By the Blouin News World staff

FEATURE: As many flee Puerto Rico, artists stand their ground

by in Americas, U.S..

A man walks past a vacant building in the Santurce neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Getty Images

A man walks past a vacant building in Santurce, a suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Getty Images

by Erin Wright

They started leaving en masse even before the economy cratered. Facing record unemployment and seeing few signs of a quick recovery, Puerto Ricans, many of them bilingual and possessing postgraduate degrees, have been flocking to the U.S. mainland in droves for years now. NBC News reported:

Between 2010 and 2013, over 144,000 more people left for the mainland than . . . moved to the island commonwealth. [That’s] a bigger gap . . . than during the entire decades of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Young adults comprised the largest group, according to Vice News, with 28 the median age of those who have looked with increasing shock at rising taxes, incessant service cuts and growing fear that the middle class is all but moribund. Some observers are calling Puerto Rico “the island of lost dreams” as many of its best and brightest book northbound flights.

This is hardly the island’s first brain drain. Puerto Rico’s postcolonial history includes other spasms of mass migration. In fact, its population was similarly transformed in the 1950s when Washington, D.C., instituted Operation Bootstrap. The idea was to reinvent a 19th-century agrarian economy as a post-World War II industrial one.



The result proved economically advantageous to many a U.S. corporation but flatlined the locals’ quality of life and sparked a mad dash off the island. Nearly half a million people, most of them young and able-bodied, were recruited to work in mainland factories and assembly lines and wound up exchanging their tropical clime for the frigid north. As per’s Latino Education News Service:

[By] 1964, the Puerto Rican community made up 9.3 percent of the total New York City population . . . [and] Puerto Ricans [had] settled in many other urban areas, [especially] Chicago, New Haven, Hartford, Boston, Jersey City and Philadelphia.

Many would go on to build their families in their adopted cities, and their children can be found today among universities’ tenured faculties, in the corridors of corporate power and, perhaps most impressive, on the U.S. Supreme Court.

But in present-day Puerto Rico, the news is dismal. By last month, it had become a certainty that Puerto Rico, its coffers bare, would fail to make its Aug. 1 payment on its $72 billion debt. That the government is paying only $628,000 of the $58 million due further exposes its dire straits. Fact is, with Greece’s very public struggle with its Eurozone creditors hogging the international spotlight, little Puerto Rico — that strategic spit of Caribbean land — earned barely a passing glance.

Yet, from the outset, it was known that, as a U.S. protectorate, the island had no provision for declaring bankruptcy, as Detroit did in 2013. In addition, Puerto Rico has no coalition waiting in the wings to broker a deal. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said that a bailout would not even be considered and suggested that Congress instead revisit the possibility of amending the law barring the island from filing for bankruptcy protection, even as hedge fund managers, out to get by any means necessary the money they are owed (plus interest), cast a wary eye.

While Puerto Rico’s leadership attempted to play the only card it held, that of negotiating directly with creditors to restructure the debt, the exodus picked up speed. Plus, a drought of historic proportions prompted officials to ration water and temporarily shutter floundering businesses. As Cornelio Vegazo, owner of a roof-repair company in San Juan, told Voice of America, “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”

But the members of one group of Puerto Ricans say they not only have no intention of leaving but actually are hoping to find in this latest tale of collective woe a new source of inspiration. Al Jazeera reports:

They are labeled la resistencia (the resistance): artists, designers, restaurateurs, gallery owners and other creative types who, in the face of massive migration from Puerto Rico, have chosen to stay on the island and build a movement that sustains area businesses and preserves local culture.

Now, it could be argued that the starving-artist sort should be the best equipped to ride out the tumult, but those profiled by Al Jazeera don’t exactly fit the mold. Many are artists and businesspeople who have built reputations and established contacts outside the island. Yet, they’re staying put, saying it is their duty to find new ways to keep the faith as they feed their muses.

Painter José Luis Vargas, for example, has turned the fiscal fright show into monsters captured on canvas. Grammy Award-nominated percussionist Hector “Tito” Matos has taken to holding public jam sessions every Monday. His wife, Mariana Reyes Angleró, is running a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the history of Santurce, the small city just outside San Juan that the couple calls home.

Valeria Bosch, meanwhile, is keeping her fashion boutique open and offering patrons an 11 percent discount., telling Al Jazeera:

I think this is a transition, and when things are bad, I don’t think [of] leaving. I think, ‘Make [a] difference. Make [a] change.’ I know there is a lot of potential here . . . We have a lot of young people hungry to work hard.

Then there’s Pedro Vélez, a mixed-media artist whose collaborative show rails against those he calls “John Paulson Puerto Ricans.” Paulson, a hedge fund manager thought to have made billions off the subprime-mortgage loan scandal that roiled the U.S. economy in the first decade of the 21st century, now pitches Puerto Rico as a tax haven for the super-rich, calling it “the new Singapore.”

But not everyone is in it for the money. Many members of the island’s creative class, Al Jazeera writes, split their time between there and the mainland, making sure to keep tabs on such relevant venues as el Museo del Barrio in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem.

Still, they remain committed to staying the course and eventually remaking the island in their image – not that of the myriad outside investors already sizing up the best spots on the island on which to build yet more ultra-luxe resorts and residences.

You can count gallery owner Francisco Rovira Rullán among those who look at modern-day Puerto Rico and see a people well experienced not only in how to survive but also in how to thrive. Rovira has ridden the waves of Puerto Rico’s economic turmoil before, and in the present crisis, he sees nothing but opportunity:

[We’re] living in a historic moment of huge transition, where things will reset for the next 40 years, [but] the uncertainty and crisis [also] provide the setting for creativity to blossom.