When Puerto Rican artist Mariola Rosario shot scenic photos of the forest at Reserva Natural de Humacao on the island this summer, it was lush and green and filled her with awe. She didn’t know that would be the last time she would see it that way.
Years before, the forest looked more like a landfill from the pollution caused by pharmaceutical plants in the area. Then, Rosario says, residents brought it back to its former glory.
“They called it The People’s Forest,” she says. “The neighbors got together and eventually took over the land and reforested [it].”
But when Hurricane Maria hit the island, it wiped out most of Humacao’s vegetation.
“Now the forest is gone,” Rosario says. “Nothing that I photographed exists anymore.”
With more than half of the island still without power and basic necessities, residents are fleeing Puerto Rico in historic numbers. While it may take months to restore the island's infrastructure, it’ll be years before the community can return to any sense of normalcy. That’s why Dallas artists, including several Puerto Rican natives, are spreading awareness of the hurricane's impact.
Rosario is one of five artists whose work will be showcased at Respond: Puerto Rico, opening Friday at Sunset Art Studios in Oak Cliff. The exhibit will raise funds for Puerto Rico's long-term recovery. More events are planned in Dallas throughout the month.
The proceeds will be funneled through Beta-Local, a San Juan-based co-op for the arts. The organization developed an emergency fund to help the people hit worst by the storm.
Beta-Local is particularly concerned with rebuilding Puerto Rico's creative community. Normally, it serves as a hub for research and dialogue around contemporary art in Puerto Rico.
Juan Alberto Negroni, a painter participating in Respond, grew up in Bayamón, near San Juan. He moved to Dallas two years ago after enrolling in the studio arts graduate program at Southern Methodist University. Negroni enjoys the art scene here and describes it as thriving, but he says it is drastically different from Puerto Rico's.
“The situation in Puerto Rico even before the hurricane was very difficult because we were already in a huge debt and the political situation has not been great with the artist community.” – artist Juan Alberto Negroni
“The situation in Puerto Rico even before the hurricane was very difficult because we were already in a huge debt and the political situation has not been great with the artist community,” Negroni says.
For generations, he says, Beta-Local has acted as an essential laboratory and incubator for creativity on the island.
Other local art events benefiting Puerto Rico include a lecture Wednesday at SMU by Puerto Rico-based arts collective Materiales y Oficios. MAOF promotes sustainable culture by using fallen trees and other bio-matter as art supplies, and it is well known throughout Latin America.
MAOF had already planned to visit Dallas before the hurricane, co-organizer Sofia Bastidas says, but now the stop here is even more relevant. The arts collective is working to raise money to buy a crane that can help pick up debris and rebuild the island.
At the third event — Friday, Nov. 17, at Life in Deep Ellum — MAOF will present a video installation about Hurricane Maria relief. There will also be a musical performance by Puerto Rican bomba and plena group 100x35.
All three events are free to attend, but donations are encouraged.
“We can help in many ways, right?" Bastidas asks. "We can go and send bottles of water and everything, but I'm interested in helping more in a strategic way."
While Maria and its aftermath still hang heavily over the island, Rosario has hope for the Humacao forest back home and views it as a symbol of the island's recovery.
“It will come back," she says. "It’s a place that has a story of resilience and resistance, and I think it’s exciting to think that it will grow back.”
For more information about the events, visit smu.edu.