The almond-colored walls of the seaside building in the San Juan neighborhood of La Perla are stained with rust and peeling paint. Discarded doorframes and broken boards are strewn about. This is just one of the countless places severely damaged by hurricanes in Puerto Rico.
Over the past six years, Puerto Rico has been hit hard by back-to-back natural disasters: the devastating hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, a series of destructive earthquakes in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, and 2022’s Hurricane Fiona. Many residents are still rebuilding their homes. The disasters have exposed and exacerbated long-standing struggles for Puerto Rico—cultural identity, personal trauma, mental health crises, and challenges related to gentrification and developing tourism—all further complicated by the island’s economic and political status as a United States territory and the ongoing legacy of American exploitation.
Beyond these plights, however, is another reality: People are thriving, and using artistic expression to rebel, create, and heal.
Walking outside that same crumbling seaside building, its sea-facing facade is filled with colorful murals of coquis, the island’s beloved frogs.
In these times of resilience and recovery, Puerto Rican artists are using their talents to express their identities and cultural heritage, and to contribute to their communities in countless ways: beautifying and refurbishing structures, helping islanders recover from the trauma of the disaster, fighting gentrification, and ensuring Puerto Ricans benefit from tourism.
In the aftermath of the hurricanes, the San Juan theater company Y No Había Luz—which in English means “And There Was No Light” or “No Power”—has brought hope and healing through performance and interaction. The company provides art workshops for different communities, encouraging audiences to use paper pulps and recycled materials to make masks and puppets for their performances. The company also comforts and enlightens children and teens through plays like “El Centinela de Mangó” (“The Mango Sentinel”), a show inspired by a beloved tree that fell during Hurricane Maria in the town of Orocovis.
“For us, it’s very important that Puerto Ricans know that the possibility of making society better exists,” says Yussef Soto Villarini, one of the troupe’s founding members.
For many people on the island, their nightmare did not end when Maria was over—they’re still experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder today, six years later. While the Category 4 hurricane was considered the worst disaster ever to hit the island, that year also saw a spike in suicides: 253 people died by suicide in 2017. Isolation and depression also rose. More than one in five islanders reported needing or receiving mental health services, while 13% said they started taking new or higher doses of prescription medication to treat emotional problems, according to a survey conducted in 2018.
Troupe members acknowledge they themselves need support, but they use their work to help children who are struggling move beyond the traumas they’ve experienced. “We never try to tell them what is right, what is wrong,” says Yari Helfeld, executive director at Y No Había Luz. “We always try to highlight the beauty and the possibilities, the desires and the dreams. We never try to make them remember the bad and feel the pain again.”
Self-expression and representation
The devastating hurricanes did not sway Afro-Puerto Rican painter and sculptor Samuel Lind from continuing to embrace nature in his works. “We’re not owners of nature, we’re part of it,” Lind says. “When you receive that expression from nature… I found beauty everywhere.”
After the back-to-back hurricanes, Lind’s two-story wooden home studio was without power for more than half a year, and some of his paintings were covered in mold. But Lind says that’s not a bad thing: “All this is open. The window inside, the unbroken wall, and the building structure support me to embrace nature. Nature gave me the opportunity to be prepared and to be my best.”
Nature is a central theme in his work. Many of his screen prints are of Loíza, a tropical coastal town in Puerto Rico and his lifelong home, with motifs of palm trees, blue sea, and fishing boats. Lind depicts local residents, bomba dancing, and the annual weeklong Festival of Saint James in his paintings. He also makes clay and bronze sculptures of Afro-Puerto Rican women and gods.
“In my art expression, I send a message of what I believe our nation is and how beautiful our culture is,” Lind says. “Our expression of identity as Puerto Ricans is important.”
Lind’s efforts at cultural preservation matter. Loíza is the heart of Puerto Rico’s African heritage. Founded in the 17th century by formerly enslaved African people, today 37% of its nearly 3,000 residents are Black. “There is so much discrimination against this area,” Lind says. “When I came out here to study art and to show my art [in the mainland United States], I realized that I needed to express our culture in my own way.”
Connecting with community
Artist Don Rimx also credits art for making him “feel connected with the community” and inspiring the locals to “feel more united.” Born in San Juan, Rimx has been painting murals for 25 years. “For me, art is something everybody carries. It’s good to spread love and civility,” Rimx says. “I’m interacting with the people. I’m sharing knowledge. I learn something from them, too.”
Inspired by the communities he encounters, Rimx has painted large-scale murals around the world, including the Dominican Republic, Panama, Ecuador, and Japan. “I like to paint in public spaces. Because everybody can have access and enjoy it,” he says.
Despite leaving the island in 2009, Rimx says he still wants to “represent and work for the island.” In Bayamón, a community that is deteriorating due to challenges like addiction, he has created murals featuring local boxers outside the Monterey Boxing Club. This is part of his effort to support gym owner Emilio Lozada’s vision to “clean up the space” through sports, by getting more people to train. In April, Rimx returned to Bayamón, interacting with the kids there while completing a basketball-court mural project.
Though Rimx has always known that public art has a limited lifespan and can be “easily damaged,” he still hopes to leave uplifting, beautiful works for his hometown, the local community, and the public square in interactive and collaborative ways.
“Art should be related to the neighborhood,” Rimx says.
With a similar mission to “clean up and stop vandalism” and “beautify and revitalize spaces” through public art, Santurce-based design company Robiaggi Design + Build has been doing mosaic projects for 20 years. Alvaro Racines, the company’s project manager, says they now have more than 140 public pieces around the island, in the mainland United States, and in other countries.
While the colorful and durable tiles can withstand hurricanes, mosaics also help preserve the history and people on the island. Creating the projects can take as little as a week to complete or as long as six months. Racines, the company’s owner; local artist Roberto Biaggi; and other members of the company create portraits on street walls of “heroes” in the local community, including local government officials, activists, and others. These giant mosaics educate and uplift the community while also attracting tourists, as many visitors will stop to take pictures in front of them, Racines says.
After the hurricanes in 2017, the Puerto Rican government enacted tax incentives to attract investment across the island. Real estate agents poured in, and the Airbnb and short-term vacation rental industries surged. This flood of gentrification, and increasingly high rents in particular, plagues many Puerto Ricans.
However, the island still gains something. In 2021, guest spending on bookings through Airbnb produced $872.4 million—almost 1% of the island’s GDP that year—and created 24,000 local jobs, according to a study by Oxford Economics.
Boosted by the booming tourism industry, Robiaggi Design + Build has gotten the opportunity to do mosaics for small businesses, hotels, and Airbnbs in Calle Loíza. “Activating a little bit about the neighborhood, and highlighting the different areas there is pretty exciting for us,” Racines says.
Now, members are working with the Municipality of San Juan to reenergize the area of Río Piedras with murals and mosaics. “In Puerto Rico, I see a lot of positive things going on through art intervention and commissions,” Racines says. “There are more and more movements of construction, refurbishing, and remodeling.”
Polishing La Perla
Bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other by the historic walls of Old San Juan lies La Perla, a community with beautiful beaches and decaying buildings—and one of the island’s most notoriously dangerous areas thanks to its crime and drug sales.
After Hurricane Maria, about 200,000 residents fled the island for a better life elsewhere. Despite the growing exodus to places outside Puerto Rico, some young people still want to stay on the island and claim a future there.
“There’s a lot of community effort to bring [La Perla] back to life and nourish it with art,” says Dalila Pinci, an art student at the School of Plastic Arts and Design of Puerto Rico.
Pinci’s mural debut, a portrait of a woman surrounded by tropical flowers and green foliage, is one of dozens of murals in La Perla. Pinci’s mother is Puerto Rican and her father is European, so she grew up on the island but later moved to Switzerland. Pinci moved back to Puerto Rico in 2021 when she was 20 years old, saying that she wanted to be close to her culture and get back to her roots and family.
Pinci returned to the island with “a passion for painting and drawing” that she says she’s had since childhood. She heard complaints from her peers about the lack of support from the government and a sense that “the art culture is dead.” But this challenge, Pinci says, also stirs up the younger generation of creators to fight for themselves.
Art can breathe new life into an island still recovering from natural disasters, Pinci says, and she hopes young people will continue to push boundaries and create new forms. “At the end of the day, we are the ones who are learning, innovating,” she says. “That can help with the world in this darkness.”
This story was originally published by Yes! Magazine and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.