In the Afro-Caribbean heart of Puerto Rico, locals fight erosion, government indifference – USA TODAY

Vctor Rodrguez-Velzquez, Report for America Published 7:00 a.m. ET Feb. 6, 2020

Loza, Puerto Rico, is filled with palm trees, unassuming bars, bomba music, beautiful beaches and strong-willed locals who refuse to be forgotten.

LOZA, Puerto Rico The waves crashed loudly on the collapsed ruins of the Paseo del Atlntico, a walkway that once partially protected residents here from the volatile ocean. Erosionalong this northernmost coast of Puerto Rico, nearly 20 miles east of San Juan, precipitated the promenade's destruction for more than a decade and, in 2012, it finally fell into the Atlantic, exposing the Parcelas Surez neighborhood to the water's edge.

Its 1,560 localsnow fear dailyfor their homes and lives.

Parcelas Surez straddles Lozas gloried waterfront. Its largely Afro-Caribbean communityhas little choice but to be active in the fight for its futureand holdthe federal and local government responsible for bad decision-making in planning their communities, developing projects on the coasts and the lack of follow up.

The mayors office keeps a running tally of the towns community leaders currently 32 as they search for assistance, claims and services for the nearly 25,000who reside in Loza.

In Loza, when something is missing, we work together, community leader Modesta Irizarry says. She recallsthe recovery from Hurricane Maria, in 2017, when the womenjoined forces to prepare food for people in shelters and worked to financially support their families by making and selling handicrafts.

They also joined forces to demand that the Army Corps of Engineers decide on what kind of project they would develop to protect Parcelas Surez from falling into the ocean.

A community center that was destroyed by the coastal erosion in Loza, Puerto Rico, in June 2019.(Photo: Vctor Rodrguez-Velzquez/Centro de Periodismo Investigativo)

Alexis Correa Allende, 35, witnessed the Paseo del Atlnticos ruination, along with a prized community center, and has served as his neighborhoods community board spokesman in Loza since 2012. Allende doesnt have a formal education in public administration or politics; he is driven by concern for the safety of his neighbors and by his outrage at how the government continues to turn its back on his town.

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He carries a folder of plans, coastal erosion studies and federal proposals alongside meeting notes, letters, emails and arguments he has made on behalf of the community before the Department of Natural Resources and Lozas municipal government, as well as the resident commissioner, Jenniffer Gonzlez-Coln, Puerto Rico's sole representative to the U.S. Congress.

As spokesman, Allende pushed the Corps of Engineersto allocate $5.2 millionin funds for the construction of a breakwaterto protect the coastline and residents here. That money was allocated in 2018, but construction has yet to break ground.

Meanwhile, the waves continue to encroach.

The Lozamunicipality is a place of narrow streets and pastel corners, each of which lead inevitably to the ocean. The city is filled with palm trees and "chinchorros,"traditional, unassuming bars or shops where residents, called Loiceos, drink together and sell fried local food and natural coconut water.

The Loiceos are noble people, fighters who descend from enslaved Africans brought to this Spanish colony from the early 1500s.Most were located in towns on the coasts, such as Loza, to work the sugarcane fields. Rare amid Puerto Ricos jibaro culture,which imagines a white, Puerto Rican countryman ideal,the Loiceos defend fiercely their African heritage.

As opposed to11% of all Puerto Ricans, 38% of Loza residents identify as black, a conservative figure, according to several community leaders.

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Historically, Loza is largely forgotten by the government, private industry, the news media and Puerto Ricans themselves. Over 50%of its population lives in poverty, according to 2019 Census estimates. But its crystal beaches, lively gastronomy and culture survive, such as "bomba,"a traditional dance and musical style rooted in the island's history of slavery, and which has evolved into an expression of Afro-Puerto Rican culture.

People here have long fought for their communitys future. Like the coconut seller who asked a reporter to move as he knocked fruit from the tree, locals find creative ways to maintain their livelihood, to survive. And they attribute that survival to their African heritage. It can be seen in the colors of their clothes: yellow, green and red. Or in the turbans some women use in their hair. But this heritage can also be glimpsed in Lozas cuisine, in which fish, salmorejo (a tomato puree), juice, cassava, banana and coconut standout.

Modesta Irizarry, a community leader, in Loza, Puerto Rico, in June 2019.(Photo: Vctor Rodrguez-Velzquez/Centro de Periodismo Investigativo)

In Loza, the cradle of black culture in Puerto Rico, dishes are eaten by the sea after theyve been worked with a kind of Afro-Tano technique, then cooked on a buren, a clay surface heated by stones. Here, the coconut trees and gastro tradition are as fundamental to the areas identity as the sea. But it hasnt been easy to maintain the richness of that heritage as the community simultaneously battles poverty, a declining population,eroding coasts and the ever shifting challenges of U.S. presence in Puerto Rico, where it has had authority since 1898, only one year after the island established self-rule from Spain.

The sea demands the space that we take away, says Irizarry, sitting before an eroding Loza beach. Parcelas Surez"has been struggling for years."

Whether it can persevere in sustaining the community and culture that distinguish Loza is to be seen.

Vctor Rodrguez-Velzquez covers finance and government for Centro de Periodismo Investigativo. This dispatch is part of a series called On the Ground with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow him on Twitter: @Viktor_Rodz


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