A few days ago, we got word that a leading Puerto Rican food sovereignty activist was arrested while demonstrating against uneven political responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a fierce defender of social justice, Giovanni Roberto’s recent activities have included organizing food deliveries to people in lockdown, as well as island-wide ‘caravan for life’. Thankfully, he was released after a short time; however, the crackdown on social justice movements in Puerto Rico remains a cause for alarm.
Giovanni works with Comedores Sociales (community kitchens), a Grassroots International partner in our new Puerto Rico program. Comedores Sociales is an overtly political group that directly connects hunger and poverty in the Caribbean island to the capitalist and colonial system. In fact, Puerto Rico may be the oldest colony in the world; first, the island was wrested from the hands of the Indigenous Taíno peoples by Christopher Columbus and his marauding crew, and it was then acquired by the U.S. as booty after the Spanish-American war.
Today, the island remains an unincorporated territorial possession of the U.S. This means that while Puerto Ricans pay taxes and are encouraged to serve the interests of the ‘mainland’, for example as members of its armed forces, they are not entitled to congressional representation, nor are they able to vote in presidential elections.
Giovanni and his comrades at Comedores Sociales are well aware that it is food that is often weaponized by the powerful to ensure that subaltern classes remain subordinate. Puerto Rico imports some 85% of its food from the U.S., mostly through the hundred-year-old Jones Act, which stipulates that all goods entering the island must do so on ships that are built in the U.S. and owned and operated by Americans.
Cutting Puerto Rico off from its Caribbean neighbors not only forces its citizens to pay exorbitant prices for basic goods, but also causes food shortages when disasters like hurricanes strike, as they do more frequently in the contemporary era of climate chaos. When the eye of Hurricane Maria passed over Puerto Rico as part of its deadly march up the Antilles in 2017, the food disparities that followed unfolded along the existing lines of race, class, and gender and fed on U.S.-imposed dependence.
However, food sovereignty activists on the island are quick to point out that if Puerto Rico once grew most of its own food—not to mention the food that was extracted to satiate its colonizers, coffee for Spain and sugarcane for the U.S.—it can do it again.
Across the island, the food movement insists on meeting people where they are at. ‘Organization has to be based on people’s needs, not just an ideology,’ said Giovanni. He explained that movements have to ask themselves critical questions: ‘What could we do to fortify social change projects? How do we do it in a way that does not depend on anyone else: not on the state, not on the Federales (U.S. government), not on the foundations?’
Comedores Sociales hinges its work on the consumer side of food politics, such as through its delivery of food aid during the coronavirus lockdown. In times of free movement, the group operates Cocina Rebelde (rebel kitchen), a beautiful community space where people can access food for a fair price. The resources obtained through Cocina Rebelde, a solidarity economy project, help to sustain the Comedores Sociales permanently, as well as provide salaries. These projects intentionally involve young people, particularly by linking them to their island’s rich heritage of jíbaras and jíbaros (peasant farmers). Understanding these intersections between production and consumption is a way out of the impasse.
In addition to a rootedness in place and territory in Puerto Rico, the food movement is also branching out abroad with allies in the broader social justice space. For instance, activists from Comedores Sociales, La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (the feminist collective under construction), and La Jornada se Acabaron las Promesas (the day the promises are over) have travelled to Brazil to participate in the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers Movement, MST) radical peasant organizing school.
There is still much to do, especially at a time in which almost everyone is worried about the impending economic fallout of an uncertain political moment. But as the Puerto Rican food movement looks into the future, Comedores Sociales has a slogan that says it all: ‘We don’t eat austerity; we cook dignity.’