He sees his community as the protagonist of its future.

On a windy Friday afternoon last month, Mario Núñez Mercado stood on the Martín Peña Bridge and peered down at Caño Martín Peña, an urban waterway bisecting San Juan, Puerto Rico from east to west. The channel is littered with plastic bottles, wads of paper, and rusted appliances.

He explained what happens below after a heavy rain. Water pools into the clogged crevices of the channel and mixes with raw, untreated sewage from thousands of homes. If it rains hard enough, the noxious mixture becomes a river, flooding homes and threatening the health of 26,000 people who live in communities along the channel.

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, the most powerful hurricane to hit the island since 1932, conditions here were untenable. Cases of Zika and dengue fever spiked and rats roamed the streets. The people of Caño communities felt abandoned — state and government help seemed nonexistent.

A retired Puerto Rico Department of Housing employee, Mario was born and raised near the channel and is now a volunteer with the ENLACE Project, a community-led initiative to restore Caño Martín Peña.

“I’m motivated by the needs we have in our community, especially by the residents who need tools to fight for the right to housing, the right to education, and the right to health,” Mario said. “I became a voice for those who don’t have a voice. We should all be actors in the decision making, the design and the aspirations of our communities.”
“After Maria, so many people lost their homes. We were the first face many of the residents saw after the hurricane. We were the first ones to come to help and verify that this is not a lost cause.”
“The community is finally taking its place as the protagonist of its future. People are not waiting for someone else to make decisions for them.”

The ENLACE Project is raising funds on GlobalGiving to build hurricane-resilient zinc roofs for 12 families with young children or members who are 65 or older. They’re also coordinating a massive civic leadership effort to restore the channel to a pristine condition, in a way that respects the rights of the people who live near it.

Learn more about the ENLACE Project.

This is a story from GlobalGiving’s “After the Storm” series.