Tales From Puerto Rico: The Young Photographer at the Heart of the Protest
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Puerto Rico is U.S. soil and needs your attention too.
Before Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, knocking out power and leveling homes across the island, OZY video producer Amberly Ellis traveled there to document the efforts of the arts community to engage in political conversations around gentrification, immigration and belonging.
The air in San Juan lingers in a feeling of unrest. In the neighborhood of Santurce, the outcries of protesters are loud and amplified further in graffiti. Amid the fading paint and crumbling walls of abandoned buildings, the spray-painted words — and the sentiment — are unmissable: “Get gentrification out of Santurce.”
In the heart of the capital, on a wall facing the famous fort of Old San Juan, the anonymous art collective La Puerta has painted a beautiful yet provocative mural deriding Puerto Rico as “The World’s Oldest Colony.” The mural also calls for the boycotting of one of the island’s largest banks and denounces the crippling $123 billion in debt and pension obligations incurred by the government. The island and its 3.5 million residents are in crisis, and the message is loud and clear.
The Puerto Rican economy has been in a recession since 2006 and continues to decline as more and more Puerto Ricans migrate from the island. Bankruptcy proceedings began in the spring, and on June 11, there was a referendum, but only 23 percent of registered voters showed up. Those who did were nearly unanimous (97 percent) in favor of becoming America’s 51st state.
This state of unrest has set the stage for 23-year-old photographer Mari Robles Lopez of the newspaper Claridad. Despite her youth, she has become one of the leading documenters of the protest movement and has been on the front lines of the conflicts, directly between the police and the aggrieved.
Lopez was first inspired to learn photography from her aunt, and she soon was enamored of the power of a single image to tell a story. Recently, her photographs have been making waves off the island as more journalists and émigrés from outside Puerto Rico have begun paying attention to the turmoil there. But Lopez, who lives in Santurce, says her focus is on informing Puerto Ricans at home. “People here rely on news sources from the mainland and sometimes don’t even know what’s happening right here because it’s not being covered,” she says.
Lopez hopes that Puerto Ricans who have left the island will return and fight to enact change and that young people like her will find reasons to stay, despite the economic decline. Lopez adds that she hopes her images “do not reveal a Puerto Rico unraveling, but rather the spirit of those who have chosen to stay in defense of their homeland.”