My last post was a celebration of one dish that always reminds me of home, the arroz con salchichas – what I called “el arroz del resuelve.” I described the dish as “nostalgic”, a dish that I enjoy on special occasions, by choice, from my table away from home. My choice contrasts with the more usual occasions the dish is consumed – that is, during times of need and limited possibilities, such as right after a natural disaster. A few weeks after I wrote my post, Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico, followed, a week later, by the historical devastation brought by Hurricane Maria. Today, almost two months after, most of Puerto Rico remains without electricity and water, in what has turned out to be a humanitarian crisis with repercussions for years to come.
In an interview published by the Association for the Study of Food in Society, Puerto Rican Historian Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra provided an insightful historical and contemporary assessment of the ongoing crisis,
Food crises have been with Puerto Ricans through history. During the Spanish conquest, when the majority of Taino Indians were forced to work in las vetas auriferas [gold mines], reducing cassava cultivation for a long period, those who could escape to the mountains probably resorted to eating marunguey (Zamia pumila, Zamia debilisi), a poisonous tuber that the Taino had learned to use by making a bread from its roots. Older rural people followed a tradition where, once the bread was ready, it was put out in the open until it began to ferment and bugs started to eat it. Informants say the bread is then ready to eat, as the poisons have been extracted by the insects. [After hurricane Maria] it has been reported that people are using what remains on the ground–plantains, bananas, breadfruit, and other fruits as their sole daily food–eating them raw, because water, often used to boil them, is scarce. – See complete interview here.
Since the hurricane, long lines have become an everyday activity. People have stood in lines for hours to enter supermarkets, often requiring lines beforehand to get gasoline and cash. At the end of the line, people have encountered empty supermarkets, and many foods were rationed. What are people eating in these times of crisis? Ortiz Cuadra provides some insight “from the ground”,
In the long lines I have been in, while waiting for a bag of ice (only 45% of the running water system is in place and practically no electricity), I have asked this question and various women have answered “mac and cheese” with Spam (we call it jamonilla) and also with Vienna sausages.
These processed foods – the salchichas (Vienna sausages) and jamonilla (Spam) – have been provided by FEMA, as part of the controversial food aid in the island,
FEMA’s aid has been controversial in its inclusion of skittles, and other “junk foods.” The local newspaper El Nuevo Dia reported FEMA boxes including inapt products, such as packets of ketchup, cooking wine and meat thermometers. As such, Hurricane Maria has grabbed the news attention not only for the size of its devastation, but for the severe mismanagement of the recovery efforts, including the appalling (yet not surprising) mediocre response from the sitting president. Still today, the number of deaths remains unknown and rising, with hundreds still unaccounted for and the deaths continuing to accumulate as a result of the slow recovery efforts. The situation is compounded by the ongoing exodus. Two weeks after the hurricane, 20,000 Puerto Ricans were already on their way to Florida. Others are choosing New York and other various destinations across the States where families and friends continue to receive loved ones on a daily, often rotating basis. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies provide sobering estimations of the post-Maria exodus,
Between 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Rico residents will leave the island annually in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. From 2017 to 2019, we estimate that Puerto Rico may lose up to 470,335 residents or 14% of the population. In other words, Puerto Rico will lose the same population in a span of a couple of years after Hurricane Maria as the island lost during a prior decade of economic stagnation. – See Research Brief by Melendez & Hinojosa (Oct 2017) here.
The outflow will have political and economic consequences not only for the island, but also in the United States, particularly in Florida.
Despite the continuing crisis in the island and the consequences in the States, the news cycle has since moved on from Puerto Rico. Thankfully, many continue to work to address this chronic crisis. Of note is the work of George Washington University Public Health Nutrition Professor Uriyoan Colon-Ramos who is working to document food aid in Puerto Rico, and develop needed nutrition guidelines in these trying times, in collaboration with people on the ground. I am also following the work of Casa Pueblo, a local organization working hard to address the electricity crisis, with the potential of bringing solar power as a sustainable solution. Community kitchens have also opened up providing needed food, including and beyond the (now concluded) amazing effort led by Chef Jose Andres in collaboration with local Puerto Rican chefs.
Still, the recovery continues to be painfully slow and quite difficult to follow from a distance. If this post inspires you to help or get involved, check out this recent Take Action article by Ariana Rosas Cardenas on The Nation, along with many others articles providing a variety of ways to help (see here and here, among others).