After the Storm: On the Artist’s Life in Puerto Rico, Post-Maria

"Hurricane Maria was not merely a setback or temporary disaster. The threat was existential."

By  Jennifer Acker

On April 18th, seven months after Hurricane Maria plunged Puerto Rico into darkness and devastation, the lights went out again, all over the island. A bulldozer had damaged an important transmission line near the island’s largest electrical plant. By the following afternoon, energy had been restored to 97 percent of the island, though not to the 40,000 homes that continued to be without power since the September 20 storm. It’s hard to imagine the depth of frustration—and fear—that the April debility provoked in people just beginning to rebuild their lives.

I will not say that they were returning to normalcy, because few Puerto Ricans believe that their country will return to steadiness anytime soon. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College estimates that 135,000 people left the island for the mainland US in the six months following the hurricane. This number is in addition to the previous decade of population loss of nearly half a million people (15 percent of the population). By 2016, there were 5.5 million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland and 3.4 million on the island. Now, nearly one year after the storm, many feel that their beloved island, their way of life, and their capacity to make a living are still under siege.

In March, I spent a week in San Juan, working on a special portfolio of Puerto Rican writers that will be published in The Common’s fall issue in October, to mark one year after Maria and recognize the vibrancy of literary and visual arts both on the island and in the diaspora.

The weather in March was a dream: mid-eighties, an island breeze, strong sun that nourished our Nor’easter-blistered souls. And from a tourist perspective, the capital city appeared to be thriving. Supermarket shelves were stocked, restaurants were full of locals, and beaches were populated by families, friends, and lovers. But looking closer, one could still see disconnected cables hanging from apartment windows and utility poles, tree debris scattered across public parks, and frequent particleboard behind starburst windows of broken glass. And this was in San Juan, not in the more slowly recuperating towns in less accessible areas of the island. As I dove into stories and essays recently published by the island’s several impressive, independent editorial houses—to which I was expertly steered by the owner and staff of Old San Juan’s Librería Laberinto—I wondered how writers and artists, whose incomes and opportunities are precarious in the best of times, were managing. Had they stayed on the island, and if so, how were they feeling about their futures, and how were they making art?

Article continues after advertisement

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, they were flooded and displaced and living in darkness just like everyone else. “It looked like an atomic bomb had fallen,” journalist and fiction writer Christian Ibarra told me. “There was no green. The country was otherworldly, as if something or someone had robbed the landscape.” The stories writer Ana Teresa Toro told me were typical of others I heard. During the first couple of weeks post-Maria she and her husband were in straight-up survival mode, laboriously picking up trees and helping elderly neighbors in their town of Río Grande, about 45 minutes outside of San Juan. Then they, like everyone else on the island, began to stand in line. He waited ten hours for gasoline, while she waited six for ice. A slick of diesel smell coated their skin, their home, the air. Just married on September 3, the two spent their “unhoneymoon” in a state of terror and exhaustion. “I don’t ever want to have another candlelit dinner in my life,” Ana Teresa told me with a forbearing smile. Beyond the difficulty of keeping food from perishing, the risk of disease was high without functioning water systems, and hand sanitizer was at a premium, as noted by the product’s pride of place in this series of hurricane tarot cards by artist Jo Cosme.

Poet Mara Pastor was three months pregnant when the hurricane hit, and due to get married three days after Maria’s landfall. Mara and her husband still wed on September 23, though they canceled the ceremony and party. They passed the days between the storm and the wedding with Mara’s parents in Guaynabo, just outside San Juan, and when they returned to check on their rented home in coastal Ponce, a grand old wooden house, they realized they could not stay. One of the walls of the house had fallen and the place was inundated with mosquitoes. Mara was worried about mosquito-borne illnesses such as Zika, which carries particular hazards for fetuses, as well as the sweltering heat and lack of ventilation. Because police officers were home with their own families, not on patrol, the couple could not rely on any security or emergency forces, and, in fact, shortly after their check in, while they were back in San Juan with Mara’s parents, their Ponce house was robbed. It was not the loss of material items that disturbed them—they didn’t have many expensive things, and the looters left alone their valued stacks of books—but the couple no longer felt safe. Until they found another place to rent in Ponce in January, they stayed with a series family and friends.

“It looked like an atomic bomb had fallen,” journalist and fiction writer Christian Ibarra told me. “There was no green. The country was otherworldly, as if something or someone had robbed the landscape.”

Hurricane Maria was not merely a setback or temporary disaster. The threat was existential. Would the island ever recover enough to support full lives and future generations? “I was worried that everything was going to end,” said Isel Rodríguez, a lively theater professor with a head of red curls and a member of the sketch comedy group Teatro Breve. “I thought, ‘My God, when is the electricity going to come back, this is a disaster, how can we live here?’”

With the island’s ragged infrastructure imperiling her livelihood as a professor and the impending birth of her baby, Mara at first believed she had to leave. She applied for jobs at universities in the mainland US and received several offers, but by December she had decided to stay in Puerto Rico. For ten years, while receiving two master’s degrees and a PhD from American universities, she had lived away from home, and it had been difficult to move back. She didn’t want to repeat that process of resettling, and she wanted to raise her baby in her home country.

But staying involves sacrifice. To make a living, she teaches five classes at the university in Ponce, trains high school teachers to incorporate literature into their classrooms, mentors for Poetry Out Loud, and teaches yoga. This leaves little time for her art, but she says, “I want to be here. I want to be here working to get things better, and I want to write from here.” Here, for Mara, means Ponce in particular, located on the Caribbean side of the island, not the Atlantic side closest to the mainland.

Article continues after advertisement

*

Economic instability is not new for Puerto Rico. Even before Maria’s gales and torrential downpours, before the uprooted and stripped-bare vegetation, before the infestations of insects and vermin, the island was mired in an economic depression. We were “drowning in debt,” says Adál Maldonado, a prominent visual artist who returned to the island five years ago after living in New York for decades. The debt crisis had pushed Adál to return to a couple of photos he’d taken 30 years previously of individuals prostrate underwater for a series depicting Puerto Ricans “out of focus.” The 2017 series, “Puerto Ricans Underwater/Los ahogados,” was a metaphor for economic stagnation. It featured friends and acquaintances in eerily expressive portraits adorned with whatever props and attire they wished, all underwater in a bathtub.

As soon as the series was complete, Maria blasted the island. Friends darkly joked he had caused the natural disaster: “Hey, Adál, you better watch out what project you’re working on, because you’re being prophetic, you don’t know what kind of stuff you’re going to stir up.” The haunting image of Adriana Santiago, fully submerged in a gauzy white dress, open-mouthed, and holding a diapered baby above the surface, captures the struggle for preservation I heard echoed over and over.

And yet, in the wake of the potentially island-ending storm, Adál is committed to staying. He left New York to be closer to family and because he was tired of making art about Puerto Rico and its people from a distance. Always an artist influenced by his surroundings, he said, “I see this as an opportunity to create art that’s based on this crisis and to try to have a more positive and forward-looking vision.”

“Hurricane Maria was not merely a setback or temporary disaster. The threat was existential. Would the island ever recover enough to support full lives and future generations?”

What is the role of art in times of tragedy? What should writers and artists do with their talents? Many Puerto Ricans, desperate to help their communities and to return to their creative selves, have dived into new projects. Adál and I met with art historian Mercedes Trelles, who wrote the introduction to “Puerto Ricans Underwater,” in the open courtyard of San Juan’s Museum of Contemporary Art (known as the MAC). The ceiling fans weren’t working, and the air was stuffy and buzzing with mosquitoes, but a new exhibit featured recent acquisitions to the permanent collection. Called “Entredichos,” the exhibit showcases the diversity of people and artistic talents on the island and is intended to question the status quo. To translate what MAC director Marianne Rodríguez wrote in her introduction, “The exhibition is our response to a moment of great collective danger facing Puerto Rico; the situation aggravated by the hurricanes has increased the need for community organization and for the construction of more significant bases of social and political power for Puerto Ricans. We therefore feel the urgency of responding with our own voice to the greater level of international interest in our socioeconomic situation and to the many visions, informed and ignorant, both on and off the island, of our history and our complex political relationship with the United States.” Marianne pointed out during our visit that the works become increasingly political—increasingly critical of US colonial power—as one walks through the exhibit.

It was important to the MAC to show Puerto Ricans speaking for themselves after months of receiving news about their condition from the outside. (The island’s main newspaper, El Nuevo Día, shut down for only one day after the storm, but lack of power, Internet, and poor road conditions limited the inflow and outflow of news.) The MAC was fortunate to have power restored just 10 days after the storm, at which point Marianne and her team immediately threw open the museum’s doors and turned the space into a relief center, providing basic supplies to the community, as well as working space for artists.

Another impressive display of art-cum-relief effort was a traveling play called “Ay! Maria,” produced by Mariana Carbonell and directed by Maritza Pérez Otero. The play focused on a group of neighbors who have been living in the same place for years, but until the destruction of a powerful hurricane, they had not gotten to know one another. The comedic performance was meant to be cathartic, reflective of recent challenges, and informed by local stories, and indeed the exchanges between actors and audience were powerful. As Mariana told a roundtable of arts organizations, “I’m never going to forget one school in Comerío, when we asked the audience for reasons why one of the characters in the show should stay in the country, one boy about 14 or 15 years old shouted, ‘Because your town needs you!’. . . All of a sudden we saw that there is hope.” By mid-March, the troupe, traveling by RV, had performed in 78 towns.

Psychologically, it was a challenge for Isel Rodríguez and her Teatro Breve collaborators to get back in the groove of comedy. When she and a team member tried to write a sketch shortly after the storm, they quickly gave up: “We can’t write anything about this right now, nothing funny is coming out.”

And, they wondered, even once they could think funny again, would they have an audience? “Even when I could see the possibilities, we didn’t have any assurance that people would come,” said Lucienne Hernández, one of the troupe’s two head writers, given the lack of power and communications. And how much need was there for humor? To what extent would people make the effort to show up?

There is also the difficult economics of art, as Mercedes Trelles frankly pointed out. “Art is perceived as a luxury, but also it is a luxury. It costs a lot of money, and we’re broke, and we have dire situations right and left.”

And yet, people turned out in droves to see the Teatro Breve performances. The troupe gained an even broader audience than they had enjoyed before. People came from towns all over the island, repeating, “Thank you, I needed to laugh.”

Responses like these show that art is indeed a crucial component of recovery. Released in April was an anthology called Cuentos de huracán (Hurricane Stories). Edited by one of the island’s most active and distinguished writers, Mayra Santos-Febres, the collection features short stories by 21 island-based authors, all written with Maria looming large in the rearview. At the anthology’s public launch, Mayra said, in Spanish, “When everything went out—the lights, the water, the services—and we began to form lines, I realized something. People were crazy to tell their story. In these zombie lines of seven hours to get gasoline, people didn’t stop talking. They talked and talked and talked about what happened.”

These hurricane stories reveal a range of characters terrorized by the storm itself and struggling to come to terms with the desolation left in its wake. Many stories are based on scenes personally witnessed or told to the authors by friends; some are humorous, others angry, and several take the form of fantasies, myths, or ghost stories. One story, “Winds of Death,” by Silverio Pérez, begins in 1899 and recounts the multiple hurricane-related deaths of a single family over three generations.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Mayra organized the staff and volunteers of the literary festival she founded and directs, el Festival de la Palabra, to bring needed supplies to towns in the countryside. In the introduction to the anthology, she recounts that the items that ran out the fastest were not water, or food, or medical supplies but books. “When the basic needs were met, what appeared before our eyes was another necessity equally important, that of using art to confront, to think over, and to find answers and meaning from the experience of still being alive.”

*

Of course it can be desperately difficult, logistically and emotionally, to keep artmaking in mind when deprivation is all around. For nearly three months, while the Internet was out, phone calls impossible, and gasoline scarce, Ana Teresa Toro did not cash a single check, a period during which Teatro Breve was also closed. My conversation with the theater troupe in March took place backstage before a sold-out Saturday night show in their 350-seat venue in happening Santurce, the artsiest neighborhood of San Juan. The actors were in street clothes, and one, Lourdes Quiñones, was in scrubs, having come from classes in naturopathic medicine.

Previously, Lourdes was a teacher for the department of education, and when she hears talk about the privatization of the schools, she has to force herself to breathe, to calm herself down. Isel shared a story about a public housing complex near her apartment that recently had received handouts of bottled water, a sight that nearly made her cry. “Our country is in a broken state,” Lourdes said, “but that’s why I’m reconnecting to this [theater] work, because for me this work is my bubble.”

“Yes, it’s a bubble,” Lucienne admitted, before adding, “but at the same time it’s not. It’s a bubble that gives us an opportunity to continue talking about things that perhaps people are unaware of, or about things that we want.” Lucienne wears large, black-framed glasses, and has the ready laugh and energy of someone accustomed to the stage. Before meeting Lucienne, I had heard her voice in an episode of NPR’s Spanish-language podcast, Radio Ambulante. Her husband Luis Trelles is one of their producers, and he directed a powerful episode about the island’s rough awakening to Maria’s destruction in an episode called “A oscuras” (Into Darkness). “No one knew how desperate life on the island could get,” he narrates in the first days after the storm. “How desperate it already was for some.” You hear Luis and Lucienne waking to the post-hurricane silence and the couple’s taut conversations about whether to stay on the island or to leave for the sake of their four-year-old daughter. Lucienne says in a ragged, mournful voice, “I don’t want to abandon my island.”

“We. . . feel the urgency of responding with our own voice to the greater level of international interest in our socioeconomic situation and to the many visions, informed and ignorant, both on and off the island, of our history and our complex political relationship with the United States.”

On the night we met she was both realistic about the challenges the island still faces and confident in their collective ability to put on a quality, provocative show. “What we really want is to be funny, and for people to come to laugh, but there is also commentary behind it so people can take some of that with them.” The actors and the audience need each other not only for distraction, but also to heal.

The extent of islandwide PTSD—or PMSD (Post Maria Stress Disorder), as the troupe calls it—is not to be underestimated. Shortly after the storm, they did a show called “DM” (Después de Maria/After Maria), in which a couple endures the hurricane. There is a recorded sound of strong wind, and they later heard that the audience was silent not because they didn’t think it was funny, but because they were holding their breath. The sound alone was enough to terrify them in their seats.

Compounding legitimate fears about the destructive strength of natural disasters is many citizens’ total lack of faith in the Puerto Rican government. My question to Teatro Breve about whether they had confidence in their government was met with an immediate and emphatic chorus of “Of course not!” They pointed to the lack of transparency surrounding the funding that has poured into the island from the US federal government, nonprofits, NGOs, and private foundations. “There are supposed to be all these funds to lift up the country, but who is managing them in the government?” asked Marisé Álvarez. The months without power and water and politicians’ refusal to own up to the true hurricane-related death toll has destroyed what little faith citizens had not only in the government’s ability to protect them, but also in their intentions.

For months after the hurricane the Puerto Rican government maintained that only 64 people had died as a direct result of the storm. In May, an interdisciplinary study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated 4,645 casualties, a number that has become a kind of rallying cry for governmental transparency and accountability and was broadcasted on posters and signs in this year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City. The island government has been slow to acknowledge the new data, finally admitting in August that more than 1400 deaths can be attributed to María. Back in March, when the official estimate was still 64, Isel Rodríguez said simply, “We realized we don’t matter to them.”

If individual artists feel helpless in the face of systemic problems, this is the arena in which Luis Alberto Ferré Rangel believes he can help. Editorial Advisor to Grupo Ferré Rangel Media, which publishes Puerto Rico’s main newspapers, El Nuevo Día and Primera Hora, and Chief Social Innovator Officer for Grupo Ferré Rangel, Luis Alberto is determined to help shape a new era of positive change. “It’s a new narrative we’re constructing,” he told me. Like others I spoke with, Luis Alberto wants to leave behind the insidious effects of the colonial mindset that he says has made Puerto Ricans complacent. A slender, composed, and soft-spoken man in his early fifties, Luis Alberto warns against “good enough.” He says, “The federal funds aren’t worth anything if we make the same mistakes of the past.” His aim is to help Puerto Ricans think and act for themselves.

Luis Alberto’s colleague, former El Nuevo Día culture reporter María Cristina Moreno, pointed to the many examples of self-reliance on display after Maria. “People have not waited for the government to resolve things.” She cited citizen first responders, as well as community health clinics. There’s a now-famous story about a group of men calling themselves Pepino Energy. Retired electricians from the town of San Sebastián, they repaired their town’s electrical wires when representatives from the official electric utility failed to show up. “People decided, ‘Look, we’re going to do it ourselves,’” María Cristina said, “and I think that symbolizes what we want Puerto Rico to be. We want to convert ourselves into our own engine of salvation.”

Toward that end, Luis Alberto is directing a series of open forums across the island in order “to create pressure—to advocate for some changes in the system.” The series of forums will officially launch on September 19th (one day before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria), with a joint conference between El Nuevo Día and The New York Times addressing global climate change, independent journalism in the era of fake news, and the role of newspapers in democracies.

On the day I visited El Nuevo Día offices in Guaynabo, a more informal meeting pulling together the cultural sector was being held in a conference room just off the humming newsroom. To get there, I walked by a cluster of FEMA employees headquartered in the building and passed through a security checkpoint where I traded in my driver’s license for a badge. This meeting is where I first met MAC director Marianne Rodríguez and heard about “Ay! Maria,” as well as many other community-minded cultural efforts. All spoke about the relief and therapeutic efforts art can provide in difficult times and expressed a strong desire to build alliances to carry their activities forward.

Here was a group that fervently believe that creativity and collaborative artistic expression are integral to public health. As Adál put it, “If you really want to see the health of a community in the history of the world, go and look at the art that is produced by that community. It’s a lot more truthful than anything that a politician would tell you.”

Yet while Teatro Breve members compared the artistic efforts flourishing on the island post-Maria to a “postwar boom,” they don’t yet see a cohesive political movement capable of creating the necessary structural changes, and this worries them. Mercedes Trelles said in March, reflecting on the months after the storm, “Some days you wake up and you think ‘We’re going to get over this, it’s all going to be okay we’re going to make it,’ and other days you wake up and you think, ‘Oh my God if one single thing goes wrong, this is over.’” Puerto Rico was in the ICU, she said. “We’re not dead, thank God, but every day you wake up and you think, ‘What should I do? What’s the right thing for the island, what’s the right thing for me?’”

Since Puerto Rico became a US territory in 1898, there’s been a consistent guagua de aire, or “air bus,” connecting the island and the mainland, on which artists, writers, and professors have been frequent passengers—traveling to the US to tour or publish or work as visiting scholars. Sergio Gutiérrez Negrón, writer and professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College, was a part of the first wave of young people to leave the island for educational opportunities in the States after the 2008 economic crisis. He spent a month this summer visiting his hometown of Caguas, the place that still substantially influences and informs his fiction, but he found that the trauma of the hurricane has changed his relationship with family and friends, and the place itself. “There’s a personal effort to stay connected with Puerto Rico. However, with Maria I feel that it’s almost impossible because when you talk to people and they tell you their [hurricane] stories, there comes a moment in the conversation in which they say, ‘But you weren’t here.’” There’s a survivor’s pride that he cannot share, and this rupture has been difficult.

Sergio describes a moralistic tone surrounding the question of whether one stays on the island or leaves for opportunities elsewhere. Ana Teresa admits that in her heart she wishes Puerto Ricans would stay, but intellectually she recognizes that individuals must do what’s right for them, and that there are myriad ways to help—including raising funds and political awareness—from the diaspora. While some people assert that most of the Maria evacuees have returned, others point to empty storefronts. What has been clear to me in the six months I’ve spent reading, editing, and talking with Puerto Rican writers is the tenacity, pride, and dedication underlying their work, much of which evinces a strong and unique sense of place.

While the island’s enchanting, relentless sun has been shining for months, swirls of warm air over the equator have already begun to form and to spin faster and faster. Back in March, when I asked Lucienne how she was feeling about the future, she said plainly, “Worried about the next hurricane season.” Nonetheless, writers are continuing to produce, to tell their stories and imagine others. Christian Ibarra has no thoughts of leaving the island; he works his day job in publicity and writes on the side, like so many writers around the world. “To be honest,” he says, “for me countries are your people. In this sense, my attachments to this piece of earth are of flesh and bone.” And yet to remain in the midst of such recent devastation and uncertainty, as Marisé Álvarez said, “You really have to love this place.”

Jennifer Acker
Jennifer Acker
Jennifer Acker is founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Common. Short stories, translations, and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Guernica, n+1, Ploughshares, The Journal, The Literary Review, Ascent, Sonora Review, Harper’s, The Millions, The New Inquiry, and Publishers Weekly, among other places. Her debut novel The Limits of the World will be published in April 2019.





More Story
Surviving Modern Times: Meditation Through Status Updates In the summer of 2016, I was suffering from what I sensed was a condition so prevalent it seemed redundant to give it a name,...