¿Y Ahora Que? —

Artists respond to the economic crisis in Puerto Rico

By Odalis Garcia, Giovanni Cortez, and Eva Scazzero

While Puerto Rico hangs in proverbial limbo with $72 billion in debt, humanitarian consequences brought upon by the historical entanglement of Puerto Rico and the United States remains a focus for Puerto Rican artists living in the United States.

The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, known as PROMESA signed into law by President Barack Obama on June 30th 2016, places the future of Puerto Rico in the hands of seven people.

PROMESA enables Congress to appoint seven members to a fiscal control board to restructure Puerto Rico’s debt, with power to overrule decisions made by Puerto Rico’s authority and legislature.

We spoke with multimedia curators, a poet, a photographer, and a DJ, all of whom use their craft to bring attention to what’s happening to the people of Puerto Rico.

“The biggest problem with the collection of this debt is that finances are placed above the basic services required by any citizen, such as education, access to health, housing, work and improvements in infrastructure,” said Melissa Vargas Echevarria, spokesperson for ‘Campamento Contra la Junta’ which is made up of group of activists who have been camped out in front of the US Federal Court in San Juan since August 29th.

As a territory of the United States, the island is not given the same right as American states to file for bankruptcy.

The island’s current economic crisis is best understood in the context of its complicated political relationship with the United States.

Graphic by Eva Scazzero
“Puerto Rico is at a physical disadvantage because we’re so small which is why we are only looked at like we’re a military outpost. That’s all we’ve ever been to the United States,” said Bonafide Rojas, poet.

Defend Puerto Rico, a multimedia project, seeks to document Puerto Ricans and their day-to-day life, covering their creativity and resistance.

They want to tell stories that highlight who Puerto Ricans are.

“We got a lot of answers that went into history, that were personal, but that’s what made it really beautiful…the array and diversity of answers and diversity of people that we got,” said Adrian ‘Viajero’ Roman, referencing a Defend Puerto Rico video series where Roman interviewed Puerto Ricans asking, ‘how would you defend Puerto Rico?’

Roman said the goal of Defend PR is to bring a sense of pride back to Puerto Ricans through stories that portray a flourishing culture.

“It’s like we wanna see people that look like me, I wanna hear a story that sounds like mine, so we’re trying to touch on all of that,” said Roman, one of the main organizers and producer of Defend Puerto Rico.

Mikey Cordero, another organizer and producer of Defend Puerto Rico said that empathy is an important aspect of their project.

“As artists it’s our job to invoke empathy about what’s going on, to help with the identity issues. We need to represent and show what the people of Puerto Rico are capable of, because there’s this misconception that they’re not capable of anything, even amongst themselves,” he said.

Mario Ruben Carrión, photographer, wants to delve even more into the ways in which he tells the story of Puerto Ricans on and off the island.

In NYC Protesters outside of the Fiscal Control Board Meeting react to attendees of the Puerto Rican Fiscal Control Board as they enter one of the first meetings about PROMESA; Image courtesy of Mario Ruben Carrion

“You gotta show two angles of the struggle, you gotta show the nitty gritty, the truth, show what’s wrong, point out the problem, take pictures of the struggle, people in the front lines, fighting for something they think is unjust. But you also gotta show stories of success, stories of people who are surviving on their own, creating jobs, who are not waiting for the US to come and create the jobs for them,” he said.

The two photos shown here by Carrión are his examples of what he calls the nitty gritty and the stories of success.

“The mentality of creating is going to take us where we want. We’d be free from imperialism,” said Carrión.
A Puerto Rican bar owner opens up his own business; Image courtesy of Mario Ruben Carrion

These artists critique the commonwealth status of Puerto Rico, and the historical abusive relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico that has stretched over the last century.

Rojas is dedicated to teaching the context of Puerto Rico’s colonial history to young students both on and off the island.

Rojas performing his poem ‘In Front of the Class’

“One of the things that I try and do especially when I’m in Puerto Rico is erase the concept of aqui and alla (here and there),” he said.

These artists try to keep that thought in mind as they are part of the diaspora, and are reaching out to those not living on the island to also fight back and defend Puerto Rico. The artists are seeking to really engage the Puerto Rican diaspora, because of the long-term impact they could have on those back on the island.

For Rojas the question is, “What do we want from Puerto Rico?” There is more than just one Puerto Rican experience, and various ways of showing that and of speaking out against the struggles of Puerto Ricans.

An artist that speaks to a different form of art is Xiomara Henry, better known as DJ Bembona.

Image courtesy of DJ Bembona

“My form of resistance will always be art, through music. We have a responsibility as people, as activists, artists that we have to make sure whatever we’re doing in whatever aspect we’re doing, that we highlight these voices when they’re not being heard because if you go a regular club in the city, you’re not going to hear the same thing as when you go to a party of mine,” said DJ Bembona.

“I entertain folks but I want to be able to showcase the voices that aren’t heard,” she said.

She said that her form of resistance comes through transporting people to another world so that they resolve all their issues on the dance floor. “I just love that, that control of making people feel better and powerful and beautiful,” DJ Bembona said.

“Rhythm is the core. It’s part of our soul and how we move and the feeling that you get is just indescribable to put in words. It’s kind of a mix of like rebellion and liberty and just ‘fuck you’ to everything that’s going on.”

DJ Bembona is concerned that with the election of Donald Trump, the current PROMESA bill, and the financial crisis Puerto Rico is facing is going to get worse. She said that there is no knowing what might happen to the island now during the new administration.

“We already have people in this junta, this board, that are not even living in the island, they’re not part of the cultural fabric,” she said.

DJ Bembona hopes to highlight that hope is not completely lost. There are still many things to celebrate.

“We can’t forget the celebration. It’s not sadness all the time. Despite everything that we’re going through, we’re beautiful people and we want to showcase that to the world.”