Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
If you were to have your tarot cards read in the moments before a massive environmental catastrophe, what would it reveal? Would the message focus on you, your own path, the very present moment — the way most readings do? What if that disaster was set to alter your life’s path for the foreseeable future?
Puerto Rican visual artist Jo Cosme asked her partner this question after Hurricane Maria hit the island (“while trying to fix ourselves Ritz crackers with tuna — which was our only means of food and our single meal of the day,” she told me over email. Cosme just got power back three days ago). The question inspired Cosme to make a deck of 23 tarot cards — just one more than the typical 22 — documenting the pain, decimation, and lack of support post-Maria. The cards were featured in Catarsis, an exhibition at Museo las Américas in Old San Juan in which artists offered their own commentary on life after the storm.
Nearly five months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, around 450,000 of the island’s 1.5 million electricity customers still have no power, schools are suffering, and many Puerto Ricans are still stuck on the mainland US, staying in hotels. Could any of this be predicted? (Possibly, considering the racial sociology of many disasters.) As Cosme explained: “Then it hit me: make a catastrophe-inspired deck that would ‘read’ everyone’s catastrophe. I thought, anyone who was here when the hurricane hit would definitely feel they relate with each card … But many others came and told me: ‘THIS is my card.’ I’ve found that very moving.”
Why tarot cards? The Major Arcana (which, along with the Minor Arcana, makes up the tarot) is comprised of archetypes that represent phases of self-actualization. They’re metaphors, characters that mark the patterns we all cycle through; reading the tarot is like reading a book. They’re perfect mediums to reflect the poignancy of collective survival, in which individual personhood becomes part of a larger narrative. “The Major Arcana is known to … depict the various stages we encounter as we search for greater meaning and understanding, the path to spiritual self-awareness,” Cosme said. “Therefore, these are the cards that hold deeply meaningful lessons.”
You can’t read her cards as you might a traditional deck, but they still tell a story of their own: La Inundación (the inundation of water), El Apagón (“the blackout”), ¿Los Suministros? (“the supplies?” — a question because they never really arrived), Planta Electrica (a generator, depicted like a holy saint), Los Robos (the robberies that took place during moments of desperation). La Muerte resembles many incarnations of the traditional Death card, and refers to the island’s post-Maria death toll, presumed to be over 1,000, and the rising suicide rate. El Desempleo (“the unemployed”) looks like the Fool card, though its typical meaning (happy naïveté, new beginnings) is gone — instead, it’s the despondency of looking for work. La Ayuda, which translates to “the help,” depicts Trump holding a roll of paper towels like a chalice. (In his recent State of the Union address, he barely glossed over Puerto Rico.)
Most of the cards aren’t about Hurricane Maria itself, but what occurred after. Cosme made them in the dark, while her laptop’s battery continually died, with a flashlight in her mouth. “While creating the deck … I came to a sudden realization: Hurricane Maria no doubt was a monster … but the true catastrophe came after the hurricane. And it was the humanitarian detachment from our local and federal government. It felt like a well-orchestrated humanitarian crisis — Hurricane Maria being the one to blow away the carpet that covered all the lies, corruption, and deceit, leaving everything a lot more exposed than before. We’ve all felt like we’ve been living in a never-ending purgatory here in Puerto Rico.”
On the back of each card, there’s a black Puerto Rican flag, inspired by an article in 80 grados entitled “¡La bandera está de negro, Puerto Rico en pie de lucha!” (which translates to something like,“The flag is black, Puerto Rico is ready for battle”). Devoid of its colonialist colors (“the blood that gives life” to the government, the article states), the black flag symbolizes resistance. The deck, then, is a kind of activism. “I think that in the times we’re living in, worldwide,” Cosme told me, “we need to bring it back and fiercely — as much in your face as possible. Let it be known we’re not happy with the result of how things are being managed and how we’re treating each other as people and as a part of Mother Earth.”