When Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico in late September, Eduardo Alegría was in his San Juan apartment with his roommate, two dogs, and some freaked out neighbors, anxiously preparing to ride out the storm.
“The expectation was one of the worst things,” recalls Alegría, who fronts the experimental pop outfit Alegría Rampante, in a recent interview with KQED Arts. He'd remembered living through the destruction of Hurricane Georges, which struck the island in 1998. María was worse.
“This was much bigger. This was sort of like a monster hurricane," he says, recalling how the storm's destructive forces stripped away Puerto Rico’s lush foliage, brutally altering the landscape. “It looked like the island had been burned to a crisp."
Somehow, Alegría's building was spared, but the fear he felt that day stays with him, he says. “It’s still a nightmare,” Alegría admits. In Spanish, the word for hurricane is huracán, but there’s another word for storm that locals use to describe María: tormenta.
For Alegría and other underground artists in Puerto Rico, recession and a contracting economy were already making things more difficult by the time Hurricane María hit. Concerts were paying less, and none of the indie artists he knows could afford to have managers anymore. But now, Alegría says, “It’s always been hard, but it somehow feels harder. Can we even keep doing this?”
Six months after the hurricane, Puerto Rico faces a staggering list of challenges: governmental debt, austerity measures, and what many call inadequate support from the Trump administration. But Puerto Ricans, both on the island and in the mainland U.S., have organized and supported one another. And independent musicians, though they face their own economic challenges, have been key to that effort.
Through fundraisers, awareness campaigns, and direct outreach, Puerto Rican artists like Alegría are working to build a brighter, more just future for the island.
A Grassroots Recovery
When Oakland musician María José Montijo returned to San Juan in January, she was shocked at how Hurricane María had changed her hometown.
“There’s a lot of pockets — even in the metropolitan area where things are a little bit more normalized — that don’t have electricity,” she recalls. Most of the traffic lights were still dead, causing confusion on the roads. “Driving is super insane and scary,” she adds.
A licensed acupuncturist and harp player, Montijo calls herself “a healer that makes music in her spare time.” Before her trip, she’d raised money and helped relief efforts from her Bay Area home; her concerts brought in around $4,000 to buy critical supplies like water filters and solar lights. Once on the island, she volunteered with radical healthcare organizations like Salud y Acupuntura Para el Pueblo, which runs street clinics for community members.
But the surprises weren’t all bad, and Montijo was encouraged by the grassroots recovery efforts on the island. “Strangely enough, it was a great trip,” she says. “I felt very inspired by people coming together since day one to help each other out, because the help never came from the government.”
Montijo refers to federal and local recovery efforts widely criticized for their inadequacy and marred by scandal. In February, FEMA announced that it would end emergency food and water aid, then retracted the statement after receiving pushback from lawmakers from both parties. And Puerto Rican officials have been accused of intentionally causing delays in the reconstruction of the island’s electrical grid so they can build the case for selling it off.
Montijo joins a growing number of Puerto Rican-born indie musicians on the U.S. mainland who are helping the island in the face of government inaction. Among those is singer Ani Cordero, who helped spearhead an emergency relief fund from her home in Brooklyn. Along with Raquel Berrios of electronic indie duo Buscabulla, Cordero founded the PRIMA Fund, which offers $500 emergency micro-grants to independent artists on the island.
In the storm’s immediate aftermath came a stressful two-week period when communication between the island and the mainland U.S. was completely cut off, Cordero remembers. “All the stateside Boricuas, we were not in touch with our families in a major way for the first time ever,” she says.
Once she regained contact, Cordero reached out to her friend Alfredo Richner, editor-in-chief for the arts and culture blog Puerto Rico Indie. Richner told her that independent artists were struggling to make ends meet. “Within three weeks of the hurricane, people were packing their bags because all the gigs were cancelled, studios were closed, there was no income coming in," she says.
For indie artists, even a temporary lapse of income can spell disaster, and the need for steady work drew many people to the mainland. But that pressure to leave is nothing new: Decades of out-migration have made the Puerto Rican diaspora larger than the population of Puerto Rico itself. (Approximately 5 million Puertorriqueñxs live in the mainland U.S., according to a recent Pew study, compared to around 3.4 million on the island.) That imbalance is still growing as people continue to leave Puerto Rico in search of opportunity, with an estimated 300,000 people flocking to Florida alone since Hurricane María.
As for PRIMA Fund’s micro-grants, Cordero says she and her cofounder Raquel Berrios don’t intend them to be a cure-all — but they have been a boon for independent artists who were already struggling before the storm. “Five hundred dollars is not going to permanently change somebody’s life, but it’s rent for a lot of people, or groceries for a lot of people,” she says.
Beyond the money itself, the true value of the PRIMA Fund lies in the encouragement it provides to the creative community, Cordero says. “That’s been the biggest gift of the fund, that somebody cares about the work that [these artists] are doing and values it and wants to support it," she explains, adding that she hopes the fund will set the foundation for a more durable network for artists and their supporters.
“The diaspora has really risen up to the call of action and to support the self-organizing movement that’s happening in Puerto Rico,” says Montijo. “Out of need, because the aid is lacking.”
'We Have Our Work Cut Out For Us'
On a balmy evening in February, Otura Mun takes a break from reassembling his home studio on a narrow street in San Juan to meet with KQED Arts. He lives in a low-slung house, its walls covered in crowded bookshelves, stacks of records, and images of the orichás, the spirits who make up the Yoruba pantheon of deities. Across the street, people spill out of an open-air bar blasting the latest reggaetón hits, interrupting the eerie quiet that still haunts many parts of the city.
Mun, who was born in Indiana but moved to Puerto Rico nineteen years ago, leads the Afro-Caribbean futurist ensemble ÌFÉ. In addition to being a DJ and percussionist, he’s a priest in the Yoruba faith, the Nigerian religion that combined with Catholicism and indigenous spiritual practices to create santería, a tradition still widely practiced on the island. He was away from Puerto Rico when Hurricane María hit, raising money and booking international tour dates. A few days after returning, he got to work rebuilding his studio so that he and his bandmates could start rehearsing again.
In Puerto Rico, Mun explained, influential indie artists like Eduardo Alegría regularly get passed over for opportunities for mainstream acts. And while Mun has busily promoted ÌFÉ to the wider world, his bandmates on the island have seen their lives and income interrupted by the storms. “I don’t know what I can do personally, other than make sure the people that have chosen to work with this project have a future,” he says. “We have our work cut out for us.”
Independent artists in Puerto Rico often internalize the lopsided relationship between the island and the mainland, Mun explains, assuming they have to move to New York or Los Angeles if they want to build a successful career. “Artistic or brain drain was a problem in Puerto Rico before the hurricane,” he says. Now that musicians have lost several months of income to cancelled shows and recording delays, the pressure to leave is greater than ever.
Sofía Córdova, an interdisciplinary artist and musician born in Puerto Rico, has kept busy helping relief efforts from her home in Oakland. Her band XUXA SANTAMARIA donated the proceeds from a recent release to the Puerto Rico Resiliency Fund and the María Fund. She says there’s a troubling imbalance in mainstream appetites for Puerto Rican artists like Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Ozuna, showing most mainland residents’ poor understanding of the island. “The way the world consumes reggaetón and pop exports like ‘Despacito,’ for example, is to a degree that is totally incongruent with the dividends people back home get for their cultural labor,” she writes in an email to KQED Arts.
But Córdova also celebrates the success of “Despacito,” which dominated international charts even while the island struggled. “Encountering this song in its ubiquity post-hurricane has felt so different,” she admits. “Its fatuous lyrics and reductive production melted into something new and sparkly, something that united me, my island, and the diaspora in ways that are ineffable and like, very profound.”
According to Córdova, tenuous recovery efforts and general ignorance of the problems afflicting Puerto Rico stem from the colonial relationship between the island and the mainland U.S. “Americans do not want to reckon with their daily lives being built on colony just like they don’t want to reckon with their daily lives being built on slavery,” she says.
Ani Cordero echoes her assessment, criticizing the federal government’s delayed response to the crisis. “We’re being treated terribly as a colonized people,” she says.
But while Hurricanes Irma and María have brought significant challenges to Puerto Rico, some artists are optimistic that international attention to the crisis has created an opportunity for recognition. “There’s a light on Puerto Rico right now, because people are out here and the storm was brutal,” Otura Mun says. “The storm gives us some exposure that I think we didn’t have before, and the opportunity to realize that our voices are important and people do care what’s going on out here.”
Meanwhile, many Puerto Ricans continue to wait for the lights to come back on. Six months after the storms, 11 percent of the island still has no power, and the next hurricane season begins in June. Funding for recovery efforts is in limbo, too. The U.S. Treasury Department recently reduced a promised disaster relief loan, which still hasn’t been disbursed to the Puerto Rican government, from $4.7 billion to just $2 billion without explanation.
Sadly, for Eduardo Alegría, none of this comes as a surprise. “It was really evident for a lot of us that we were gonna be hit with a lot of hardcore, cruel, insensitive measures, and that’s how it’s been.”
But even amid the crisis, María José Montijo believes there’s an opportunity for the people of Puerto Rico to rebuild their own communities in ways they see fit. Artists, she says, have a crucial role to play in this transformation.
“I really appreciate artists that have more visibility that are using their platforms to convey the messages that are going to make changes in people,” she says, “Changes that will affect us in creating a better and more just future.”
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.