Munoz on Lloréns, 'Making Livable Worlds: Afro-Puerto Rican Women Building Environmental Justice'

Hilda Lloréns
Ysabel Munoz

Hilda Lloréns. Making Livable Worlds: Afro-Puerto Rican Women Building Environmental Justice. Decolonizing Feminisms Series. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2021. Illustrations. 222 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-74940-2; $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-74939-6.

Reviewed by Ysabel Munoz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) Published on H-Environment (February, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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Even when climate change-related events continue ravaging the tropics, the most ubiquitous narratives of the phenomenon often appear framed in terms of distant futurity and global collapse. Survival seems to be at stake, yet many have failed to listen to those who live and have lived for centuries at the center of the environmental, social, and economic devastation. Addressing this omission, Hilda Lloréns dedicates her recent volume, Making Livable Worlds: Afro-Puerto Rican Women Building Environmental Justice, to the ethical and epistemological contributions from Black women in Puerto Rico—affected by the pervasive triad of racism, sexism, and colonialism—to cope with ongoing disaster and turbulence.

The book focuses on disentangling the “practices of community building, mutual support, solidarity, care, and self-sufficiency” that have been cultivated on the island, enriching an almost nonexistent corpus of anthropological research dedicated to Afro-Puerto Rican women (p. 3). Inspired by roughly five years of fieldwork and previous experience, Lloréns introduces this disregarded knowledge conducting interviews with locals and observing the politics of their everyday practices, especially in rural Puerto Rico. She brings forward the islanders’ traditional methods to create other relations that strongly oppose forms of capitalist ruination. Additionally, the author introduces autobiographic accounts that allows her to reflect on diasporic, racial, and intergenerational tensions and the history of anti-Blackness in the nation.

In the four chapters and epilogue that integrate this compelling volume, the author brings together stories of Afro-Puerto Rican women, including her own, and explores how these women face radical forms of dispossession by cultivating cooperative relations and values and sharing resources as modes of survival. Simultaneously, the author and interviewees constantly challenge official narratives rendering Black Puerto Rican women as unproductive to perpetuate injustice and using discourses of mestizaje as excuse for ethnic erasure of Black and Indigenous folks. Two epistemologies are juxtaposed, that of the predominantly white creole intelligentsia in top positions and the wisdom passed down to generations by marginalized Black Puerto Rican women. Lloréns embraces these “herstories” eschewed by official histories and storytelling itself as radical vehicles for decolonization, fighting the “reduction of people to abstract data” and demonstrating the complex net of collaborations and labor carried out by these women (p. 48).

This aspiration becomes visible since chapter 1, where the concept of “matriarchal dispossession” reflects on how these women have been “devalued, marginalized, and far from history, the state, and its nation-building projects.” Despite the labels of unproductivity and of “social refuse” imposed on women outside the desirable conventional structures—motherhood within marriage, formal education, stable jobs, etc.—these unwed mothers and illegitimate daughters assert their existence through creative forms of providing for their families and communities, outside the government’s structures of bio/necropolitics (p. 20). They create “livable worlds” based on mutual support, caring, place-based ecological knowledge, and vast amounts of unpaid and unrecognized labor. Through the matrilinear history of her own family, constantly tumbling across interracial relationships, lack of documentation, orphanhood, and kinship, in this chapter, the author uses matriarchal dispossession as a poignant critique that describes “the encompassing forces—social, economic, legal, and political—of disposed racialization at work against Black women from enslavement through the present” (p. 45).

The piece stands out for not only the relevant topics it addresses but also the close reflection on the methods employed by Lloréns, particularly in chapter 2, “Doing Home-Work in the Motherland.” Here, the roles of the scholar, activist, and native are meticulously interwoven.[1] Using autobiography as a central component provides a unique access to Puerto Rican history, via the Lloréns family’s genealogy and her ethnographic research. The diasporic subject discovers herself in approaching the motherland by questioning the very biases in the researcher’s eye, an essential way to look at a Caribbean permeated by the “coloniality of power and knowledge.” By being in the flesh, she relies on her own embodied and “situated knowledge” as a form of decolonial praxis and imbues the research with the often overlooked effects of the postcolonial world, full of ambiguities, such as belonging and “outsiderness” (p. 62).

Lloréns opens this chapter with a poem encapsulating the troubled relation with migration and home environments. The ways migrants (re)imagine, protect, love, and relate to homeland environments, and the connotations of coming back, frame the sort of diasporic ecology she presents. Readers learn how the connection with the island is kept alive when feelings of not rootlessness, and actual plans of the United States to drain Puerto Rico’s workforce, usher families to migrate there, where they find other types of dispossession. Here, there is special attention to place as a category shaped by gender and race, examining, for example, how regions that were difficult to access became shelter for Black fugitives. These were transformed into “black spaces” (like mangrove areas), largely dismissed by urban creole elites, and later turned into “sacrifice zones” with the expansion of polluting industries, such as oil refineries (p. 68).

Chapter 3, “Life-Affirming Practices,” emphasizes lessons for decolonizing fieldwork practices and closely approaches the evolution of environmentalism and environmental justice in the nation. It provides a solid piece of ethnographic work focused on environmental projects and community initiatives with women as the main protagonists in building “meaningful and sustainable lives” (p. 88). The rapid mobilization and strong partnerships that these groups execute, facing such challenges as hurricanes and toxic dumping, all the while practicing and advocating for self-sustenance, contrast sharply with the government’s inertia and inefficiency. Especially Hurricane Maria allows an exploration of the country’s mismanagement, privatization, lack of sovereignty, loss, and dependence on fossil fuel—producing the largest blackouts ever recorded.

Lloréns describes the women from the Initiative for the Eco-development of the Jobos Bay as “‘doers,’ creators, community and bridge builders, and defenders of the natural environment” and thus considers them as ecofeminists, following the early account from Vandana Shiva and Greta Gaard, key figures in ecofeminism. Although these authors still are seminal sources, much theorization has been done since, warning, for example, about the caveats of essentialization and naturalization of roles of women as caretakers systematically overburdened.[2] Even if Lloréns does not engage explicitly with contemporary ecofeminist scholarship, the main preoccupations of the field are largely present in her work. Importantly, she discusses how environmental work becomes gendered and lacks due recognition, illustrating the tensions between the performances of environmental and reproductive work that remain essential for building truly just sustainable futures.

In the fourth chapter, “Living with/in Ecological Catastrophe,” the author turns toward the organized actions by local communities to assert their survival amid the hardships left by Hurricane Maria. Community members relied on self-established protocols and improvised strategies in the face of disaster, able to support each other in vital actions, such as cooking, filtering water, rationalizing resources, and educating youngsters. Even the estranged Puerto Rico’s diaspora, seen until then with suspicion within the country, stepped up and immediately provided necessary aid. Conversely, the author critiques the predatory journalism that ensued, with reporters exploiting the pain of survivors. This, and an early analysis of the reception of the 2019 documentary After Maria, allows Lloréns to delve into the paradoxes of damage-centered research.[3] In this pivotal chapter, the author explores the vision of a post-hurricane Puerto Rico by revealing how the inhabitants worked together and navigated the extreme circumstances prompted by the phenomenon, exacerbated by the economic and political conditions she so aptly describes.

Although numerous examples of the everyday ecological practices appear throughout the book, in the “Epilogue: A Word about Black Puerto-Rican Ecological Knowledge,” Lloréns provides a vivid scene of Puerto Rico’s coastal communities. Here, the reader can find specific examples of human and nonhuman communities coexisting sustainably through, for instance, solar panel installations, seasonal fishing and foraging, gardening, low-tech surveillance mechanism (neighbors’ watch), and use of plants and herbs for medicine. The author praises these alternative lifestyles, often literally off the (official electric) grid, that emerge from apparent dispossession—this time understood in strict capitalist terms.

It would have been beneficial to emphasize more in the book that when an ecological ethos converges with material scarcity, the matter should be addressed carefully. Lloréns states, for example, that “Black and majority Afro-descendant communities in the archipelago tend to be among the most socioeconomically disadvantaged and, as result, tend to engage in much more sustainable consumption practices” (p. 167). Although true, this requires a critical discussion to avoid flattening the issue by conflating scarcity and sustainability in these terms. Suffice it to say that Lloréns makes clear the crucial caveat of avoiding romanticizing scarcity when approaching environmental justice. Yet it would be worth it to reflect on the dangers of relying on these facts without engaging with simultaneous global pushes for “development” that could dilute these practices. It is clear, however, that some of the informants attempted to precisely escape capitalist ruins and sought comfort in a nature “not for the fainthearted” (hurricanes, sea level rise, etc.). Lloréns identifies them as “present-day maroons,” thus highlighting the values and wisdom “built and passed down intergenerationally” and the framing of “sociality, solidarity, and mutuality [as] resilient systems” (pp. 167, 168).

In every instance, the history of Black Puerto Rican women loudly resonates with other Caribbean islands, giving this book the uttermost importance for approaching environmental justice in the region. Powerful and beautifully written, Making Livable Worlds opens an ecofeminist archive that invites researchers to extend this kind of study to other islands. It also provides inspiration on how to undertake this task with such methods as autoethnography, which will hopefully become more ingrained in the toolbox of young Caribbeanist scholars. Contesting hegemonic epistemologies, Lloréns declares that “if the archipelagic ecosystem is to survive the devastation of climate change, it’s time to learn from Black Puerto Ricans” (p. 169). Her book is a path to this knowledge, providing much-needed insight on how to learn from and with them, through place-based research. It also contributes to understanding the failure of capitalist promises in the Caribbean, as a stark reminder of the necessity of self-sufficiency in these islands. Lastly, one of the most important attributes of this work is that we hear through Lloréns myriad voices presented not as heroines or victims but as women making the best out of their imposed dispossession. These unruly matriarchs disobey and reject, not only making livable worlds but also inspiring to make better this world we live in, showing life outside and despite capitalist ruination.


[1]. For more on the debate on native researchers in anthropology, see Zoe Todd, “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word for Colonialism,” Journal of Historical Sociology 29, no. 1 (2016): 4-22.

[2]. For insights on ecofeminism as a political project and answers to its criticism, see Sherilyn MacGregor, “Making Matter Great Again? Ecofeminism, New Materialism and the Everyday Turn in Environmental Politics,” Environmental Politics 30, nos. 1-2 (2021): 41-60. For approaches to ecowomanism/Black ecofeminism, see Melanie L. Harris, "Ecowomanism: Black Women, Religion, and the Environment, The Black Scholar 46, no. 3 (2016): 27-39.

[3]. See Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Our Communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79, no. 3 (2009): 409-27.

Citation: Ysabel Munoz. Review of Lloréns, Hilda, Making Livable Worlds: Afro-Puerto Rican Women Building Environmental Justice. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL:

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