Nov. 8, 2012 -- In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, community-based volunteers led by Occupy Wall Street supporters have emerged to fill the void left by FEMA, and The American Red Cross. In less than a week, the Occupy Sandy grassroots movement has raised more than $264,000 in relief for New York's hardest hit neighborhoods, and established a network of volunteers and materials that is empowering people to rebuild their communities.
Supporters of Occupy Wall Street credit their ability to respond quickly to the needs of people in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Red Hook and Coney Island in Brooklyn, Astoria and Rockaway in Queens, and Staten Island, to the profound sense of solidarity that their community-based network has promoted for over a year, bringing people to work together from different places and social backgrounds. But for a group of activists who helped organize Occupy's relief effort from a hub in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, this solidarity is also emblematic of their Latino identity and heritage.
When Occupy organizers approached the Mexican community leader Juan Carlos Ruiz, 43, a week ago to ask for permission to use the basement of St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park as a distribution hub for dispensing water, food, clothing, and other materials to people in areas that were damaged by the storm, he saw it as a natural extension of the volunteer work that he carries out at the Lutheran temple, which was originally founded by German immigrants in 1889.
While churches are often perceived as conservative institutions, many temples have become refuges and meeting places throughout American history, where people could address economic, political, and social injustices. And for Ruiz, who was ordained as a Catholic priest, these parishes are much more than a destination where believers commute to feel closer to God. For Latinos, he explained in an interview with Univision News, they are also places where they can reaffirm their cultural and religious values, and channel the spirit of God to promote a greater sense of solidarity in their immigrant communities.
"If you do not find God out there," he said referring to the immigrant communities in Sunset Park, "you will not find him in here. The spirit of God is present in your neighbors, when you live day to day in solidarity." And this communal spirit, Ruiz upholds, is the essence, the soul, of both Latino immigrants and Occupy Wall Street.
Similarly, for the Bolivian activist Diego Ibañez, 24, who helped organize Occupy's relief effort from Sunset Park, the movement's horizontal organizing strategies are also reminiscent of the village and family networks of indigenous groups in Latin America. "Modern societies have become very individualized, only worried about looking out for themselves," he said. "And this is something that indigenous communities have resisted. Their principles make them look out for each other. And the way that Occupy approaches people, [soliciting] the use of their homes and stores to serve the community, is very much like the horizontalism that sustains indigenous communities."
Cinthya Santos, 28, a Mexican anthropologist who works with indigenous groups in New York, and also volunteers at St. Jacobi Church, explained that indigenous communities are organized comparably to Occupy, with work groups where they delegate community responsibilities amongst themselves, and participate in assemblies to address issues concerning land, water, electricity, and other matters. Santos also highlighted that carrying out these communal duties, known as "tequios" or "faenas" in Spanish, is a source of pride, which prioritizes the community's values.
Latin America historian Greg Grandin similarly explains in his 2011 updated edition of The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War, how religious and family networks, while having enforced in some cases "oppressive hierarchies" in Latin America, nurtured collective identities that elevated the "common good over individual interests." Rural life also made farmers more interdependent, relying on each other to harvest crops. And this proximity to nature compelled them to be more environmentally conscious, therefore developing and maintaining a stronger connection with the lands they cultivated and the animals they bred.
In this sense, being environmentally conscious not only awakens Latin American immigrants to reconnect with their rural pasts, but it can also make them empathize with the needs of others in large cities like New York. The activist Patricia Gonzalez, 24, who also helped organize Occupy's Sunset Park Sandy relief effort, explained that defending environmental rights in Puerto Rico enabled her to assert her Puerto Rican identity, and develop a stronger sense of placement regarding who she is and how she wants to live. Later in New York, those same concerns for the environment taught her that climate change is not only specific to the Caribbean island, but a much more encompassing global problem.
While St. Jacobi Church has attracted as many as 1,500 volunteers in one day, and prepared as many as 15,000 meals in one day this past weekend, Ibañez explained that the ongoing mission of Occupy's hurricane relief effort is to make people aware that climate change is not an isolated event. He urges those who were unaffected by Sandy in New York, and others around the world, to remember that thousands are currently displaced by the storm. "This isn't someone else's problem," he said evoking the communal spirit that he first experienced in Bolivia and then with Occupy in New York. "It's a problem that affects all of us."
Occupy's Sandy relief hubs currently need more food, materials for cleaning and rebuilding, and volunteers. Specific demands for materials and help are posted on their community website here.