The spirit of mutual aid endures among Puerto Ricans

In New York and on the island, community support and self-reliance help fill the gaps left by those in power.

Democratic District Leader Samy Nemir-Olivares, who is originally from Puerto Rico but now lives in Brooklyn.

Democratic District Leader Samy Nemir-Olivares, who is originally from Puerto Rico but now lives in Brooklyn. Ramón Pebenito

Puerto Rico has endured a lot over the years. This includes state-sponsored violence, natural disasters and social engineering by the government over the past century. Poverty remains widespread, and its status as a U.S. territory continues to cause a range of problems. Federal law makes consumer goods more expensive on the island while Wall Street lending has resulted in an enormous amount of municipal debt. A group of unelected members of a fiscal control board have cut public services in recent years while Hurricane Maria demonstrated that government neglect was as out of control as ever. “Most of us are raised with that mentality that we (cannot) wait for the government to act,” Democratic District Leader Samy Nemir-Olivares, who is originally from Puerto Rico but now lives in Brooklyn, said in an interview. “The recovery (from Maria) was like a wake-up call that we cannot wait for the government, and we need to take justice and solidarity up into our hands.”

This spirit of communal self-reliance has helped Puerto Rico confront adversity on the island and beyond in the absence of government protection. This includes recovery efforts from Hurricane Maria that activists, elected officials and New Yorkers later used to deal with COVID-19. While much of this aid was provided by elected officials and established nonprofits, a significant amount has come through an idea with deep roots in Puerto Rican culture. “Mutual aid is when everyday people get together to meet each other’s needs,” writes Joel Izlar, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia who has written about mutual aid during the pandemic. “Mutual aid is an idea and practice that is based on the principles of direct action, cooperation, mutual understanding, and solidarity. Mutual aid is not charity, but the building and continuing of new social relations where people give what they can and get what they need, outside of unjust systems of power.”

When you read up on the Taíno culture, it is about taking care of each other.
– New York City Council candidate Marjorie Velázquez

Relevant examples abounded during the pandemic. Community fridges popped up across New York City to facilitate food donations. A “rolling library” brought books to far-flung neighborhoods. Nemir-Olivares said he got involved with a Brooklyn group called Bushwick Ayuda Mutua – one of dozens of mutual aid groups across the city and state – after seeing a flyer one day and realizing that his Spanish-language skills and organizing experience could be useful for his community at a time of great need. “Most food pantries and nonprofits closed in Bushwick and Brooklyn during the very first month of COVID, so there was literally nothing for people to eat,” Nemir-Olivares said. “We couldn’t stay at home because we knew there was a lot of people who couldn’t go out.” More than 200 people in total eventually came together, Nemir-Olivares said, to deliver boxes of “chicken, eggs, rice, beans – you name it” to hundreds of struggling families.

The benefits of mutual aid come in a variety of forms, including the solidarity it enables across different communities. New York City Council candidate Marjorie Velázquez, whose parents moved to the city from the island, said she channeled her own family’s experience with mutual aid into local efforts to provide tens of thousands of halal meals to neighbors celebrating Ramadan last year. “(The city) was just giving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” she said in an interview. “I’m not Muslim, right? But that doesn’t mean that I can’t be there for that community.” Assistance from elected officials and community groups helped keep the operation going for months, but mutual aid groups continued to fill other needs as they popped up, including connecting people with translation services.

The concept of mutual aid has roots stretching back to at least the 18th century when organizations like the Free African Society served Black Americans as they navigated freedom in a country where white-dominated institutions often denied them basic services. Schoolchildren two centuries later have the Black Panthers to thank for normalizing the idea of free school lunches through the use of mutual aid. Indigenious groups in New York City have also leveraged mutual aid in their own activism that emphasizes anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism and solidarity. Some Puerto Ricans look to the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Caribbean for inspiration on what mutual aid means for them. “When you read up on the Taíno culture, it is about taking care of each other,” Velázquez said. “That’s the blood and the spirit that we have within our communities. We know firsthand that our responsibilities are for one another.”

Solidarity between people in Puerto Rico and its diaspora in places like New York – one of the top mainland destinations from the island – has been especially important in recent years. Hurricane Maria left many of the territory’s approximately 3 million people without power and basic necessities for months, but it inspired mutual aid groups, traditional charities and elected officials to do what they could. Subsequent earthquakes and COVID-19 also showed how the government has failed Puerto Ricans. The upcoming Somos conference near San Juan in early November is one forum where New York politicians and others can discuss how to come together for the island. “We want to make sure that everyone that comes to Puerto Rico understands that we’re in the midst of a pandemic, but we also have issues that need to be resolved,” said Assembly Member Maritza Davila of Brooklyn, the chair of the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force, which puts on the conference. “We’re all dealing with it, the way we can, however we can.”