Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico when it made landfall in September 2017, killing 64 people and indirectly leading to the deaths of another estimated 4,600. When Puerto Rican authorities requested $94 billion to cover damages, Congress only approved $5 billion within a larger hurricane relief bill that allotted $36 billion to hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Irma. Defending the government’s lack of funding, President Trump told Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that Puerto Rico is “out in the ocean. You can’t just drive your trucks out there.”
Given the government’s halfhearted support for Puerto Ricans, many arts organizations have stepped up to fundraise on behalf of those affected by Hurricane Maria. Notably, MoMA PS1 hosted a relief fundraiser in October 2017. Looking to create a better long-term support system for Puerto Rico through the arts, Chicagoans Janice Aponte and Erica Sanchez founded Arte al Rescate (Art to the Rescue). The nonprofit organization sees art as the fulcrum between empathy and support. First raising money through a local art auction, Aponte and Sanchez have used their funds to directly help needy Puerto Ricans through the acquisition of building materials, education supplies, arts supplies, and direct financial aid. Hyperallergic spoke with Arte al Rescate to learn more about their crisis relief efforts in Puerto Rico, and how others can help their cause.
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Hyperallergic: How did you both decide to create an organization like Arte al Rescate?
Janice Aponte: We formed our organization almost immediately in response to the devastation of Hurricane Maria. The date of our incorporation was October 22, 2017, just a month after the hurricane and right before our first big event.
[Erica and I] know each other because we work together at the same real estate company for our day jobs. (I’m also a resident artist at Workshop 4200 in Chicago.) We both have family in Puerto Rico, so when Hurricane Maria happened, there were a lot of emotions going around the office. Our company became a resource and provided us some help at the beginning. Our idea at the time was to plan something small, an art fundraiser. Once the company stepped in, though, it became a large-scale event. We quickly decided to incorporate to monitor our finances. Now, we find ourselves with volunteers, capital, and a venue — all things needed to start the organization. It was just viral; Arte al Rescate continues to become a bigger and bigger thing.
H: When you organize these art auction fundraisers, who is donating work? Can anyone donate work?
J: When we had our first event in Chicago, we put out a call for artists on Facebook. I have a lot of friends that are artists, so the word spread. We ended up receiving pieces from all over the world. Artists from Argentina, London, Spain, México, Los Angeles, New York, Florida, Texas, Chicago — from everywhere. It was pretty amazing.
H: That’s unbelievable.
J: And that’s how it felt. When somebody reached out from London, we thought, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we’ve reached Europe.” People all the way from Europe were reaching out to help Puerto Rico.
H: But we should probably also address the United States’ response to Hurricane Maria. What was your reaction, in the midst of starting Arte al Rescate, to the Trump administration’s relief efforts in Puerto Rico?
Erica Sanchez: Personally, I felt disappointed by the response that the world saw from the Trump administration. Right now, there are hundreds of families in Puerto Rico that never received any aid. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth. These are American citizens. We are a small organization doing one-on-one missions on the island so that we know exactly where every dollar goes. That’s important to us because we personally have family and friends on the island that say how aid from larger organizations and government organizations continually fails to make it directly to people. For us, it’s not only important that our aid reaches them, but also that we keep awareness alive because the momentum around our country has been dying down.
H: What are people saying about the government money? Where do people think it is going?
E: The bigger problem, I think, is that money isn’t going anywhere. Some people are not able to receive funding to fix their homes because many of these homes have been passed down from generation to generation. Some elderly people are unable to prove they own their houses because of that, and are therefore ineligible to receive help. Besides, there is not a lot of funding being offered. Instead, the government wants families to take out loans. FEMA and other agencies are saying that they will provide loans. Instead of receiving funding or help to rebuild their houses, Puerto Ricans are receiving approvals for loans that they cannot afford to pay.
J: Right now, we are working on a school drive. I just spoke with a lady from Maricao who said that her area and the surrounding municipalities were hit extremely hard by the hurricane. Right now, anybody there that was middle class is now low income. These people are suffering. From the past three months, there have been 19 suicides in that area alone. At a nearby beach, there were once 33 small businesses that mainly sold food. Half of those businesses are gone today. They provided direct employment for 300 people there, not to mention the indirect employment that it generated. Now, all those people are on the streets.
H: What’s been the most gratifying experience since creating Arte al Rescate?
J: We just sponsored a man called Don David in Fajardo. There’s a community activist called Martin Bryan Aldarondo who I saw posting on Facebook about Don David, who was working on getting some financial help to complete a purchase for materials to fix his roof [which was destroyed by Hurricane Maria]. Just to give you an idea, this man was sleeping in the corner of his home under a tarp. The rest of his roof was gone. The man refused to leave his home — he didn’t want to leave his home — and so he was sleeping in a corner. Between Martin, his neighbors, and his coworkers, he had raised $600 in funds, but the project was going to cost a lot more than that. So we stepped in to help purchase the rest of his materials. This past weekend, they built his home and even named it after him: The Don David Mission. They finished the roof this past weekend and we have pictures to document it. We are so excited that David has a roof, that he’s covered.
H: How should people who are seeking aid or who want to help Arte al Rescate contact the organization?
J: The best way to contact us is by our email, [email protected]. Our info is also on our website and on Facebook where people can direct message us.
This interview had been edited and condensed for clarity.