Puerto Rico: History, Culture, and Hurricane Maria

Puerto Rico is in the midst of a crisis that began before Hurricane Maria, but was greatly exacerbated by the storm’s devastating effects and the inadequate response. Many policy issues have been complicated by Puerto’s Rico’s status as a “territory” or colony of the United States and its debt of $72 billion.

This exhibit examines the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico; the effects of Hurricane Maria; and how artists are mobilizing and calling attention to an emergency.


Photograph by Carla Dávila, 2017

Photograph by Carla Dávila, 2017


Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain when the United States invaded it and took control in 1898. The U.S. initially categorized Puerto Rico as an “incorporated territory,” but in 1901 the Supreme Court issued the Insular Cases, a series of legal opinions that declared Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines (the territories from Spain) as being “inhabited by alien [an] race.” Thus racism led to the designation of Puerto Rico as an “unincorporated territory” without full protection of the constitution. English was declared the official language even though it was not widely spoken on the island.

In 1917, just before the U.S. entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson passed the Jones-Shafroth Act, which granted American citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico. Consequently, 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted to serve in the first world war.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Puerto Rico has been used as military bases by the U.S. government. During World War II, the most significant base was installed on the small island of Vieques, off of Puerto Rico. The creation of the base resulted in the uprooting of families and individuals across the island. Residents felt like they had been evicted by the Navy who tested a variety of weapons and bombs there. This has led to toxic and environmental hazards that were likely made worse by Hurricane Maria.


Raising Revolution

Yasmin Hernandez, Raising Revolution, 2004
Mixed media on canvas, 48″ by 30″

“The portrait of Pedro Albizu Campos shows him in his US Army uniform, but the piece itself focuses on the many revolutionaries who received their training in either the US military or US schools. Puerto Ricans were made citizens of the US in 1917, strategically the year the US entered WWI. However Puerto Rico cannot vote in presidential elections, having no say in the commander [in] chief of the many who serve the US armed forces.” (Caption from Hernandez)

Bio: “Artist Yasmin Hernandez explores personal, political and spiritual liberation through her paintings, mixed-media works, calligraphy, installations and writing. Born and raised in Brooklyn to parents from Ponce, Puerto Rico, the land of her ancestors has informed much of the content of her art. In gratitude, Yasmin relocated with her family to the island in 2014. She runs a studio out of her home in the hills of Moca, in north western Puerto Rico. Having made a reverse migration at a time in which many were leaving the island and continue to leave, she is committed to staying, navigating the dynamics of el charco (the pond), existing in each side, while embodying the essence of several Diasporas (Indigenous, African, Puerto Rican).”


Puerto Ricans can serve in the U.S. military, but they cannot vote for President. They may travel freely in the country and must pay federal taxes into Social Security and Medicare, but do not pay federal income tax. The island sends a representative to Congress, but that person does not have the power to vote.

The Jones Act was passed in 1920 in response to fears of German U-boats. It required that goods dispatched between U.S. ports be delivered by U.S.-built and owned ships. Any international vessels still have to pay large fees and taxes, which are passed on to consumers. Because Puerto Rico is an island, it relies heavily on ships to deliver items.


Photograph by Carla Davila

Photograph by Carla Dávila
May 1, 2018: protest in Puerto Rico against austerity measures.


Puerto Rico’s 72 billion dollars in debt creates a burden that falls on the people in the form of reduced public services, higher taxes, school closings, and fewer jobs. This debt has led directly to the closing of more than 150 schools, higher taxes, layoffs of public sector workers, a shortage of medical specialists (emigration of 3,000 doctors in five years), increased migration to the mainland U.S., underemployment, the separation of families, and growing food insecurity.

U.S. companies have long profited from less expensive Puerto Rican labor. The debt is primarily a result of municipal bonds sold to mainly private creditors, as well as the government’s mismanagement of funds, and maritime laws limiting access to the island.

A report from the University of Puerto Rico in 2012 estimates that the Jones Act caused the island to lose $17 billion from the economy between 1990 and 2010. It was temporarily waived five days after the hurricane hit, but still prevented a great deal of aid from reaching the island. Beyond emergency relief, it is a major cause of higher energy and consumer prices.

Puerto Rico was left out of the 1984 U.S. Bankruptcy Code provision, which would have provided protection. The island tried to enact its own version of bankruptcy protection in 2014; however, hedge fund creditors immediately sued and the case is pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization acknowledged that the “economic vulnerability of Puerto Rico is a direct consequence of its colonial status and that Puerto Rico’s lack of political power to affect decision-making in the United States is reflected in the policies and politics that shape and ultimately cripple the island’s economy.”


Yasmin Hernandez De-Debt/Decolonize, 2017 Mixed media on canvas, 18" x 14." "Created for the Debt Fair/Occupy Museums installation at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, NYC. The Puerto Rican archipelago is presented within a nebula. From the main island emerges the face of Political Prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera, held by the US for 35 years on sedition charges. His sentence was commuted by Obama one week after I completed this work." (Caption by Hernandez)

Yasmin Hernandez, De-Debt/Decolonize, 2017
Mixed media on canvas, 18″ x 14.”

“Created for the Debt Fair/Occupy Museums installation at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, NYC. The Puerto Rican archipelago is presented within a nebula. From the main island emerges the face of Political Prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera, held by the US for 35 years on sedition charges. His sentence was commuted by Obama one week after I completed this work.” (Caption from Hernandez)

Hernandez says of her work: “I find it necessary to state here that my art practice has always been influenced, informed, & inspired by the theme of Puerto Rican liberation. It has served as an obsessive quest ever since my father brought me out of an adolescent identity crisis by talking to me about the hidden history of Puerto Rico. Coinciding with my years as an art student at LaGuardia High School in NYC, then at Cornell University, art became my journal for my process of self-education and affirmation.”


In attempting to address the debt, the U.S. government enacted the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA: promise in Spanish) or La Junta, which establishes a financial control board with total economic authority over the island. The federally-appointed board takes power away from the local government and particularly its ability “to allocate and disperse funds for disaster relief.”

Hurricane Maria made landfall in September 2017 and caused the worst blackout in U.S. history.



Please click to watch video: Indignación

Indignación | de Cumbre Social | Subtitulado

Compartimos el video de Cumbre Social, que acompañó la conferencia de la Dra. Anita Yudkin sobre #derechoshumanos y la situación de #PuertoRico, este pasado fin de semana en la ciudad de Nueva York; gracias a la invitación de la Dra. Betty Reardon. Editamos el video para que contara con subtítulos para beneficio de la audiencia, pero entendemos que es una excelente herramienta para difundir el mensaje a personas de habla inglesa. Nos unimos a la campaña #Indignación. #Outrage #paz #justicia #equidad

Posted by Cátedra UNESCO de Educación para la Paz, Puerto Rico on Monday, April 9, 2018



Carlos Dávila-Rinaldi’s series, “The Aftermath,” demonstrates his reaction to how he was feeling and what he was seeing around him after Hurricane Maria. 


Dávila-Rinaldi currently lives in Puerto Rico and comments: “Working as both a painter and sculptor my work has evolved in an ongoing personal battle between abstraction and figuration. The figurative work has focused mostly on commentary concerning social issues. While my abstract work has developed into a complex visual language full of gesture, color and movement.”


Carlos Davila-Rinaldi Gas Man I, 2017

Carlos Dávila-Rinaldi, Gas Man I, 2017
Acrylic & Tar Gel on canvas
72 x 48 inches (182.88 x 121.92 cm)


In a phone conversation, Dávila-Rinaldi explained that he was without electricity for five months after the storm and describes the situation as “complete chaos.” He had a sizable generator, but that did not last for more than a few days. Quality of life deteriorated as access to gas became a large problem. People needed to strategize about getting it because the lines were so massive. Some would leave their homes at 2:00 AM to get in line.


GasMen / Espera

Carlos Dávila-Rinaldi, Gas Men / Espera, 2017
Acrylic & Tar Gel on canvas
72 x 48 inches (182.88 x 121.92 cm)



Carlos Davila-Rinaldi, Habit, 2018
Acrylic & Tar Gel on canvas
72 x 48 inches (182.88 x 121.92 cm)


Hijos de Maria

Carlos Dávila-Rinaldi, Hijos de Maria, 2018
Acrylic & Tar Gel on canvas
72 x 60 inches (182.88 x 152.4 cm)

The blue hues reflect the colors of the tarpaulins that FEMA distributed.


POTUS Grope Hand Flip, 2018

Carlos Dávila-Rinaldi
POTUS Grope Hand Flip, 2018
Acrylic & Tar Gel on canvas
48 x 72 inches (121.92 x 182.88 cm)


Sarabel Santos

“Groundscapes (2017-2018) is a reflection on the experience of the landscape and the place where I’m standing or stranded. This refers to a locations, social situations, circumstances and events or incidents faced in particular places. It is a look at the ground where we walk, with which we have daily contact and from where the reality of the inhabited territory is contemplated. It is not a landscape at a distance, but an extension of a landscape of the here and now. This is an ongoing project. The photographs of this stage of the work were taken in the towns of Vega Alta, Vega Baja, Morovis and Bayamón after the devastation of Hurricane Maria on the island of Puerto Rico.” (Statement from Santos.)

Sarabel Santos Negrón is a multidisciplinary artist, educator and museum professional. Her work focuses on the experience and memory of the nature and landscape of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean with a special interest in its expansive organic form and structure. She uses drawing, painting and mixed media together with industrially produced and everyday materials such as paper, plastic, wire, and wood, among others. She is also director of the Museo de Arte de Bayamón (MAB) in Puerto Rico.




Sarabel Santos
Groundscapes, Morovis



Sarabel Santos
Groundscapes, Vega Baja



Sarabel Santos, Groundscapes Vega Baja


Santos created installations of the series in different places and landscapes that were not affected by Hurricane Maria or other natural disasters. Part of the project and the format of the tiles is to create new readings and contexts of the photos taken after the hurricane.


Groundscapes Displaced, Clinton, MD

Sarabel Santos, Groundscapes Displaced, Clinton, MD


Groundscapes Displaced, Cincinnati, OH

Sarabel Santos, Groundscapes Displaced, Cincinnati, OH


Groundscapes Displaced, Bayamón, PR

Sarabel Santos, Groundscapes Displaced, Bayamón, PR


Santos’ practice focuses on the memory and perspective of the landscape, which serves as a frame for highlighting social concerns. In looking at the ground and how it changes, particularly after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, Santos encourages viewers to consider their own position. What is the Puerto Rican landscape composed of at the moment? While many have an idealized notion of the Caribbean, Santos disrupts this and notions of what is beautiful.

The themes in Groundscapes correlate to Sofia Gallisá Muriente’s B-Roll, which shows the prototypical view of Puerto Rico that many outsiders imagine when they think of the island.


Sofia Gallisá Muriente: B-Roll


Artist statement: “B-roll is a film term that refers to supporting images used to illustrate spoken ideas or intercut with interviews to hide cuts and camera movements. In this video collage, images taken from promotional videos produced in recent years by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company and the Department of Economic Development and Commerce of Puerto Rico are remixed to highlight the visual tropes recurrent in the marketing of Puerto Rico for foreign investors and travelers. Little has changed from propaganda videos made in the fifties and sixties to showcase Puerto Rico as an example of third world capitalist development in the face of the Cold War, except perhaps the cinematographic language. The recurrent use of drone shots is not only reminiscent of the long history of US militarisation and surveillance of Puerto Rico, but also of the helicopter transportation preferred by recent millionaire transplants to the island. Daniel Montes Carro composed the accompanying electronic music, which fuses audio taken from the videos with field recordings made at the 2016 Puerto Rico Investment Summit.”


Sofia Gallisá Muriente is one of the directors of Beta-Local along with Michael Linares and Pablo Guardiola. Beta-Local is an artist network and “example of homegrown community self-help [that] has fostered a growing movement among Puerto Rican artists whose work investigates and promotes paths to material self-sufficiency.” One of their key programs, La Practica, brings together artists to explore ways of responding. After Hurricane Maria, it mobilized to provide relief efforts that included clearing debris, providing a children’s drawing class, and becoming a kitchen for feeding local people.


Molly Crabapple and Defend PR


The New York artist and writer, Molly Crabapple, spent a week in Puerto Rico in November after the hurricane with members from Defend PR, a multimedia project aimed to “document and celebrate Puerto Rican creativity, resilience, and resistance.” Members collected and distributed supplies after the hurricane. Crabapple’s sketches show them working and digging with residents. Defend PR is an important group in raising awareness, providing resources, and advocating for Puerto Rico.


Molly Crabapple Bridge, 2017

Molly Crabapple Bridge, 2017


Molly Crabapple Shovels, 2017

Molly Crabapple Shovels, 2017


Defend PR also made this video of Adriana Santoni’s song calling attention to the environmental justice issues on the island. She is a member of Plena Combativa, which is a women’s cultural and political project.



On April 18 2018, the entire island of Puerto Rico lost power. Electricity has been restored for 98% of the population and yet there are municipalities where 40% of the people still do not have it. The power grid remains unreliable, erratic, and inconsistent.


Yasmin Hernandez, Cucubanación, 2018

Yasmin Hernandez, Cucubanación, 2018
Outdoor Mural, Calle San Vicente E, Mayaguez, Puerto Rico

The mural was inspired by the events from May 1, 2018 when police sprayed protesters with tear gas and pepper spray. There were children in the crowd (as shown by Davila’s photo) and many of the people attended to protest the school closings. Hernandez explains, “the real concept behind the Cucubano Nation is that in the darkness following the hurricanes I envisioned us as fireflies, having to manifest and radiate our own inner light.”


Additional Resources and Information:


Note: This is not a static exhibit and we welcome other pieces, comments, and ideas.


Special thank you to: Anita Yudkin, Raquel Vazquez, Carlos Dávila-Rinaldi, Carla Dávila, Molly Crabapple, Mikey Cordero, Yasmin Hernandez, Adriana Santoni, Sofia Gallisá Muriente, Janet Gerson, and Christina Greer for all of your help and participation.