Innovation

Puerto Rico Is Still Struggling After The Hurricane – But Locals Are Helping Each Other In Unexpected Ways  

by Eva Recinos

January 30, 2018
Matilsha Marxuach (left) with some of the workers at Cooperativa Industrial Creación de la Montaña in Utuado, Puerto Rico. All photos courtesy of Matilsha Marxuach.

Three months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, Matilsha Marxuach could finally turn on the lights in her San Juan shop.

The Caribbean island was still slowly recovering from the onslaught of two Category 5 hurricanes — Irma and Maria — that struck the region. Although the storms hit in August and September 2017, it took until December for power to return to Marxuach’s retail store. While the entrepreneur waited to reopen her store, Marxuach saw firsthand the impact of losing electricity. San Juan became “ghost town-like,” she says. “You don’t know, until something like this happens.”

Located in the heart of Old San Juan, Marxuach’s company Concalma is the result of her passion for design and ethical manufacturing. Concalma offers a variety of sustainably created tote bags and clutches made by artisans at a women-owned factory in Puerto Rico’s mountainous region of Utuado. But without power, her San Juan retail store went dark, and she says her online shop became a “lifeline” for the brand. When electricity finally returned in December, Marxuach reopened her store as a community space for anyone who needed a place to work or connect.

Marxuach converted the warehouse into a distribution center.

“I thought ‘well, what we can do right now since people still don't have Wi-Fi or electricity in many places, we [can] open a space where we put a table for people that can come and work there,” she says. “Whether it’s to use the Wi-Fi or maybe even the designers that sell at Concalma [can] have a little workshop space.”

But she still worries the power might go out again at any moment.

“The government’s really not telling what the plan is,” says Marxuach. “It’s a big gigantic mess.”

The interior of Concalma before Hurricane Maria struck San Juan.

When separated into two Spanish words, Concalma translates to the phrase “with a sense of calm.” But after Hurricane Maria, Marxuach changed the logo on the brand’s website to switch between the words “concalma” and “ConPrisa.” The latter is a new coinage: a combination of Spanish words that means “with urgency.” A blue banner on the site currently reads: “We’ve been hit very hard by Hurricane Maria. We need the support of our fans urgently!”

Despite the need for assistance in San Juan, help has not arrived “with urgency.” The Federal Emergency Management Agency has even announced that food and water aid for Puerto Rico will end on Wednesday, January 31. And in early January, Time magazine reported that only around 60% of customers in the U.S. territory have regained power so far, and crime has skyrocketed. Recently, a video went viral that showed students running and cheering in a school’s hallways when they realized that electricity had returned — more than 100 days after Hurricane Maria hit.

Blame for the slow recovery has been cast in many directions. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz has proclaimed the federal response as a failure, dubbing President Trump a “disaster-in-chief.” On Twitter, Trump wrote that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”

But while the political rhetoric has captured most of the media’s attention, residents of San Juan like Marxuach have had to fend for themselves. Instead of waiting for outside assistance, they’re using whatever resources and skills they have. They’re taking matters into their own hands.

When access to grocery stores was compromised in San Juan, Marxuach joined a group to form a community kitchen. “What we’ve been feeling here on the island is that everything changed daily and so [should our] priorities,” says Marxuach. “We had a lot of older folks in our community, [and] based on that specific thing — that the supermarket wasn’t opening — we decided to open a community kitchen. We thought it was very critical. And now we’ve moved on to other things.”

Concalma’s tote bags are created by women artisans in Puerto Rico.

For Marxuach, creativity and resourcefulness are at the core of her being. In her 2013 TEDxYouth talk in San Juan, Marxuach explained that her passion for design started at a young age. Scissors were her favorite tool and her favorite toy — any shirt or pair of shoes she could get her hands on would get altered and turned into something new. Later, she studied at the esteemed Rhode Island School of Design and continued her compulsion to create something new. This time she wanted to change the way we shop. She felt anxious after learning about exploitative factory practices and decided to start a fair trade brand, which supported local artisans in Puerto Rico. She collaborated with Cooperativa Industrial Creación de la Montaña — which roughly translates to “Industrial Co-op, Creation of the Mountain” — a women-led space in Utuado that was formed after its founders lost their jobs at factories. In 2006, she launched Concalma. Seven years later, it turned into a full-fledged company, operating both an online store and the brick-and-mortar shop in San Juan, where she also sells products from other Puerto Rican makers.

Concalma's factory in Utuado became a distribution center for donated goods.

After the hurricane, while the Concalma store stayed dark, Marxuach saw an opportunity to use the Cooperativa space to help the community. She joined forces with the Centro Para la Nueva Economia, a think tank that advocates for economic development in Puerto Rico, which refocused its energy toward the relief effort. In September 2017, they created the Puerto Rico Recovery Fund and soon turned the Cooperativa into a makeshift distribution center. Marxuach facilitated this relationship and is involved in other relief projects too.

“A lot of foundations were asking for mosquito nets,” says Marxuach. “We saw it as an opportunity to give some work to the factory”

Marxuach hopes that efforts like this one can help workers get back on their feet. The distribution center is starting with a run of 500 mosquito nets, which will get distributed to the town of Loíza, the nearby island of Vieques, and the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce.

“Our goal for me as a small business owner is to find other small brands or designers to come and manufacture at the factory,” says Marxuach. “So I'm kind of helping the factory establish the structure for making the processes fair and faster. And I'm working with other designers to see if we can get the factory some private clients.”

Mosquito nets are now being made at the Cooperativa.

Marxuach stresses that the process of rebuilding Puerto Rico is even harder because of its struggling economy and bankruptcy before the hurricane even hit. In November 2017, Quartz even cited a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit that forecast Puerto Rico as one of the “slowest-growing economies in the world.”

“We’re not coming from a steady austerity economic cycle,” says Marxuach. “We’re coming from a really bad economic depression and problems with the financial aspects of the island.”

As for Concalma’s business, Marxuach says that sales were low during the holiday season but that since the store’s reopening, the local community has been highly supportive. Concalma also recently received a loan through Kiva, a crowdsourcing nonprofit organization.

Out of the hurricane’s devastation, strangers have now become a community. Marxuach describes herself as “not a very social person,” but after the hurricane, she says she met so many new people, all brought together by the hurricane’s effects.

“Hopefully [we] will come out stronger in the long run,” she says.

Share image courtesy of Matilsha Marxuach.

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Puerto Rico Is Still Struggling After The Hurricane – But Locals Are Helping Each Other In Unexpected Ways