In November, the artist and writer Molly Crabapple spent a week in Puerto Rico documenting grassroots efforts by communities to rebuild after Hurricane Maria. Here are excerpts from her sketchbook.
On November 4, a little over a month after the hurricane, five bike punks arrived at La Loma, the hilltop community center in Mariana, the barrio where my friend Christine Nieves lives. They hung their hammocks between the beams of the ruined playground, lit some cigarettes, and got to work. Cooze, Greg, Angie, Jerry, and Bennie had come from Charlotte, North Carolina. A decade ago, they founded Ride or Destroy, a bike club known for its tricked out cycles and death-courting stunts—they refer to it as a gang, tongue half in cheek. The anarchism came later. In 2016, members took part in the anti-police-violence protests that broke out in Charlotte after police officers killed Keith L. Scott, a forty-three-year-old black man.
After Maria hit, the friends formed DABS, or Direct Action Bike Squad, then crowdfunded money to come to Puerto Rico in order to distribute supplies to mountain barrios. They first spent a week in Luquillo looking for work that needed doing, then, through a facebook page run by a network of Puerto Rican mutual aid centers, they found the mutual aid project started by the community in Mariana.
It was a good match. Mariana’s communist tradition is decades old. The community organization ARECMA was started by socialist anti-imperialists, and its property, La Loma, which Christine had turned into a mutual-aid center post Maria, is one of the town’s three attractions. The other two are a church and a bar where old men gamble endless games of dominos over who will buy the next round of Medallas. In the past, some Mariana residents had feuded with ARECMA because of ancient land disputes. But since the hurricane cut off all power and water from the town, the daily free meals and water provided at La Loma have been a lifeline, feeding hundreds of people a day.
DABS quickly fit themselves into the life of the barrio. Angie—who was strawberry blonde, good with a chain saw, and had white-trash goddess tattooed across her bicep—was nicknamed Blanca by the old women who ran the community kitchen. The five bikers fixed roofs, cut down half-fallen tree branches on the muddy sides of mountains, rebuilt the playground, started a vegetable garden, delivered food to people who couldn’t leave their homes, and charmed the scrawny neighborhood dogs in their increasingly less-broken Spanish. “We’re just a bunch of crazy bike punks who now live on the side of the mountain drinking moonshine and helping old ladies and disabled people,” Cooze told me, while we swigged the sticking sweet cañita that is one of the town’s main products. “I’ve got eight communist grandmothers here,” Jerry said one night, after both of us had swallowed infinite shots of cañita. “I come from Appalachia, where people also live in the mountains and make moonshine and hate the government.” The rest of the crew would leave in a few weeks, but Jerry had decided to stay.
It was nine P.M., but with the power off and the stars infinite it felt far later. We sat outside La Loma’s kitchen, in the pale light provided by the solar panels Christine had somehow received as a donation. Don Luis laid out the dominos on the plastic table. Greg cranked up the radio, and a bolero played slow and soft. “La Loma is the revolution because its not gonna be a Marxist worker uprising smashing the state, cause the state is gonna collapse under its own weight. It’s up to us as radicals to build the alternatives in the ashes, because ashes make the best fertilizer,” Jerry said.
Molly Crabapple is an artist and author of the memoir Drawing Blood. Her next book, Brothers of the Gun, cowritten with the Syrian war journalist Marwan Hisham, will be published by Random House in May 2018.