Raquel Berrios and Luis Alfredo Del Valle, the husband and wife indie-pop duo who perform as Buscabulla, were in New York, desperate to reach their families on the island. Silence was all that greeted Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was vacationing in Austria, when he tried to connect with relatives in Puerto Rico. And the rapper Daddy Yankee, in New York for a concert, remembers watching the live footage of the hurricane and being dumbfounded by the devastation.
But any feelings of helplessness didn’t last. They and other artists like them, either living in Puerto Rico or with roots on the island, sprung into action. Some raised money for the relief efforts. Others delivered much-needed supplies. And all turned to their art.
A year after Hurricane Maria, we asked a cross-section of musicians, actors and comedians to talk about how the storm affected their lives and influenced their work. We also reached out to three of the participants in a recent residency for Puerto Rican artists at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Mass., to share examples of hurricane-inspired work. The interviews have been edited and condensed.
Buscabulla, indie-pop duo
Buscabulla — Spanish for “troublemaker” — is the husband and wife indie-pop duo of Raquel Berrios and Luis Alfredo Del Valle. The Puerto Rican natives spent more than a decade in New York pursuing a career in music before moving back to the island in February.
RAQUEL: Luis did a humanitarian flight in November, in an empty giant airplane with supplies. Then after that we were able to come in late December, for Christmas and to try to find a house. A few months had gone by, but it looked like a different place. Everything just looked kind of frazzled. Last Christmas was just the saddest Christmas ever. Like half the island still didn’t have electricity. It was just a really weird time.
But I was really impressed by all the artists and musicians outside of Puerto Rico doing stuff. The diaspora really hit it hard. Everybody was part of something. We started Puerto Rico Independent Musicians & Artists (the Prima fund, with the musician Ani Cordero) to get emergency money to independent musicians, because those are most of our friends. Most of them worked at bars or restaurants, so they had no money, and didn’t know where to eat. It was dire, so we figured out this way to partner with a nonprofit in the Bronx and they were able to send money orders with somebody who was flying from New York to Puerto Rico. They distributed $500 grants so people would have some money to eat or pay rent.
We wanted to move back in September. We have a 4-year-old daughter, and even before she was born, we were really missing Puerto Rico and just really feeling the New York hustle. We just had crazy lives: we were touring and had a baby and I still had my day job. It was just really stressful. So we wanted to come back and then the hurricane came, and it made us even more emboldened.
LUIS: Like, if there’s any time to do it, it’s now. More than for your country, you just really want to be there for your family and the people that you love.
RAQUEL: We just felt like, “What are we doing in New York?” We had already built a fan base and we didn’t really depend on the city anymore. We had to keep crazy jobs just to pay rent.
It really did feel like it needed us here. So many people our age are just leaving. We needed to do something and use it as an anchor for our body of work. It gave it more meaning. We’re not just making a record at this point — it’s a whole big life thing. It became a bigger thing than us.
We feel now, as we listen to our work here, it’s so much more emotional and there’s a little bit more rage in our music. I was out for 12 years. Just the emotions of coming back, and of just being here, it’s this combination of bliss and sadness and also uncertainty. We don’t know what’s going to happen here, whether it’s going to be sustainable place for us to stay and raise our daughter.
LUIS: We want to make it work. That would be the ideal. But we don’t know. There’s a bit of uncertainty and doubt, but we’re also pretty inspired by getting to come back and having that privilege.
RAQUEL: There’s always been musicians who are politically inclined, but Maria really changed people. A lot of bands have broken up because maybe members had to leave, other new projects have flourished. But there’s been incredible support — I think a lot of people are finding themselves and recognizing themselves as a community whereas maybe before they didn’t. Before, it was, “I’m into rock” or “I’m into reggae,” and people had their cliques. But after Maria, everybody felt we were all part of something. That we were all in it together. Especially now, small community efforts are so important, because it’s really being threatened. I see people more jazzed about making work around what’s going on here. We’re really happy to be here and excited to work really hard. It’s a pretty meaningful time. — JOE COSCARELLI
Modesto Lacén, actor
Mr. Lacén, who has appeared in more than 20 films shot in Puerto Rico, is one of the stars of “A Fistful of Dirt,” the first feature film shot on the island since the hurricane. A dark fairy tale (complete with a mermaid), it follows a 10-year-old boy through the storm-ravaged landscape of Loiza, a town on the northeast coast. Mr. Lacén plays a fisherman doing what he needs to do to survive.
Before the storm, I was in two plays that were touring the island, I had two movie premieres scheduled, I was going to be the spokesman for an air-conditioning company. Everything was canceled. I didn’t work again until “A Fistful of Dirt” started shooting in late December.
The director, Sebastian Silva, had this story, which originally was set in Poland. The producers had funding from the Puerto Rican film board for a film that got canceled. They approached him and said, “Listen, we have money to spend in Puerto Rico, is there a way to adapt it?” Sebastian had seen Loiza, and loved it. He was looking for black actors from Loiza and approached me.
Loiza is considered the cradle of the African tradition in Puerto Rico. It’s famous for delicious food, mostly from the sea, and its music, bomba. Sebastian took all that and put it in the film. They found Julio Gastón Ramos, who plays the boy, through an open casting call. There are also lots of extras from the town, including my brother. It’s an all-black cast. We don’t see enough Afro-Latinos onscreen. To me, that was very special.
The art department created a lot of interiors, but most of what you see in the movie reflects how things were at the time. Some of the scenes reflect things I really went through, like the 11-hour lines for gas to power generators. During the shoot, we used generators for one or two days, but mostly we just used natural light. The last sequence was shot just with my character’s flashlight.
I am part of Taller Salud, a really great feminist organization that has been key to reconstruction in Loiza. After the storm, they contacted community leaders, who created a census listing which houses fell down, how many women were pregnant, how many elderly people there were, and so on. This helped them channel help to where it was needed.
I moved to Los Angeles in May. It was a decision I had made even before the hurricane. The storm delayed the move, but reaffirmed my decision. It made me realize that you have to go for it, that you don’t know what’s going to happen, literally.
I was back in Loiza three weeks ago. Things are better. Most people have electricity, but some people have been denied help from FEMA since they don’t have deeds to their houses.
In Puerto Rico, the film industry is getting back into the rhythm. There have been a few premieres. We’re still hoping we can show “A Fistful of Dirt” in Loiza. — JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
Gamaliel Rodriguez created this artwork, “Figure 1829-Aguadilla,” seen here in a studio view, during his residency at Mass MoCA earlier this year. “It’s kind of beauty and chaos at the same time. I think this is our current situation. Puerto Rico is like that, chaos and beauty.”
Isel Rodríguez and Lucienne Hernández, actors and comedians
Ms. Rodríguez and Ms. Hernández are members of Teatro Breve, an improv comedy troupe established more than a decade ago. Their latest show, “Noche de Jevas 8” (Girls’ Night 8), has been playing to sold-out crowds at their home in San Juan, the Shorty Castro Theater.
LUCIENNE: We had just invested in some renovations. Like a family who is unhappy with the carpet at their rented apartment, we decided to spruce up the place. Then, Hurricane María came and the place flooded, like so many places in Puerto Rico. All older theaters have mold and humidity issues, but after this hurricane that was a big problem. We had to invest significantly to clean out all the air conditioning vents. This isn’t a problem that only affected us, many theaters in Puerto Rico had water damage. Every time it rained after the hurricane it was a nightmare, and we actually had a roof over our heads. Can you imagine for the people who still have those blue tarps?
Maybe a week after the hurricane we started trying to communicate, but even coordinating a meeting was almost impossible. Everyone’s full-time job became trying to get gas or water. Also, once we got together we had to talk about jokes to tell people, and that was hard when we were all depressed. Even if we had had power, the theater was in bad shape, but even if it hadn’t been, we didn’t have a way to tell people we were back. Nobody would have come to see us, not because they didn’t want to, but because they had no gas to get there.
We started to write a show about the hurricane, but, we didn’t want to talk about anything other than what was going on, and we realized that the situation wasn’t funny enough yet to write a sketch. So we waited. Little by little we started meeting, getting used to functioning in this mess.
ISEL: I think going back to work quickly established a sense of normalcy. It gave us a purpose. It never occurred to us to tell different types of stories, so we really had to think about what was funny with everything that was going on. For me it wasn’t, “how can you do comedy after the hurricane?” It was, “how can you not?”
I think what we do is vital. We thought we were going to lose our audience, but suddenly after María they came. In the middle of the disaster they came to see us, they paid for the tickets. They needed to see themselves and to laugh. Artistic and cultural communities have pulled together, but you can’t help but think about the future. Our economic situation and the sociopolitical situation have, in a way, been worse than María. My friend Tania (Rosario-Méndez), who directs Taller Salud (a feminist, nonprofit grass-roots organization), says “natural disasters don’t kill people, governments kill people.” So I think natural disasters don’t decimate the arts, governments and political agendas do. As artists, we need to reframe our actions toward self-sustenance. — CHARO HENRÍQUEZ
Luis Fonsi, pop singer
Mr. Fonsi is best known for his international smash hit “Despacito.” He was born in San Juan and lives in Miami. A month before Hurricane Maria hit, he was named Puerto Rico’s tourism ambassador.
About two weeks after the storm, I put together a flight to go down to Puerto Rico. I asked JetBlue for an airplane and they gave it to me and we filled it up with goods. I called all my big artist friends like Ricky Martin, Nicky Jam, and this was all put together between us. Everybody said, “I’m in — whatever I have to do.” Everybody came together, it was a show of force. We weren’t getting a lot of support from the government and that’s another story. It was in our heads to do it. We had to.
It was definitely an emotional trip, I’m not going to lie. When we were landing, the pilot took a different route so we could see lengthwise most of Puerto Rico. We saw, from above, a different island. As I’m telling you right now, the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. There was nothing green, it looked like it had exploded. There was not one dry eye on that airplane. But to be able to not only bring goods, but to let them know we’re here, we’re going to get through this …
Puerto Ricans are happy people, we are positive people. We’ve been through a lot of hurricanes. Before Maria, a hurricane was actually an excuse to get together and play dominoes and get out of work and school for a few days and drink a few beers. Now it’s a different story.
In my case, something great came out of it, which is that I opened my own foundation. Maybe this is something I wouldn’t have done without Maria. It’s dedicated to rebuilding low-income houses in Puerto Rico, especially in La Perla, where I filmed my video for “Despacito.”
Now I just think the relationship between everybody has just gotten stronger. I don’t know if we’re still going to be writing songs about it because it’s the kind of thing you just want to put behind you. We want to move forward. — JOE COSCARELLI
“Santurce Renace” (The Rebirth of Santurce), a sculpture created after Hurricane Maria by the artist Mark Rivera in Santurce, Puerto Rico.
Chente Ydrach, comedian
Mr. Ydrach is a local stand-up comedian who hosts the popular podcast “Masacote With Chente Ydrach.”
Immediately after the hurricane and until about a month or so later I didn’t feel I had permission to be funny. I didn’t dare tell jokes. Obviously, being a comedian you see things and think to yourself, “that was funny,” but it was such a delicate subject that I didn’t think I could.
Instead of entertaining people, I was reporting the things I saw and experienced. I got together with some friends and started gathering supplies and delivering them to 14 towns. I saw the aftermath firsthand and I recorded that. Cash started running low, so I had to do some shows. To be honest, looking back, I have no idea how I made money to pay my bills and survive after María. I have no idea, but I made it work. Eventually we did some free shows in Río Piedras and San Juan. At that point we were telling jokes again, talking about it.
I’m currently doing a stand-up tour and I touch on the subject very carefully and for about five minutes. I think it’s also because I’m so drained, so tired of talking about it. After the first five months I was kind of over it from an artistic point of view. — CHARO HENRÍQUEZ
Lin-Manuel Miranda, actor and composer, and Luis Miranda Jr., consultant
Lin-Manuel Miranda, born and raised in New York, is the Pulitzer-and-Tony-winning composer and writer of “Hamilton.” Luis Miranda Jr., his father, was the founding president of the Hispanic Federation; he was born and raised in Puerto Rico and now lives in New York. They are among the founders of the Flamboyan Arts Fund to support artists and cultural organizations in Puerto Rico; among the fund’s projects will be to repair the theater at the University of Puerto Rico where “Hamilton” will be staged in January.
LIN-MANUEL: Silence. Silence is all anyone heard from Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria hit. Then the names of towns began to appear on my Twitter feed. Callouts from desperate people all over the world, hoping for any news of their loved ones on the island. My family suffered the same fate. Not a word for days.
As a writer, I channeled my frustration and despair into a song. I was on vacation abroad, so I cut my trip short. Upon landing in New York I went straight to Atlantic Records to cut a demo of what would become “Almost Like Praying.” A charity single and a rallying cry for hope. I contacted every Puerto Rican and Latin musician I knew, and many I did not, to help fill this silence with the goal of raising much needed funds for the lifesaving work the Hispanic Federation had already mobilized to do, with boots already on the ground.
Twenty two artists dropped everything they were doing to help over a single weekend. Within a week we released the single on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America” and “Despierta America,” to name a few of the generous media outlets that agreed to help us broadly signal the needs of the people of Puerto Rico. The lyrics of the song are simple, a callout to the 78 municipalities of Puerto Rico, an audible recognition of the places and for the people we hold dear.
Since the release of “Almost Like Praying,” and through the generous donations of over 200,000 people from all over the world, and corporate sponsorships and partnerships, we have helped the Hispanic Federation raise over $42 million for Puerto Rico.
LUIS: The first couple of months we focused on general relief — food, generators — and the arts looked like a luxury. But the moment we felt the Hispanic Federation’s projects were fully funded, we launched the arts fund; the arts scene in Puerto Rico needs to get back in full swing after Maria. One of the first recipients was the University of Puerto Rico theater. That’s my alma mater, and the theater there was so much a part of my student life, and now “Hamilton” is going to that theater, and we wanted to leave the venue ready for other big productions to come. The theater is the first of multiple projects. We also gave to dance groups and community arts organizations and a small company, Y No Había Luz, that does street theater and wrote a skit about a tree that had survived every other hurricane but could not withstand Maria.
LIN-MANUEL: A year has passed since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Much has been done, but the road to recovery is long and not a simple one. It is more important than ever to keep our voices powerful to remind Washington that our fellow Americans on the island still need our help. As Puerto Rico continues to rebuild, we must remember that the threat of future storms is very real, if not inevitable. Resiliency and innovation in reconstruction are paramount, as is the rejuvenation of the Puerto Rican spirit through arts and culture to keep hope alive. — MICHAEL PAULSON
The Puerto Rican artist Ivelisse Jimenez created “Watermarks” during her residency at Mass MoCA nine months after the hurricane. “I lost two studios and most of the work I had done in the last 20 years. Nevertheless it was nothing compared to the general state of things around me. The work for me was about the internal effect that this havoc had, and what it revealed.”
Daddy Yankee, rapper
A veteran musician known as the King of Reggaeton, Daddy Yankee first crossed over in the United States with the 2004 album “Barrio Fino,” featuring the hit “Gasolina.” He was born in San Juan, and remains one of Puerto Rico’s best known cultural ambassadors.
I was performing in New York when Maria hit. I remember watching all the live footage — my island getting devastated by the hurricane was just, wow, unbelievable, something we’d never experienced before. Right away I started gathering supplies. I packed my plane with power, batteries, water, diapers, medicine.
Three or four days after the hurricane I was in the field, right there with everybody, trying to help my people from the capital to the countryside. It was devastating when I saw the island after landing. I still have that memory in my mind. I don’t know how you call it in English — like a fire, just apocalyptic, all brown, all burnt.
I was there two months. We were supposed to release a record in October and we postponed everything until January. For some reason, when I saw the island completely devastated, I thought that I had nothing. It was like the beginning of my career again. It was just a feeling inside of me that, oh my god, I have to work even harder this time. That was the mentality of everyone on the island: Now we have to work harder.
It was bad, but at the same time, we were all together for the first time. The island needed that. We needed to stay together. We hadn’t seen that in the past three decades, that unity.
Right now you’re seeing the fruits of it. People didn’t want to hear sad songs, nothing like that. All our music has always been very rhythmic, but it’s even harder than before. We don’t want to talk about bad vibes, we just want to try to have fun. — JOE COSCARELLI
Carmen Acevedo Lucío, choir director
Ms. Acevedo is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, where she directs two a cappella choirs: the University of Puerto Rico Chorus, a student group, and Coralia, made up of students and alumni. This year, from February to June, the students in both groups decided to spend Saturdays singing in hurricane-damaged towns.
After the hurricane, I came to Miami for four weeks because of the devastation. I live in a condo that was fully flooded, and my front door was partially lost, but actually I consider myself extremely lucky — it’s not a big deal when I saw what people were going through. When I got back, I thought we needed to do something to help our community, so we came up with this project, Canta y Siembra (Sing and Sow), where we went to different municipalities, presented a formal concert with our academic classical repertoire and our lighter repertoire. We’d hand out supplies — clothing, food, water, bed linens, insect repellent, you name it, we just had a little bit of everything — and then we’d finish our visit planting trees, because we lost so many during the hurricane.
The first one we went to was Morovis. Part of the road leading up the mountain was missing, but we were able to get there. There was no light, no electricity, and they didn’t have much water, but just being there, presenting the concert, was really kind of a spiritual cleansing for a lot of them. People would come up to us crying, saying thank you for caring about us. A lot of people just needed company — someone to talk to them, someone to listen to them, someone where they could just spill out what they were going through.
It was such a growing experience for all of us. A lot of my own students lost their homes, lost their roofs, lost their cars, and yet they were there singing for all these other communities and towns. It was just amazing. The students learned so much about giving back — maybe your own situation is tough, but look at what these people are going through.
We don’t deal in politics — we’re in the arts, and the arts is, for me, one of the strongest ways for you to communicate a message. Our message is one of a certain amount of peace, but also of hope — you’re not alone, we are a community, and we will be here for one another regardless. Some of the music is very profound, it’s very spiritual, and a lot of it is thinking about the possibilities: Yes, we went through incredible devastation, but we will prevail. — MICHAEL PAULSON