Antonio Martorell: “My cry into the world”

Puerto Rican artist Antonio Martorell describes the circumstances and inspiration leading up to his work—the monument entitled “My cry into the world/Mi grito ante el mundo” and located in Battery Park, New York City—in ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America. Here are excerpts:

It was September 20, 2019. “One hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred….” That was how we felt and that was how we counted in the face of the irremediable absences provoked by the sweep of Hurricane Maria through the island. But the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Roselló (who would later resign his post), stubbornly clung to the “official” figure of 64 dead.

First, Harvard University, in collaboration with the Carlos Albizu University of San Juan and the Medical School of Ponce, Puerto Rico, calculated the number of lives lost as 4,645. This figure did not satisfy the government, which then contracted George Washington University for $305,000, this time paid from our ruined treasury to confirm to us months later what we already knew. The new official statistic, reluctantly accepted by the government was 2,975 deaths without taking into account long-term collateral victims whom we are still counting in names and numbers as to not forget.  

Neither the federal government whose emissary, the then-President Trump showered us with rolls of paper towels, nor the island government that denied the death toll, fulfilled their duties. Both diligently hid their incompetence and irresponsibility until an authorized and costly external investigation unmasked their criminal lies. It was the Army and the Puerto Rican diaspora that came to the rescue, joining our communitarian actions and rescue operations. Almost four years later, thousands of homes still have blue plastic carps as roofs as if the sky had collapsed on them, as if what happened with the hurricane had not been enough.  

Sometime later, when my friend, the architect Segundo Cardona, tempted me with the open call of New York State for the creation of a commemorative monument to the victims of the disaster, I had already organized an exhibit entitled “¿Quéslaque? Es que la….” In Spanish, that’s short for the common question, ¿qué está pasando? Or “What’s up?” At the same time, in a Spanish word play, the reply, es que la, “It’s that..” both divides the syllables of esquela, which means obituary in Spanish, and also alludes to the Spanish acronym for the defunct status of Associated Free State or Commonwealth: ELA, a political formula which the U.S. Supreme Court recently declared inoperative, reaffirming its total control over the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico. Our exhibit was made up of paint-collages on felt and linen with obituaries crossed off and endless numbers.  

If I go on a bit about the antecedents of the creation of the monument in New York, the focus of this article, it is because I think this background will help to understand the meteorological climate, as well as the political, economic and cultural climate, that frames our work. 

The exhibit “¿Quéslaque? Es que la…” remained for five weeks in the Photojournalism Workshop Gallery in San Juan. The monument “My cry into the world/Mi grito ante el mundo” in New York seeks to register there the results of the efforts of the Puerto Rican diaspora as evidence of our pain and resistance. A monument is an act of remembering that battles against time, combats hopelessness, reclaims the conscience. 

This particular monument is not an emblem of victory, and much less a marker of power like the plentiful monuments that are now being questioned and torn down around the world. It is our desperate cry of poetry that crosses time, an airy structure that embraces space, vibrant colors that move from the island to embrace Manhattan. I can say all this now with certainty, but when my friend asked me to get together with him to compete, I said no. I argued that I refuse to participate in open calls and competitions because I am a sore loser. However, his insistence, together with a prior successful collaboration, overcame my resistance and he ended up convincing me.  [. . .]

I then remembered some verses of our national poet, Julia de Burgos. With the title of “Farewell from Welfare Island,” they are the only ones that I am aware of that she wrote in English during her prolonged and painful stay in New York until her death. I had read these verses for the first time more than a half century ago and now their searing rhythm together with their mournful lament returned like renewed hurricane-like gusts when the eye of a storm is passing through. We immediately decided that the poem would lead us on a transparent and colorful path in contrast to the “immense empire of solitude and darkness,” set forth in the poetic text. 

I then gave myself the task of translating the poem into Spanish so that it could be read in both languages at the same time that would conjure up sands, waves, suns and the very hurricane itself.  “My cry into the world/Mi grito ante el mundo” became the title, the voice of Julia on Welfare Island—renamed Roosevelt Island some time ago—where she was secluded and wrote the Puerto Rican lament of the diaspora at the beginning of our great migratory wave to the metropolis.  [. . .]

For full article, see https://revista.drclas.harvard.edu/my-cry-into-the-world/ [Photos above: “My cry into the world,” Battery Park, City New York 2021, views I, II, and III

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