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Cultural organizations in Puerto Rico are mobilizing efforts in response to the 6.4 magnitude earthquake that rocked the island on January 7, sending aftershocks and temblors that have continued for weeks. Museums and institutions are serving as collection centers and charging stations, distributing supplies, offering free arts programming and even art therapy, and raising funds for recovery efforts. Perhaps most importantly, these spaces have become veritable sanctuaries, opening their doors to anyone seeking refuge and tranquility. María Del Mar Caragol Rivera, Publishing and Recordings Office and Fine Arts Program Director at the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (ICP), said their priority was to offer “art as a form of healing.”
Puerto Ricans were still struggling to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma in 2017 when the earthquake hit. “There are all these people suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from everything they lost, all the time they spent without drinking water or electricity after the hurricanes,” Rivera told Hyperallergic. “And now suddenly they’re living the same thing all over again.”
The southern region of Puerto Rico has been the hardest hit by the quakes. Damages have been registered at the Museo de la Masacre de Ponce, which remains closed as non-structural elements impaired by the earthquake are fixed, and the Museo de Arte Religioso Porta Coeli, among others. They are located in the cities of Ponce and San German, respectively, two of the most afflicted by seismic disturbances that have led to island-wide outages, homelessness, and hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructural damages. “The earthquake affected a significant part of our built heritage in the south — there are historical buildings on the point of collapse,” explained Rivera.
Through its initiative Cultura Rodante (“Rolling Culture”), first launched in the aftermath of Hurricane María, the ICP aims to bring arts offerings across the island, from live music to story hours. As part of this effort and in partnership with the ICP, the Corporación de las Artes Musicales (CAM) organized a free outdoor concert featuring the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra this Saturday. Rivera said they took advantage of the increased foot traffic to collect first aid supplies during the performance. Last Wednesday, ICP also hosted a film screening in Yauco, a southwestern city, one of several that will be offered within its itinerant outdoor cinema series “Cine Rodante.”
The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC) is providing a comprehensive range of services to afflicted communities. Starting January 15, MAC will be leading art therapy and other emotional support workshops developed by its education team along with a psychologist and participating artists. The Museum organized a similar art therapy program after the 2017 hurricane; its curriculum will now be adapted to the present circumstances and brought to the most heavily impacted municipalities, including Ponce, Guayanilla, Guánica, Peñuelas, Sabana Grande, and Yauco. In the meantime, MAC is gathering supplies and offering its headquarters as a co-working space for individual artists and cultural organizations free of charge in response to the power outages.
“A phrase we hear a lot these days is ‘nos tenemos,’ (‘we have each other’),” Marianne Ramírez Aponte, the Museum’s Executive Director and Curator, told Hyperallergic. “I think the general sentiment is that we are alone, and we have to do things on our own,” she added, in reference to the flagrant political inaction and social inequalities that have come to light in Puerto Rico over the last two years.
Because many of Puerto Rico’s cultural centers are located in the north of the island or in the capital city of San Juan, areas that were less affected by the earthquakes, reaching the most vulnerable regions requires travel, time, and resources. “MAC en el Barrio” (“MAC in the Neighborhood”) is the Museum’s initiative to bring cultural education and commission contemporary art projects in communities that are geographically distanced from the museum, many of them historically marginalized. Ramírez Aponte says the program will be adapted to reach six municipalities in the south, where emotional support and a respite from daily struggles are most needed.
Activism and engagement is happening outside of the island’s large institutions, too, revealing a network of independent spaces and individuals committed to getting involved. Beta-Local, an artist-run nonprofit, offered its space to others as soon as it regained light and electricity, and plans to re-open its doors again to the community on January 21. The trans feminist network EspicyNipples, dedicated to sharing the stories of queer, trans, Black, and other marginalized people through popular media, organized a brigade led by members of Puerto Rico’s LGBTQ+ communities this weekend. The group distributed cots, tents, and other emergency items in the southern municipalities of Yauco, Guayanilla, and Ponce and identified the needs of each household. Along with La Sombrilla Cuir, they put together a list of high-priority supplies that can be purchased online and takes into consideration the particular needs of the LGBTQ+ community. (EspicyNipples clarified to Hyperallergic that they do not support Amazon.com, and that they hope their efforts will create self-sustaining communities.)
Identifying the artists and organizations who have been affected by the earthquake, and determining the best course of action, is another work in progress. The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico has launched a public online form to find any artists in the south of the island who have suffered damages or been otherwise impacted by the earthquake, as well as artists who may be interested in volunteering or teaching workshops. As of Monday morning, Ramírez Aponte said they had received at least 34 entries.
Since 1997, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico has also maintained and actively fundraised for its Emergency Fund for Artists, which provides financial assistance to artists in need who reside in Puerto Rico. Additional emergency aid and grant opportunities for Puerto Rican artists can be found at CERF+.