San Juan, Puerto Rico Illustration by Regan Rosburg

San Juan

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San Juan, Puerto Rico

San Juan, Puerto Rico Illustration by Regan Rosburg

Team Members

Illustration by Regan Rosburg

Things That Bend, But Don’t Break

by S.B. Divya

La Flor de Maga, the massive wind-turbine sculpture, towered over San Juan, its giant red petals wide open and spinning in the ocean breeze. Tanama ran past the gawking tourists at its base. She crossed the bridge to the network of floating houseboats and leapt from dock to dock until she arrived home.

“Mamá!” she called, unable to hold in her excitement. She ducked through the small door into the dark interior of their houseboat.

“Down here,” her mother called.

Tanama slid down the ladder and almost bumped into her mother, who stood over the small electric stove.

“Look!” She thrust her phone in front of her mother’s eyes.

Maria Ortiz squinted and read the words that had sent Tanama running home after school: We are pleased to offer you admission to Columbia University. Tanama grabbed her mother’s slender waist and pulled her into a giddy spin. They laughed and whooped, and for sure their neighbors must have thought they were drunk.

“I’m so happy for you,” Maria said. She tucked some stray hairs behind her ear and returned to frying plantains. “Now you can go to New York and become rich and famous like Valeria Blanco.”

The Puerto Rican artist, known worldwide for her massive solar-powered art installations, was Puerto Rico’s latest darling. Every parent aspired for their child to have the success of Blanco or Lin-Manuel Miranda or Sonia Sotomayor, depending on their tastes.

“I don’t have to leave,” Tanama said. She scrolled further and waved a block of text at her mother. “It says here that I can study through the local college facilities.”

“No.” Maria sliced horizontally through the air with the spoon in her hand. “This is your chance to get away and make a better life for yourself. San Juan is too small. Why have I worked so hard for all these years? Your papá dreamed of sending you to New York so you better go.”

Tanama glanced at the photo on the wall. Her father had died five years before, during Super Hurricane Franklin. He’d been driving to check on his mother and their family farm. A mudslide washed his car off the road into a ravine, and by the time emergency crews reached him, he was gone. Tanama’s grandfather had abandoned the family decades before, after going to the mainland. When Tanama was little, Papá would tell her wild stories about the adventures her grandfather must be having in New York City or Los Angeles or Miami. He’d intended to find his father one day, but he’d never had the chance.

“Okay, Mamá,” she said, swallowing the objections that rose like a lump in her throat. She didn’t want to disappoint her parents, but everything she loved was here, in Puerto Rico.

After dinner, Tanama left her mother watching a show and went to rent a scooter. Friday night in San Juan was always a party, but the previous day’s storm meant the city’s electricity storage was full, and every hotel and restaurant sparkled like a bride on her wedding day. People crowded the streets, eating, drinking, playing music, dancing. Tanama had to walk a long way before she found an unoccupied three-wheeler with a full charge.

She sat astride the narrow vehicle and flipped on its lights. As she drove away from the crowded city, she could make out the hum of the electric engine and the rustling of leaves. She turned off the highway in La Muda. The road narrowed, the trees grew denser, and a half moon blazed in the clear sky above her head. A moist breeze blew wisps of hair around her face as she turned onto a narrow dirt track. Mud caused the scooter’s wheels to slide, and she kept a tight grip on the handlebars.

Finally, she saw the white-painted wooden post that marked the turnoff to La Granja. The scooter’s all-terrain wheels bumped and rolled over the grass. Tanama navigated by moonlight and memory, using the trees and boulders as her guides, until she saw the twinkling lights of the small settlement nestled against a low, dark hill.

She parked the scooter near Yuisa’s one-room house. The encampment was dark except for a dim light at the entrance of each of the dozen houses, all set in a rough circle under a great solar canopy. Tanama glanced up as she walked through the makeshift village. Here and there, gaps in the paneling allowed moonlight to filter through. They made do with what they could get for little or no cost, and it had taken over a year to generate enough power for basic needs. Many projects, like the automated watering system, still sat in half-finished piles, waiting for missing parts.

As she walked around the base of the hill, she heard voices mingled with the sound of rushing water. Yuisa’s vibrant laughter dominated, and Tanama felt her heart beat faster. They’d been dating since secondary school, but Yuisa had moved into La Granja more than a year before. Every Friday held the sweet torture of anticipation.

She rounded a bend and came upon a waterfall, lit from below by a gentle green glow. The sight took her breath away. Every sunny day, the solar canopy charged up their batteries until full. Extra power was sent to pumps, which carried water to a storage tank at the top of the hill. The idea was that any time the tank filled up, they would let the water flow for hydroelectric power at night. This was the first time she’d seen it work.

“Tanama!” Yuisa called out, spying her before she could say hello.

Tanama greeted her with a hug and a kiss as the others hooted and yelled rowdy hellos. Yuisa was two years older, but her head barely reached Tanama’s shoulders. She had stick-straight black hair and the classic features of the Taíno people, unlike Tanama, who had some European heritage.

“It’s so beautiful,” Tanama breathed, her gaze torn between Yuisa’s face and the waterfall.

Yuisa grinned. “Yes, the pool filled up after yesterday’s storm, and Mateo got the turbines working this afternoon. The falling water is powering its own lights. Isn’t it great?”

Tanama nodded. Yuisa was the mad genius behind this village, finding clever ways to keep it as self-sufficient as possible, but she was also a good leader. She’d gathered like-minded friends who had skills to complement hers.

Yuisa took Tanama’s hand and dragged her over to one of the benches near the base of the pool. “Sit. Eat!” She waved a spoon at Tanama’s face.

Tanama took the offered bite. A silky sweetness filled her mouth with the flavors of caramel, custard, and a tropical fruitiness she couldn’t name. She took the bowl and spoon from Yuisa and swallowed another bite. “It’s delicious! Some kind of flan, but what’s that flavor?”

Mateo piped up. “Jackfruit!” His dark face glowed in the light from the pool.

Next to him sat Ameyro, who added, “Yuisa said we’re allowed to eat some.”

Tanama laughed with them. Several years before, Mateo had done a school project about the Asian fruit and discovered that it could be used to store electricity after some special processing. Yuisa had convinced her parents to let her plant a few trees at the edge of their farm. They’d begun to produce fruit the previous year, but Yuisa had insisted on experimenting with them rather than eating any. La Granja had its own grove of the trees, but they hadn’t reached maturity yet.

“I didn’t know what to do with it,” Ameyro continued, “but some of the Asian recipes cook it so I made flan.”

“The inedible part is better for making batteries,” Yuisa added. “Might as well eat the rest.”

Tanama looked down and most of her portion had disappeared. “You could sell this and make a fortune. It’s so good!”

“We don’t need to sell anything if we can do everything for ourselves,” Yuisa said. She sat next to Tanama and put an arm around her waist.

Someone started playing a guitar and singing. Others got up to dance.

“So, did you hear from any colleges?” Yuisa asked softly. “Weren’t you supposed to get an answer from Columbia this week?”

Tanama hesitated. What had felt like such good news a few hours before now soured in her mind. How could she bear to leave Yuisa and La Granja? Her grandfather had gone away. He’d sent money for the first year, then stopped answering their calls. They never found out what happened to him. Would that be her? Would she throw her people away like a used dishrag, losing herself in life on the mainland?

Never, she promised herself. I’ll be like Valeria Blanco. If I become successful, I’ll make sure everyone in Puerto Rico gets my help, not just my family. I won’t forget anyone.

“I’m going to miss this,” she said, barely above a whisper.

“Which college?”


A wide smile spread across Yuisa’s face. “I’m so proud of you. Don’t be sad. I’ll be here every holiday, waiting. I promise.”

Yuisa leaned in. Tanama closed her eyes for the kiss, feeling a thrill and a pang. How could anywhere else be better than this?

Surrounded by love and music and moonlight, she had everything she wanted. After she graduated from secondary school, she could live at La Granja, move in with Yuisa—if her girlfriend agreed—and help the community while getting her college degree. It sounded so much better than going to a strange big city full of people she didn’t know.

She wrapped her arms around Yuisa’s neck and felt like she’d never let go.

Saturday morning dawned crystal clear with the lightest of breezes—a perfect day to visit her grandmother. As with many Puerto Rican families, her father’s mother had raised her, along with a passel of cousins, until she was old enough to attend school in San Juan. Her parents lived and worked in the city. It had better job opportunities than the rural area around their family farm. Tanama tried to visit every weekend, though storms sometimes made it impossible. After her papá’s death, no one wanted to try the roads during heavy rains, and the railway didn’t run during bad weather.

Her phone pinged as she enjoyed breakfast on the deck of their houseboat. A message from Yuisa. “We got an eviction notice. Not sure what to do. Got any lawyer friends?”

Tanama replied, “Oh no! I’ll ask Mamá.”

But Maria shook her head. “I don’t know any. I told you this was a bad idea. Just because the owner isn’t in Puerto Rico doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention. They hire people to check.”

“It’s been more than a year, Mamá! They didn’t say anything. Besides, La Granja beats letting that land sit around doing nothing. It’s not fair.”

“A pineapple is sour,” her mother said with a shrug. She pressed a bag into Tanama’s hand. “Don’t forget the medicine.”

Tanama tucked the bag into her backpack along with clothes for the weekend, then slung the pack onto her shoulders. The streets were quiet after the previous night’s celebrations, and the water taxi to the sea train had only one other passenger.

The enormous silver tube of the railway grew as they approached. She’d watched its construction over the three years after Super Hurricane Franklin, and it had run smoothly since then. The U.S. hadn’t wanted to repeat its mistakes from Hurricane Maria, so after Franklin, it stepped in with generous support. Life had changed in many ways since then, but Tanama believed that the sea train was the greatest of Puerto Rico’s projects.

The monorail circled the entire island, making transportation safer and faster by avoiding the inland roads, which always took damage after big storms. The rail’s base was an artificial reef that doubled as a breakwater. The water taxis and the train ran on quiet, non-polluting electric motors, and most of the coastline was now a protected marine area. During her childhood, the harbor waters had been dark and oily instead of clear and turquoise. Now, jewel-colored parrotfish and wrasses swam in the waters below.

As she climbed the stairs to the train station, Tanama shaded her eyes. The rail’s tube-shaped cover shone like a mirror under the cloudless sky. Solar cells plastered every sunward surface, and the remainder was covered by painted murals. Mateo had tried to explain to her how the structure also produced electricity from waves, but she found enough joy watching the water rise and fall as she waited on the platform. The system produced enough power to supply multiple coastal cities around the island. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Valeria Blanco had raised money for its construction, and the United Nations called it the first wonder of the solar-powered world.

Her joy evaporated once she was seated and looking at her phone. A string of messages from Yuisa brought more bad news. They’d been served a legal eviction notice: they had two weeks to dismantle La Granja and move off the land. Anything left behind would belong to the landowner, some businesswoman named Sylvia Jovet who lived in San Francisco. She’d left Puerto Rico as a baby and inherited the land from her parents.

Outside the train window, the developed areas of San Juan gave way to sandy beaches and lush green trees. They pulled up and into a station near the harbor at Ceiba. A ferry boat crossed under the elevated structure. Next to the ferry dock stood a building, one wall covered by a giant solar-painted mural. Like several others, this one had been commissioned by Valeria Blanco.

Why can’t this Sylvia Jovet person be more like her, and support Yuisa instead of destroying her work? Maybe I should study law so I can help people fight for things like La Granja.

After another stop at Guayama, the train arrived at Ponce. She exited the train, walked past a group of tourists headed out from the airport, and found a scooter at a charging station. She made a stop at a market before getting on the road to Limas, where her family’s farm stood.

The dense coffee bushes appeared along the road before the modest house came into view. Ribbons of brightly colored solar-cloth fluttered at the boundary of the planting areas. They provided power for the watering systems and acted as wind breaks during storms.

Tanama left the scooter in the yard and ducked into the house.

“Yaya?” she called.

A little boy with sun-browned skin and wavy black hair dashed by.

“Hey, Cacimar! Where’s Yaya?”

“She’s at the church, charging up,” her cousin yelled over his shoulder.

Tanama left the groceries in the kitchen and the medicine in the locked cabinet, where the little ones couldn’t get it. She decided to take the scooter she’d rented, so her cousins didn’t play with it.

The church had a small courtyard built around a tall pole covered in peeling white paint. Solar panels topped the structure, and power outlets surrounded the base. After Franklin, the government decided it would be cheaper to give everyone local solar power than to rebuild power lines across the island. People had figured out ways to make these charging stations into social spaces, and her grandmother sat under a wide umbrella with two other local ladies, Isabel and Clarita, chatting and laughing as their battery packs and phones charged up.

“Tanama, come here,” Yaya said, pulling a chair under their shade umbrella. She examined Tanama closely, as she did every time, though only a week had passed. “What’s the matter? Are you sick?”

Tanama tried to force a smile and failed. She spilled the news about La Granja, being careful to talk about Yuisa as only a friend. Puerto Rico had made a lot of progress, but her grandmother wouldn’t approve of two girls dating. Yaya had taken a microgrant from Valeria Blanco to install the solar-cloth at the farm, but they hadn’t told her that Blanco was a trans woman, afraid that might dissuade her from accepting the money.

“And I got into Columbia University,” Tanama finished. “But I feel so bad about La Granja, I don’t want to go away to New York. Mamá says I should go, that Papá would want me to. What do you think?”

Yaya patted her hand. “I think you should ask God and then listen to your heart. Then you’ll know the right thing to do.”

Isabel nodded in agreement, but Clarita frowned. “God better tell her to go to the mainland! How are you going to become the next Valeria Blanco if you stay here, hm?”

“What about La Granja?” Tanama said. “They’re building the future, one that’s good for everybody, not just Puerto Rico.”

Clarita waved a weathered hand like she was shooing a fly. “They’re getting evicted. They have to grow up and have families and steady work. You should go to New York.”

But I love Yuisa, and I want to make her dream come true. She couldn’t tell these women that, so instead she said, “Nobody is using that land! Don’t you think it’s unfair?”

The older women all shrugged.

“What can you do, anyway?” Yaya said. “If you care so much, go study and make money so you can help people like your friends when you’re older.”

Clarita and Isabel stood and went to collect their batteries, which had gone green with full charges. Isabel loaded two into a wagon, joining a stack of at least ten others.

“Why does she need so many?” Tanama asked her grandmother.

“She takes most of them to Guayanilla and sells them to the scooter company. She lost half her coffee plants to the blight last year, and now she does this for extra money.”

“Did you know you can store power in jackfruit batteries?”

“What is jackfruit?”

Tanama pulled out her phone and showed Yaya pictures. “You can eat it, too. I had it in flan, and it was delicious!”

“What! That fruit looks too dangerous to eat!”

Yaya broke into laughter. Tanama joined her, tilting her head back. As she did, the solar panels atop the charging pole dazzled her eyes, and she got an idea. La Granja’s massive solar dome produced extra electricity now. What if, instead of pumping water for nighttime, they could charge batteries for one of the scooter companies in San Juan? Maybe they could make enough money to buy the land from Sylvia Jovet.

For the rest of the weekend, Tanama kept returning to that thought. Her fingers itched to send a message to Yuisa about it, but she forced herself not to. She had to learn whether it was possible and how much money they could earn, otherwise she risked disappointing Yuisa with false hope.

In church on Sunday, she took Yaya’s advice and prayed to God for guidance, looking deep within her heart for the answer. If my plan works, then I’ll stay so I can keep helping with La Granja. If it fails, that means I should go to New York.

She usually felt disappointed to return home on Sunday afternoons—back to schoolwork and their tiny houseboat, away from all her cousins on the farm—but for once, she looked forward to it. On the train back to San Juan, she looked up every scooter company in driving distance of Yuisa’s settlement. There were quite a few small ones that catered to tourists. Many had their own solar charging stations, so they wouldn’t be interested in her business idea.

The biggest scooter rental company, though, was run by the city of San Juan. They had a distributed network of stations where people could drop off spent vehicles and pick up charged ones. The city still got its electricity from a centralized power plant, the same one from before Franklin, and the scooters still charged at stations powered by the grid.

That evening, she spilled her disappointment to her mother over dinner. “I don’t know if the city scooters would want to use jackfruit batteries, and there’s nowhere else in driving distance to La Granja that would.”

Maria pursed her lips in thought. She had worked for PREPA, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, for most of her adult life—first in data entry, then working her way through college to become a power engineer. “San Juan wants to get to carbon neutral. We’ve been increasing the amount of electricity we get from sources like solar and wind power, but it’s hard to store enough for the city at night. What if we could use your jackfruit for that instead of scooters?”

“We can’t make that many batteries.”

“Not yet, but you can be the first source to prove that it’s possible. Then others on the island will take up growing jackfruit and make more. We’ll never get all of our power from one source, but the more clean sources we have, the better. And who knows? Maybe one day the island will have so much jackfruit that we can start exporting it. Those trees look pretty sturdy. I bet they can take a storm better than a coffee plant.”

Maria smiled, and Tanama’s spirits lifted. Her mother was always so practical. If she thought the idea could work, then perhaps all was not lost.

“How much do you think they would pay?”

“I’ll ask around the office tomorrow. Get me some numbers on how much charge your jackfruit batteries can hold, and how much La Granja can produce on a typical day at different times of year. Your friends have been tracking that, right?”

Tanama nodded. She knew exactly where to get that information. She’d helped Yuisa find open-source software to track the solar panels’ production. Either Yuisa or Mateo would know about the jackfruit batteries.

“Thank you, Mamá!” She planted a kiss on her mother’s cheek, then began to gather their dishes in the sink. “I’ll clean everything tonight.”

Maria laughed. “Okay, but don’t get your hopes up too much. I can’t promise anything until I talk to people tomorrow!”

Tanama nodded, trying to contain her excitement. She imagined Yuisa’s face when she told her how she could help them save La Granja. Please, God, please let this work!

Most of the week passed before Tanama had the answers she needed from her mother. School kept her occupied in the meantime, but she found it hard to keep her mind off the situation at La Granja. The eviction notice said they had two weeks to clear off the land or they’d be forcibly removed, losing the rights to anything they left behind. They’d had no luck finding a local lawyer who’d take their side for no pay. They could take apart and move all the stuff in a week, but they had nowhere to put it. They’d have to find a home for the four cattle, and they’d probably have to abandon the jackfruit trees, which were already too big to dig up and move.

In the meantime, two more U.S. colleges had accepted her, one in California and another in Texas. She could imagine her mother’s fury if she decided to stay in Puerto Rico with so much opportunity on the mainland. Am I being foolish? Even if I can help La Granja right now, maybe Yaya is right. Maybe I’d be of more use by leaving and getting a law degree and sending money back.

Plenty of people supported their families that way. She could get her degree with any of the U.S. colleges by studying remotely, but that wouldn’t get her the friends and contacts that being there in person would. She’d read up on the benefits of in-person versus distance learning, but none of them accounted for something like La Granja, for having your heart in one place while your feet were in another.

The rest of her free time went to numbers. That Wednesday, her mother got her access to the public utility’s pay rates and usage needs.

“They said you can start by directly charging scooters,” Maria told her. “Alex has heard about these jackfruit batteries. They don’t work like regular ones, but they’re really good at holding a lot of energy and fast charging something else. That’s good for vehicles, but if you could make enough of them or make them bigger, we’d rather use the power for houses at night. There’s a government program that will give you a loan for this, and it would also give us money to build the interface so we can hook your batteries up to the grid.”

Tanama stayed up late Thursday night figuring out how much La Granja could produce and what they could earn, then she created ambitious projections over the next five years. If everything went well, if they didn’t have any super hurricanes to disrupt their progress, they could plant more jackfruit trees, build more solar domes, and eventually buy their own electric truck to carry enough stored energy to power a hundred homes in San Juan each night.

Before she’d met Yuisa, Tanama had never dreamed so big. Yuisa had graduated from the same school two years before her and built La Granja from nothing but a vision. Tanama wouldn’t have had the courage to do anything like that, but with Yuisa as her inspiration, she could see La Granja growing into a model that others in Puerto Rico could adopt, maybe even people in other parts of the world.

A little after midnight, she sent her calculations to Yuisa with a suggestion to ask the land owner if they could buy the land with monthly payments, like a mortgage. Then she crawled into bed with an exhausted smile. The gentle waves of the sea rocked her to sleep.

Tanama woke later than usual on Friday morning and rushed to school on time. She checked for messages, but Yuisa hadn’t replied. Too early for her to read everything I sent. The residents of La Granja had full days. They had to maximize their work while the sun was up, when they got all their solar power, and because much of their labor involved plants and animals.

She checked again at lunch, and still no response. What if Yuisa or the others didn’t like her plan? What if the landlord had already said no, or wanted more money? She fretted her way through her afternoon classes. They had to keep their phones turned off except during lunch, and all she could think about was the fate of La Granja.

The instant school ended, Tanama had her phone out. At last, a message! But only three words: “We’ll talk tonight.” She could strangle Yuisa! What could be more important than this? She bought pizza on her way home and left it for her mother as a peace offering, along with a note of apology that she was leaving earlier than usual.

She barely noticed the drive to La Granja, her mind racing with questions. She arrived a little before sunset. In the slanting southern rays, the great solar dome gleamed like the back of a sleeping dragon. Beneath it, the small, single-room houses sat in a circle, their solar paints reflecting bright jewel tones. The grove of jackfruit trees stood to her left, their leaves lit in green and gold. In the distance, the cows lowed as they were herded back into their pen for the night.

At the far end of the dome, Yuisa, Mateo, and several others crowded around the cabinet that held their solar-power equipment. Tanama could hear their voices, raised in argument, from her spot near Yuisa’s house. She strode over and waited for them to notice her.

“We’re going to need better replacements,” Mateo said, sounding frustrated. “This one has failed three times, and if I keep putting in used parts, it’s going to stress these circuits and cause problems here and here.” He jabbed at something in the cabinet that Tanama couldn’t see.

“And where do you plan to get them?” demanded Ameyro. “We don’t have the money to buy more equipment.”

“None of this matters right now,” Yuisa shouted. “You should be thinking about how we can safely move—” She stopped as she caught sight of Tanama. “You’re early.”

“I couldn’t wait.”

Mateo and Ameyro exchanged a look and quietly moved away, toward the house they shared.

“Did you read what I sent you?” Tanama asked. “Are you really going to give up on this?”

Yuisa sighed and crossed her arms. “What else can I do? The whole point of La Granja is to be self-sustaining. Selling batteries turns us into a business like everyone else, and I don’t want to do that.”

“But … you need the money for some things, like the parts Mateo wants. You would still be doing something amazing by providing all of your own food and power. If you have extra to trade for supplies, what’s wrong with that? Self-sustaining doesn’t have to mean separate from the world.”

Tanama reached out and pried one of Yuisa’s hands free. She walked Yuisa away from the cabinet, toward the base of the hill and slowly turned them in a circle.

“Look at what you’ve built,” Tanama said. “You don’t have to become a profit-churning machine. You can stay small. The spreadsheet I sent you only increased the number of jackfruit trees, not the size of La Granja, and you don’t have to scale up that much if you don’t want to. Think of the others—where will they go if you leave here? What will they do? You’ll all get swallowed by San Juan or some farm.” She squeezed Yuisa’s hand. “I’m trying to help you keep La Granja alive. Please, at least ask Sylvia Jovet if you can pay her for this land!”

Yuisa sighed again and scratched at her head with her free hand. “I think your dream is bigger than mine now.”

Tanama shrugged and then smiled. “Only because you planted the seeds.”

Yuisa pulled her hand free and took her phone from her pocket. She typed something and then turned to Tanama. “How much can we pay and how soon?”

Tanama gave her the numbers and watched as Yuisa pressed send. She wrapped her girlfriend in a hug from behind, and rested her chin on Yuisa’s shoulder. They watched as the sun dropped between the distant hills and the stacked clouds above turned the color of ripe papaya.

After a restless night, Tanama woke to an empty room. Morning light filled Yuisa’s house through two generous windows. The efficiency kitchen looked clean and unused, so she grabbed some eggs, bread, and ham and made two sandwiches. Outside, someone had left a pot of coffee and mugs on the communal table under the center of the dome. She poured herself a cup, then went in search of Yuisa.

She found her sitting on a boulder near the top of the hill, next to the pumps for the waterfall, a mug cradled in her hands. She handed Yuisa a sandwich and sat next to her.

Yuisa planted a kiss on her shoulder. “Thank you.”

They ate in silence, enjoying the cool morning breeze. To the north, the hills fell away to the coast, and a line of blue showed where the sun had burned away the haze. The pungent aroma of sedge rose from the green carpet beneath their feet.

When she’d finished eating, Yuisa wiped her greasy fingers on her pants and then extracted her phone. She thumbed to something and held up the screen so Tanama could read the words.

From Sylvia Jovet:

Interesting proposal, but I don’t like the idea of selling my property. I’m still a Boricua, though I haven’t returned to Puerto Rico since I was four years old. I’d like to take a look at what you’re building on my family’s land. Some could argue that your Taíno ancestors have more claim to it than I do, and that’s partly why I’m willing to give your venture a chance—as a rental!—but I want to see it for myself. I’ve booked a flight for the end of the month. I’ll expect your first rent payment when I arrive.

“Maybe you were right,” Yuisa said. A smile crept onto her face. “It’s a relief to know we don’t have to take apart La Granja.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Tanama said. “And you know what this means? I’m not going to the mainland for college! I’m going to study remotely, from here, and live at La Granja after graduation. That is,” she paused, her heart racing, “if you’ll have me.”

“Are you sure?” Yuisa looked up at her with alarm. “I mean, of course I’ll have you! But what about your scholarship? And what will your mamá say?”

Tanama looked out toward the sea. “I made an agreement with God to follow my heart if this plan worked. Even my mother can’t say no to that. Besides, next month I’ll be eighteen, and I get to choose my life. I don’t want to go to America and send back money. Let that life be for the Valeria Blancos and Sylvia Jovets. I want to live here and study law and help you grow jackfruit and tend cows and learn about solar power.”

“Wepa!” Yuisa said with a huge grin. She thumped Tanama’s back. “Let’s get started, then.”

They clambered down from the rocks and onto the grass. Hand in hand, they walked down the hill toward La Granja and their future.

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New Solar Paint May Change Life as We Know It

By Robert Ferry

January 21, 2040

CommonNews San Juan

In a small informal settlement called Los Fotónes, the future is already here. Guided by Dr. Vera Clemente, a researcher at Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de Puerto Rico, our CommonNews team took a behind-the-scenes look at the promise of a new solar technology, solar paint,1 that could make solar energy the leading engine of peace and prosperity for the world.

As we make our way from the road, the wind rustles the leaves of the jackfruit trees. After a few minutes we begin to see the experimental canvases of solar paint lifting and falling gently in the clearings. When we reach the entrance, Dr. Clemente introduces us to Victory Alcado, one of the founding residents of Los Fotónes, and Clemente’s most important local partner. Before getting a lesson in how the new technology works, we sit down for a cup of locally grown coffee and reflect on the recent rapid progress that has made the energy transition possible.

There was a time earlier this century when things changed more slowly and when the promises of technology to do social good were frustrated by massive inequality and an austerity-minded public sector. We are fortunate—following the tumultuous decades behind us—that the balance of power has now shifted from corporations to the people, and that structural incentives now favor degrowth.

With the nation’s economy shifted from capitalism to terrametrism, new wealth is now created in the economy when ecoregions, habitats, and the atmosphere are restored, and is lost when they are damaged. This is the reverse of our previous system, which rewarded profit and shareholder value, where wealth could only be created through wage labor, and where businesses were structurally disinterested in the stewardship of the Earth’s ecoregions.

After ten years of terrametrism, we have finally turned the page on wage-based capitalism. The time-saving benefits of quantum technology and a rapidly renewable circular economy without scarcity are being shared by everyone through disbursements to our terrametric wealth accounts.

The progressive structural changes to our sociopolitical systems are in large part due to the potency of one technology: solar power. Access to affordable distributed energy was one of the important catalysts of the Great Capital Inversion that ended the struggle of wage labor and resource scarcity, allowing a steady-state global system to evolve within the carrying capacity of the Earth.

According to a report published yesterday by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and SoLazard, solar power passed yet another milestone in 2039, as the cost of installed residential solar broke the $0.70 per watt barrier and the cost of utility-scale solar approached $0.25 per watt.2 The power-purchase agreement (PPA) cost of solar power on the grid has reached a ridiculously low rate of $1.80 per MWh ($2.60 per MWh with storage) in a major deal inked by the City of Dhaka just before the big quantum dot dropped, ringing in the new decade, with a record 50-year estimated lifetime for the project.

Graph depicting IRENA and SoLazard (Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis—Version 34.0)

Copyright 2039, IRENA and SoLazard (Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis—Version 34.0)

Ten years ago, solar power was a major factor in bringing about, but also easing the economic burden of the 2028 collapse of the carbon bubble. As the last of the dinosaur investors took massive hits from stranded asset write-offs, the low cost of solar energy resulted in massive gains in productivity and innovation within an emerging circular economy, driven by an expanded workforce through full-employment programs, open borders, and the national Solar Year of STEAM Service (SYS-STEAM). The past decade’s expansion in solar deployment and economies of scale and innovation have brought solar power to roughly one-tenth the cost of old petro-energy and fossil gas.

While we might be tempted to rest on the laurels of the past decade, there is still much work to do, especially in shipping, industry, and construction (the SIC sectors) before our global carbon emissions are down to zero. Nine gigatons per year may be less than a quarter of what we emitted in 2019, but we are still getting dangerously close to passing 500 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. With technology lagging on meeting the replacement for SIC sectors, it is more important than ever that we keep driving down the cost of solar for all uses.

In what looks to be good news on that front, interdisciplinary research out of Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño (EAPD) de Puerto Rico and the University of Buffalo have demonstrated the long-term reliability of 100 percent non-toxic, organic, perovskite solar paints (PSP).3 According to Dr. Clemente, “PSP can be installed [painted] on any surface using the same technique as house paint. It can be made clear or in a variety of colors. It can be color-matched and can be blended together in-situ as an art composition, much like traditional paints.”

We were fortunate to witness this new technology being tested at Los Fotónes by the founders of the informal settlement, led by Alcado, the charismatic 20-year-old who is now taking courses at EAPD. Los Fotónes is what is coming to be known as a communovoltaic landscape because it houses people who can make a living harvesting solar energy—or, as Alcado likes to call it, “photon farming.” During the research stage, the new technology has allowed Los Fotónes residents to experiment with a new business model leasing fully charged portable jackfruit batteries to locals. A second demonstration site is the nearby Aerostatic Balloon (Globo Aerostático), where solar paint has replaced the balloon’s previous exterior coating and has given a second life to the tourist attraction as a power plant that feeds 300 MWh per year into the local microgrid. A third demonstration is just getting started closer to San Juan at an encampment by the name of La Granja.

So how does it really work?

According to Alcado, “After the designated setting time of the solar ink, the painted area begins to generate a charge in sunlight that is collected using leads attached to the two furthest points on the surface. The conversion efficiency declines slightly after the first few years, but at any point a new layer of solar paint can be applied to revive the efficiency.”

Over time, solar paint is encapsulated beneath new layers, just as paint is covered over on a house. At the end of its life cycle, when removed from the substrate, the dry solar paint is heated with a solar oven, which separates the component parts for use in new batches of solar paint. If discarded without recycling, it bio-degrades into natural materials that make excellent fertilizer. It is the perfect terrametric product.

Alcado demonstrates the function of SolarPaint by clipping a gallium nitride4 electrical contact onto the side of the wall of their house near the entry door, and another contact onto the far corner of the same wall. Between the leads is an electron-gathering area of about 10 square meters. After about an hour of us talking, a nearly empty 3 kWh jackbok (a jackfruit aerogel battery)—enough to keep your fridge and 3-D printer running for the day—now shows a full charge. Alcado says she stewards an area of energy harvesting of just over 2,000 square meters (one half-acre) made from sol-painted canvas, elevated above the ground by poles and ties, which keeps 305 lightweight portable batteries charged every day. Her family uses no more than five jackboks for their own household and leases out the other 300 jackboks on a rotating schedule to make a modest income that augments their terrametric deposits.

The residents of Los Fotónes make the batteries themselves using the wood and fruit from their onsite jackfruit orchard. After a jackfruit is eaten, the inner pulp is heated with a concentrated solar thermal furnace to create an aerogel with incredible supercapacitor qualities. It takes a few minutes to wire each aerogel and affix it into the wooden case. Los Fotónes residents have found the aerogels last longer than was originally suspected. They tend to have more aerogels on hand than they need to replace the depleted ones.

Los Fotónes jackbok batteries fit any size E-Rover and can be plugged into any residential microgrid. You can lease one 3 kWh jackbok for 50 cents plus a refundable deposit for the beautifully carved jackwood case.5 The 15-kWh module ($2.00) is more than enough to run a high-energy household or business and get you most everywhere you need to go on the island (even one 15 kWh battery will get you about 50 miles of range). You can hang out at Los Fotónes Hash and Coffee Bar if you’d like to wait for a half-price top-up. Hot tip: the misolein soup is exceptionally good!

One Indigenous cooperative that is marketing a version of solar paint under the Public Licensing Act (PLA) estimates a starting price point of $0.15 per watt later this year, and they expect to be below $0.10 by 2045. Per the PLA, a percentage will be given to the universities and researchers who made the discovery, to support innovation and student scholarships. Due to the abundant and recyclable natural materials in the product, PSP will soon be less expensive per volume than commercial paint, the cost of which has been rising slightly due to the more stringent circular economy and redlist product standards that President Omar’s administration put in place to increase terrametric wealth. Our contact at the cooperative, who asked to remain anonymous, says they are already in partnership with one of the cities bidding on the 2043 world EXPO, although they wouldn’t say which city.

Another interesting feature of the jackbok battery is the information that it gathers from the microgrids to which it is connected. When batteries are returned, the residents of Los Fotónes first scan the data for any potential electrical irregularities that were encountered, which could mean they were connected to an unbalanced or inefficient system. They then send those flagged reports to jackbok users whose microgrid they pertain to, after which the data is anonymized per the strict standards of the Cyber Privacy Act, which was enacted following the 2020 pandemic. The data is fed into the Puerto Rico Commons quantum-computer energy model, which flags potential efficiency issues by looking for nonconforming bits. These information services (and the coffee shop) augment Los Fotónes’ income from battery leases.

Residents of Los Fotónes expect to have an expanding market for some time—at least while solar paint gets rolled out around the world. Even then, in denser urban environments like San Juan, there just won’t be enough painted surface area, requiring folks to take a drive or catch the OWCAT (oscillating water column area transit) and the electric sky car out to the communivoltaic farms of the interior to swap out their jackboks for the month and to take in some rewilded nature.

The best part about Los Fotónes are the vivid colors. They are everywhere around you! As each area of this energy landscape accrues solar-painted layers, amazing textures and patterns emerge through compositions that tell stories of Puerto Rico’s past and future. It seems our world will soon be visually enriched by a powerful tapestry of cultural expression—a painted world of wonder where street art and graffiti art are the power plants of our cities.

Soon anyone will be able to paint the roof or walls of their house for a few hundred bucks and have free power. Every single surface that used to be painted with commercial paint will soon be painted with solar paint, charging non-toxic portable batteries that circulate in a new economy where energy is currency.

Over the past decade, places like Puerto Rico, on the front lines of climate change, have demonstrated how access and agency around affordable energy and its means of production can liberate people and restore a balance of power in society. As we embark upon an era in which anyone, anywhere can convert almost-free energy into circular goods and services, we should expect to see new sources of social wealth emerge, alongside a recovering natural ecosystem within a rightair atmosphere that we will have more free time to savor!

1 Tina Casey, “Caution: Wet Solar Power (New Affordable Solar Paint Research),” CleanTechnica, May 15, 2013, [Back]

2 References used to make the ambitious prediction of what solar electricity could cost in 2043: John Farrell, “Solar Power is Contagious,” Grist, April 6, 2011,, and Ian Clover, “IRENA Forecasts 59% Solar PV Price Reduction by 2025,” PV Magazine, June 15, 2016, [Back]

3 How perovskite may steer the next major cost per watt drop: Andrew Wagner, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Perovskite, Earth’s Most Abundant Type of Mineral—That We Almost Never See,” Science, November 17, 2017, [Back]

4 University of Utah, “Engineers Discover Highly Conductive Materials for More Efficient Electronics,”, July 26, 2016, [Back]

5 For an example of carved jackwood, see Jessie Ponce, “Jackwood Art,” A Traveler’s Tale, November 7, 2011, [Back]

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Aspiring Isn’t Enough: A Call to Continue Agitating for a Sustainable Puerto Rico

By Yíamar Rivera-Matos

“Porque el que está dispuesto a luchar por la libertad, se la merece.”—Filiberto Ojeda Rios

“The future belongs to those who prepared for today.”—Malcom X

In 2016, I read the article “End of the Crisis: ELA (Commonwealth) transformed into PREVA (Puerto Rico Economic Association),” which argues for a futuristic, dystopian, and corporate Puerto Rico. The article was published in response to the approval by the U.S. Congress of the PROMESA Act (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability) and the imposition of a fiscal oversight board to govern Puerto Rico’s budget, neither of which was welcomed by the progressive and left-leaning populace. Most people I know who have read the article agree that the vision it lays out for the future is what Puerto Rico will become under PROMESA: a nation operating under a neoliberal economic model created by international agencies, independent cities, and private companies, prioritizing profit over people.1 The provocative article ends in 2052, when a group of patriots gather in the city of Lares, the day after ELA’s transformation into PREVA, to establish the organization NOPREVA: a declaration of political and economic independence for the archipelago.2

I believe this article is an invitation to imagine that a different Puerto Rico is possible. However, I don’t believe that we have to wait until 2052 to discuss Puerto Rico’s future. We Puerto Ricans can start talking, planning, and building it now! My experience, being raised in the mountains of the big island of Puerto Rico, is that many versions of Puerto Rico exist at the same time—that there are many hearts, many visions, many struggles, and many longings. So, what should the Puerto Rico that we want to live in look like? What do we want to share with future generations?

I dream of a Puerto Rico full of joy, where sustainability and happiness are possible. That dream was shared by our team for this project, who chose to adopt the principles of strong sustainability. Strong sustainability is defined by activities that promote social well-being and preserve natural resources, while being acutely aware that certain environmental functions cannot be replicated by economics or social capital.3 According to studies of urban sustainability, cities do not exist in isolation; rather, they extract resources from their rural neighbors.4, 5 As a group, we prioritized the question, “Cities for whom?” and sought to think deeply about the possibilities of healthy interactions between urban and rural areas. We therefore opted to focus not just on San Juan, the capital city and urban metropolis, but rather on Puerto Rico in its entirety. Our approach invited us to think about an urban future that includes interactions and flows between all parts of the Puerto Rican community—urban, rural, and diasporic—where the relationships among these diverse groups are mutually beneficial rather than extractive. This essay is about the possibilities of such cooperation and the hopes, and uncertainties, that surround it. It’s about articulating a vision of the desirable future, in which social transformation inspires an alternative system that is joyful and sustainable.

Reality Check

In Puerto Rico, the economically poorest communities live on the south coast and in the central mountain range.6 These areas of the archipelago have been more negatively impacted than others. For example, most of the energy in Puerto Rico is generated in the south of the big island and transported to other areas for consumption. People in the south pay high prices for electricity and a higher price with their lives. This is reflected, for example, in high rates of cancer in their communities caused by ash, laden with heavy metals such as arsenic, that comes from carbon-fired power plants for generating electricity.7 In response to this injustice, local communities near the south’s power plants have used solar-energy projects as a political statement to oppose the existing energy politics and economic system that are not beneficial to them, and that expose them to significant environmental and health risks.8

In the mountains, a different story is happening. There are no power plants polluting the environment and causing cancer. However, the mountains are economically dependent on Puerto Rico’s wealthier northern communities for goods and services, and have experienced a worsening economic recession for over 20 years.9 I experienced the changes in economic stability, access to local food, deterioration of our culture and local products, closing most of the local businesses, and the exodus of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland, while I was growing up. It was not until 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, that these dependencies became visible to everyone and that the community began to mobilize to address them. In the past two years, community members who have borne the brunt of the economic injustices have joined forces with groups who have been working toward a sustainable future since the 1990s. Together, they have identified and are moving toward a new direction for social change, grassroots solar-energy projects, that are similar technologically to their counterparts in the south, but motivated by a very different set of values and commitments.

Food sustainability is another major challenge for Puerto Rico. Approximately 87.5% of the food consumed by Puerto Ricans is imported from the U.S. mainland, which involves high transportation costs and generates food dependency.10 In 2015, a ship with food and medicine headed to Puerto Rico from Fort Lauderdale sank in the Bahamas. The disaster killed the crew and led to a shortage of food and medicine in Puerto Rico for weeks.11 More recently, two weeks into the lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic, a well-known chef in Puerto Rico went onto a popular local TV program, Jugando Pelota Dura, to expose the fact that many children in Puerto Rico are hungry for long periods of time, and some are forced to exchange their bodies for food, increasing sexual violence and child abuse.12

Energy and food are two keys to a sustainable future; they sustain us. However, the priority has not always been the people and the environment. For example, along the south coast, in Santa Isabel, environmental activist groups protested in 2011 against the construction of windmills in the most productive agricultural area of Puerto Rico.13 Even though the windmills can add value to Puerto Rico’s energy mix and accelerate the transition towards renewable energy, the protesters were concerned that it would further erode Puerto Rico’s food security.

We should keep these injustices and targeted discriminations in our collective memory, in an attempt to overcome the amnesia that can lead us to despair. Right now, Puerto Rico is experiencing multiple social, political, and environmental crises, which create multiple environmental and economic disasters. The vast majority of people in Puerto Rico do not like these outcomes. We do not like the consequences that have followed from a series of hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, blackouts, food insecurity, and now an accelerating pandemic. The unfair politics and injustices of the past and present have forced us to reimagine the Puerto Rico that we want to inhabit. To truly ask the questions: What is a desirable future? What principles should guide efforts to work towards that future? What are the alternative economies that are possible for people who today live at the margins of the existing food and energy systems? How can alternative economies translate into a transformative justice project, an alternative society? How might such a project be wrought? Is it possible? How might it encompass low-carbon energy futures and food sovereignty for the people of Puerto Rico?

We understand the problem; we have the evidence. The system is not beneficial for us. So, what alternatives do we have for a sustainable future? I believe we should rethink the model of economic development in Puerto Rico and consider alternatives that are based on the principles of strong sustainability: living in harmony among nature, people, and technologies. We have a model very close to us: Cuba. Cuba has been redesigning and transitioning to a model that is beneficial for its population. Although they are still transitioning, they provide an excellent opportunity for Puerto Rico to learn from their mistakes and their successes. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba was left to the mercy of their local resources, with no money, little outside help, and an antagonistic U.S. They focused on developing an economic model that does not depend on money, in order to ensure their citizens have the resources required to survive the crisis. Cuban researchers were sent to develop local solutions. Their answer was an Agrarian Revolution, decentralizing food production and redistributing land to the people of Cuba,14 while adopting a clear vision for monitoring and regulating resources, companies, and external investments.

Alternative Solar Energy Development

Cuba’s approach is not perfect, but it works, and it could serve as a model for Puerto Ricans to follow. While Cuba has focused on food, and food sovereignty is important for Puerto Rico, I want to suggest that Puerto Rico could adapt the Cuban model for energy. Right now, Puerto Rico spends $3 billion per year to import energy from external sources, and is always at the mercy of the fluctuations of the global market.15 That money could be redirected to a mix of local energy-development projects that includes solar as one of the principal sources of energy for local communities in the archipelago. Locally sourced and locally owned, that energy could advance not only Puerto Rico’s economy but also its solidarity.

In Puerto Rico, solar energy is about people, resilience, and dignity. People perceive solar energy as a positive alternative to the current energy system, which is entirely based on imported carbon, and therefore much more expensive for Puerto Ricans than for populations in other parts of the U.S. However, there are currently few means for Puerto Rico’s low-income communities to engage with solar in order to create social change. If a local technology-access mechanism is developed that could benefit those at the margins, a typical Puerto Rican family should be able to afford solar energy.16 The money that we could save could be used to pursue other projects that are important for us, such as cultural events, cinemas, local festivals, health centers, and schools.

In this solar-powered energy future that our team envisioned, which is captured in the story “Things That Bend, But Don’t Break” by S.B. Divya, the archipelago acts as a whole, and not at the level of individual cities and rural areas. The people prioritize mutual-aid programs, food-sovereignty projects, and water access—with solar energy to make them all possible. In the mountains, the solar panels are utilitarian, helping people navigate the challenges of a difficult landscape. Solar energy powers irrigation systems and the growing, processing, and transport of local, delicious food. In urbanized areas, by contrast, the panels are carnival-style and have multiple colors, adapting to local architecture and embodying the Caribbean flavor and culture.

Decreasing dependency on global energy markets, and creating a local market for energy products, catalyzes innovation to flourish. The jackfruit plays an important role in the archipelago as an local source of batteries for energy storage. Solar panels are combined with these batteries to reduce the environmental impacts of more traditional lead-acid batteries, which are common in Puerto Rico today. Using batteries made from jackfruits will help maintain the nightlife that is crucial to our culture by storing solar energy for nighttime use. Solar panels will be integrated with locally sourced biofuels, which will help reduce dependency on external solar-equipment markets. Solar energy and jackfruit batteries will be a new form of resistance!

Hope and Possibilities

In Puerto Rico, we know solidarity. We hold on to hope, despite a history of colonial invasions and corrupt leaders. I personally experienced hope and possibilities when, in April 2017, the students of the University of Puerto Rico system decided to go on strike for more than two months in what they called “Huelga de País.” During the strike, the students demanded a better present and future for Puerto Rico as a whole, not just for the student community. Later that same year, the island was devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The state was unable to serve their people, so Puerto Ricans and people in the diaspora engaged in efforts to move the country forward. As a consequence of the hurricanes, Puerto Rico was subjected to the longest blackout in United States history, and the communities most affected were the ones in rural areas. Two years later, in 2019, someone leaked conversations from within the commonwealth’s administration, which exposed corruption related to the aftermath of the hurricanes. These events encouraged people of all ages to protest, demanding new leadership and the eradication of the fiscal oversight board. Then, in January 2020, the south and the central part of the island were hit by earthquakes and aftershocks that continue today. People from all around the archipelago took a role in the disaster response and helped the people affected by delivering supplies and emotional support, when the state was not able to.

We have a community. We know solidarity. We have hope. We have the best intentions; it’s happening all over the archipelago. We also have collective memories of what matters to us and what we don’t want any longer. Our desires are very clear. People want a different future that nourishes us! All we need is to mobilize our passion, hope, and desires towards a joyful and happy future, towards systematic change, a social transformation for the greater good of the people, a sustainable future.

Toward Sustainability

If we can have cleaner air, culturally relevant food, and energy to run the local economy, what kinds of activities can the youth of Puerto Rico look forward to as they imagine the future of the archipelago? All of the energy that we invest in resisting injustice will transform into plazas de café, a right to leisure, having a community, and being happy. I imagine people in urban areas will spend a portion of their daytime in gardens, reclaiming our culture, and reconstructing ideas of a dignified life. The changes will happen, not perfect but possible. Why not a social transformation where we can live in harmony with land, people, and technologies? If we reshape and change our economies and our politics, a social transformation is possible.

I hope that the intention of the article about the dystopian future of Puerto Rico was to inspire the youth of Puerto Rico to imagine a different future and to work for it. We should keep holding our collective memory of happiness—and also injustice—to inform our future. Let’s keep dreaming and imagining the future. That is revolutionary.

1 Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act or PROMESA, S.2328, 114th Congress, Public Law No. 114-187 (2016). [Back]

2 Maximiliano Dueñas Guzmán, “Fin de la Crisis: El ELA es Transformado en el PREVA,” 80 Grados, February 5, 2016, [Back]

3 Geraldo Cardoso de Oliveira Neto, Luiz Fernando Rodrigues Pinto, Marlene Paula Castro Amorim, Biagio Fernando Giannetti, Cecília Maria Villas Bôas de Almeida, “A Framework of Actions for Strong Sustainability,” Journal of Cleaner Production 196 (2018): 1629-1643. [Back]

4 John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, “The Metabolism of Twenty-First Century Socialism,” in The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, Monthly Review Press, 2019: 401-422. [Back]

5 William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, M, “Urban Ecological Footprints: Why Cities Cannot be Sustainable—And Why They are a Key to Sustainability,” Urban Ecology 16, nos. 4-6 (1996): 223-248. [Back]

6 “En pobreza el 50% o más de la población en 36 Municipios de Puerto Rico,” Instituto de Estadísticas de Puerto Rico, [Back]

7 Omar Alfonso, “Viven y Juegan entre el arsénico de las cenizas de AES,” Centro de Periodismo Investigativo and La Perla Sur, August 20, 2019, [Back]

8 Elizabeth Beyer, “Community Solar for Sustainability in Puerto Rico,” Social Justice News Nexus, April 10, 2018, [Back]

9 Benjamín Torres Gotay, “Crisis de pobreza en el corazón de la isla,” El Nuevo Día, June 21, 2017, [Back]

10 J. Caraballo Cueto, G. Reyes Neco, L. Santiego Montanez, and R. Santiago Montanez, “Alimentos locales vs. Importados: Evidencia desde distintos supermercados,” Encuentro Estudiantil de Investigacion, Creacion y Servicio Comunitario, presented by Instituto de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias, [Back]

11 “Naufragio de barcaza refleja vulnerabilidad alimentaria de la Isla,” Primera Hora, October 5, 2015, [Back]

12 @RobbyCortes, “El chef Iván Clemente, de ‘El Comedor de la Kennedy’ habla en @JugandoPelotaPRsobre la realidad del hambre en #PuertoRico. Explica que brinda comida a 1,500 niños y 3,000 ancianos a la semana. Asegura solo ha recibido 300 libras de comida de @EDUCACIONPR, en gran parte expirada.” Twitter, April 27, 2020, 5:26 p.m., [Back]

13 José M. Atiles-Osoria, El Derecho en Conflicto: Colonialismo, despolitizacion, y resistencia en Puerto Rico, Universidad de los Andes, Colombia, 2018. [Back]

14 Faith Morgan, director, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, The Community Solution, 2006. [Back]

15 “Puerto Rico Territory Energy Profile,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, November 19, 2020, Accessed February 16, 2021. [Back]

16 “Creating Sustainable Communities in Puerto Rico (AMANESER 2025),” Alliance for Sustainable Resources Management, Global Ministries, Accessed February 16, 2021. [Back]

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Just a Start … to a “Revolutionary, Even Magical” Tale

By Joshua Sperling

Keynote Address by Tanama at the 20th Annual Conference on the Future, Delivered in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and on Multiple Virtual/Augmented-Reality Event Platforms, May 21, 2045

Puerto Rico is thriving! (A rousing cheer of support rises from the crowd as Tanama takes the stage.) Today, we have new opportunities, new innovations, new choices. For all of us—the people of Puerto Rico, our business community, everyone who has worked for years to create healthy economies, beautiful natural environments, rewarding lives, and inclusive, resilient communities—thank you!

Today, we can celebrate. Welcome, everyone. My name is Tanama. I bring you greetings from La Granja and from Puerto Rico. I am delighted to see all of you joining us from all around the globe. Twenty years ago, we started this movement at the first Conference on the Future, with a much smaller crowd. But even then, we knew that the ideas shared were important, and that if we could create the kind of inclusive revolution that we hoped for, we could leapfrog many of the problems of the past. We could truly fashion the “Community to Reinvent the World” and become a beacon of transformation for island populations and rural and urban communities everywhere. So many of you have been part of that journey, traveling to meet with us, to learn our story, and to share your own wisdom. It is amazing to think that we have finally arrived.

I stand here today, with my mother Maria, and my grandmother, Yaya, to invite you to share in a story of inclusive partnership and its power to make tremendous contributions to local, regional, national, and global economies. This is the story not just of my community, in La Granja, but of all of our communities, and of a truly remarkable revolution that we have achieved—and with ever-more-ambitious goals we are still working towards—through the construction of a shared vision built on the back of diverse lived experiences. For those of us who have lived this partnership, inclusion means three things. It means a commitment to bringing together diverse voices, especially from those that are infrequently heard, and the ideas, values, knowledge, and experiences that they bring to the table. It means a commitment to solutions that are inclusive of all facets of our well-being as human beings, living with nature: our bodies, minds, communities, markets, and our regenerative, “circular economy”-enabled environments benefiting all species. And it means a commitment to breaking down silos that often limit our conversation about technology and data to one sector at a time, recognizing that energy, mobility, buildings, water, food, waste, digital connectivity, health, ecology, economics, and other integrated “systems of systems” all have to work together to truly improve our lives, our planet, and our collective prosperity.

Only by taking a comprehensive approach—including diverse voices and knowledge, diverse facets of well-being, and diverse infrastructure systems (bringing together social, environmental, and digital sciences, and uniting design with engineering), and putting them to work in support of integrative outcomes—have we been able to become all of those things the experts now describe us as: lighthouse communities that serve as exemplars for others, self-sufficient nodes of community-resource security, integrated urban-services providers, and resilient, healthy neighborhoods. Places that meet our own current and future needs, restoring values of greater equality and inclusive transformations, while generating surplus value that also benefits surrounding areas, an interconnected nation and world, as well as future generations. This philosophy and moving from talking to action—with a wonderful global community—has enabled our integrated energy and mobility systems to offer leading examples of rapid decarbonization, thriving communities, and socioeconomic transformations that support this next “ecological era.”

Let me talk briefly about three key dimensions of our success: social, then economic, and then with a broader view toward sustainable infrastructure and technological systems. (Tanama points to the three banners hanging from the ceiling of the lecture hall at the University of Puerto Rico.)

The first dimension of inclusion is social. In response to the horrors of Hurricane Maria, COVID-19, and Super Hurricane Franklin—and the failure of both the U.S. and commonwealth governments to take these crises sufficiently seriously—we built a new partnership of Puertorriqueños, both locally and among the diaspora, like-minded Americans across the country, and global citizens to look for local, indigenous solutions. We had help from civil society, government, academic organizations, nonprofits, entrepreneurial incubator hubs, and finance. From the beginning, we focused on bringing in new youth and elderly voices, indigenous expert and global expert voices, and set out to design a new social contract of values, norms, and processes that embraced inclusion of diverse forms of knowledge and wisdom, financial resources, and power.

We struggled at first. Oh, the cacophony of good ideas. But we learned how to create meaningful deliberation and, especially, how to crowd-source ideas and solutions through citizen science. We were able to bring together architects, engineers, planners, social scientists, ecologists, cultural anthropologists, behavioral scientists, policy-makers, and more—not to tell us what to do but to collaboratively help us redesign our communities in more sustainable and resilient forms.

We put a special emphasis on gender. Cities and communities have too often neglected how women and men differ in their use of resources, construct and implement visions, or require distinct forms of support. We explored what women and men need in a community or city, learned how to support them and to see them as distinctly vital resources for community and economic health, and as crucial to all opportunities to invest in the community, city, and our overall success with improving everyone’s quality of life. That includes interacting with transportation systems, experiencing the results of planning and design, benefiting from entrepreneurial programs, or encountering challenges as a result of home and workforce pressures (which became particularly apparent during the COVID-19 crisis for many parents with children). This focus on gender helped us reimagine our world, shifting from a singular metric of economic growth to a tapestry of economic diversity that weaves together not just women and men, but also people of different races, religions, professions, and more. Together, we were able to address previous blind spots when it comes to catalyzing inclusive economic development, reducing the barriers to economic opportunities, and enhancing economic growth and environmental sustainability.

The second dimension of inclusion is economic. After the unemployment crises driven by Hurricane Maria, COVID-19, and Super Hurricane Franklin—and the austerity imposed by the Congressional oversight board—we were fortunate that the U.S. finally stepped in with generous support to create a new, local vision and approach that helped catalyze the transformation of Puerto Rico and allow us to become a model for the world. I know it seemed ungrateful to many of our American allies when, soon after, Puerto Rico rejected the idea of paying off debts to its external bondholders, scaring off outside investors and companies, who fled. What seemed chaotic and disruptive was ultimately beneficial, however, because it forced Puerto Rico for the first time in over a century to look inwards for new foundations of well-being and economic security. By rebuilding indigenous energy and food systems, we quit bleeding cash to pay for basic services and instead reinvested those dollars in local production, markets, and economic vibrancy. It wasn’t easy, but in the end we became self-sufficient, and a rich exemplar of the power of regenerative and circular economics.

The real revolution came when we shifted to a new definition of economy. For too long, the economists have measured human well-being in terms of wealth. In Puerto Rico, however, we have long understood that wealth is a poor stand-in for the vitality of a life well-lived. Economic freedom is not just the choice of who to work for, but of abundant choices and opportunities for rewarding, happy living. By focusing on critical basic services like energy, water, and food security, as well as on improvements in integrated services, and helping people learn how to use their access to new and emerging technologies to create diverse forms of value for themselves and their communities, we enabled significant new opportunities and cultural connectivity. To do this, we found ourselves rejecting the primary question asked by many “smart cities and communities” of the 2020s, “Do you want to build this cool technology?” and replacing it, instead, with a different approach: “Do you want to help our people and communities thrive?” The result was worth it. People improved their health, their education, their ability to age in place, their sense of community, and their engagement in community life. Perhaps most importantly of all, inequality dropped precipitously, as Puerto Rico rebuilt an economy for all, inclusive of people of different ages, genders, races, income levels, religions, and personal orientations.

The third dimension of inclusion is within our developing sustainable infrastructure and technological systems. With increasing populations, projected resource scarcities, and vulnerability to disasters, we needed to envision and reimagine how to build new, high-performing, cost-effective, and resilient infrastructures—harnessing technologies that could help to provide adequate drinking water, sanitation, waste management, flood control, electricity, transportation, and food security. I think most people don’t initially think about their phones and their waste systems as inclusive or exclusionary, but they are. We learned early on that, if we were to achieve our goals, it was essential to pursue novel innovations in the circular, regenerative design and operation of infrastructure sytems—redefined as human-physical-natural-digital systems and technology services at the nexus of energy, mobility, water, food, waste, etc. These systems had to work together in new ways if we were to leapfrog the historically siloed, marginalizing, and donor-driven approaches to service provision that increasingly struggled to respond to the pace, scale, and complexity of twenty-first century human development challenges, exacerbated by new climate-related risks and rapidly rising demands.

With our new “total design” philosophy, we’ve established new criteria for integrated systems design, management, continuous improvement, and ongoing dialogue—combining public, private, applied-research, and development sectors with community-based approaches—on an ever-wider solutions space that’s essential to human and ecological well-being. In turn, this has enabled novel approaches to renewable energy, treatment of water and wastewater, and the production of local food, all using closed-loop circular processes at near net-zero waste. This included rebates and incentives for used electric vehicles, with greater access to new renewable energy-powered-electric mobility technology services through car-sharing and ridehailing services in our communities; fast chargers for high-mileage drivers in our environmental-justice (EJ)-focused communities; and even new approaches to geofencing trucks in EJ communities, where a fee was paid unless vehicles used electric motors or plug-in hybrid-electric trucks, or post-2030 truck models. The result is greater equity in new sustainable infrastructure and technology adoption; improved communication; clean, affordable, reliable, and time-efficient transit and mobility systems; preserved green spaces for community recreation, biodiversity conservation, and storage of unique natural capital (a key to success); recycling, wastewater reuse, desalination, and advances in sanitation, with a focus on pandemic preparedness and prevention; and access to places that support selling and purchasing of clean, affordable, reliable electricity, fresh food, recycled goods, mobility, and safe drinking water. Together, we have achieved three infrastructure and integrated-technology-enabled revolutions—with an emphasis on inclusive definitions of sustainable infrastructure systems—that support a diversity of thriving communities:

  • A future with 100 percent renewable energy, with a localized, hybrid, partly distributed, partly centralized model for clean electricity generation. This model helps to inspire parallel movements to improve nutrition, access to local agricultural/greenhouse revolutions, grassroots water innovation, and decarbonized water-food systems, as well.
  • A future with 100 percent integration of efficient, affordable, electric, hydrogen, and biofuel-powered mobility systems, with services that work for all in a time-, cost-, and energy-efficient manner, across land, air, water, and/or digital spaces.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, a future of more equitable leadership with transparent, inclusive, digitally transformed governance and policy structures accessible to all, with 100 percent focus on “lifting the disadvantaged.”

La Granja was an example, for many, of the power of innovative infrastructure solutions to lift people out of poverty, but it was hardly the only one. So many communities, cities, and nations all over the world saw the light in those years: that infrastructure had become an instrument of colonization, debt, and poverty exacerbation, and that they could become beacons of transformation through technology redesign. So many places with infrastructures devastated by disaster and disease learned how to reject the politics of reacting to each crisis, in turn, and instead to build for the future. This shift in focus led to so many great ideas, proactive social-resilience approaches, and people-oriented technological and service integration advancements for sustainable, inclusive city and community futures, blossoming amidst a unique sociocultural and economic boom. Through the multiple energy, mobility, food, water, and digital transformations, it allowed for the maximization of talent, for new leadership, and for thriving places to live, play, work, or interact. I am so grateful for what we all learned together, and it is my hope that some of what we share over the next few days of this conference will help many new communities to “leapfrog” to a new future.

This idea of leapfrogging the destructive technologies of the past is so critical. Neither technology nor human development are path-dependent. As our great network has shown, it is possible to bypass the traditional fossil-fuel, resource-extractive “take-make-waste” forms of development and redevelopment stages associated with our (perhaps misguided historical term of) “more developed nations,” and instead jump forward to new forms of environmentally benign infrastructure systems that harness and cultivate natural capital. The idea came from Africa, where countries went straight to cellphones, bypassing landlines all together. Why not do the same for planning and delivery of sustainable, resource-secure, circular-economy and environmentally resilient approaches to energy and energy-related (e.g., water, food, waste, information and communication, transportation) technologies, systems, and integrated services? Richer communities, cities, or nations at similar levels of urbanization and development had become trapped in fossil-fuel-dependent choices, but we didn’t have to. We could skip to decarbonized, zero-pollution options that are increasingly ready for and adaptable to the increased frequency and intensity of storms, droughts, wildfires, sea-level rise, vector-borne diseases, and other threats of climate change, including accommodating climate-induced migration and refugees. From a macroeconomic standpoint, the shift to clean energy and local food production (including our exciting new vertical greenhouses) also enables less carbon and water leaving the island, improving opportunities for healthy living and the reservation of land for regenerative ecosystems, inspiring advances based on biomimicry design principles and criteria.

By refocusing on local energy generation (via solar, wind, and renewable-electricity-pumped hydro) and advances in energy storage—coupled with electric, efficient, and inclusive mobility options that were shared, high-mileage, and high-occupancy—we essentially kicked our dependence on imported oil and reduced dangerous air pollution. We also enabled increased reliance on, and alternative views of, our automated-connected-electric-shared vehicles, homes, and community spaces. We transformed our community parks, water, and wastewater facilities into shared, high-utilized, energy-generating, resource-recovering assets that have enabled thriving ecological environments and increased agricultural productivity.

In all of this, new forms of real-time data-driven governance and management of systems were also key. Through digital data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, we were able to take actions that saved us a lot of money, time, and inconvenience. This left room for monetary and creative capital to be reinvested into local smart community connectivity through digital-physical means. This empowered digital governance that enabled robust citizen engagement and sharing through inclusive design, making everyone visible and giving them voice, while also linking us to all of you. Through digital access to innovations, and through others learning about our rejection of imported energy and food in favor of local supply, local and global economists and engineers noted a shift of over $5 billion annually from imports to local and regional production, exports, and interest from global communities in our strategies (which helped reignite tourism, but now oriented toward mutual learning and exchange). It was just enough to turn Puerto Rico’s macroeconomics around, after the economic-environmental-health crises of the early twenty-first century.

While I’m leaving out so many details, this virtuous cycle has created positive, almost “magical” benefits for our local communities, as they have in so many other places, too. We are now able to recruit back young members of the diaspora excited by the prospect of making Puerto Rico a thriving home. We, like all of you, are attracting others from around the U.S. and the world to invest in novel start-ups that are leveraging lessons learned from Puerto Rico’s community and regional innovations to help rebuild communities around the world in a new model. In the twentieth century, Chicago gave us electric utilities, London and New York gave us finance, and Silicon Valley gave us information. Today, it is our turn. We—all of us in this network—are creating the foundations for a sustainable and resilient tomorrow, improving lives, livelihoods, and lived experiences in Puerto Rico and around the globe as the foundation for an increasingly healthy, secure, comfortable, affordable, abundant, and joyful future that inclusively advances opportunity for all. (Standing ovation.)

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