The Martín Peña Channel Communities

The Martín Peña Channel communities are leading the way to more equitable and just societies by asserting community self-governance, participatory democracy, and collective ownership of land. Up until the 1920s, the Martín Peña Channel—which stretches for nearly 4 miles and connects the city’s two largest bodies of water in San Juan, the island’s capital and most populous city—was a major waterway used for transportation and commerce. Soon, working class families settled in the area, and created the first community, Barrio Obrero. Over the next two decades, peasants displaced by hurricane San Ciprián, the Great Depression, and industrialization moved into the area’s swamplands, expanding the region to eight communities— Barrio Obrero Marina, Buena Vista Santurce, Cantera, Israel Bitumul, Buena Vista Hato Rey, Parada 27, and Las Monjas. While the living conditions in these communities were often dire—there was no running water and raw sewage was dumped in the area—these settlements produced vibrant communities with a firm attachment to place. Currently, the Caño has 25,000 residents.

For decades, the Caño’s situation and its proximity to the affluent areas of Hato Rey and the “Golden Mile,” the island’s main banking center, made it a symbol of colonial, racist, and class violence that the communities confronted. This is evident in writer Julia de Burgos’ celebrated poem, “From the Caño Martín Peña Bridge” (1938) and José Luis González’s classic short story, “En el fondo del caño hay un negrito” (At the bottom of the channel there is a black boy,1950). Yet, despite the current lack of an adequate sewage system as well as the continual pollution and flooding, the Caño is increasingly recognized as a model. In 2016, the Caño received the UN World Habitat Award for its initiative to address issues affecting human settlements.

The residents of the Caño Martín Peña demanded that they be the protagonists of the decision-making process regarding their communities. After 17 years working and fighting together, we have achieved it.
— Lucy Cruz, president, Grupo de las Ocho Comunidades (G-8)

The communities’ ability to promote equality and horizontal leadership challenges assumptions about what societies truly require to flourish. The Caño’s communities are led by Grupo de las Ocho Comunidades Aledañas al Caño Martín Pena, Inc. (G-8), a community based non-profit organization that comrprises 12 grassroots organizations. The G-8 oversees and collaborates with the ENLACE Project Corporation, a government entity that pursues the environmental renewal of the area, and Fideicomiso de la Tierra del Caño Martín Peña (a community land trust) created in 2004. The land trust model allows the communities to govern themselves without fear that their land will be sold, while ensuring safe and accessible housing for all. Residents work together to ameliorate air quality, ensure the health of residents, and pressure the government to dredge the channel. Committed to the idea that housing is a human right rather than a commodity, the community also prioritizes the building of safe, permanent and affordable housing without creating financial burdens for the residents. Ultimately, the G-8 seeks to ensure the local communities’ collective ownership and management of the land for the benefit of its residents. ¡El Caño Vive!

In their own words, El Caño Martín Peña and the Fideicomiso:

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