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Lin-Manuel Miranda ignites artistic revolution in Puerto Rico in wake of hurricane devastation

By Manuel Crespo Feliciano, Accuweather en Español staff writer
April 18, 2019, 11:17:24 AM EDT

After the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2017, there are those who are sure that the development of the arts is the best vehicle for transformation and empowerment of the most marginalized communities.

For years, the only references to the island on the international level seemed to be made by the artists who proudly carried the flag of Puerto Rico in all corners of the world. Artists and celebrities like Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Rita Moreno, Benicio del Toro, among others, seemed to be the true face of the island.

However, very little has made it into the news and pop culture about daily life there and the challenges faced by thousands of Puerto Ricans every day: a fragile energy system; poor access to health services; and a history of unjust social divisions.

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In Puerto Rico, an island in the middle of the Caribbean that has been a colony of the United States since 1898, contrasts abound.

The place where one can enjoy dinner in a fine restaurant overlooking the sea, savoring a delicious mofongo with fresh fish, is also a place that makes for troubling headlines in local newspapers telling stories of the problems of criminality, mismanagement of finances and corruption.

Walking through the streets of Old San Juan on a Sunday afternoon, you might contemplate the beauty of the capital city and, suddenly, find yourself looking right at a whole row of businesses that have closed as a result of the economic crisis.

And so on. There are many other cases that show how on a surface of 100 by 35 miles, realities -- not unlike those of any other country -- that exemplify the depth of the country's social and economic problems.

Maria aftermath - Puerto Rico

Jose Garcia Vicente walks through rubble of his destroyed home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Hurricane Maria had a devastating impact on the 3.4 million residents of Puerto Rico when it roared over the island in September 2017. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives as a result of the hurricane, and more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to the continental U.S. in the aftermath of the storm. It is estimated that the figure could reach half a million people by the end of 2019.

The catastrophe also helped to raise awareness of pre-existing problems such as the fact that half of the Puerto Rican population lived below the poverty line (the highest poverty rate of any U.S. state or territory), and the lack of planning and preparation for extreme storms in an area very prone to natural disasters.

Hamilton, grafitti and the path of the umbrellas

Looking to the future, and although the outlook could be uninspiring, there are those who bet on one of the most significant attractions of the island to help build a better country: Art.

Below, AccuWeather presents three stories that show how resilient Puerto Ricans are rebuilding the country through art:

Lin-Manuel Miranda and how Hamilton raised $14 million for the arts

Lin Manuel Miranda Puerto Rico

Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer and creator of the award-winning Broadway musical, Hamilton, proudly waves a Puerto Rican flag after receiving a standing ovation at the end of the play's premiere held at the Santurce Fine Arts Center, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

Puerto Rican celebrity Lin-Manuel Miranda helped raise more than $14 million for the arts on the island with the staging of the smash hit musical "Hamilton" in January this year.

According to the Fortune media, the Tony Award-winner, together with the Flamboyán Foundation, created an economic fund with the intention of promoting the arts on the island and to help artistic groups recover after the hurricane.

"The purpose of this production is to bring funding to the island and help with the recovery. Lin has been very hands on since the hurricane in basic recovery, but then I realized that recovery has been going to infrastructure and arts are the last thing to get attended," Puerto Rican actor Rick Negrón, who was part of the musical, told AccuWeather in an interview.

"There is a generation here that has been left behind in education and he (Lin) is investing in that now. It's a wonderful thing. There is so much talent on this island, there has always been. And to give them the support, is a way to give them back, to the youth and to the country," added Negrón.

In addition to the funds raised by the staging of "Hamilton," organizations such as Marriott International, Banco Popular, JetBlue, Evertech, Wend Ventures, Churches Chicken, AirBnB, and the Warner brothers, donated nearly $200,000 to bolster the art community on the island.

In Santurce, art is law

Grafitti Puerto Rico

"San Chullo" is a piece of art created after Hurricane Maria by artist thestencilnetwork, inspired by "corrupt politicians and disaster capitalists". (Instagram/thestencilnetwork)

For years, Serra Street in Santurce, a neighborhood that is situated in the heart of San Juan and was long an abandoned place, plunged into poverty. It borders Residencial Luis Llorens Torres, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the capital city, but also is just a stone's throw from Condado, which is one of the city's most upscale neighborhoods. Now, it is an international benchmark for street art and community transformation through art.

It all started when artist Angel Bousquet opened a gallery in 2009 with the idea of exhibiting his art and providing a space for other local artists to do the same.

With the passage of time, the economy in the community began to grow. People sold their products, more restaurants opened and more people became interested in what happened there.

"People began feeling empowered by saying 'I live in Serra Street, where art is happening'," Bousquet told AccuWeather.

After the hurricane, the Santurce es Ley project has been painting streets with a fresh nuance, seeking to tell the story of those who survived the disaster.

"We need more art, more culture; We need to tell how we survived the hurricane. This project gave us strength to rebuild our community. Through art, it gave us hope to do more and more," he said.

According to the artist, the pieces are mostly of a symbolic nature and deal with issues such as the corruption of local and federal agencies, the appropriation of spaces that belong to Puerto Ricans, and the lack of access to resources such as education and equality.

First lady of Puerto Rico aims to "make people dream again"


Governor Ricardo Roselló and First Lady Beatriz Roselló pose under the iconic street, located in Calle Fortaleza in Old San Juan. (Instagram/ beatrizisabelrossello)

The first lady of Puerto Rico, Beatriz Rosselló, has an additional mission after the passage of Maria: to turn the tourist zone of San Juan into a more attractive place by making it space full of art for those who visit the capital city.

One of the most striking initiatives she has undertaken is "El Paseo de las Sombrillas" (The Umbrella Path), located in Fortaleza Street in Old San Juan.

"I saw those umbrellas in Portugal and in Spain and I was like, 'I need to bring that feeling to Puerto Rico and make people dream again.' We needed to bring happiness to our people. We needed to let them know that no matter what happened, we are going to stand up and be stronger," explained the first lady.

Rosselló said that on some weekends, about 50,000 people visit the tourist attraction to take pictures, an influx that fosters the local economy.

In collaboration with the Tourism Company of Puerto Rico and other government agencies, the first lady intends to continue her work of spreading art throughout the island.

"We are putting art everywhere, art with meaning," said Roselló. "Something that makes people feel something.

Listen to AccuWeather reporter Jonathan Petramala and AccuWeather and AccuWeather en Español's journalist Manuel Crespo Feliciano, discuss their experience covering the special series "Puerto Rico: The Art of Recovery":

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