In the rolling foothills of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, a delegation of Minnesotans was inspired to work harder on building strong communities that are resilient to climate change.
Adjuntas, located in the central mountainous part of the island, was hit hard by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Many towns in the region were without electricity for a year, and help from the federal and local governments was in short supply.
But the people of Adjuntas had another resource, a nonprofit organization called Casa Pueblo, which was launched to oppose mining in the region, and evolved into a robust community resource center. By 2017, Casa Pueblo had built up an independent solar grid that helped neighbors stay plugged into power at a time when official assistance was best summed up by the viral video of former President Donald Trump tossing paper towels into a crowd.
“When the government is dysfunctional, the people have to solve the problems in front of them,” said Francisco Segovia, executive director of the Minnesota nonprofit COPAL.
COPAL, Comunidades Organizando el Poder y la Acción Latina, serves Latin American communities in Minnesota. The organization led a trip to Puerto Rico in August to learn about the impact of climate change. The group included state and local elected officials and workers with other nonprofit organizations in Minnesota.
Elected officials who took part included St. Paul DFL State Representatives María Isa Pérez-Vega and Samakab Hussein, and State Senator Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis. Elected officials covered their own expenses on the trip, according to COPAL.
Visiting Casa Pueblo and learning from the organization was a highlight for the group. Members of the delegation said the trip encouraged them to work harder with the resources they have, inspired them to integrate art and cultural activities into efforts to support immigrant communities at home, and educated them about Puerto Rican and Latin American culture.
“It fueled me, and I’m sure all of us, to say maybe we can do a little bit more,” said Henry Jiménez, a COPAL board member who is the executive director of the Latino Economic Development Center.
Throughout Puerto Rico, the group encountered people and organizations providing resources and infrastructure for local communities. But often those people didn’t see their work as political, or want it to be perceived as such, according to Ryan Pérez, COPAL’s organizing director.
It’s something organizers also see here, where some Minnesotans feel that it’s not worth their time to engage with government or electoral politics, Pérez said.
In Minnesota, the Latino community is experiencing a feeling of political power after years of organizing resulted in a law passed in May allowing undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses, Pérez said. Groups like COPAL want to take that momentum and encourage people to believe that they can influence the government to play a supporting role in their lives.
In the Puerto Rican town of Comerío, the group learned from people who had to band together to provide for each other in the absence of government. The Minnesota delegation learned of issues accessing FEMA benefits, which forced town residents to take matters into their own hands by distributing essential items like tarps to patch damaged roofs.
Simon Trautmann, a Richfield City Council Member of Puerto Rican descent, said he saw a high level of political cynicism on the island, but also appreciated the work people were doing outside of official channels to help their communities. He was struck by the role people like himself in the greater Puerto Rican diaspora play in supporting those initiatives. That informal support system is needed to fill the gaps because Puerto Rico’s territorial status means it has no voting representatives in Congress, Trautmann said.
Cecilia Calvo with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership said she was motivated by the successes of bottom-up approaches like Adjuntas and Comerío. Seeing the failures in government relief programs to benefit people impacted by the storms made her think about the need to ensure that new policies in Minnesota, such as the cumulative impact law intended to limit pollution in disadvantaged communities, actually help people.
It was instructive to see that everyday people impacted by climate change can play a significant role in addressing those issues, she said, instead of only relying on government or academic experts.
“One big takeaway is the importance of respecting the local knowledge and expertise of communities,” Calvo said.
Puerto Rico is renowned for its arts and music scene, which is a connecting element for people living on the island and those in the Puerto Rican diaspora.
That theme shone through on the trip, attendees said, and inspired them to think of ways that art can contribute to the fight for environmental and social justice in Minnesota.
“I saw it as a way to bring people together,” Calvo said.
One stop on the trip was at Taller Comunidad La Goyco, a group that integrates arts and cultural work to promote health and community development in San Juan. COPAL is constructing a central office on Lake Street that it hopes can become a hub for such efforts, Pérez said.
Climate driving migration
Puerto Rico experienced a nearly 12 percent population decline between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with thousands of residents moving to the mainland United States. Major hurricanes have always been an issue in the Caribbean, but Puerto Rico has been hit hard in recent years, a trend scientists predict will intensify as climate change contributes to rising temperatures.
Some of them are coming to Minnesota. There are an estimated 17,700 Puerto Ricans living in Minnesota, according to the 2022 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. Puerto Ricans are the second-largest Latin American group in the state behind people of Mexican descent.
Trautmann has always had a connection to Puerto Rico through his family. The trip also made him realize the parallels between Puerto Ricans like himself and other groups who have migrated to Minnesota.
“I work a lot with the East African community and the Somali community, and I think one of the takeaways that was really powerful for me are the connections between climate-based migration, which we experience as famine, and drought and political instability, but really relate to climate change,” Trautmann said.