Viva la resistencia: Artists vow to stay in Puerto Rico despite crisis

Members of the creative class stick it out in San Juan, seeking out inspiration and new opportunities

Artist José Luis Vargas, in his Santurce studio, draws on supernatural and freakish themes to examine the Puerto Rican consciousness.
Christopher Gregory for Al Jazeera America

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Three awful things happened back to back to Santurce architect and restaurateur Bryan Torres this summer that he believes underscore Puerto Rico’s deteriorating economic situation. He arrived at work one morning to learn his restaurant had been robbed. A few hours later, a neighbor and regular customer hanged herself in the stairwell. Then he learned the building he rented for his business was being repossessed.

“We are living the crisis at it unfolds,” said Torres, who closed the restaurant at the end of July. But unlike the more than 50,000 residents the island has been losing annually in recent years, Torres isn’t leaving Puerto Rico or even Santurce. Instead he’s moving to a cheaper, smaller location in a rougher part of the neighborhood.

“I believe Puerto Rico is a land of opportunity. Why go to a place where everything’s figured out?” he said.

He is part of what a local gallery owner has labeled “la resistencia” (the resistance) — artists, designers, restaurateurs, gallery owners and other creative types who, in the face of massive migration from Puerto Rico, have chosen to stay on the island and build a movement that sustains area businesses and preserves local culture.

Santurce, a working-class, heavily immigrant neighborhood in San Juan that has seen an influx of artists in recent years, is the heart of the movement.

“There are a bunch of us like me that are trying to stick to it and ride it as it is,” said Hector “Tito” Matos, a Grammy-nominated musician who was born and raised in Santurce and leads the plena-bomba fusion group Viento de Agua. “I am not saying the ones who go don’t have the commitment. But we decided the nation needed people to stay and work it out in order to bring back Puerto Rico from the economic hole in which we are now.”

His wife, Mariana Reyes Angleró, runs La Calle Loiza, a nonprofit group that documents the history of the Santurce neighborhood and promotes its cultural events. The couple met in New York, where they own a home in the Bronx, but have lived in Puerto Rico since 2003. Every Monday night, Matos and other musicians meet for a jam session in the neighborhood that is open to public.

“We do it for free because the economy is really bad for everybody,” said Matos. “We do it just to keep plena music alive in one of the places where that rhythm was played the most.”

Bryan Torres has been fighting an uphill battle to sustain a viable business. He relocated Tostado, his organic eatery, after his previous site was repossessed.
Christopher Gregory for Al Jazeera America

When Puerto Rico raised its sales tax from 7 percent to 11.5 percent on July 1, instead of calling it quits, Valeria Bosch, the owner of Len.T.juela, a vintage boutique on Calle Loiza in Santurce, started to offer local shoppers an 11 percent discount on their purchases.

“I believe in the island. I believe in Puerto Rico. I believe in the people,” she said. “I think this is a transition, and when things are bad, I don’t think on leaving. I think on working on them and make the difference, make the change. I know there is a lot of potential here and believe in that. We have a lot of young people hungry to work hard.”

Like Torres, Bosch hopes the crisis spurs Puerto Ricans to use the fewer dollars they have in their pocket to support local businesses. According to a 2014 analysis by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Reporting (CPI), Puerto Rico has more Walgreens and Walmart stores per square mile than anywhere else in the U.S.

‘In mythology, monsters rise when there’s a crisis. This is maybe the worst crisis in every respect on the island, and yet it’s also the most critical time for creativity to arise.’

José Luis Vargas


Francisco Rovira Rullán has run art spaces in Santurce for the past 12 years and currently runs the Roberto Paradise gallery, which is in the process of relocating to a cheaper but larger space just a few blocks from Torres’ new restaurant.

He has been through bad economic times before, closing a gallery in 2008 during the first wave of the financial crisis.

“At that point it wasn’t because people didn’t have money but because they were scared they were going to lose it,” he said. “Fear is bad for business.”

Regardless of the crisis, it’s an exciting moment to be working in Puerto Rico, Rovira said during a recent walk through Santurce. “We’re living a historic moment of huge transition, where things will reset for the next 40 years,” he said. “The uncertainty and crisis provides the setting for creativity to blossom and artists to be more poignant and observant in their work.”

Pedro Vélez, a mixed-media artist who splits his time between San Juan and the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York, recently exhibited a collaborative show, “Surrender Flags and Ransom Notes,” in Caguas, about 20 minutes inland from San Juan.

The pieces were a commentary on the control the ratings companies have exerted over Puerto Rico as well what he calls the “John Paulson Puerto Ricans” — high-net-worth Americans who were wooed by generous tax exemptions to invest in Puerto Rico. Paulson is a billionaire New York hedge fund manager who made out handily betting against subprime mortgages in 2007 and has predicted Puerto Rico will become “the Singapore of the Caribbean.”

“We give up — this is it,” Vélez said, explaining a surrender flag hanging from a mast of carved pine. “It also comes from this idea that protests don’t really do much. We’re going to lose. This is going to be owned by private organizations and hedge fund managers who don’t have any interest in the island.”

“I was in a very pessimistic state of mind,” he added.

His concerns are warranted. In late July the Puerto Rico Department of Commerce and Economic Development announced that Paulson’s hedge fund is investing $20 million to turn the San Juan Beach Hotel into “an ultraluxury boutique hotel.” A press release for the project described the investment as one that “adds momentum to Puerto Rico’s development efforts.”

Pedro Vélez in front of his surrender flags (and collaborations with artist Luis Manuel Rodríguez) at his makeshift studio at Sacred Heart University in San Juan’s Santurce district.
Christopher Gregory for Al Jazeera America

For painter José Luis Vargas, Puerto Rico’s economic crisis has spawned monsters in his massive, supernatural-inspired works.

“In mythology, monsters rise when there’s a crisis,” he said, sitting in an airy Santurce loft that serves as his studio, with a wall-size painting of an eyeless child riding a flying saucer hanging behind him. “This is maybe the worst crisis in every respect on the island, and yet it’s also the most critical time for creativity to arise.”

“Without the crisis in Spain in that moment,” he continued, referring to Spain’s brutal struggle for independence from France in the early 1800s, “you don’t have [Francisco] Goya.”

While Vargas believes Puerto Rico is “on a countdown for a collapse,” he remains optimistic about people’s will for change.

“History is putting us against a wall and is telling us, ‘You have to act, and you have to act quick, and you have to use your mind.’ We have to start all over again, so it’s a good time for many opportunities,” he said. “But definitely, we cannot put our hope in the people who actually got us into this crisis.”

That, he believes, would be truly grotesque.

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