by Ericka Williams Rodriguez
LEF and Serenity Solidarity Visit Puerto Rico in Preparation for a January 2023 Distribution of Sustainable, Reliable Energy Systems
Earlier this year, Living Energy Farm, Serenity Solidarity, and El Departamento de la Comida organized together to bring two cohorts of activists and electricians from Puerto Rico to LEF to train on DC microgrid systems. We hope to bring inexpensive, reliable electrical systems to people suffering from the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria (2017), and now Fiona (2022). LEF was able to fundraise to cover travel expenses from Puerto Rico to Virginia, and folks started to arrive in June 2022.
The first Puerto Rican electrician to join the training program happened to be infamous, daredevil activist Tito Kayak. Ericka from Serenity Solidarity knew Tito from her days in the Catholic Worker movement. Tito was instrumental in stopping the military bomb testing in Vieques and has climbed the Statue of Liberty to hang the Puerto Rican flag in protest. Tito is a founder of Electricistas En Acción, a group of electricians that fixes electricity in people’s homes for little to no cost.
12 other people came to train in two separate, 2-week training programs. The groups have some amazing initiatives and projects that they are working on in Puerto Rico, and we were moved to organize bringing solar panels, refrigerators, ovens, fans, charging kits, and lights to different people and projects connected to the cohorts that visited LEF. The overall goal is to eventually set up manufacturing and distribution of DC solar appliances in Puerto Rico, run by Puerto Ricans.
While the cohorts were in Virginia they learned a lot, but we also had some fun times with them. Donna Gasapo and Luis Oyola of Fireflower Farm hosted some of the cohort staying at their farm, and they organized nights out in Charlottesville. Some of the folx got to see the Louisa communes, Brenda from LEF organized river trips, Elenor from LEF helped with translating, and Littleflower Catholic Worker organized a few dinners and Karaoke nights.
Ericka from Serenity held two events at Visible Records to support and publicize the work of activists who were part of the cohort, including the work of Tara Rodriguez Besosa, queer farmer and activist who founded El Departamento de la Comida. Tara was essential to finding people from Puerto Rico interested and available to travel to Louisa. Ericka met them through Amy Rose of Virginia Free Farm.
After the Summer 2022 training program was over, Debbie and Ericka began to plan a trip to Puerto Rico to see the sites that are going to have solar systems installed. Then, another devastating hurricane hit Puerto Rico in September 2022, Hurricane Fiona. They started to question if the time was right to travel to Puerto Rico, what kind of support the cohorts needed, if they were going to be able to get around the island, and if they would be using valuable resources – like gas and water – that Puerto Ricans desperately needed. After talking with many people that came to Louisa from Puerto Rico, Debbie and Ericka decided to push their trip back a month. The electricity situation was even more unreliable and unstable now, and people from the cohorts expressed that there was scarcity of water and gas and that we should wait until they were more readily available. When the scarcity dissipated, the cohorts said that we should come because the technology LEF is bringing is needed now more than ever. Some people are still without reliable electricity and because of climate change, there are sure to be more storms in future years that will knock out the electricity yet again. So in Mid-November, Debbie, Ericka, and Debbie’s Spanish-speaking uncle John traveled to Puerto Rico to start the task of evaluating the sites that wanted solar installations.
The first site we visited was Darshan Elena Campos’ projects- their home in a public housing complex where they want to be as off grid as possible, and Somos Semillas Antillanas – a proposed safe house for trans youth in Cabo Rojo. Homophobia is prevalent in Puerto Rico, as it is still prevalent in many places, with trans people, especially youth, being discriminated against the most. Elena’s safehouse is much needed for the trans youth in Puerto Rico! Elena traveled with Debbie and Ericka for much of their trip across Puerto Rico, helping with translating and driving. Elena is also very passionate about identifying and teaching about native plants and trees, and has started several gardens in their housing complex.
The next project we visited was artist and activist Licy Rodriguez’s Proyecto Arawako in Lajas. Licy is in the early stages of transforming 18 acres of land that she owns into a food forest and cultural center that helps Boriken people reconnect to their Arawak and Taino roots. She is an incredible artist who works towards decolonization, food and seed sovereignty, and Indigenous land access. She isn’t quite ready for a solar set up, as the project needs help clearing land and building their first structure on the land.
In a town called Arroyo, we visited one of the few Black Boriken farm owners in Puerto Rico, Miguel and his wife Dinorah. They are coconut farmers that need a new solar water pump and solar refrigeration. Tara Rodriguez Besosa and Millo from El Departamento de la Comida met us there. El Depa has set up a mentorship program for elder farmers in Puerto Rico, and Millo works with Miguel and Dinorah to get them help on their farm. Elena and Ericka cooked a lovely vegetarian meal for them as Debbie evaluated what type of systems they would need.
Puerto Rico has closed 100’s of schools since hurricane Maria hit, and people are reclaiming them and turning them into community centers that provide desperately needed services to the people. One of the reclaimed schools we visited was in Adjuntas and was retaken by a group called Centro Paz Para Ti. At Centro Paz, we met Alana Feldman Soler, who is director of the project. They are a feminist group that provides free water and a place to charge phones when the electricity is out. They are a center for women’s projects and offers educational services, works to eradicate economic dependence and geographic isolation of women who have experienced domestic violence, gender violence, and sexual assault. They offer resources and tools for women to help protect themselves if faced with domestic violence or gender-based violence. The services the center provides promote self-management and empowerment for women who live in rural areas.
We visited several reclaimed schools, the next being Tara Rodriguez Besosa’s project, El Departamento de la Comida, or the Department of Food. El Depa is a non-profit collective that acts as an alternative agency in support of small-scale, decentralized, local food projects and farms. They have a resource library with tools, seeds, books, educational materials, and a kitchen with product-making equipment. While we were there we met with Vidal Carrion, a local business owner who came to Virginia as part of the cohorts, and Tito Kayak. El Depa members prepared a delicious vegetarian lunch for us, and we got to visit Tara’s personal farm, which is just down the road from El Depa.
One of the larger reclaimed schools we visited was Fundación Bucarabón in a very remote area called Maricao. They offer education and services to farmers and women in Maricao and surrounding areas. We had to drive some pretty treacherous, flooded roads to get there. Activist Jacqueline Perez started this project by scaling the fence in front of the closed Francisco Vincenty Second Unit School in the Bucarabones neighborhood, and setting up services for people without asking anyone for permission. A few years later, they now have a lease from the Puerto Rican government on the school, help from Americorp volunteers, 2 donated AC solar systems, a thrift store where locals can get clothing and shoes, and have grand plans for a daycare center, a hostel where volunteers can stay when they are working on a project at the school, and more. The Fundación Bucarabón volunteers deliver prepared food made in their industrial kitchen to people in the area who are food insecure.
The AC solar setup at Fundación Bucarabón is a top of the line system, with very high quality batteries. Mostly this works for their needs, but they are already experiencing difficulties running their heavy loads on the system, including their pump and refrigerators. This is due to the inherent inefficiencies in converting solar power to AC for use in appliances engineered to run on grid power. LEF is working with Fundación Bucarabón to convert these heavy loads to high-quality DC appliances that will have much more reliable performance.
Fundación Bucarabón also recognizes that the solar system they have, which cost many tens of thousands of dollars, is not affordable for the majority of the community that they serve in Maricao. They are interested in setting up a demonstration of lower cost DC systems for residential use, and possibly serving as a distribution site for these systems in the future.
Another excellent connection we made was with Zenaida Cortes. Zenaida is the president of the community association that manages a recreational center at Señorial park in Cupey, a suburb of San Juan. The park is shared by three adjacent neighborhoods. In the months after hurricane Maria, when the area had no power, the community center was set up with a kitchen running on gas, so food could be prepared by volunteers and distributed throughout the neighborhoods. In the years following Maria, public funding was slashed, and park maintenance was neglected.
But now, Señorial Park is undergoing a revitalization. A number of dedicated volunteers and organizers from the community have taken on its care and maintenance, cleaning and repairing the center, and planting trees around the park. One of these volunteers is Aidelise Darin, whose son, Epic, attended the training at LEF in the summer. (It was Epic who suggested we reach out to Aidelise and Zenaida).
Zenaida uses the center to organize fundraising events to support neighbors with medical expenses. The center is also used for a youth program in the summer. Zenaida is very interested in expanding the potential for the center to be a resource for the community during times of crisis and natural disasters. She is interested in setting up a solar refrigerator, so community members can store food and medications when the power goes out. She is also interested in a community charging station for phones and other electronics.
Living Energy Farm will return to Puerto Rico in January 2023 to install DC solar systems at the project sites that were visited this month. Many of these projects and people are suffering from economic turmoil and can not afford the equipment LEF wants to install for them. Serenity Solidarity has pledged $1000 towards supporting Miguel and Dinorah’s solar system, and LEF is also helping to raise funds for these very important projects. LEF has raised enough to pay the thousands of dollars in shipping costs required to send the equipment to Puerto Rico. As you gather with your communities and families this holiday season, please consider donating funds to LEF to help make these projects energy independent. Let’s not just talk about racial equity and reparations – let’s push the movement forward!