A report by Audrey Garcés for KQED.
Gentle harmonies from her harp fill the air at Oakland’s Dimond Park as María José Montijo, or MaJo, projects her angelic voice in unison with the instrument. Her lyrics evoke images of the Oakland redwoods, her homeland of Puerto Rico, and, most recently, the hurricane that tore apart the rain forests and beaches where she grew up.
MaJo wrote the song “Colonia de Desastre,” which means “Disaster Colony,” after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in late September. For weeks, she anxiously waited to hear if her loved ones had survived. MaJo translated the song’s lyrics from Spanish to English with tears in her eyes, “I didn’t know anything about you for seven days / My heart started to die slowly / Nobody’s coming to save us / You’re hungry, you’re thirsty, you’re sick, and you’re dying.”
As a Puerto Rican woman living in diaspora, Montijo is using her music to raise money for Puerto Rican relief efforts and promote healing in people watching the devastation from afar, including herself.
“There’s heartbreak because there’s so much devastation and people are suffering so much right now and people are not getting the help that they need,” MaJo says. “[The hurricane] has created an impulse in the whole diaspora of coming together and helping and fundraising and getting supplies over there, because the response has been so inept and vile from the federal and local government.”
Montijo will perform alongside other artists and healers at two upcoming events in solidarity with Puerto Rico. Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center will host the first one on Nov. 3, Canto a Puerto Rico, which features a multicultural art sale and benefit concert to raise funds for grassroots organizations in Puerto Rico. Local artists will perform traditional music styles like Cuban trova, Latin American aguinaldo, and Puerto Rican bomba, followed by a dance party to cap off the evening.
MaJo also organized a donation-based event at Shift Acupuncture in Oakland on Nov. 10 that promotes healing through music and traditional Chinese medicine. The artist works as an acupuncturist by day. As she performs her music, attendees will receive acupuncture as a way to decompress and engage in self-care. Proceeds from the event will go to several grassroots organizations, which are listed on the Facebook event page for people who can’t attend but want to contribute.
“The thing is with all these natural disasters and tragedies that are happening, it’s just so much for the nervous system to handle,” she says. “Even if you’re not in the experience, you’re reading the news and picking up on it, and it’s causing a lot of vicarious trauma.”
MaJo hopes her music will heal others, and she is continuously on a healing journey of her own. Her lyrics and rhythms continue to evolve to reflect her life experiences and spirituality. On her 2014 EP, Estrellas, and 2016 single, “Glaciar,” you can hear Carribean rhythms along with the clave, a rhythmic pattern used in Afro-Cuban music. Imagery of the mountains, rain forests, and rivers of MaJo’s beloved homeland fill her lyrics as she honors the island that shaped her as a musician.
For “every Puerto Rican child that grew up near the beach, it’s like we’re sirens in our imagination,” MaJo says. “It’s like places of power for me that I call to again and again in my music, and again and again in my life to give me strength being far away.”
MaJo says she’s heartbroken being over 3,000 miles away as loved ones are left without power, food, and clean water. (According to a recent report, Hurricane Maria’s death toll could be as great as 911 people.) She says she didn’t hear from some of her close friends until a month after the hurricane hit.
“The lack of respect and lack of acknowledgement of the dignity of Puerto Rican people has made me become more political in how I write songs,” she says. “Especially as women of color, it’s important to prioritize self-care — and play and joy and pleasure — especially when a tragedy is happening because we need to stay strong.”
MaJo plans to begin working on a new album in the near future, but for now, she’ll continue to organize with other musicians and activists to help those back at home. Sometime in the coming months, she plans to travel to Puerto Rico and bring the healing powers of music and acupuncture to locals.
As she sits on her couch in Oakland, a few blocks away from Dimond Park, she finishes translating the lyrics of “Colonia de Desastre,” reciting, “New life is in union / It’s a seed that grows out from the destruction.”
“That’s the good thing about everything, is the possibility of building a more sustainable future,” she says. “It’s that hope of people coming together, which is not even really a hope, because it’s what is happening.”