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.
“We are older than you,” Pepe says, when I meet him on the lemon-yellow striped bridge. The bridge is in Paloma Abajo, a neighborhood in the Comerío municipality that Defend PR is helping to rebuild. He is older than I am, with a neat gray beard and a bandana printed with marijuana leaves wrapped around his hair, but he is speaking not of himself but of our respective countries of birth. Puerto Rico was colonized before the United States, and by the time U.S. gunboats boomed into its harbor in 1898, it had enjoyed its hard-won autonomy from Spain for several months—not that this helped the island in the eyes of its new overlords. In the opinion of many U.S. politicians, Puerto Rico was populated by members of the deficient “Spanish” race, too lazy and primitive to be granted either independence or statehood. How little some attitudes change.
I draw Pepe’s house—a wonder of lime green, high amidst the greener hills. “Don’t draw the American flag,” he tells me. “My wife put it up.” Later, he takes me inside the house, whose three squat stories he built with his own hands. He made their walls so thick and strong that even Hurricane Maria could not knock them down. Two black-and-white portraits of Pedro Albizu Campos hang in the living room. Albizu was a brilliant Afro-Caribbean lawyer, the founder of the Partido Nacionalista, and fluent in six languages. In 1921, he graduated valedictorian of his class at Harvard. In the years that came after, he advocated for armed insurrection against U.S. colonialism and spent twenty-six years in prison, where the U.S. (allegedly) experimented on him with radiation. They only let him out to die of the cancer this radiation caused. He is now venerated, by many Puerto Ricans, as a martyr for la patria, a sort of secular saint. “My father was one of Albizu’s soldiers,” Pepe says. The photos were the first objects he hung back up on the walls after the hurricane had passed.
Pepe leads me to his stairwell. He had painted its stairs to resemble granite, mixing flecks of black, silver, and white into the clear lacquer. “I was a jockey, back in U.S.,” Pepe says. He points to the wall. Hanging there is a riding crop. “See? I wouldn’t lie to you about something like that.” We stand atop his house, carefully avoiding the nails and beams that are the remnants of what had once been his rooftop shed. He points to ruined houses, the tarps thrown over missing roofs, and tells me about the people who climb the many steps into the mountains to get water from a well each day because, nearly two months after Maria, the taps in Paloma Abajo are still dry. But, he tells me, the people in the barrio are helping each other live.
Before I leave, Pepe says, “Put my name on the sketch so when it’s published my kids in the U.S. will see it and know it’s me.”
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.