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.
A few weeks after Hurricane Maria, I visited Casa Taller for the first time. I knew about them from the Internet. AgitArte, the radical arts collective that calls Casa Taller home, had crowdfunded tens of thousands of dollars to distribute grassroots aid in the hurricane’s aftermath. Still, their two-story house in Santurce had no sign out front. I hollered upward until a man on the second floor heard me and descended to let me in. Casa Taller was just the sort of iconic, authentic DIY arts space that gentrification had smothered in New York City. Like all of San Juan, its power was off, but it had a luxurious layout—a small garden, wide white rooms filled with papier-mâché masks, Punch-and-Judy-inspired prints on the walls, battered couches on which one could peruse its small collection of books, and teetering piles of manikin heads, arms, alligator maws. Upstairs, an illustrator was designing prints about the government response to Maria. FUCK FEMA AND THE U.S. MILITARY, read the first of the series, which I later saw posted on Instagram. A helicopter, a downed electrical pole, a CCTV camera. Pointed toward them, a brown hand, raising a middle finger. Every tendon in the wrist was taut.
I came back the next month. In the time I was gone, the power had not returned. AgitArte had ricocheted across island, dropping off aid, and, with their puppetry collective Papel Machete, performing shows. They provided grants to Puerto Rican artists—lack of work was forcing many from the island—and ran a comedor social for their neighbors. Donations came in in the suitcases of their friends from the diaspora and were then neatly sorted, filling the window sill’s of one room. Outside, a tangle of solar lamps lay soaking up sun. With power off for months, Maria had turned people into connoisseurs: luci lamps and Little Sun Diamonds were considered the best. Sugeily Rodriguez looked at me with tired eyes. Between the aid work and performance, she had not gotten a day off for months. There is the exhaustion that comes from coping with a natural disaster, overlaid upon the disaster of austerity, the disaster of Puerto Rico’s decade-long economic collapse, and then the precarity of existing as an artist, especially as a radical artist, especially in a poor colony, especially while you’re keeping your neighbors alive.
I had seen that exhaustion in activists on the broken edges of the first world—refugee squats in Athens; occupied newspapers in Istanbul; the Andalusian farmland taken back from the Duchess of Alba; the squatted Seville apartment building, which had no running water, so the squatter kids got it from a fountain down the street and carried it in buckets up the lightless stairs. Those places all looked the same, despite the vagaries of country or architecture. The pro-Palestine stickers, the tasks divvied up on huge sheets of paper, the cold water (when it ran at all), the piles of food donated by visitors out of a desire to enact solidarity. The gorgeous angry posters. The camaraderie born from too much work.
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.