Notes from the field by Eddie Alicea
Puerto Rico Cooperativas: "Warriors in the service of their members"
NEW YORK, NY (February 14, 2020) — In Puerto Rico, we are used to feeling small tremors from time to time. On January 7, 2020, we woke up to a new reality: an earthquake that destroyed homes and structures. We were not used to this; the last earthquake in Puerto Rico’s history happened more than 100 years ago. The terrible images of destruction and suffering shared in news outlets and social media lifted our sense of collective solidarity.
On January 10, 2020, we decided to head to the earthquake affected areas in the south of the island. We called upon the leaders of Puerto Rico’s cooperative movement to help sister cooperatives in the south and visit makeshift shelters where people lived under tents or out in the open. We loaded our vehicles with supplies that were donated by partner organizations and friends that are part of the extended cooperative family. Two psychologists accompanied us to provide help to anyone who might need it.
First stop was La Ceiba housing cooperative, in the municipality of Ponce. More than 340 families from this community are not allowed to return to their homes due to the structural damage caused by the earthquake. We distributed aid and engaged community members. In spite of it all, we saw a community organized and working through their crisis. It was evident that the cooperative values and principles played an important role in the community’s reaction to the disaster.
After our visit to Ponce, we headed to the municipality of Peñuelas, to visit employees and members of the San Rafael financial cooperative. We talked about their situation and offered words of hope. Our solidarity and goodwill had a bigger impact than the aid we distributed.
We then moved into the zone of higher impact, where we visited CaribeCoop, a financial cooperative in Guayanilla, nearer to the disaster zone. There we saw a group of employees that embodied the best cooperative values. These warriors in the service of their members kept the credit union open, regardless of imminent danger, conquering their fears to provide service. It is important to point out that just a few steps from the cooperative a building had collapsed. Many employees lost their homes. They went to work even though they were sleeping in tents. We are proud of them. They sacrificed their personal needs to fulfill the financial needs of their community.
In our quest to help local communities, we visited another one of the tent camps and delivered supplies. We also left our hearts there. Seeing the elderly and children living in tents was hard to bear. Coming to terms with our own vulnerability and the fact that we did not have enough resources to help everyone in need was devastating. We felt empathy towards the refugees, felt their fears and their pain. In their eyes we could see the how hopelessness turned into tears. Our biggest earthquake was the collective pain of our people. We felt it just as hard.
We moved on to Yauco, were University Professor William Ortíz, Former President of the League of Cooperatives of Puerto Rico and a resident of Yauco, organized a community refugee camp. We felt the refugees gaze upon us as soon as we arrived. We hugged in solidarity and suddenly, we heard a strange sound, followed by a sort of wave that shook us. This is the first time we had felt the ground shake so close to the epicenter. It was markedly different. We felt the same fear and anxiety the refugees had been struggling with for days on end. Somber faces searched online for the latest news report. A couple of minutes later we received the alerts. The tremor was a 5.9 on the Richter scale.
Sundown was almost upon us when we arrived at the town of Guanica, the epicenter of the earthquakes. There, we visited another camp where 400 people lived in tents. It was an overwhelming sight. We engaged the authorities in charge. It was clear that they were emotionally drained at the complexity of the emergency and the lack of resources at hand to manage it. We offered them words of encouragement and handed them all of our remaining supplies. With a fraternal hug, we sealed our commitment to return with additional supplies.
On our way back, exhausted, we reflected on the events of the day. We experienced the suffering and dismay of an area that was devastated and where thousands of people had their lives upended. Their lives changed in a couple of minutes. From having a home, to living in a tent. It was a lot to process. We worried about our brother and sisters, and discussed our role in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. Then and there, we determined that we would use all of the resources at our disposal to help southern Puerto Rico recover.
In spite of it all, we are hopeful that someday a semblance of normality will return. That things will get better for everyone. We will play our role.
Here’s how you can help. Several industry organizations are accepting donations in support of Puerto Rico’s earthquake victims, including:
Asociación de Ejecutivos de Cooperativas de Puerto Rico: https://www.gofundme.com/f/puerto-rico-credit-union-earthquake-relief utm_source=customer&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=p_cf+share-flow-1
New York Credit Union Foundation: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/NewYorkCreditUnionFoundation
WOCCU’s Worldwide Foundation: https://www.doglobalgood.org/give
Inclusiv Conference Update: Please note that the El San Juan Hotel, where Inclusiv will be hosting the 2020 Inclusiv Conference on May 4-6, 2020, was not damaged and is operating as normal. For more information about the conference, registration and hotel, please visit www.cvent.com/d/phqncl.
Eddie Alicea with employees of CaribeCoop, a financial cooperative in Guayanilla.
Financial cooperative representatives at a camp set up in the municipality of Yauco.
Eddie Alicea speaks with a woman who lost her home in the earthquake in a camp near Ponce.
At Inclusiv, we believe that financial inclusion is a fundamental right. We dedicate ourselves to closing the gaps and removing barriers to financial opportunities for people living in distressed and underserved communities. Inclusiv is a certified CDFI intermediary that transforms local progress into lasting national change. We provide capital, make connections, build capacity, develop innovative products and services and advocate for our member community development credit unions (CDCUs). Inclusiv members serve nearly ten million residents of low-income urban, rural and reservation-based communities across the US and hold over $100 billion in community-controlled assets. Founded in 1974, Inclusiv is headquartered in New York, NY, with offices in Madison, WI and Atlanta, GA. For more information about Inclusiv visit us at Inclusiv.org and connect with us on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.