On Sept. 20, 2017, a devastating hurricane named Maria smashed into the island of Puerto Rico and its two smaller coastal islands of Vieques and Culebra. Life on these islands would be forever changed.
The president of Puerto Rico, one Donald J. Trump, who sadly is still in office (though hopefully not for long) didn’t and doesn’t give a damn about those lives. Thousands of people died, and thousands more are still living under blue tarp roofs. Water is rationed. Power is spotty. Earthquakes in the years since have further devastated the southern part of the island. COVID-19 has put even more stress on a failing and underfunded medical system.
And yet our 3.1 million fellow citizens on the island, along with the 5 million Puerto Ricans on the mainland, are indomitable. One of the mainstays of that strength is music. As we pay our respects to those who died during and after Maria, let us also celebrate the spirit of Puerto Rico—and the music that sustains her people through both good times and tragedy.
Looking back to the days when Maria hit with massive force, I also remember how quickly people responded to raise funds for relief, while the president did next to nothing. It is no coincidence that the first major efforts used music.
Since many mainland citizens know little or nothing about Puerto Rico or Puerto Rican culture, other than perhaps having seen or knowing the music from West Side Story, I was not surprised when one song created to raise money by Lin Manuel Miranda used a line from Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics.
Miranda was inspired to borrow that key lyric — "it's almost like praying" — as a way to reclaim the name "Maria" in the wake of one of the worst natural disasters on record to hit the island of Puerto Rico.
"I was very aware even as it was happening that this was the worst hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in a hundred years, and I knew that 'Maria' would forever have a different connotation on the island as a result of that," the Hamilton creator told NPR following the release of the charity single. "And that's my favorite song from West Side Story. So I began thinking about that song and the lyrics and a way to flip it into something positive."
After getting the OK from composer Leonard Bernstein's estate and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Miranda also recruited Puerto Rican-American actress and 85-year-old spitfire Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her memorable portrayal of Anita in the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story, for the track. You can watch Moreno in the studio with Miranda — in addition to fellow Latin artists Jennifer Lopez, Luis Fonsi, Gloria Estefan, and more...
This salsa remix was released five months after the original.
As I noted when I wrote about “It’s Almost Like Praying” back in October 2017, one of the things that impressed me the most about the song was that the entire song was crafted using the names of Puerto Rico’s 78 towns.
Cabo Rojo, Corozal, Naguabo, Guaynabo, San Lorenzo, San Germán, San Sebastián, mi viejo San Juan, Isabela, Maricao, Fajardo, Dorado, Hormigueros, Humacao, Luquillo, Hatillo, Vega Alta, Vega Baja, Toa Alta, Toa Baja, Mayagüez, Aguadilla, Quebradillas, Guayanilla, Juana Díaz, Cayey, Arecibo, Guánica, Culebra, Las Piedras, Orocovis, Guayama, Gurabo, Maunabo, Aguas Buenas, Salinas, Río Grande, Sabana Grande, Yabucoa, Florida, Peñuelas, Santa Isabel, Naranjito, Barranquitas, Carolina, Aibonito, Bayamón, Rincón, Barceloneta, Las Marías, Comerío, Moca, Ponce, Manatí, Utuado, Aguada, Adjuntas, Caguas, Canóvanas, Cataño, Juncos, Lajas, Jayuya, Villalba, Arroyo, La cueva de Camuy, los baños de Coamo, Trujillo Alto, Ceiba, Ciales, La isla de Vieques, El grito de Lares, Yauco, Cidra, Añasco, Patillas, Morovis, Loíza
You don’t have to know Spanish to understand the tune (after all, we all can say San Francisco without being Spanish speakers), though you may want to look at a map.
Other entertainers leapt to provide aid and assistance; I still remember watching and donating to the One Voice: Somos Live! concert. It even united the rival Spanish language networks in the U.S., Univision and Telemundo, in a first-ever simulcast. They were later joined by 30 other networks.
Marc Anthony will perform live from Miami’s Marlins Park stadium. He’ll also host other performers, including Daddy Yankee, Alejandro Sanz, Romeo Santos, Camila, Gente De Zona, Nicky Jam and DJ Khaled.
Jennifer Lopez will perform live, and will also host alongside boyfriend Alex Rodriguez from an NBC soundstage in Los Angeles, featuring a star-studded lineup of talent from music, TV and film. Demi Lovato, Maroon 5, Ricky Martin, Gwen Stefani, Stevie Wonder, Chris Martin of Coldplay, Jamie Foxx, Mary J. Blige and other singers are scheduled to perform.
You can watch the entire three-hour event below.
Watching it again myself three years later, I was struck by the incredible love and solidarity from the audience as they swayed and danced and sang along with the entertainers on stage.
Superstar Marc Anthony, who, along with Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez, pulled off this major effort, made it clear how he felt about Trump’s failure to respond.
The ongoing tragedy also affected individual musicians who would capture its impact in song. In 2017, Hurray for the Riff Raff—a band founded in 2007 by Alynda Mariposa Segarra, a Puerto Rican musician from the Bronx—released their sixth album, Navigator. The band is not what many people would stereotypically expect when hearing “Puerto Rican” since it’s part of the folk-punk scene; however, Segarra crafted a powerful musical narrative post-Maria. Matthew Ismael Ruiz reviewed it for Pitchfork.
Alynda Lee Segarra, the creative force behind Hurray for the Riff Raff, spent her formative years crisscrossing the country on greyhounds and freight trains.The band’s sixth LP demands more seats at the table. It’s a powerful folk concept album from a Nuyorican runaway who grew up obsessed with West Side Story before being liberated by Bikini Kill.
Segarra speaks to a broader reconciliation with the assimilation engrained in the American Dream, an acknowledgment of the limited perspective that comes with the white history taught in schools. She never learned Spanish and admits that for years she carried an inexplicable shame of her heritage. While writing this record, she pored through the Fania records back catalog, fell in love with the Puerto Rican poets Julia de Burgos and Pedro Pietri, and learned the history of the Young Lords and their newspaper, Pa’lante.
As mentioned, the album’s centerpiece song, “Pa’lante,” which means “go forward,” takes its name from the newspaper published by the late 1960s and early 1970s radical political organization the Young Lords Party (YLP), of which I was a member. I wrote about the YLP here recently prior to our 50th anniversary celebration. I found it interesting that in the live performance posted below, Segarra is wearing a purple beret, which was part of the Young Lords uniform.
Though her references to Nuyorican poet laureate Pedro Pietri’s Puerto Rican Obituary more than likely were not understood by many in her audience, I was elated to hear them.
They were always on time
They were never late
They never spoke back
when they were insulted
They never took days off
that were not on the calendar
They never went on strike
ten days a week
and were only paid for five
and they died
They died broke
They died owing
They died never knowing
what the front entrance
of the first national city bank looks like
All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow
This March 2017 performance came six months before Maria, but just two months after Trump’s inauguration—two months that he used to make sweeping, shocking changes to U.S. immigration policy.
In June 2018, “Pa’lante” was released as a music video, directed by Kristian Mercado Figueroa, and starring Puerto Rican actress and dancer Melanie Sierra, known as Mela Murder. In an interview with Now This, Figueroa and Murder explored the importance of the video, and called for change.
The video is a powerful one.
NPR’s Jessica Diaz-Hurtado interviewed Mercado about making the video, and asked how it felt to return to a post-Maria Puerto Rico.
To give you some background, when the hurricane hit, it was a difficult time. I had a lot of family in Puerto Rico. I tried connecting with my family for 10 days. I was on an emergency walkie talkie system to connect to towns. I was trying to connect with Arroyo [on the southeast coast], where my family was at. The conditions were bad. Me and my mom got plane tickets for my family to get out, around October. It was unlivable at the time. Three days before they flew out, my grandfather passed away. It was interconnected to the hurricane because he suffered from sleep apnea. It resulted in him getting cardiac arrest. They couldn't call an ambulance. It's a crazy thing that happened if you don't have access to electricity or communications and can affect so many facets of people's lives. There was something really brutal about that. He was a veteran, too, so there's this betrayal you feel about that. That really hurt me and my family; we are all feeling the trauma of that. That is where I was coming from. I myself felt that absence and I was trying to find something to pour myself into. I was depressed for three months, in a downward slope. So this project was a great thing to work on and to digest those emotions.
As musicians on the mainland raised funds for hurricane relief, there was also an effort to raise money for musicians on the island.
Directors from the Jazz Foundation of America (JFA), an American non-profit organization that helps legendary musicians of jazz, blues and roots and other musical genres who cannot work because of illness, accident, old age or natural disaster, visited the island to get up close and help the musicians of Puerto Rico affected by Hurricane Maria. Wendy Oxenhorn, Executive Director of the JFA, which was created in 1989 and based in New York, explained that after Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico those in the JFA, as well as many Americans, were dismayed by the way the federal government has managed the recovery of the island and has severely affected its fellow Puerto Rican citizens.
“What we felt was shame when we saw the president of the United States, Donald Trump, during his initial visit to Puerto Rico, saying comments and doing inappropriate things in the middle of the catastrophe. We want to emphasize that these comments and actions do not represent the American people,” Oxenhorn emphasized.
As Executive Director she felt the obligation to offer all the help they could to the musicians of Puerto Rico. “The lives of the Puerto Rican musicians were greatly affected after María. For months, there was no work for these professionals. There was no electricity and the establishments where they work – theaters, hotels, restaurants, plazas and other places- remain closed. This is why we want to help them,” she said. The first donation received by the JFA to help the musicians of the island was from Bobby Sanabria, a Latin jazz musician of Puerto Rican descent living in New York. Along with other musicians, he held a benefit concert for Puerto Rico where they raised $10,000. That money was donated to the JFA so that they could help the musicians of Puerto Rico affected by the hurricane, she said.
Here’s a glimpse into that concert.
Another artist producing powerful music and video relating to Puerto Rico’s post-Maria situation and its history and politics is Ileana Cabra Joglar, who performs as iLe.
(translation) Ileana Cabra Joglar, known artistically as iLe, was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, on April 28, 1989. She is a Puerto Rican singer who was the female voice for 10 years of the musical group Calle 13, along with her brothers René Pérez Joglar (Residente) and Eduardo Cabra (Visitante). While she was part of the band, she made several contributions with productions and artists in Puerto Rico and abroad.
Jon Pareles, popular music critic for The New York Times, wrote about iLe in July 2019.
Between iLe’s first and second albums, Hurricane Maria slammed across Puerto Rico (as well as the Virgin Islands and Dominica) in 2017 and shattered the island’s infrastructure. ILe saw an indifferent response from the United States government and Puerto Ricans forced to make do as best they could, largely on their own.
“Hurricane Maria uncovered something we needed to see with our own eyes,” she said. It made iLe want to write about forces larger than romance on her next album. “All the plans changed completely,” she said. “With this album I’m in another moment, I’m angry. And I just needed to express that. It came naturally.”
“Almadura” begins with “Contra Todo” (“Against All”); in its lyrics, iLe makes herself the voice of an invaded territory, plotting resistance. It also includes “Odio” (“Hate”), which wishes for hatred to die of hunger because no one feeds it. (The video for “Odio” revisits one of Puerto Rico’s historical wounds, the 1978 police shooting of two activists seeking Puerto Rican independence.) “Ñe Ñe Ñé” uses a buoyant traditional Puerto Rican plena beat and a seemingly cheerful melody for a wake-up call, satirically mocking the government and decrying Puerto Rico’s humiliation and passivity.
Like her brother, rapper Residente, and many other young artists from the island, Puerto Rico’s colonial status is a major issue discussed in their work. When I write stories about Puerto Rico for Daily Kos, inevitably someone raises the question of the status issue in the comments, and asks me: “Why don’t Puerto Ricans want it to be a state?” Though the current supporters for independence are a minority after decades of repression on the island, the history of what actually happened there is little understood on the mainland, though known by activists and sympathizers.
Given that the ruling elite on the island were historically complicit with U.S. government colonial forces, and that same elite controls contemporary island politics, it’s no wonder that many Puerto Ricans would rather maintain the status quo (without Trump’s viciousness) rather than opt for statehood. As noted by The New York Times, iLe addressed some of the history we don’t learn in school in one vivid music video: The 1978 Cerro Maravilla Massacre.
This year marked the 40th anniversary of the Cerro Maravilla Massacre in Puerto Rico, in which two pro-independence activists – 18-year-old Carlos Soto Arriví and 24-year-old Arnaldo Darío Rosario – were assassinated by police officers, resulting in a massive government cover-up and ultimately, the indictments of multiple officers involved.
In early investigations, however, Puerto Rican and U.S. justice departments upheld that the officer(s) engaged in no wrongdoing, having acted in self-defense. When investigations reopened in the early 80s ended in convictions for those officers, many believed their suspicions — that both (U.S. and Puerto Rican) governments co-conspired to cover up a planned-out assassination of the two activists — to be true.
The song’s lyrics are a call for solidarity and the end of hatred. In a statement released with the video, iLe says, “During this era in which the suffocating colonial situation that Puerto Rico has always lived under is more tense than ever, almost all that’s left for us to do is to remember, by way of a story, so we can maintain our memory as a nation. The video shows just one example of what continues to occur, not only on this island but all around the world in different political and day-to-day contexts. This song is my emotional reaction. We are still manipulated by the hate that we feed. If we want to live in a world guided by love, we have to make the effort to look within, and be willing to find ourselves in our fellow human beings.”
On a far less somber note, iLe visited NPR’s Tiny Desk for a concert last year amid the tumultuous demands for the removal of Puerto Rico’s governor.
When vocalist Ileana Cabra Joglar and her band visited the Tiny Desk, they'd just arrived from the front lines of the historic demonstrations taking place in Puerto Rico. Two days earlier, they were part of a crowd of tens of thousands who were on the streets calling for the resignation of embattled Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. (Rosselló recently stepped down.)
Right from the start, it was clear what was on iLe's mind in her song "Curandera" — "I am a healer / I don't need candles to illuminate / I bring purifying water to cleanse / Removing pains so they never return" — as congas and percussion shook the room with an Afro-Caribbean beat. The song is from the Calle 13 veteran's most recent album Almadura, which is filled with metaphors and allegories about the political, social and economic conditions in Puerto Rico. If there were any doubt as to her meaning, it was dispelled as she and the band transformed the passion and revolutionary spirit of the massive street demonstrations into a performance unlike many heard in our offices.
In the chorus of the slow-burning "Contra Todo," iLe sings about channeling inner strengths and frustrations to win battles and remake the world. Her lyrics are rich with history, capturing the spirit of the streets of San Juan even as she stood, eyes closed, behind the Tiny Desk. Her entire performance is a startling reflection of this moment in Puerto Rican history.
Press play on this powerful and joyful performance.
iLe has also paid respect to the deeply rooted, ongoing Afro-Puerto Rican tradition of music and dance.
The music video was directed by Alejandro Pedrosa and presents a raw look into bomba, specifically the sensual approach of güembé, which is a traditional dance and musical style of Puerto Rico with African roots. Meanwhile, the smooth, percussion-soaked tune features iLe's soulful voice that tells a story about attraction and how we use our bodies to express our connection to one another.
iLe said she wanted to highlight the Afrocentric tradition because she feels Puerto Ricans have been missing aspects of their own culture."Even though nowadays you can still hear bomba on the streets, it's not as common as I would expect or as I would want it to be," she said.The Grammy award-winner also mentioned how grateful she was that the bomba dancers featured in the music video agreed to appear in it because they're respected people in Loíza's bomba scene. Loíza is a coastal town in the northeast of Puerto Rico, where bomba has maintained its prominence for hundreds of years.
"People that know bomba, know who is there in the video," iLe said. She believes that because of the island's "colonial status,"many Puerto Ricans — including herself — are searching for a way to learn more about their roots.
It is impossible to sever music from dance on the island and in the Puerto Rican diaspora. It is also key that we both acknowledge and celebrate the role of Black Puerto Rican culture. KQED recently produced, for its If Cities Could Dance series, “For the Ancestors: Bomba is Puerto Rico’s Afro-Latino Dance of Resistance.” We meet Mar Cruz, an Afro-Puerto Rican dancer.
The movement and sound of bomba originates in the practices of West Africans brought to the Caribbean island by European colonizers as slaves in the 17th century, and over time absorbed influences from the Spanish as well as the region’s indigenous Taíno people. Slavery fueled sugar production and many other industries, and continued until 1873, when a law creating a gradual ban went into effect. Like other Afro-Caribbean cultural forms, bomba provided a source of political and spiritual expression for people who’d been forcibly uprooted from their homes, at times catalyzing rebellions. “When we have something to say to protest, we go out there and play bomba,” says Mar. “It is our way of saying ‘we are here.’”
In Puerto Rico’s center of black culture, Loíza, bomba is at the heart of protests. Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, groups like Colectivo Ilé have shared their grief through the dance. “That death didn’t only affect the African American community but also the Afro-Puerto Rican community,” says Mar. “People have always been racist towards us. They are finally willing to say, ‘That was a tragedy!’ But they are racist too. There used to be lynchings here too.”
A new movement to assert black pride and to acknowledge the island’s complex history of racism is part of the resurgence of bomba, providing Mar and her sister María, along with many more Afro-Puerto Rican performers in both Puerto Rico and diaspora communities, a creative outlet to celebrate their oft-suppressed cultural heritage. “I’m representing my ancestors,” says María. “Those black slaves who danced in the past, that was their only method of self-expression.”
Get to know the Cruz sisters and bomba a little better in the clip below.
Here’s footage from a George Floyd memorial vigil held this summer in Loiza.
Whether it is bomba, or salsa, or reggaeton, music will always be a part of Puerto Rican culture, and the people’s will to survive. As I sit here writing to the sound of Latin Jazz great composer and pianist Eddie Palmieri playing, with iLe singing his classic “Justicia” (Justice) at National Salsa Day in Puerto Rico this year, I know in my heart that there will always be music to carry us forward.
Pa’lante. Now go forward—and vote!