By Tatyana Hopkins (NNPA Newswire Special Correspondent)
CAGUAS, Puerto Rico—The last thing you would expect to find in the central mountain range of Puerto Rico is the influence of the 1960s Black Panther Party. But there it was.
The tenets of the revolutionary group, founded in 1966 in Oakland, Calif., by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, were mixed with stewed pork chops, rice, beans and healthcare on a 90-degree winter day, 20 miles south of San Juan in the city of Caguas.
Volunteers with Centro De Apoyo Mutuo (CAM) prepared meals and provided services to residents in an abandoned building “rescued” by a group of local activists.
Black Panther Principle No. 4: “We Want Decent Housing Fit for The Shelter of Human Beings.”
Emilu Berrios moved through the kitchen and then out to the clinic area, all the while making clients comfortable and seeing to their needs. Berrios is co-founder of the Centro De Apoyo Mutuo (CAM) and she made it abundantly clear what drives her and the organizers.
“We are influenced by the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords,” she said. The Young Lords was a lesser known Puerto Rican organization that launched in Chicago in 1968 that became a national civil and human rights movement in nearly 30 cities.
Daniel Orsini, another co-founder, explained the connection.
“The Young Lords saw the Black Panthers trying to get justice for Black people, and they knew they needed to do the same thing,” Orsini said.
Black Panther Principle No. 9: “We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace.”
Centro De Apoyo Mutuo (CAM), which translates in English to the “Center for Mutual Help,” is the brainchild of a group of Puerto Rican activists, who have modeled their efforts on the service portion of the Young Lords and the Black Panthers.
While the groups were known for their radical tactics—the Black Panthers encouraged Black Americans to police their own neighborhoods carrying loaded firearms—they also introduced numerous service efforts to aid Black and Puerto Rican communities, like the free breakfast program that was eventually emulated in America’s schools. The Panthers started the breakfast program first and the Young Lords followed their lead.
Centro started by serving food to those left destitute following Hurricane Maria, which smashed into the island and left historic destruction in its wake. Homes, government buildings, hospitals and other facilities were destroyed. When the center started its work, running water was unavailable. The vast majority of the island was without power and some residents still are, six months later.
Today, the center serves 150 meals—breakfast and lunch—every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
But the food is not free, Berrios said.
“Here, we operate on solidarity, not charity,” she said. “That means in order to get something, you must give something.”
Recipients of the center’s health, food and social services can pay for them in three ways: money, donations of food that the organization uses to make meals or by volunteering their time at clinics and by restoring the group’s building.
The center is located near the town’s center in a former social security building that had been abandoned for 30 years. The group took over the building, shortly after the storm.
“Our building is a ‘rescued’ building,” Berrios said. “I say ‘rescued.’ We don’t say ‘occupied.’”
The facility’s purpose now, she said, is “the complete independence of the people from the government.”
The organization is still repairing the long-vacant building. A group of Howard University students with the school’s Alternative Spring Break program were there to help. The students scraped peeling paint, cleared trash and helped prepare meals.
On Tuesday, March 14 the students traveled 90 minutes from their campsite in Arecibo to Caguas, a city of 136,000 located in the largest valley in Puerto Rico. Caguas is known across the world as the home of the Criollos de Caguas baseball team, considered one of the greatest squads in all of Latin America, has won more than a dozen Puerto Rican national titles and five Caribbean World Series titles
Rescue and recovery efforts in the Caguas were hindered by its size and location.
“Federal and local government efforts were slow,” Orsini, 36, said. “Within eight days after Maria, we were serving the community.”
Nichole Villegas, 26, whose home is two blocks away from the center, said she was without electricity and other power for about two months. Some days, she said, the center served the only meal she ate.
“After Maria, they started serving food, and so, I started coming here to eat,” Villegas said. Since the hurricane, she said, she has eaten lunch at the center every day it is open, because she does not have enough food at home.
Carmen Cruz, 48, comes to eat three times a week, as well. Cruz, who lives in the mountains, said she didn’t have electricity until March 5. Sometimes she walks to town, which takes an hour. Other times, she gets a 15-minute bus ride. She came initially for the food, she said.
“I didn’t have lights,” Cruz said.
Now, she and others come for something the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party also offered—acupuncture. The groups introduced what they called “liberation” acupuncture in 1970 when they founded the Lincoln Detox Center in the South Bronx in New York City after occupying part of Lincoln Hospital. They provided acupuncture that focused on points on the ear to help drug users overcome their addictions. They also opened a school to teach the medical technique, which was developed in China, for treatment of a variety of other ailments.
Centro, following the example set by the Panthers and the Lords, offers the same acupuncture care.
“Acupuncture is not a part of our culture,” Orsini said. “It’s a new idea to us. When we get sick, we go to the hospital and get chemicals that we call ‘medicine.’”
Villegas now comes every Tuesday to receive acupuncture to treat hip and back pain. The treatment is only offered on Tuesdays.
“I don’t like pills and medications,” she said. “Before this, I used marijuana [for pain].”
Since Villegas started acupuncture, she said, she’s in less pain and sleeping better. Cruz is also getting acupuncture at the center.
“I started last week to treat depression and pain.” she said. “I already see a difference, and I am sleeping through the night. I will be here every Tuesday”
The founders of the center hope it will become a community space for activists, protestors and organizers to mobilize their efforts and spark a new movement among Puerto Ricans that will hold their government accountable, as well as become less dependent on the federal government.
Puerto Rico is a protectorate of the United States. Though its residents are citizens, they cannot vote, nor do they have representation in Congress. Some Puerto Ricans have called on independence from the U.S.
“We don’t want to need anything from the [federal government], because they have failed to meet our needs,” Berrios said.
Berrios and other Centro members argue that the island’s dependence on the federal government has made it unable to meet the needs of its citizens.
Kevin Ortero Rivera, 19, who goes to the center, daily, agrees with the organization’s philosophy. He only received electrical power a month ago, and his family in Thomas de Castro, still does not have electricity, he said.
Rivera added: “Whether we are a state or not, we need to come together and do something for ourselves.”