Toa Baja, Puerto Rico
On the muddy streets of a poor, rural community with the cheerful name of Villas del Sol, Maria Isa’s frustration flared.
Tents pitched on a concrete slab beside one road served as a temporary home for a family whose house still has no walls. Nearby, a construction worker’s wife stood covered in dust, laboring on her family’s ruined structure, still waiting for word on their request for federal aid. Another woman implored Isa, one of the Twin Cities’ top hip-hop artists, and other relief workers to look at her family’s wrecked two-story house, its living room exposed to scorching sun, with a staircase leading to nowhere.
“I can’t take it anymore,” Betania Gomez wearily told the group. “I’m desperate.”
Eight months after hurricanes Irma and Maria walloped this U.S. territory back-to-back, tens of thousands of Puerto Rico’s residents are still living in sweltering misery.
For Isa, an outspoken activist and self-described “Sota-Rican,” a trip here to her family’s homeland to assess the island’s plight confirmed that help has been coming too slow, especially in remote mountain communities and poor neighborhoods where resources were already scarce.
Nearly 23,000 customers still didn’t have grid electricity as of last week. Others can’t rely on their faucets to deliver drinkable water. Of the estimated 325,000 houses severely damaged or destroyed, approximately 275,000 still need repair, according to the Puerto Rico chapter of Associated General Contractors. While the capital city of San Juan and the island’s popular tourism areas have been a focus of recovery work, restoration lies far on the horizon for areas where outsiders don’t normally tread.
Since the storms, Isa has been taking hurricane relief into her own hands, helping to raise more than $270,000 for a fund she co-advises through the St. Paul Foundation. Most of that money has gone toward projects such as improving roads for debris removal and putting up solar street lamps in Villas del Sol; shipping a solar generator to power computers and a kitchen at a mountain school; quenching thirst through hundreds of water filters and putting roofs over heads in remote communities.
But for Isa, seeing the continued suffering on parts of the island up close brought a renewed sense of urgency and resolve to do more.
“It makes me extremely angry,” she said toward the end of the walk through Villas del Sol. “Why have so many people forgotten already?”
Passion for Puerto Rico
The night air dripped with humidity as Isa’s powerful voice boomed from an outdoor stage in a college neighborhood in San Juan.
“I wasn’t born in Puerto Rico, but Puerto Rico was born in me … ” she sang in Spanish as students bounced to her mixture of Afro Boricua bomba and hip-hop, the local Medalla beer sweating in their hands.
Isa was, in fact, born in Minnesota 31 years ago and raised on the West Side of St. Paul. But inside her grandmother’s Mears Park apartment, where she spent so many of her younger days, it might as well have been Puerto Rico. The smell of plantain-based mofongo wafted from the kitchen. Salsa music filled the air. Conversation flowed in Spanish.
“It didn’t matter if, you know, there wasn’t a lot of money or there wasn’t [a lot of] food,” Isa said. “There was always enough.”
Unlike so many children who eschew the traditions of their immigrant elders, Isa embraced them. She also mimicked the work ethic of her father, a Marine who became a dental technician and caterer and her mother, who worked long hours in philanthropy, including at the Otto Bremer Foundation and United Way.
As a girl, Isa would sometimes accompany her mom on trips to evaluate groups or projects seeking funding. Along the way, Elsa Vega-Perez taught her daughter “the dynamics of philanthropy,” she said.
Last summer, Isa was looking forward to becoming a co-advisor to El Fondo Boricua, a fund that her mother had started years ago to help Puerto Rican and other Latino cultural programs.
Then Hurricane Maria hit. The Category 4 storm, striking only days after Hurricane Irma rolled through, delivered a direct hit to Puerto Rico, with winds roaring at 155 miles an hour and the sky unleashing more than 2 feet of rain in some areas. It knocked out power to the island’s 3.4 million residents, washed out roads, ripped up homes and ruined water supplies.
Vega-Perez called her daughter.
“You start today,” she said, instructing her to begin fundraising immediately and direct the money entirely toward hurricane relief.
Isa didn’t hesitate, jumping heart-first into her new role.
Amid an already busy schedule teaching at the nonprofit Twin Cities Mobile Jazz Project, producing and recording at her own SotaRico record company and playing gigs around North America, Isa poured herself into the work. She called contacts in Puerto Rico and in New York, negotiating to help send shipping containers of food, water and generators as quickly as possible. She secured grants from the Minnesota Twins and other donors. She started an online giving page and sang at fundraisers, finding any way she could to get the word out.
At some point, she decided it would be helpful to see the hurricane damage herself, to see where the fund’s donations had helped and figure out where more was needed.
Delayed by health problems stemming from Type 1 diabetes, Isa made the trip this spring, accompanied by a half-dozen people including her husband and mother, each paying their own way.
“I feel that I have to do what I’m doing,” Isa said before leaving. “I was just born to react toward situations that I can help out or learn to help out.”
Isa’s husband, a Twin Cities rapper with the stage name Muja Messiah, maneuvered a compact rental car over the winding narrow roads of Puerto Rico’s storm-battered central mountain range.
Near the remote town of Comerio, hand-scrawled signs decorated the roadside:
“6 meses es demasiado sin Luz,” translated as “6 months is too much without light.”
“We have been forgotten by the AEE,” said another one, referring to Puerto Rico’s electric company.
Pockets of houses in the steep neighborhood of Palomas still lacked electricity. Some were hooked up to generators and others siphoned from neighbors, extension cords running across sidewalks. The houses sat in various states of disrepair, though not all of the destruction was visible from the walkways.
The strongest concrete houses weathered Hurricane Maria’s fury, but wood components such as roofs didn’t stand a chance. When residents invited relief workers inside, they could see the torn wooden roofs, mold stains, smashed furniture and other wreckage.
Isa was astounded at the conditions some were enduring so long after the storm.
The community, with the help of three nonprofit organizations, has largely been “rebuilding by themselves,” she said.
Many residents fled the island after the hurricane; many who stayed were finding it difficult to get recovery help. Their homes had been in their families for generations, but they didn’t have proof of ownership, making them ineligible for federal disaster aid, community leaders explained. As of early May, more than 17,600 applicants to FEMA hadn’t provided proof of ownership.
The federal agency, meanwhile, has disbursed more than $1.1 billion under its Individual Assistance Program.
In Comerio, young people showed Isa and other volunteers how they have been revitalizing both structures and spirits. They organized residents to help rebuild each other’s houses, clean up debris and repaint infrastructure in bright colors.
They have also brought neighbors together for happier projects, starting a community theater group and using a solar generator to project movies onto a wall, brief respites from their struggles.
Mariangelie Ortiz, a university student, led Isa and her delegation into a house more than 70 steps up the hill. Local people had rebuilt its roof and its damaged walls.
The family had received no federal aid, they said, because administrators had decided that there wasn’t enough damage.
“How much more you gotta lose?” Isa asked, incredulous. “I’m shocked.”
The whole group cheered aloud when Ortiz announced that the family, who had been staying with relatives, would soon move back.
After walking back down the hill, Isa and members of New York-based nonprofit El Grito de Sunset Park handed out a stack of solar lanterns. The two groups had been working to bring a shipping container filled with goods to the island, and Isa was eager for its arrival so she could help distribute the items.
In the meantime, Isa had something to offer Ortiz: the news that the St. Paul fund would work to donate $15,000 needed to purchase an empty house they had been using for a community meeting space.
Ortiz paused for a moment in disbelief, then a huge smile spread across her face. She wrapped her arms around Isa, repeating “gracias, gracias.”
Before the group left, Isa opened the rental car and pulled out a cardboard box containing a couple of Yamaha C40 acoustic guitars along with a few tambourines. She performed a song, inviting some of the community’s young people to participate. The instruments were gifts from Twin Cities Mobile Jazz.
“We dedicate these guitars to the children of the community,” she said, standing over a creek on a pedestrian bridge freshly painted in cheerful tones of gold, turquoise and green. “We’ll be in touch.”
Healing through art
Isa believes art and music can heal and empower people.
Though her parents half-expected she might go to college on a basketball scholarship, Isa focused on music after an injury in high school forced her from the game.
At 15, she formed an Afro-Latino ensemble, Raices, to preserve Puerto Rican heritage through music and dance. She went on to turn heads by fusing rap with traditional Afro-Puerto Rican indigenous music, incorporating a band with brass and bomba drums.
“My music is soul, regardless of what kind of drumbeat you have behind it,” she says. “There’s a whole level of good through music, dealing with oppressed times.”
Isa works part-time at Twin Cities Mobile Jazz, coordinating programs and teaching creative writing, voice and percussion to underprivileged children.
“She had a knack of being able to take over the room,” Executive Director Andre Fischer said. “She can’t just sing. She can’t just rap. She can’t just teach. She has to be involved … this is somebody who … has blood or sweat in the game.”
In Isa’s eyes, Puerto Ricans had been facing injustices long before the hurricanes, the territory a forgotten stepchild of the United States. It took hurricanes, she said, for people to see that the political structures aren’t working.
The U.S. took over the territory after the Spanish-American War in 1898. Nearly 20 years later, Puerto Ricans were formally given U.S. citizenship, and now anyone born on the island is able to travel or move freely to the mainland.
But as a commonwealth — not a state — residents of Puerto Rico have limited political power; they can’t vote in national elections and have only one nonvoting member in Congress. Most residents don’t pay federal income tax, though they do contribute to Social Security, Medicare and some other taxes.
Under a nearly century-old law, only U.S. ships can transport between U.S. ports, including Puerto Rico. It’s a restriction that has been criticized for decades for driving up prices of goods and hemming in the island’s trade capabilities.
On the mainland, many people are unclear about Puerto Rico’s relationship with the federal government; surveys before and even right after the hurricanes showed that roughly half of Americans knew that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Some have criticized the response of the federal government and philanthropic groups to hurricane damage in Puerto Rico compared to recent responses in Texas and Florida.
Isa and other organizers keep trying to make sure people don’t forget.
Bringing supplies to the island has been a long, frustrating lesson in organization and patience, Isa acknowledges.
El Fondo Boricua had paid thousands of dollars to buy a metal container and ship pallets of generators, solar lamps, water filters and food gathered by El Grito De Sunset Park. It would be the group’s eighth shipping container since the hurricanes struck.
But when word came that the container wouldn’t be arriving while the group was on the island — another in a line of maddening delays that seemed to come with every shipment — Isa broke down.
Her husband put his arms around her in support.
“Our feelings have nothing to do with reality,” he told her.
Still, the groups had sent a few supplies separately, through the more expensive UPS, so they did have some goods to distribute. Organizers from Brooklyn made a trip to a Costco in San Juan to buy non-refrigerated food to distribute in areas still lacking power.
That night, on a country road in Caguas, volunteers from both groups parked their rental cars on the side of a road, took out their flashlights and filled white kitchen trash bags with cans of soup, crackers, coffee, rice, packs of milk and solar lamps that could both light up a room and charge a cellphone.
They lathered themselves in bug repellent, then headed into Barrio Beatriz, a neighborhood on a steep hillside enveloped in darkness and the chirp of coqui frogs.
Residents there had been without power for nearly eight months (it was finally restored early this month), but they could see the lights of a freeway and town flickering down the hill a few miles away.
They had been told that they weren’t a priority as electricians worked on main roads first, explained neighborhood leader Miriam Martinez, who came out of her house in slippers to greet the group with big smiles, a generator roaring on her porch.
“You bring happiness to our lives because it makes you remember no one is forgetting about you,” she told them in Spanish, adding that she was thankful for philanthropic groups, which had delivered more help there than the government. “I feel secure when I see people like you coming.”
Martinez, 62, used her generator sparingly, for only a few hours a night while caring for a bedridden sister and teenage son. Even at that rate, the fuel cost her $13 every three days, she said, stretching her budget.
Isa admitted that she and her husband had talked about how tired they were earlier in the day, with all the logistical frustrations weighing on them. They wondered whether they should just go back to their Airbnb in San Juan and call it a day.
But then they remembered the reality for the people they had come to serve.
“These people have been here for months,” she said. “We’re so privileged.”
Toward the end of the evening, the group met a family with a young woman studying at a nearby university.
Isa presented her a new guitar, saying that “with music, you make community.”
The girl, bashful and polite, gasped in delight. She took a deep breath, then sang a religious song in Spanish, bathed in light from lanterns and flashlights: “There’s nothing worth more that will ever come close. Nothing can compare, You’re our living hope.”
“Wow!” Isa said. “Please continue singing with that voice. It’s a gift.”
As the group drove away from their neighborhood, Isa said moments like that made it worth all the work.
“That’s what I live for,” she said. “Making kids smile and bringing light and food.”
As she reflected on the trip and looked ahead to returning to Minnesota, Isa resolved anew to help Puerto Rico and to bring its plight to the attention of leaders on the mainland.
“How can we just try and build some happy moment in this dark time?” she said. “There’s so much more that needs to be done.”