitive understanding of shared experience between the two places and a desire to better understand and support what was happening on the ground in Puerto Rico, as people on the island and in the diaspora worked to provide mutual aid in the aftermath of the category 5 hurricane that had occurred  in the midst of deep financial crisis. Before we get into talking about how mutual aid emerged in Puerto Rico in the weeks and months following Maria, can you first explain a bit about your organization Melissa? And then maybe how mutual aid came to be practiced in Puerto Rico after Maria?

Melissa: Of course.  At the core of CEPA’s work is making decolonizing a practice. Not as a form of critical theory but as a commitment to unlearning and transforming life as we know it. Colonial systems and their logics have, of course, outlived their early forms and now live in us, in our values, in our ways of relating to the land, to our bodies and to one another. Our task is finding ways to restore our sense of interdependence, abundance and to live into the principle of reciprocity. If we want to remember a world that is beyond capitalism and its all consuming ways of seeing the world individualistically, where all resources are scarce, we need to practice mutual aid.

At the same time, mutual aid isn’t really a term we use explicitly in our organization: much more valuable for us in terms of practicing reciprocity has been the idea of the solidarity economy, since one aspect of our work has been to foster robust relationships of accountability and allyship between diaspora- and archipelago-based Boricuas. Through our solidarity visitor program (a pre-Covid 19 intervention), we have hosted many QTPOC at our workshop space.  We had a sliding scale for these medium-length visits and did a lot of work to articulate the different positionalities, responsibilities and privileges that we carry due to where we live, and the conditions of daily life in that place.  We have noticed that almost all people, regardless of how privileged they may be, carry a sense of not having enough. Under capitalism we grow under conditions of scarcity and there can be a lot of mental and emotional unravelling when we discuss what it means to share in a way that is mutual, rather than equal. We love our diaspora--I myself am a rematriated third generation Nuyorican and so we have worked especially hard to detail the privileges and responsibilities of those based in the diaspora vs. on the archipelago.  

Sage – Real quick before we move on, can I ask you about why the concept of ‘solidarity economy’ is more useful for CEPA? What does it speak to that mutual aid doesn't in your opinion?

Melissa: Sure. It’s because we [CEPA] wanted to transform our relationship to money and because one of our core programs (again, pre-Covid 19) was to host visitors, often a mix of allies that are in academic positions, or other forms of flexible but secure employment and second and third generation members of the diaspora. Inequality in wealth and income are at historic highs and we wanted to generate a conversation about the value, and the purpose of visits to Puerto Rico which are not draining to us, as people working and living in Puerto Rico without stable salaries, and which recognizes the labor it takes to support visitors (even independent ones) as well as to raise the question of how a visit to Puerto Rico may place a drain on our island’s already precarious resources. The idea of a solidarity economy requires a shift in our economic paradigm from one that prioritizes profit and growth to one that prioritizes living in harmony with each other and nature.  We have found that pairing the terms solidarity with economy allows us to have more frank conversations about what it really takes to be in solidarity.  It’s a perspective that forces all of us to grapple with our privilege, access to capital networks and to imagine collaborations that actively share some of that power so that those of us who are based on the frontlines of systems collapse and climate catastrophe are not always in the position of giving more than we receive. We are not equal, and that’s okay. Even more than that, acknowledgement that this is the case is needed.  We are only getting out of this mess together, and we have to work across our differences, while being really truthful about them, to imagine solutions which are life-giving for all parties.  I think within the term “mutual aid,” some notion of “help” still prevails.  We need something that makes us begin from the differences. 

Sage: Thank you for clarifying that. It’s really powerful, I think, to ask people to be in relationship and build solidarity starting from their differences. Getting back to the question of mutual aid in the wake of Hurricane Maria, can you tell us a little about how that happened?

Melissa: Yeah. I want to start by lifting up the important work of the Centers of Mutual Aid (Centros de Apoyo Mutuo, or CAM) that were created in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.  The early centers were themselves launched by activists and organizers who were already working in communities and saw that the government was not going to come to help, so they saved themselves.  It became clear to us that mutual aid in times of catastrophe consists of all the collective actions it takes to support community wellbeing and reaffirm that all lives have inherent value, that all life is sacred. At the very beginning, I think most centers were focused on providing a hot meal to neighbors, though certainly this was happening informally across the island(s), as people gathered to share food--usually a result of pooled and/or donated resources.  However, these centers grew and spread, and eventually became less activist driven and much more led by the actual community members- who in many cases, had originally started by coming for a meal.  Feeling empowered by the experience, many of these centers have continued to thrive. CAM Carolina for example has occupied a school now for over three years and currently they are developing many small education projects directed at the community that lives in the area. This includes: a movement space, a lab for barbers and stylists, art therapy for children and elderly, a doula project, a fermentation workshop, a thrift shop, a wellness space used for ear acupuncture and other exercises as well as the dining service.

There are more than five CAMs that are actively working across the main island right now. Many have little to no contact with one another, because they are carrying so much in their home projects.  Like the CAMJI (Jíbaros Mutual Support Center.  The “Jíbaro” was included as recognition and celebration  of the agrarian roots of the people that reside in the central mountain range of Puerto Rico.) CAMJI is now occupying an abandoned school to start an Alliance House (Casa Alianza Comunitaria de Lares) in the community to bring in more collaborations and offer useful educational resources for the people who have been all but abandoned by the state. 

Sage: Thank you for sharing all these examples; I think a really important insight you brought up just now as well is the difference between activist- and community- based practices of mutual aid. What do you see as being the main distinction between activist driven and community forms of mutual aid?

Melissa: Definitely, I’ve seen that activist-based projects tend to feel faster and are driven by a sense of urgency.  There are more young people and in my experience, these moments often felt more like providing services or offering resources to underresourced communities, rather than a reciprocal exchange.  I remember in the moments after Hurricane Maria being offered a hot meal as a member of a group of activists who had brought a brigade offering the support of manual labor to an elderly community in Santurce [a neighboring district of San Juan].  In times of extreme scarcity like the situation was after hurricane Maria, this gesture of a hot meal represented a huge sacrifice for that community.  We were understood to be outsiders in that moment -I think in times of emergency, our community becomes quite small, for better or worse- and I also say outsiders because we didn’t face the same level of precarity these folks did.  The early months after the storm were like that: we were extremely busy serving the needs of others, but once the initial shock was gone and some of our basic services restored, a lot of us didn’t stay in contact with many of the people we met and served at that time.  I think that once a community takes over an initiative from activists, the rhythm and focus shifts.  I have seen that providing opportunities for employment and education in the face of massive school closures and a contracting labor market is a vital focus of the centers of mutual aid. In the face of closing schools, many of these projects have occupied abandoned buildings and often have a housing component as well. What’s more, there are more elders present in leadership when the initiative is community led. 

Sage: So it’s kind of like after the initial emergency is over, mutual aid projects face the challenge of transitioning from survival-based services to more long lasting questions of community-based social reproduction. I am also hearing an implicit question in here about the relationship between decolonizing practices and your description of more long lasting mutual aid projects as occupying projects. There is an indigenous critique of the protest-form of occupation as being inherently rooted in colonial logics that I wonder if you have thoughts on in regard to your examples above. Is it different when the occupation is done by colonized (albeit non-indigenous) people in a colonial territory?

Melissa: Yes, thanks for formulating it in that way. I think that’s really good observation.  It’s not that these groups are necessarily thinking of their occupation as a decolonial project, it’s more like -- I need somewhere to live, to study, to eat and you (government and elite forces) have continually closed the avenues I might have to legally pursue the reclamation of spaces where I might prepare and plan for a future, where I might live a dignified life in Puerto Rico.  I think that occupying is a particularly colonial venture when it ignores native peoples sovereign right to lands that have been stolen from them, as in the case of say, occupy wall street.  The type of occupation that is happening here in Puerto Rico is more a strategy based on recuperating what is being expropriated (in the best cases) or just left to rot and crumble.  For example, in one of the centers for mutual aid, an elderly man is offering his services as a carpenter to rehabilitate an abandoned school, actually the same school he attended as a child.  What I am saying is, I think yes, it is something powerful and radical to just take it back and retrofit it for your own people’s future. When laws are made to suit the powerful and your right to a dignified life doesn’t matter, occupying is one of the few resources we have to collectively build our livelihoods on our terms.  

Sage: I think the temporal element you touched on earlier is also huge, the difference between urgent and slower forms of mutual aid and how that intersects with keeping tabs on our own wellbeing as well as caring about and for others in our networks. In the cases where mutual aid projects have evolved into longer lasting practices and spaces, do you have a sense of whether their labor practices have also evolved to take into consideration these broader ethics of care? 

Melissa: Well, yes. I was talking with the coordinator of CAM Carolina recently (Lourdes Hernandez) and she told me that the care she receives from the community in exchange for the time she volunteers there is like that of a family.  If she needs support with childcare, if she’s sick, if her car breaks down, she knows that she will be taken care of.  There’s no money, but when we want to build political projects that are grounded in liberation, we have to take a bigger picture view of the “mutuality” or reciprocity that we gain when working in these ways.  I remember hearing Leah Lakshimi Piepzna Samarasinha at this year’s Allied Media Conference that affirmed my sense that newer forms of mutual aid can actually ignore the distinct ways that we are able to show up because of our different abilities.  I think that’s really important to bring in here as well.  She mentioned in her plenary speech that as an immunocompromised person, she was asked during Covid-19 times to volunteer to deliver food to others.  It was an example of the way that the rush to “get things to people in need” can ignore our attending to the ways we all need to get what we need. Period.  All of us are in need at this time -- in desperate need for making a new world at the same time we are competing against the encroachment of old and vile forces on our future and present --and the sooner we are able to articulate what those needs are, as soon as we can see them and speak them, we are breaking with the capitalist notions of individuality and competition.  

Sage: So in a way, would you say that the future of mutual aid is all of us learning how to voice our needs all of the time, not just in moments where we are forced to return to survival strategies? That maybe it’s not only about rebuilding the materiality of our lives and neighborhoods in urgent moments, but also about rebuilding our sense of self and alongside our sense of place? 

Melissa: Mmhmm. That’s exactly right. It’s a challenge to any notion of individualism to recognize that we need each other to make our lives more than just surviving. It requires really deep honesty and vulnerability to receive the alchemy of deep nourishment that our caring for one another could provide. The kind of change we need now depends on our ability to make a collective impact, and co-create solutions that work for the most people, not just ourselves.

Sage: Thanks so much for talking with me and sharing these experiences Melissa.

Social media link to CAM Las Carolinas: https://www.facebook.com/camlascarolinas

All photos credited to Lourdes Hernandez.

Melissa Rosario (she/they) is a rogue anthropologist, diasporican rematriator and healing justice practitioner based in Puerto Rico where she designs practices and facilitates spaces that heal, (re)connect, and build radical forms of solidarity across the boundaries of space and time. She is the founder and co-coordinator of CEPA and is writing her first book—a creative counter-narrative of Puerto Rico in crisis under contract with Northwestern University Press.  Learn more at www.decolonizepr.com

Sage Ponder (she/her) is an assistant professor of geography at Florida State University and an Urban Studies Foundation fellow with the University of Minnesota, department of Geography, Environment & Society. Her research is concerned with understanding the racialization of urban finance, and the implications for environmental and social justice.