Puerto Rico Sketchbook: There Are Dead in the Fields


Arts & Culture

In November, the artist and writer Molly Crabapple spent a week in Puerto Rico documenting grassroots efforts by communities to rebuild after Hurricane Maria. Here are excerpts from her sketchbook.

© Molly Crabapple

Maria passed and they said
“Puerto Rico, se levanta!”
We’re gonna see. We’re gonna see.

 A cantastoria is a vagabond fusion of art and music, so old it turns up all over the world.  In each set, a performer displays an illustrated scroll, then, while pointing to each image with a stick, tells a story in song.  The cantastoria first developed in India as a way for itinerant performers to bring the legends of gods from door to door. By the time it hit Central Europe in the sixteenth century, it had mutated away from its sacred roots into a wandering carny show of sex, crime, and political sedition.

After the hurricane, the Puerto Rican puppetry collective Papel Machete created a new cantastoria: Solidarity and Survival for our Liberation. Estefanía Rivera painted the scroll; Isamar Abreu and Agustín Muñoz wrote the script. Muñoz, Sugeily Rodriguez Lebron, and Rocio Natasha Cancel piled into the Papel Machete van with their instruments and art and drove to the mutual-aid centers that had sprung up after Maria, and after neighborhoods realized that no help would come from the authorities.  In fifteen centros, one each day, they unfurled their scroll in front of the lines of Puerto Ricans waiting for their arroz con pollo, and they began to sing.

While thousands of people wait with an empty stomach
Food rots in thousands of vans
And what comes to us?
Cookies, Skittles, and paper towels. 

On the first page, Estefanía had painted three panels that stood for three insults, unforgettable for Puerto Ricans, but which are already fading from the consciousness of those not connected to the island. In panel one, U.S. military and FEMA jets frolic over shipping containers—after Maria, these containers, many filled with private aid from the diaspora, took weeks to be unloaded.

The market feeds the despair of the people
People without work, without income, without roofs
From line to line, our day is gone. 

Sugeily pointed at the next panel with her stick. It showed the endless gas queues. Then she moved her stick lower, to Estefanía’s illustrations of the overflowing morgues. Approximately nine hundred people died in the month after Maria (statistics vary), but they were not given autopsies, their bodies were cremated, and they were labelled “natural deaths.”

There are dead in the fields
There are dead in the avenues
The government does not count the dead of Maria.

By this time, the people on the food line were singing along with them. “The government does not count the dead of Maria,” flew back and forth, in a crescendo of vivacious contempt. Rocio flung to the next page of the scroll, revealing a familiar revolutionary tableau of worker, peasant, child, and blacked-out anti-austerity flag.

In the days after the hurricane, FEMA excused itself by claiming, falsely, that roads were blocked. Press, myself included, who visited the mountains, found this was not the case. The barrios had cleared their roads themselves, with their own hands.

The road is open.
With what?
With hatchet and machete

Sugeily, Rocio, and Augustin sang together now, tenderness replacing the mockery in their voices, and the crowd joined them. Fuerte fuerte como hacha y machete. Strong, strong, like machete and axe. When the last chorus finally ended, the whole cantastoria had lasted only five minutes, but it felt far longer, and hit far deeper, too. One friend in the audience told me it reminded her of a strength that her fatigue had previously forced her to forget. The three performers rolled up the scroll, packed up the drums, and drove to the next town where people had gathered to feed each other.

We will root out those who lie to us and ignore us.
Solidarity and survival, for our liberation

©Molly Crabapple

Verses from the song are translated from the Spanish by Molly Crabapple. 

Molly Crabapple is an artist and author of the memoir Drawing Blood. Her next book, Brothers of the Gun, cowritten with the Syrian war journalist Marwan Hisham, will be published by Random House in May 2018.