Matilde Colon rode out Hurricane Maria with family. On the morning after the storm, she learned that the winds had destroyed her wooden house.
“My world fell apart,” she said. “I was left with nothing.”
She moved in with her son in Mariana, a little town about a half hour from her home in eastern Puerto Rico. Soon after she became really depressed.
Many others across the island experienced similar feelings of sadness and low mood. In the weeks after the hurricane, public health officials warned that Puerto Rico was experiencing a mental health crisis driven by Maria’s devastation. Calls to the suicide hotline skyrocketed, and people showed signs of post-traumatic stress.
But in Mariana, which sits in the low mountains of Humacao, a small group of local women found comfort in cooking — and in each other’s company.
In a standalone cement room equipped with commercial ranges and stainless steel sinks, Maria Laboy weaves in and out of the other women bustling around her. They’re elegant — hair done, eyebrows painted, in colorful aprons.
“We all live by ourselves,” she said. “I live by myself, she lives by herself”–she pointed to other women, one by one–,“she lives by herself.”
They’re in their 60s, 70s, 80s. Most lost something during the storm.
After Maria, about seven of the women began gathering in the town’s hilltop community center, which has an industrial kitchen. The kitchen is used for an annual festival, but after the storm a group of activists turned it into a community eatery, putting the women to work serving food every day. At first the women used generators to power their work; then the kitchen was upgraded with donated solar panels and a big battery.
The workday starts around 8 in the morning. The women prepare whatever is affordable at the local market — fried chicken, rice, chickpeas, beans. Each woman has a specialty.
“We started by bringing food to bedridden people, to people in the neighborhood who were sick,” Maria Martinez said. That included her own daughter, who broke a leg during the storm.
Community members without power at home started showing up, sometimes hundreds per day, so the women fed them. Then they started feeding volunteers from the mainland who’d arrived to help with various projects.
On the day I visited, the Salvation Army had dropped off boxes of food and diapers, so the little mountaintop was teeming with people.
“Today I cooked the rice dos veces” – two times – “because too many people today,” Martinez said.
“We get together, instead of being in the home lonely and by yourself and depressed, we just spend the day here,” Maria Laboy said. She says the women laugh, argue, make up.
“It’s nice. You don’t need a psychologist, you don’t need a therapist, you don’t need nothing, because we have it here. This is like therapy for us.”
The women around her nod and repeat versions of this sentiment.
Matilde Colon, who lost her house, says they’ve become her sisters.
“Now I feel good,” she said.