How Artists Are Reviving Puerto Rico One Year After Hurricane Maria

Colorful homes in Puerto Rico
Colorful homes in Puerto Rico | © Gabi Perez / Culture Trip
Jessica Vincent

On September 20, 2017, one of the deadliest hurricanes ever recorded, Hurricane Maria, devastated the small Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Yet, in the face of unimaginable destruction, young creatives are striving to rebuild the island – and the spirit of the Puerto Rican people – one art mural, community project and boutique hotel opening at a time.

Hurricane Maria may be long gone, but the aftermath of a storm that ripped its way through the tiny, mostly unprotected island at 125 miles an hour can still be seen, and felt, today. While official reports claim that electricity has been restored to most of the island, pedestrians and cars still cross roads under broken traffic lights, and families keep emergency lighting kits (with torches, batteries and candles) at the ready for frequent power outages. Those who live in the more remote, rural areas of Puerto Rico are lucky if they have electricity or running water at all.

Non-functioning traffic lights in Santurce, Puerto Rico
An emergency kit for frequent power outages
A family collects water in preparation for hurricane season

Despite the obvious scars, Puerto Rico is starting to rebuild itself. In southwest Puerto Rico, the town of Yauco, which had been completely destroyed by the storm and forgotten by the world, was left to fend for itself like so many other communities on the island. Thanks to Project Yaucromatic – an initiative set up by Puerto Rican artists to revive this forgotten town – today, Yauco stands proud with its homes (most of which are still covered by the blue FEMA tarp as a roof) covered in vibrant pinks, oranges, yellows, and blues. The message? We are here. We are strong. And we will be heard.

Project Yaucromatic in Yauco promotes public art against the invisibility of the island
The remains of a house, blown away by Hurricane Maria, painted by Project Yaucromatic
On the right, a house with a blue FEMA tarp as a roof, one year after Hurricane Maria

Another group of creatives looking to revive the island through art are the guys behind Art Truck Expo. In the district of Santurce, you’ll find a handful of colorful trucks painted by local artists, such as Betsy Casanas, Sergio Vazquez, and Elizabeth Barreto. Inside, they transformed the small trucks into beautiful mini galleries displaying local paintings, photography, drawings and sculpture. Completely free for residents and visitors, these trucks are places for people to come together, share stories and support local artists.

The Art Truck Expo in Santurce, Puerto Rico, by Sergio Vazquez
A truck painted by Elizabeth Barreto
Artists in process painting a truck. Art by Betsy Casanas

In San Juan, the women behind Monticello Smoke Shop and El Shop are open for business thanks to savvy ingenuity. Before the hurricane, Gaby Pagan (founder of Monticello Smoke Shop and proud medicinal cannabis advocate) and Raixa Sánchez (owner of El Shop) had their own thriving boutiques in the capital. However, after Hurricane Maria destroyed their stores, their respective businesses were left in tatters.

Raixa, determined to carry on selling her Puerto Rican apparel on the streets after her shop was destroyed, said: “Sometimes we didn’t have anything to eat. But if we made five or 10 dollars a day, that was something to celebrate.”

Gaby Pagan, owner and founder of Monticello Smoke Shop
Raixa Sánchez, owner of El Shop, that sells local apparel, accessories, art prints and more

After a challenging year of saving and struggling to come up with the funds to rebuild, the two women decided to combine forces. Three weeks ago, Gaby and Raixa proudly opened up a joint smoke and apparel shop, where you’ll find Puerto Rican clothes, accessories and art from El Shop on one side, and porcelain smoke pipes and marijuana seeds from Monticello Smoke Shop on the other.

As Raixa said, if nothing else, Maria has “taught us to work together and support each other.”

Gaby is a medicinal cannabis advocate, helping to shape the cannabis industry in Puerto Rico
A porcelain smoke pipe designed by Doel Fresse (@doel_fresse) sold at Monticello Smoke Shop

Also in San Juan, The Dreamcatcher is just one of the island’s forward-thinking hotels showing the world that, a year on, Puerto Rico is ready to welcome tourists once again. The stunning boutique bed and breakfast, which once housed volunteer workers helping to rebuild Puerto Rico after the hurricane hit, is open and ready for business, offering farm-fresh vegetarian cuisine, beautifully simple retro-chic design, and a laid-back Caribbean vibe.

The Dreamcatcher is a vegetarian bed and breakfast located in Ocean Park, Puerto Rico

This B&B served and lodged workers helping rebuild Puerto Rico, post-Hurricane Maria

Gardens at The Dreamcatcher

There’s no doubt that, a year on, Puerto Rico is still coming to terms with the traumatic events of last September. However, thanks to the resilience of its people and sheer determination from talented local artists and small business owners, this vibrant Caribbean island hasn’t just got its old spark back, but – maybe most impressively – is reinventing itself as a stronger, more determined community.

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