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.
Rosa Colón sat in the back room of El Local, a San Juan punk club whose walls crawled with hallucinogenic murals and whose main room had now been repurposed as a comedor social, or “collective kitchen.” El Local was Rosa’s place. For the past decade, she’d been a pillar of Puerto Rico’s indie comics scene. She drew comics, self-publishing her work through an imprint, Soda Pop Comics, that she ran with her partner, Carla. She made anthologies, organized art shows, and threw a yearly indie comic con to bring more attention to local art. As we lounged on El Local’s threadbare armchairs, a procession of tattooed young people in razor-altered black clothes shouted greetings in her direction.
In the days after Maria, Rosa threw herself into comics. Though she lacked water for a month, and power for seventy days, she began a series on life and politics in post-hurricane Puerto Rico. With clean lines, she drew piece after piece about independence, colonialism, and local political skulduggery. They were clear, informative, and deeply felt works of journalism, which she then published on The Nib. Her only source of electricity was a generator at Carla’s parents’ apartment. After working extra hours at her day job, she drew comics on her iPad, in the dark, swatting away the moths attracted by the light of the screen. Rosa told me, “It was really demoralizing, a heavy mix of depression and survival’s guilt.”
“Before Hurricane María it was kind of hard to be an artist in Puerto Rico and now it’s almost impossible,” she continued. “Our art scene thrived on ‘underground’ cultural spaces and galleries willing to give a chance on nontraditional art. Now those spaces are closed, inaccessible or like El Local, repurposed for worthier causes. I have no doubt these spaces will be open once more, but it might be too late. Most of the artists I know have day jobs that were affected by the lack of electricity. In Puerto Rico, like most places, I imagine, you don’t live off your art. Without work and without prospects, the artists have moved to the U.S. in droves. That means I have fewer people to collaborate with and almost no artists to participate in next year’s convention. Up-and-coming creatives won’t have local artists to look up to or be mentored by. Even as I plan new projects, my collaborators are moving or making plans to move.”
“On the other hand,” she continued, “this massive migration can be beneficial to Puerto Rico’s art scene, which has been ignored for too long. The diaspora can shed light on the island by participating in more events and being vocal about where they came from and how it shaped their art.”
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.