by Krizia Medero Padilla and Garrett Burnham
“¿Qué podemos hacer?” (What can we do?) has been leading Casa Pueblo’s movements since its founding in 1980. Founded by Alexis Massol González and Mrs. Tinti Deyá Díaz, Casa Pueblo was born in the Puerto Rican town of Adjuntas to oppose the government's plans of open-pit mining of silver, gold, and copper. Today, Casa Pueblo is an example of a successful grassroots organization taking on a wide variety of challenges that affect Adjuntas with a broader goal of spreading their beliefs and practices to the greater Puerto Rican community and beyond.
Their story begins with their efforts to oppose government-sanctioned mining in their backyard, an operation that would threaten the health of Adjuntas citizens and those of the surrounding municipalities. The deposits of silver, gold, and copper were located in the towns of Utuado, Lares, and Jayuya all in the central mountain range of the island. This is a critical area for the island as the rivers that supply water to all of the San Juan metropolitan area run through it. Casa Pueblo did its research and realized that the government’s project would create an ecological disaster on the island. They decided to inform the town’s people to get them involved in a protest at the town’s plaza. Only one person showed up. The community perceived them as communists, terrorists, and “machateros” (revolutionaries) and were seemingly scared of them. What did Casa Pueblo have to do in order to get the country to defend their land? The founding team saw culture as an opportunity to get the town involved. Instead of having people come to hear a lecture, a concert was to be held in the town plaza. Reformed around folk art and music, the events drew more and more people and continued to educate Adjuntas citizens on the importance of preserving the environment. Different sectors of the community became involved, including 800 high school students who organized themselves to spell out “No Minas” (No Mines) when seen from an aerial view. The government had no choice but to shut down the mines project. In the same town plaza which once hosted a protest with one attendee, 10,000 people rejoiced in celebration.
Now that Casa Pueblo had successfully protected this land, they decided to turn it into a forest. The initiative began with a desire to turn the proposed mining site into a nature reserve. They made the forest into a school combining education and ecology; as said by Alexis Gonzaález: “We transformed a school into a forest and a forest into a school where mother nature is the teacher and the forest is the classroom.” After achieving this, they asked themselves: “What do we do now?”, which led to Casa Pueblo finding 10 other forests to preserve. With a big-picture vision for Puerto Rico’s future, they created a model forest for all of Puerto Rico. Projects like a music school and production of their own coffee for sales followed. Then the government came up with a new proposal.
In 2010, Casa Pueblo had to oppose the government yet again to protect their natural resources. The government wanted to install a liquid natural gas pipeline that would cross the island from south to north in order to reach the metropolitan area. Casa Pueblo voiced their protest at the gates of the White House. Meanwhile in Adjuntas’ plaza, the town was preparing for a march. Where 10,000 stood last time, 30,000 marched in opposition to the pipeline. The community’s voice was once again heard and the government shut down their pipeline project. Casa Pueblo now had everyone’s attention and since they had already been working with renewable energy this was their opportunity to continue expanding their work.
Casa Pueblo was uniquely positioned to respond to the many issues that arose after Hurricane Maria in 2017 because of its reputation as a solid community organizer. Part of this response came in the form of a new renewable energy initiative for Adjuntas. Prior to Hurricane Maria, Casa Pueblo was running almost entirely off of solar power, so it became a natural solar oasis for the municipality when it lost power. With power, they were able to provide valuable services to the area, including the refrigeration of vital medications for community members and the operation of a local radio station. Casa Pueblo decided to take this assistance one step further however and asked relief organizations to provide 14,000 solar-powered lanterns, portable dialysis machines, and micro-fridges to distribute to the citizens. After the initial disaster response, a new model of energy distribution at the community level was sparked by Casa Pueblo’s solar system that created an insurrection to change the local energy landscape. With their ground-up approach to change in mind, Casa Pueblo worked with residents to install solar panels on 35 local homes, five remote grocery stores, two hardware stores, a restaurant, and a barbershop. True to form, Casa Pueblo continued this trend from the grassroots community level on up to the regional level. They are working to help install solar panels throughout the center of the island and have set their sights on powering 50% of Puerto Rico with solar power. In order to push this new initiative to its fullest extent, a new protest is in the works, and with even more people than before expected. Their endless fervor for community betterment is truly inspiring.
Listening to Alexis tell the story of Casa Pueblo can lead one to think that their journey has been a relatively straightforward, easy path. However, Casa Pueblo hasn’t grown to its current status within the community without facing adversity. In the early days of the organization's efforts against mining, members faced discrimination from officials in the community who wanted to quell their efforts. As stated before, they were labeled communists, terrorists, and revolutionaries. This was an attempt to ostracize the members of the organization from the greater community to isolate them and their ideals. They faced further obstruction from the local police force who would go door to door and personally intimidate the musicians and dancers set to perform at the protest concerts. As a result, organizing the event and rehearsing for it became much more difficult.
Despite this adversity, Casa Pueblo has grown into a powerful force within the Adjuntas municipality and has even extended its influence into the surrounding countryside. Their powerful message of self-actualization and love for communities is an important one for many struggling to maintain hope in a post-Maria landscape. To be sure, the people of Puerto Rico are hopeful and strong, but having a role model to follow in the form of Casa Pueblo is a welcome ally in the ongoing fight.