I was in radiant, tropical Puerto Rico in February this year, sharing writing workshops with the artists from La Práctica, a research initiative developed by Beta-Local. This artist-run nonprofit started in 2009, and is currently co-directed by Sofía Gallisá, Pablo Guardiola, and Michael Linares. In old San Juan, they run a welcoming ground floor space and library. For the local art scene, Beta-Local is a connecting hub and a support system. It’s hard to exactly pinpoint what they do, as it includes residencies, educational programs, financial and logistical support for art projects, and an overall commitment to connecting Old San Juan with the rest of the island and the world. Little did I know then, however, that Beta-Local would be reshaping its mission to help with hurricane relief just months later, and that instead of getting back in touch with Gallisá about a show we had discussed, it was to know how they were dealing with life in the aftermath of the strongest hurricane in Puerto Rican modern history.
The island is in dire straits. The economical recession has hit hard since 2006 — Puerto Rican government debt now exceeds 70 million dollars — which has pressured its 3.7 million population to a sustained exodus to the US. The island still bears the marks of the colonial hold it came under in 1898, when the US acquired it from the Spaniards (along with Guam and the Philippine islands) following the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American war. The Philippines became independent in 1946, but Puerto Rico and Guam have remained under the sovereignty of the US. In 1917, the Jones Act granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans (who then were drafted to World War I), restricted its ports to US ships only, and barred the territory from statehood, thus from participating in presidential elections or having congressional representatives. Puerto Rico’s dependency on imports makes its living costs higher than on the mainland, and just more vulnerable to world changes, including, as it happens, climatic perils.
Since hurricane Maria’s brutal onslaught on September 20, the island has nowhere near recovered. The lack of gas, electricity, clean water, and supplies transform simple acts of daily life into an obstacle race. “It just keeps getting more and more complicated,” said Gallisá. She was in Los Angeles setting up two shows when the storm hit, and couldn’t get back to her family for a week and a half. But as the island’s communication was down in the wake of the hurricane, leaving many desperate for news from their loved ones, Gallisá threw herself into helping coordinating relief efforts with the Puerto Rican diaspora. “I spent a year in Rockaway, New York after Hurricane Sandy as a volunteer relief worker, so oddly enough I had previous experience,” she said. Once back, Gallisá saw the “devastated landscapes” as she made a trip through the mountains to visit artisans who previously collaborated with one artist from La Práctica. On the day we spoke online, she was preparing to go back with a group of people to help the ceramicist Alice Cheverez to fix the roof of her workshop, hoping to re-open it for pottery classes.
“Our cultural scene has persisted precisely because of solidarity, mutual aid, and resourcefulness for decades,” Gallisá said. Earlier this month, Beta-Local launched El Serrucho (the Handsaw), the Hurricane María Emergency Fund. On October 17, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda each donated $100,000 to El Serrucho. Beyond the recovery of damaged studios and exhibition spaces, the fund aims at helping artists help their families and communities. “We’re in the process of identifying needs for our emergency fund and I can already tell you that we know of several artists who lost their homes, studios and jobs,” said Gallisá. The website offers the possibility to donate money or directly buy supplies from a provided Amazon list.
On October 12, Beta-Local started giving free meals to their neighbors in old San Juan, feeding around 50 people the first day, and now also delivering meals for the elderly who are stranded in their homes. Supermarkets and pharmacies are either closed, or empty, due to lack of power.
“Local and federal government relief operations have been completely inadequate thus far. I have a hard time believing the fact that we’re soliciting tarps and distributing them to people who, three weeks after the storm, still don’t have anything to cover the roofs of their homes while it continues to rain on the things that they’ve managed to salvage,” said Gallisá. And yet, President Donald Trump threatened in a tweet on October 13 to pull aid from Puerto Rico and blamed the island for its disastrous economics.
Celebrity Chef José Andrés, who has prepared and delivered one million hot meals to residents — more than the American Red Cross — recently denounced in Time what he calls the failure of the American government. The Washington Post described Puerto Rico as a “victim of colonial neglect.”
Beta-Local has been working with a network of artists and nonprofits on the island to take matters into their own hands. “Every day people wake up with a to-do list of things that they need in order to eat, work, repair their homes, and help others,” said Marina Reyes Franco, a curator and researcher who was making her way back to the island from Mumbai via the US, bringing supplies such as water filters and toiletries. While she was waiting in Brooklyn for a flight to clear towards Puerto Rico, she volunteered with the Ecokit Duffle initiative, and received donations to take back home. “I probably traveled with $800 to 1,000 worth of supplies, I also had to pay United a $100 fee for my extra bag. But friends in New York and as far as Utah sent money or things with me back to the island.”
Other involved artists include Chemi Rosado-Seijo, who has worked since 2002 with El Cerro, a community in the center of the island, on a project aimed at painting all of the community’s houses in shades of green, echoing its lush environment as well as the color of Puerto Rico’s independence party. Now he is helping El Cerro in its reconstruction efforts. Urban participatory design nonprofit La Maraña has also been collecting donations in the form of construction material and practical kits, specifically to implement repairs. Project and music space El Local in Santurce has been organizing meals, as well as collecting and distributing donations towards those harder to reach beyond San Juan.
“Like always, emergency situations reveal the weakness of the system,” shared Noelia Medina Fernández, a Spanish artist who has lived in Puerto Rico since 2009, and owes her artistic cultivation to the academic and experiential education she received in the island. She was at home when Maria struck, and despite the collapse of part of the roof, she reassured me no one was hurt. But weeks after, she confirmed that damages kept amplifying, through contaminated waters and people dying in hospitals because of lack of power that rendered impossible even common procedures. At last, she managed to take a boat to the Dominican Republic and fly to Spain, back to her family for a while. Studies mentioned by the Independent in an article mid-October suggest one in seven people could leave the island in the next few months.
“The bigger misconception about Puerto Rico is the lack of visibility given to the amazing efforts the community develops to move forward,” Fernández lamented, explaining that, considering its infrastructure and administration, it takes that much effort on the island to get things done, and credit isn’t given to a community that is both dynamic and dedicated.
Despite the counter-productive efforts of the country it belongs to, Puerto Rico is helping itself and getting organized on its own, and the question of its statehood — or even more radically, independence — is becoming more and more pressing.