Text: Sidd Joag
Video editing and camera: Karla Claudio-Betancourt
Producer and director of video: Esteban Figueroa
Additional footage: Saul Betancourt, Julio Fernandez
A massive colonial figure made of steel and concrete lies twisted on its side, on a traffic island in the middle of a roundabout in Caguas. “It looks like a work of paper, not a work of metal,” says María Elena Perales, who is considered Puerto Rico’s preeminent woman sculptor. “I never thought it would fall down, I used the best materials for a tropical climate and worked with structural engineers. Everything was factored in. So, it was, inconceivable,” Perales says. The colonial figure is folded almost 90 degrees at its base, and he looks as though he was cut down at the ankles by an enemy. The sword he brandishes seems bent, as if overpowered by a superior blade in battle.
For close to forty years, Perales has made monuments to Puerto Rican history, culture, and identity around the world. Her obvious gravitas is testament to her importance in the canon of Puerto Rican sculpture. Many of her most iconic sculptures reside in her home town. She describes her work and thinking as “not about our history, but about our roots.”
Perales was alone in Caguas when Hurricane Maria tore across the island. Since she couldn’t see what was happening, she sat and listened. She says that after the storm, it was calm. She didn’t sleep that night; she listened and waited till sunrise.
That morning, she recalls “There was no green. Everything looked burned, destroyed.”
Inside Samuel Lind’s studio, tacked to the wall, is an unfinished painting of a single palm tree standing amidst many broken ones. He says it will be titled “Still Standing,” as he points to the newly built rafters and roof. Much of Lind’s studio was destroyed during Hurricane Maria, and he quickly set about to rebuild in the aftermath, enlisting his students to help. He says that individuals and collectives were not eligible for the loans being parsed out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), so they had to figure it out on their own.
Lind brings up the aid convoys from Cuba and Venezuela to Puerto Rico that were turned away by the U.S. government by the same embargo on aid that denied the people of New Orleans support from these countries in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in 2004. A simple “no, thanks,” a megalomaniacal refusal of support made on behalf of tens of thousands of people in desperate need, without their consultation.
Yet, over a year after the storm, by varying estimates, a third of the island is still without electricity, clean drinking water, enough to eat, or proper health care access. Many of those worst affected live in more remote areas of the island, dependent on basic relief aid that is entirely unreliable and insufficient. In San Juan and other urban areas, major streets and expressways are still without working streetlights, damaged buildings sit abandoned, unemployment steadily increases, and an estimated 283 schools are being shuttered as the island witnesses a mass exodus, estimates ranging from tens of thousands to over 100,000 leaving and a death toll reaching upwards of 3,000. While some U.S. officials have flatly denied these figures, many Puerto Ricans believe the statistics have been deliberately covered up, with “bribery buying silence.”
Given the deliberate negligence of the U.S. government and their blockading of outside assistance, it seems that full recovery and redevelopment will take years, if it is ever realized. In the meantime, and in search of opportunity, Puerto Ricans continue to migrate to the mainland, while those who remain on the island are ghettoized.
“This island is for sale,” says Saul Betancourt, leaning in close. He almost whispers the words—a painful secret, that everyone already seems to know. Betancourt is a photographer who works in the Puerto de Tierra neighborhood of San Juan, a community highly-impacted by the hurricanes. He believes that the government’s negligence and mismanagement is a deliberate strategy to vacate a significant percentage of the island’s population. The double whammy of Hurricanes Irma and Maria created an ideal situation for corporate land grabbing to be carried out seamlessly. According to Maricruz Rivera Clemente, holding a title to land under current law precludes support from FEMA. This creates an incentive-reward system for Puerto Ricans to give up the right to their land in exchange for relief. The longer the situation unravels, the more that land is relinquished to corporate developers.
For 19 years, Rivera Clemente has run the Piñones Cultural Center, a gallery and performance space northeast of the city. As a result of the slave trade and labor migration, port areas became home to African immigrants, merchants, and fishermen, and have created a gateway of influence of their culture on Puerto Rico. These communities have long lived under the threat of land seizure and uneven development. According to Rivera Clemente, the 1898 invasion of Puerto Rico, “changed all the structures on the island,” and laid the foundation for decades of draconian legislation and the implementation of social development programs that advanced the imperialist interests of the U.S. at the expense of Puerto Ricans.
The mission of the Piñones Cultural Center is “to honor the Africans who made Puerto Rico what it is.” Occupying a full wall at one end of the space is an installation by Daniel Lind, one of Puerto Rico’s most prolific contemporary artists and cousin to Samuel Lind. Using materials common to the island—coconut shells, palm leaves—and objects given to him by people he encounters—kettles, working tools, and other implements emblematic of slave labor—he creates haunting sculptural works that embody subjugation under, and resistance to, colonial violence. Some pieces are adorned with flora that are stewarded to adulthood and then replanted in nature, what artist Esteban Figueroa refers to as “a giving back to the earth.” An incisive and visceral critique of power structures and the grave contradictions that comprise a colonial identity.
To Rivera Clemente, “Puerto Rico’s association with the U.S. has hindered it from developing a Caribbean identity” or solidarity with neighbors who might be relied on in times of crisis. It is for this reason Rivera Clemente says that she sees the space itself as an act of resistance, “challenging the dominant narrative and preserving the spiritual life of communities.” In “fighting displacement with art,” she cites fighting the resignation of younger generations as a major challenge. Painfully slow rebuilding efforts and mass outward migration means businesses stay closed for longer while unemployment rates rise. This has contributed to a growing disillusionment amongst people who have been struggling to imagine, let alone sustain a livelihood on the island. Because of their status as pseudo-citizens, Puerto Ricans can travel to the U.S. at will, the only benefit they are afforded in the midst of this disaster. And though Rivera Clemente acknowledges that the situation is dire, she adds with confident smile, “three generations of leaders have come from this neighborhood.”
“There is no light, artists come in to the light,” says María Elena Perales, recalling that “as soon as the storm passed, people started making art from scrap materials found in the wreckage as well as about the storm itself.” Independent exhibitions and events popped up from “municipality to municipality,” everyone sharing what they could. With so much “spare time, there’s nothing else to do but create,” says Perales, emphasizing the necessity of innovation when resources are scarce. “Us and politics, that was all that was left,” after the storm.
Some thirty-five people line up next to a flatbed truck stacked with cardboard boxes that sits in a parking lot on the side of Highway 123, a narrow winding road that cuts through the mountains from north to south across the island. The stamp on the windshield reads WorldVision, an initiative that has been distributing relief aid since October 2017, in partnership with a local church. Women’s Hope Kits, Coleman Stoves, Bernzomatic Camping gas cans, insulated two-gallon jugs of water, and Valley Food Systems boxes, 16 meals per box.
While this scene is common across the island, activists dispute the efficacy of these initiatives, citing them as little more than photo opportunities and political leverage for the corporations that subsidize these efforts and their government cronies. After the storm, newly branded Coca-Cola cans, an image of arms embracing the slender tin structures, hit the streets before clean drinking water. One such conglomerate initiative is Unidas Por Puerto Rico (Unidas PPR), which positioned itself in the media as the frontline of humanitarian aid in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. However, in terms of real impact, the figures vary greatly depending on the source. Because parts of the island are still difficult to access, and with no comprehensive qualitative impact assessment plan, administrative oversight has become a problem endemic to the relief efforts. The convolution has manifested in situations where “cargo ships are sitting in ports, while food in storage is rotting,” says artist and community organizer Jose “Bubu” Negron.
Negron, a member of the arts collective Brigada Puerta de Tierra, has turned away from the bureaucracy and ambiguity involved in accessing relief funds. “You need to have [extensive] organizational paperwork to access the money” — a certification process that can be exhausting, ultimately costing significant time and money without yielding adequate benefits for the community. With regards to supplies that are wasting in storage, according to Negron, the government’s excuse was that “no transportation was available” to bring relief aid to the people it was sent for.
Luis Leduc, another member of Brigada PDT, says that initiatives like Unidas PPR, that amass huge amounts of money but have little do with the process of rehabilitation, “make you distrust NGOs.” The fact that Unidas PPR was launched by the Governor’s wife lends further suspicion that it is no more than a political party campaign.
Brigada PDT are working with their community to reclaim and repurpose land. In addition to painting murals with neighborhood youth, they are developing an abandoned lot into a community herbal garden, called Plaza Vivero. They refuse to accept money from organizations like Unidas PPR, seeing it as “a betrayal of their neighborhood.” Instead, they opt to raise funds through donations and by mobilizing resources through the art world and philanthropic spheres, as they attempt to purchase the land and set up a relief bank.
Regardless of whether it is willful neglect or bureaucratic oversight, the abandonment of Puerto Rico has been a catalyst for artists and activists who are developing structures and systems to preclude a continued reliance on the state for anything. A common sentiment is that Maria fully revealed the façade of U.S. “citizenship,” with the vehicle of political autonomy illuminating the path towards a sustainable, sovereign future for Puerto Rico. “We were tricked,” says Leduc.
“They don’t want you to know your history,” says Esteban Figueroa, grinning knowingly through his braided white goatee. “Puerto Ricans are oppressed,” he continues, “if you can trust God on that level, you don’t need to trust community.”
Figueroa is a charismatic and temperamental character, without a doubt a man deeply in love with his island, well versed in its rich history and dynamism, and in tune with its contradictions and complexities. This is evident in his near constant pacing and emphatic hand gestures when he explains: Colonial vs. post-colonial. Nuyorican vs. Puerto Rican. Boriqua vs. Gringo. Autonomy vs. statehood.
For the past four years, Figueroa has been restoring a historically landmarked space called Casa Villa Carmen in Puerta de Tierra into a neighborhood museum and artist residency. Not an easy task given the severe economic troubles currently facing the island. His goal is to reinvigorate his community, tapping into its lush history to weather hard times. Figueroa’s work is predicated on the almost religious belief that “art heals” and sees the revitalization and celebration of Puerto de Tierra’s rich musical and artistic history as a means of “building by recycling our history.”
A block and half away, Father Esteban Antonio removes the thick ropes he has been bound with, picks them up and swings them over his shoulder, quickly marching towards the alter where he throws the bundle to the ground. Father Antonio has been canonized in Figueroa’s long-running series of rendered performance portraits—La Comédia—staged in significant historical and religious sites across Latin America. Participants agree to be tied up (often nude), with 150 feet of one-inch thick rope, a simple metaphor for the physical and psychosocial internment of colonization. As they figure out how to release themselves, through struggle or deliberation, Figueroa photographs them, eventually choosing an image which is then rendered into a digital painting. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Father Antonio became the pastor at Iglesia San Agustín in 2005. First built in the 1850s, and completed in 1917, Iglesia San Agustín was the first church in San Juan dedicated to serving the poor and working class of the harbor, and has continued this tradition. Father Antonio mentions the neighborhood’s rich cultural history is in large part due the influence of African music and dance, deeply rooted in protest and resilience. He refers to Puerto de Tierra as a “community of hope,” citing that after Hurricane Maria, “many organizations came to survey the situation, but only the Pueblo has lifted itself up.”
Puerta de Tierra sits on some of the peninsula’s prime real estate, nestled between Old San Juan and the center of the city. So, naturally, it is contested terrain, a poor community whose residents have lived there for generations and a hot spot for waterfront property development. Figueroa sees his organizing work encapsulating Puerta de Tierra’s legacy as a focal point of the international jazz community through the twentieth century, as a means to contest the displacement of long-term residents of the neighborhood. In relation to predatory government and corporate interest in the land, the crumbling infrastructure, high rates of drug addiction, and other visible signs of poverty bolster an argument for “cleaning up” the neighborhood. And despite lip service being paid to community improvement, it is unlikely that the majority of the residents of Puerto de Tierra will enjoy any benefits from what comes next, particularly when they are not being consulted.
Further, as noted by Father Antonio, insurance companies are defaulting on their policies post Hurricane Maria, citing bankruptcy. This has slowed the rebuilding process further, with no attention being paid to the importance of monuments in uplifting public morale and the valuing of Puerto Rican identity and culture. In the case of Iglèsia San Agustín, several of the original stained-glass windows that were damaged in the storm—each a masterful work of art—are now empty boarded up spaces, waiting to be replaced with cheaper replicas that the church can afford. Allowing recognizable and celebrated cultural landmarks to remain in disrepair is another means to gradually make the island inhospitable to Puerto Ricans.
“They want the island, but not its people,” says Carlos Cintron Garcia, an artist and clinical psychologist who has pioneered behavioral interventions for drug addictions, with a focus on violent criminal behavior and sexual violence. Garcia speaks to a number of related realizations. The realization that Puerto Ricans cannot rely on their government. The realization that only organized communities can help each other. The realization that there “is no such thing as a Nuyorican (identity) separate from a Puerto Rican,” and an irrelevant construct given that “people of the diaspora were the first to come and help.” Especially given the Puerto Rican diaspora is larger than the population on the island itself.
“Speaking Spanish is not what makes you Puerto Rican,” says Garcia, referring to a long history of socio-cultural resistance to colonization on the island. “We [Puerto Ricans] are artistic by nature. We have always resisted through art, going back to slave music and its subtle ways of mocking and criticizing [slave owners].” To Garcia, Puerto Ricans have long understood the need to be “resistant and resilient,” but have never properly been able to negotiate the contradiction of “resistance vs. reliance.” Garcia echoes Maricruz Rivera Clemente’s sentiments that “Art is a means of reclaiming history, which by design we have been deliberately disconnected from,” citing “Puerto Rico’s dis-identification of a Caribbean island, with a Caribbean identity,” and the tendency of Puerto Ricans to “look outside [to the U.S.] for value and support.”
“Hurricanes and natural events are not the disaster. The system is the disaster,” says Pedro Adorno. Sitting in a basement studio a few blocks from Villa Carmen, his profile blends in with the dozens of life-size—and larger than life-size—puppets propped up against the walls and sitting idly on shelves, waiting to be brought back to life. Adorno has been working in theater, performance, and film for over 25 years, most notably creating the iconic puppet theater procession for the annual San Sebastien Festival. He believes that “if the hurricane had never happened, the recent move to create solutions may never have happened.” He adds that the complexity of the colonial reality is manifest in the inherent contradictions between “the need for autonomy versus the colonial benefits.” Referring to “the honesty and dignity” in Puerto Rican cultural heritage and identity, Adorno says: “We are not a happy medium, we are that mix of things. A classical colony.” And at the same time, an “absorbing of ideas, traditions and experiences into an ecology of knowledge.”
The sky opens up as we drive into a crevice of the Cordillera Mountain Valley. In Guadalupe Villalobos Rivera’s workshop, large thick planks of wood lean against the walls, shelves sit full of sanded joinery, and roosters and chicks play across a carpet of sawdust. The Villalobos have long been known in the region for their fine hand crafted furniture made from high quality wood and natural fibers. We wait while Guadalupe tends to a client who has driven to this hamlet to purchase some of his handmade chairs in person. His wife, Myrta, serves us a plate of crackers and cheese, and pours orange juice into plastic cups. They are a kind couple, making us immediately welcome. Visual artist Jorge Gonzalez has been learning Guadalupe’s craft for the past three years. It is clear Gonzalez has developed a trusting relationship with the couple, as he sits on the floor and shows them photos from a recent exhibition of his research on Taino culture presented at the Whitney Museum in New York. It is only later we realize that this visit was also something of a rite of passage—permission to journey on to Las Golandrinas.
After a forty-minute walk on an overgrown path in the jungle at the edge of town, we ascend a steep, slippery incline into the mouth of a large cavern. Locals have been deliberate in leaving the path barely visible, to ensure that Las Golandrinas remains untouched by tourists. Jorge Gonzalez points to the scattering of petroglyphs on the walls, making out faces with basic features: heads, eyes, mouths. They seem two-dimensional, however upon further examination they are textured with subtle details. Texture that cannot be seen, but must be felt by running your hands across the rock. Shoulders, abdomen, legs, the weave of a rope draped across the shoulders. In one corner of the cave sits an engraving of what locals believe is a frog, adorning what seems like a throne carved into the rock formation. Gonzalez says the petroglyphs date between 1200 and 1500 A.D. He lays a piece of eggshell-white linen over the markings, dabbing them with water, to collect the imprint in algae and dust that has settled over each carving. When he removes the linen, the image is recognizable, once concealed under layers of time. He grins enthusiastically, the sense of discovery twinkling in his eyes.
At Jorge Gonzalez’s studio in Santurce, several chairs made using Guadalupe’s methods sit on top of tables, awaiting final touches. A large installation of raw fibres leans against a wall, illuminated by a long tube light, adjacent to a skate ramp. Since the storm, interest among younger artists in traditional crafts seems on the rise.
West of San Juan, in the outskirts of Morovis, Jorge pages through a binder with diagrams and texts explaining Taino petroglyphs and pottery. At the same time, Francisco Gonzalez (of no relation) unloads several heavy bundles of roofing material and stacks it against a bench inside Alice Ceveres’s outdoor ceramics studio. The studio sustained significant damage from the storm, and Francisco has been volunteering his time to help Alice rebuild, in the process establishing his own research and learning-based creative practice. These efforts seem to be increasingly commonplace among young artists on the island, cultivating intergenerational possibilities for collaboration towards cultural preservation.
Yet, some argue that such cultural revivals are disingenuous, fabricated, and—because the Taino people had long been eradicated before the emergence of ceramics in the area—a means to rewrite history. But while eventual government and corporate commodification of this cultural history is looming, given the current unemployment situation on the island, it is hard to argue against efforts that generate income for marginal communities. The negotiation between “resistance and reliance,” is a constant in Puerto Rico.
Jayuya, a Taino word meaning “highlands,” is a lush tropical jungle mountainside that looks out over the northern coast of the island. In the distance you can see San Juan, a two-hour drive away. On the horizon what at first looks like a low hanging cloud is revealed to be a bloated cruise ship floating fifty miles off shore. After a few detours and the directions of many strangers on the road, we find the well-hidden entrance to our destination. At a certain point where the car can no longer pass, a winding moss covered path brings us deeper into the jungle. At the end of the path sits the two-story wooden house that artist Steven Helfeld began building by hand forty years ago. At the beginning, a dozen or so artists came to Jayuya to forge an alternate lifestyle and live as one with the land. Over the years, they began to leave, to pursue other opportunities. Today, Steven Helfeld is completely alone.
Helfeld is a striking character. Sporting an ancient white beard, piercing eyes, and perpetual grin, he speaks rapidly while gesturing emphatically with his hands. He wears a faded green jacket, broad straw hat, worn trousers and brandishes a machete—a weathered campesino. He says no one has come to visit him in months. The house—and the land on which it sits—is Helfeld’s life work. It’s a completely self-sustained live and work space, with its own natural water source and a bounty of fruit and vegetables he grows around the property—a personal, artistic mediation of the tension between nature and modernity. “If you know the fundamentals, you are free,” he says, referring to food cycles and systems. “You have to ask permission from nature; show it respect. It’s a symbiotic dance.”
Here, for four decades, he has carved simple but remarkable sculptures out of the most resistant lumber. He picks up one long carved and smoothed piece, places it on the floor and spins it. As it continues its rotations, he says “even though it is asymmetric, it has its own balance.” The carving, like the entire structure of the house, is made from wood carefully salvaged from the surrounding jungle, as well as from old buildings in San Juan and elsewhere. Helfeld recalls Hurricane Maria as being “very impressive.” At Jayuya’s relatively high altitude of 1000 meters, his house sustained winds of 200 miles per hour with no damage. “The house was expanding and contracting like the sea,” but having survived Hurricanes Hugo, George, Irma and Maria, he adds: “I built it strong, so it stood up. FEMA came, yes, but I didn’t need them.”
Helfeld’s confidence echoes Carlos Cintron Garcia’s sentiment that: “Puerto Ricans are cosmic people. We reclaim ourselves, we recover ourselves.”
It takes close to an hour for Johan Figueroa to apply the light grey paint to his entire body, regularly checking his progress in a hand held mirror. He uses black and white paint to highlight the contours of his lean, muscular figure. Children stand to the side speculating, an old man sitting on a park bench grins and chuckles when he applies paint to his armpit. What started as a group of some twenty people resting lazily in the late afternoon sun at the Plaza de Armas in Old San Juan, gradually turns into a crowd of over a hundred spectators—awake with wonder. The figure wearing a matching grey loin cloth, walks across the plaza as all heads turn in unison. A couple in a bar across the street exclaim “Oh shit!” before quickly cashing out, darting out to join the spectacle.
Dozens of hands clutching cellphones are extended upwards as the living statue comes to life. As he reaches the center of the plaza, he climbs atop a perfectly measured prop platform that he’s affixed to the circular stone structure that braces the water fountain, joining the other four statues. The crowd is mesmerized, and the periphery of onlookers tightens. Weaving his performance, he moves fluidly between monologue, action, and stillness. After a series of dramatic movements, the living statue braces his hands over his head, face pinched in agony, his body freezing in position. Johan Figueroa has returned home, still standing.
“The emergency is still on, until every Puerto Rican has electricity,” says María Elena Perales. Over a year after Hurricane Maria, basic infrastructure remains severely damaged, people still lack clean water, and rampant corruption continues to go unaddressed while relief aid sits unused in warehouses. Yet somehow, a natural civil order, a sense to yield, and the ripe seeds of collective autonomy seem to be emerging. “We will finish what we started, grow stronger because of it, build new things and lift ourselves up,” says Perales, pointing again to a sense that regardless of its political designation, the organized community-based rebuilding and redefining of Puerto Rico is the only direction forward. Regarding sentiments that those who left after Hurricane Maria had abandoned the island, she responds quickly and confidently: “The ones who had to leave are advocating and fighting, giving us strength to move forward. And Puerto Rico will be here for them when they come back.”
Esteban Figueroa is a Puerto Rican visual artist and organizer. His work is comprised of community-based theatre workshops, photography, painting and digital editing. Figueroa employs theatrical, multi-sensory installations, which are hosted in iconic architectural structures where participants and visitors come to learn and celebrate the cultures of these communities. He is the founder of the ArteSana, which promotes public art and artistic collaboration as a means for collective healing in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and as a means to address the complexities and contradictions of Puerto Rican colonial identity. Figueroa is currently establishing the Puerta de Tierra Harbor Museum, in the iconic Villa Carmen as an international artist residency for artists displaced by manmade and natural disasters.
Sidd Joag is a visual artist, journalist and producer working on issues closely related to social inequality and human rights, and the managing editor at ArtsEverywhere.
Karla Claudio-Betancourt is a visual artist living in Santurce, Puerto Rico working primarily with illustration, natural paints, text and video. Her creative practice is guided by ethnobotanical investigation, oral history and regenerative practices connected to land and food sovereignty.