First Person

This Puerto Rican community leader’s motto isn’t just ‘to help,’ but ‘to help each other’

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Carmen Villanueva is a community leader in the Hill Brothers neighborhood of San Juan. Photo: Márel Malaret/Oxfam

For Carmen Villanueva, there is no such thing as slowing down, not when your community is struggling to survive in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane.

Márel Malaret teaches the history of film and documentary filmmaking on the faculty of Escuela de Comunicación, at Puerto Rico’s University of the Sacred Heart.

Where would storm-battered Puerto Rico be without people like Carmen Villanueva? Her vitality, her strength, and her laughter are endless.

I’ve known Villanueva for years. But it wasn’t until Hurricane Maria hit that I got to appreciate the depth of her drive and the key role that women like her, who reportedly make up the majority of community leaders on the island, are playing in the aftermath of this disaster.

An activist and volunteer for a number of non-profit organizations, Villanueva has a singular focus right now. It’s to secure services, food and, most important, water for the Hill Brothers community–her community–while helping to link other leaders of marginal areas with the organizations that can help residents struggling to recover from Maria.

It was Villanueva who first introduced Oxfam to Playita, one of San Juan’s poorest neighborhoods. You know someone is effective when she’s generous with her knowledge and you hear this about her: “I’ve learned everything from Carmen,” said Cecila Collazo, Playita’s community leader.

After the initial shock of dealing with the destruction that the hurricane left, Villanueva decided it was time to mobilize the community. With no electricity and limited cell phone service, she knew it would not be easy to reach everyone. So, Villanueva enlisted the help of young people who, she says, have become more active in this crisis. They went house to house letting everyone know that the Hill Brothers community center would open on October 4. The idea was for people to come and start making lists of what had been destroyed–their homes, their rooftops–and what each household needed in terms of supplies.

The night before, at 9 p.m., a woman arrived at the center with a chair and a notebook, and sat in front of the door. When people started to show up, she took charge, and listed them in order. When Villanueva and her children arrived close to 6:30 a.m. the next day, it was clear her organizing strategy had worked perfectly: A line of people and cars surrounded the whole center.

Whether she’s helping an entire community or a single mother and her children, Villanueva doesn’t stop.

Recently, she took me to visit Madeline Cruz, who lives with her parents and two children. Cruz’s husband abandoned her many years ago, and doesn’t always send the pension he is required by law to give his children. Right before the hurricane, he sent half the installment that was due–a small amount of money Cruz has had to stretch across all of these days when everything is more expensive. As there is no electricity, the family has to buy candles, batteries for lamps and flashlights, ice to preserve small amounts of food, and gallons of bottled water.

Though Cruz has a degree in microcomputer applications, she can’t work outside her home because her 16-year-old son is handicapped and needs her regular attention, including managing a skin condition aggravated by sunlight. True to form, Villanueva has stepped in to help. For her, and other women like her, the community is their extended family–and family always comes first.

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