By Jeanne Ortiz • June 14, 2018•Careers, Nonprofits and the Public Interest, Politics and Government, Other Career Issues, Issues, Other Issues, Features, Guest Bloggers and Profiles of Women in the Law, •Myths & Truths
Imagine living with no power for 10 months as a result of two major hurricanes and having to prepare for a third one. Or imagine being grateful for having your power back after 6 months but still having a blue tarp for a roof. That was the reality for thousands of Puerto Ricans this week when Beryl, the first hurricane of the season, formed in the Atlantic.
I think we can all attest to the gut-wrenching feeling of anticipation the day we were expecting Hurricane María last year. Gazing out the window with my sister at 5:00 am still feels like yesterday, just as the eternal hours that followed. When María landed in San Juan, we moved to the building's staircase, because windows were "exploding" from above and we feared the same would happen with our apartment. From the stairs, we tried to ignore María's ghostly sounds and things crashing against the building. My sister expressed worry for the people who had not made it to shelters. We thought the island would not be the same after it was all over. When we stepped out at around 11:00 am to walk around our area, it was all grey. It was as if someone had pressed "mute" on the island. Puerto Rico was declared a disaster area immediately after.
Almost a year later, I reflect on how short that thought fell on what would be Puerto Rico’s real aftermath: a humanitarian crisis. It was months of island-wide darkness, destruction, shortage of supplies and water, and deaths.
If I am asked what saved my island from even worse hardship, I would say it was its people—spirit-lifting men and women who stood in the forefront of anything that could be done to help. Whether it was clearing out road pathways from obstructing debris, organizing food kitchens, or volunteering with local or international organizations that aided with recovery, Puerto Ricans were always willing and able.
I recently sat with five of them, Danishia, Mayté, Ariadna, Mariel, and Frances, who continue to lead a major project in our island’s recovery process. There was something else in those first months after the hurricane that became utterly crucial after safety, water, and food: legal information.
Ariadna immediately organized for legal brigades to visit communities, and along with Danisha, Mayté, Mariel, and Frances, she leads Ayuda Legal Huracán María or ALHM (Legal Aid Hurricane María), a free legal service initiative committed to helping low-income individuals and communities affected by natural disasters in Puerto Rico. The women behind this initiative graciously agreed to set out time to talk with me about their stories as Puerto Rican women, lawyers, and advocates working toward access to justice.
Over a few cups of Puerto Rican coffee, at a local coffee shop in San Juan, I sat down with them and witnessed their deep love for Puerto Rico and a unique drive to help others. What started as a conversation about the island's status on September 21, 2017, quickly became a moving narrative about action, response, and solidarity.
I vouch for the efforts of many Puerto Ricans who stepped up during the recovery process of Hurricane María and, today, I vouch for these five women. They organized just a few days after the hurricane, with the goal of delivering legal and disaster recovery rights information to all those who were affected. Since then, they have deployed legal brigades in almost all of the island's 78 municipalities and drafted a disaster manual for attorneys in Puerto Rico, among other efforts related to disaster legal aid.
This interview was conducted in Spanish. Answers were translated as accurately as possible, with some added words for purposes of context.
How did it all start and how did you organize?
Danishia: I learned about the group online. I attended the second training and the room was packed with women. There was no power but everyone wanted to help. There was chemistry in the room. We had around 80 people attend one of the legal brigades. People kept spreading the word. We were completing FEMA applications by hand because there was no power. We would later enter the information online and go back and give people their registration number.
Mayté: I had family in the town of Aibonito that was affected by the hurricane. When I came back from Aibonito, I was looking for ways to help. I have a friend in Washington D.C. and she sent me a screenshot of ALHM's first legal volunteer training announcement. After attending, I was impressed. The group was organized and had a plan. A few days later, I was out of the country taking my grandmother to Atlanta because she was ill and needed power and water. Ariadna reached out to me while I was there and asked me if I wanted to be part of the initiative. I said "yes" without hesitation. My first brigade was in the town of Lares and like Danishia said, there were a lot of people. Belonging to this group not only reconnected me with people who commit their time to this but also legitimized my concerns and validated my indignation after the hurricane.
Ariadna: I didn't think about doing this before the hurricane. In fact, I panicked the day after the hurricane when I looked out the windows and saw nothing. I was thinking about what we could do and one question kept coming to mind, "how do we make our work relevant?"
In the beginning, we went to FEMA's main operating headquarters and offered to help and provide free legal support and the response was that we didn't need to worry. So we made a call to people who we had worked with before. Some people told us that it was a good idea, but people wouldn't need to know about their FEMA rights because they were mostly concerned with the lack of water and supplies. But most of the people responded to our call so we made an announcement for our first training. A lot of us knew each other from other initiatives and from our previous work representing protesters.
In fact, I panicked the day after the hurricane when I looked out the windows and saw nothing. I was thinking about what we could do and one question kept coming to mind,"how do we make our work relevant?"
What kept me going was that people kept showing up. People brought food and shared insect repellent in the workshops. We used the model we knew for the volunteer workshops but I never thought I would be coordinating this initiative. We didn't have any money. We worked from gas stations and bakeries. So, I teared up when I received a call about funding to support our work. I was moved by the solidarity.
On October 17, 2017, I found out I was pregnant and I thought to myself that Lucas (our baby) would find us building this. That gave me comfort. You can think about the competition, or how some of the things have unraveled since the hurricane, but despite our flaws, we have built something that has lasted. People have noticed that.
Mariel: I think we all went through the trauma of finding ways to communicate with our family when there was no power. I learned about ALHM through a Whatsapp group chat. I saw a message about one of the brigades and I wanted to help. I got debriefed about everything that was going on. We are part of the social justice community so people coincide a lot with these projects. When Ariadna called me asking if I wanted to officially work for ALHM, I immediately said yes. The days after the hurricane were terrible, and I'm not joking when I say that ALHM saved my life.
I think we all went through the trauma of finding ways to communicate with our family when there was no power.
Frances: For some reason, my cell phone was working during the hurricane. I remember texting Ariadna when my room was being flooded because I didn't know what to do. A few days later, I saw Ariadna's post about starting an initiative to provide legal information to people. She messaged me separately as well and I messaged back, "Yes, let's do it. This is what we need to do." We had conference call meetings and we met at coffee shops to get organized. We would find places that had generators so we could print what we needed. I was tasked with working with a group of law school students from mainland U.S. that wanted to support legal efforts in Puerto Rico.
Why is your work different? Is it feminist? Political? If so, why?
Ariadna: Our initiative is a feminist process. The economic crisis in Puerto Rico does not affect us equally. The most challenging part has been discerning the process of receiving funds. This is a project of constructing social justice. Most people affected by the hurricane were women. It’s the feminization of poverty. If you pay close attention, most of the people at FEMA answering questions about applications and cases are women. Our work is necessarily feminist and the accompanying process is necessarily feminist. We listen to people when we do brigades. It’s a very emotional process and it’s hard.
Danishia: Our response has been human, so it is definitely political. It must be political and we must be organized.
Belonging to this group not only reconnected me with people who commit their time to this but also legitimized my concerns and validated my indignation after the hurricane.
Mayté: From what I've seen, I think some groups that come to help arrive with an agenda that replicates the colonial situation of our country. Having women oppose and resist that is something radical. It's brave to oppose that money because you choose not to reproduce a system. We are told, "we have come to teach you about what to do after a hurricane." We just went through a hurricane, teach us what?
Frances: I think some people also expect some sort of docility just because we are women.
What would you say about your experience as women in this line of work?
Ariadna: This was an opportunity to be relevant, but also an opportunity to deal with the pain, anger, and solitude we felt post-hurricane. This all happened the same year of the oversight board (established through the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, commonly referred to as PROMESA, and Congress’s solution to restructure the island’s debt). It happened at a time when unemployment was high and protests against the oversight board were happening across the island. There are a lot of women lawyers in Puerto Rico without jobs. I felt a big responsibility to provide for this group of women. I didn’t want to let them go.
This was an opportunity to be relevant, but also an opportunity to deal with the pain, anger, and solitude we felt post-hurricane.
Mayté: A lot of the communities we go to don’t know that our group is composed of women lawyers. Our model is about participation, not imposition. Through this work, we break the legal profession's structure. I could also talk about how the element of gender, class, and age has a play in this. I think there is still a strong and marked notion of what the legal profession is and should be, but the law can be practiced in a variety of ways.
We must think not only about what our role as lawyers should be but also our role as women. I think people are impressed when they see a group of women doing this. We provide information that empowers people but also helps them challenge the system. Our work is a response to the struggles of our country.
The system is always saying NO. A disaster reproduces oppressive models in a very crude way. It makes it more obvious. There are many people waking up after the hurricane. Although on a smaller scale now, we are still in an emergency. We often hear the discourse of "rapid response," "relief," "recovery," and "resilience." I think we have to pause and think about our role in that discourse and the processes in it. I believe our role as women is to be conscious about systems and models we reproduce...or don’t.
I believe our role as women is to be conscious about systems or models we reproduce...or don’t.
Frances: Through our work, we challenge others to see us as humans and not objects. We are also challenging preconceptions about age.
You have set an example to follow. What do you say to women lawyers who are interested in pursuing similar work?
Mayté: Speak up. Reach out to women working in this. I think women have a lack of role models or a lack of access to role models in power. A lot of us are already in roundtables or working groups but we're too shy to speak up, even though we're there! If you see a woman who inspires you, dare yourself to make a direct connection. Be inquisitive. Knock on doors and if you're told "no," do it again.
Ariadna: Trust in your power to organize. The hardest thing is coordinating a project, not participating in it. If we do not organize, then we fall for the assumption that these structures have already been organized for us and legal models or systems are usually organized by men. If you organize, then you have a say in it.
If we do not organize, then we fall for the assumption that these structures have already been organized for us and legal models or systems are usually organized by men.
Frances: I think about "Yo Misma Fui Mi Ruta" (I was my own path) from Julia de Burgos. That has helped me a lot.
How would you summarize this initiative?
Ariadna: Accompaniment (support).
From left to right in the picture:
Mayté Rivera Rodríguez is a private practice attorney and an adjunct professor at the University of Puerto Rico School of Law, where she teaches ethics and gender and the law. Her background includes work around public interest issues.
Danishia Santiago Figueroa obtained her JD from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico and continued a master's degree in constitutional law and human rights at the University of Palermo in Argentina. During law school, she was part of the women law students organization, vice-president of her class, among other social justice initiatives. She's one of the group's Community Outreach Coordinators and in charge of the education and participation campaign around CDBG-DR funds.
Ariadna Godreau Aubert is the Executive Director of Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, a digital platform that provides free legal information to Puerto Ricans since 2015 and Ayuda Legal Huracán María. She is a human rights lawyer born and based in Puerto Rico. She obtained her JD from the University of Puerto Rico and a Masters in Law degree in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford, UK. Ariadna is the coordinator of the Access to Justice Working Group, a coalition that brings together all of the free legal service providers and law schools in Puerto Rico, as well as non-legal entities. Ariadna is also an adjunct professor at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón and Universidad de Puerto Rico, where she teaches courses on human rights, political theory, and international relations.
Mariel Quiñones Mundo started as the Community Outreach Coordinator and is now the ALHM Advocacy Coordinator. She studied community psychology and obtained her JD in 2014 from the University of Puerto Rico. Her interest in public interest matters emerged through her work in the environmental law clinic. Upon being admitted to the bar, she went to private practice and took cases of Pro Bono, Inc. of the Puerto Rico Bar Association (and she still does). She is currently doing her Master's in Public Administration (MPA) at the University of Puerto Rico.
Frances Collazo Cáceres is the Educational Coordinator and a candidate for the Puerto Rico bar exam. She is the Secretary of the Board of Directors of Profamilias, a sexual and reproductive health clinic, and an active member of the Puerto Rico Access to Justice Working Group.
Although not pictured, Sandra Negrón Zayas is also part of the team. Sandra is in private practice and a pro bono attorney for Pro Bono, Inc. from the Puerto Rico Bar Association. She's been working as an attorney and community outreach coordinator for legal brigades with ALHM since its conception.
Jeanne Ortiz Ortiz is an attorney working for Pro Bono Net, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access to justice through innovative technology solutions. She was a 2015-16 Ms. JD fellow. Jeanne also founded the first Ms. JD student chapter in Puerto Rico and presided over it for two years, connecting students through a mentorship program and providing resources for networking and professional development. She is based in New York.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer or organization.