“If I tell you I can, I will. This is how trust develops.”

It is with these words that Mariny Vázquez directs the series of community assemblies “El Barrio Habla” (The Neighborhood Speaks) in 14 Naguabo communities on the east coast of Puerto Rico.

After being invited by community leader Tayna Fernández, we at Atma Connect, had the honor of witnessing communities gather together to foster citizen participation. Indeed community development is one of Atma’s main missions.

These conversations have already been carried out in three communities in Naguabo: Peña Pobre, Fernández’ community; Estancias de Húcares; and Tropical Beach, and will soon spread to the rest of the communities in the municipality.

With the purpose of gaining perspective on the needs and interests of each community, Vázquez developed three maps of affinity with community participants. Each map addressed:

  1. the community’s biggest concerns
  2. identifying the tangible things residents would like to accomplish, and
  3. how one, as a resident, can actively participate in government

Despite their geographical closeness, the three communities each have a unique character, particular needs and different dreams.

For Peña Pobre residents, the most alarming concern is its infrastructure. Schools, recreational areas and roads are in a state of neglect and deterioration. The school, above all, represents a place where children can go to educate themselves, make friends and cultivate their culture. Sometimes, the need is not limited to having a physical school structure; there is also a need for a robust educational program that can offer opportunities to children. Recreational areas are lost, covered by weeds or debris, and roads encourage residents to travel to other municipalities to avoid possible damage to their vehicles.

Given these needs, the community of Peña Pobre reached a consensus on three projects that they will develop as a priority:

  1. attend to the school and provide tutoring services for children,
  2. have a space to attend to the health of residents, and
  3. improve roads.

The group selected a slogan – #chooseyourhoyo (choose your pothole!) – to raise awareness and possibly make their road improvement project go viral.

Meanwhile, residents of Estancias de Húcares presented their concerns in the areas of security and the number of abandoned houses that have become public nuisances, attracting, among other things, wild animals. Despite being a marginalized community almost since its inception, the residents of Estancias have come together in recent years and have championed the betterment of their community, even setting up a house as a community center. As they say, “Before they didn’t see us, they didn’t listen to us and they didn’t feel us. Now we are the ones that are seen, the ones that are heard, and the ones that are felt.”

The first community project, as part of El Barrio Habla, is to rescue its recreational areas so they can be enjoyed and used for community projects. Community members plan to carry out sports clinics and art and culture workshops focused especially for their children.