Puerto Rico, Paper Towels, and Politics- The Street Art of Ponce

June is important for at least two reasons for Puerto Ricans — it’s the start of hurricane season and New York City holds its annual Puerto Rican Day Parade. I don’t live in New York anymore, but when I did, I tried not to miss it. The food, the music, and the smiles made standing in the heat or the rain worth it. For many people, the parade is their first introduction to the culture of Puerto Rico, and over 1.5 million people attend each year.

After the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the parade has even more significance. Most people have no idea that the parade is America’s largest cultural celebration, just as many had no idea that Puerto Ricans are actually Americans. You wouldn’t actually think so given the treatment that Puerto Ricans have received from the federal government. Attendees at today’s parade didn’t want anyone to forget it. In fact, Power4 Puerto Rico developed a Snap filter of President Trump tossing paper towels that went viral. As some may remember, the President famously tossed/threw paper towels at people who had lost everything during an October 2017 trip to Puerto Rico.

Our visit to Ponce, Puerto Rico

We visited Puerto Rico in March 2018 to see the island for ourselves and will post on that separately. While walking through the beautiful city of Ponce, we discovered street art that exemplified the pain and anger that Puerto Ricans felt toward the perceived insensitivity and inaction of the Trump administration. We spoke to many of the artists as they put their final touches on their murals.

The paper towel incident featured prominently in one of the larger murals. Artist Miguel Conesa explained to us how the gesture offended Puerto Ricans, who understandably remain hurt and angry months later. His piece, one of the largest, features a local begging for help from the President, surrounded by paper towels.

Another artist showed the mainland U.S. kicking Puerto Ricans to the sharks. The paper towel adorns the donkey’s head.

Some artists graphically exposed the misleading death figures that the U.S. government used to minimize the tragedy and painted coffins to make sure that people remember the dead. Others reminded people of the pain caused by staggering power outages.

Some artists showcased those profiting off of Puerto Rico in the past, present, and future.

Still others painted about the poverty on the island, the lack of opportunities (even with a college degree), and mass incarceration.

Some of the most impactful murals depicted the deflated dreams of those who went to the mainland United States for a better life only to suffer disappointment.

One of our favorites depicts local moving to the northeastern part of the United States as though it were Disney World. The hopefuls carry their empty suitcases symbolizing the emptiness of their dreams. Half of the painting is devoted to the wind, which symbolizes the hurricane, the cold weather in the mainland, and the cold reality of what the migrants would face.

In this piece entitled “…y ahora que?” (“now what?”), the artist portrays families huddled into crowded apartments in New York. The people are dressed in black like crows and look miserable with their new reality. Yet, the artist paints even more people flying in because they need to escape the island.

We accidentally stumbled upon the street artists while visiting Ponce, a lovely city with beautiful stately buildings, a rich history, and more traditional street art.

But if you go, make sure to look outside of the main square for the street with the political art. The artists want to make sure that we never forget what happened to their island. As hurricane season gets underway, their message could not be more important.

Originally published at Nomads4Life.