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When people are less important than beaches: Puerto Rican artists at the Whitney

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Hurricanes are cyclical. And for Puerto Rico, they're not just natural disasters, but disasters of mismanagement and infrastructure. In a new exhibit at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, 20 Puerto Rican artists wrestle with a long legacy of the island's people being treated as less important than its sunny beaches. NPR's Jennifer Vanasco has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

MAGGIE: (Speaking Spanish).

JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: That sound? That's rain and wind. It's Hurricane Maria five years ago, battering the house of Maggie, who's speaking. "Good morning," she says in the video piece. "It's 5 a.m. I've been awake since 1 a.m." The screen is black, except for the occasional ghostly flicker of a white wall, a window. Water is coming in. A moment later, she says, this is getting worse.

SOFIA CORDOVA: It was just rain, rain, rain and just their whole house - a second-story house flooding, you know? Can you imagine?

VANASCO: Mixed-media artist Sofia Cordova, who lives in Oakland, is Maggie's niece. She used her aunt's cellphone footage as the beginning of a two-hour piece that focuses on how individual Puerto Ricans experienced the hurricane and its aftermath.

CORDOVA: You know, you can really see them on the, like, safety boat, or whatever it's called, like, really hanging on to each other and talking to each other, trying to make sense of something that your brain isn't really made to make sense of.

VANASCO: Cordova's piece is intimate. Though it shows some beautiful images of Puerto Rico - a lizard, a landscape - they're usually overlaid by the words of her relatives as they try to process not just what happened, but why it happened. This is not just a natural disaster, they say. It's a disaster of planning.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

VANASCO: "This was a chaos that could have been avoided," he says in the video. Some of the artists, like Cordova, are part of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Others currently live there. And it's not just the artists who have a personal connection. Marcela Guerrero is from Puerto Rico and curated the exhibit at the Whitney. She called it...

MARCELA GUERRERO: (Speaking Spanish). "Puerto Rican Art In The Wake Of Hurricane Maria."

VANASCO: Because, she says, it means a post-hurricane world doesn't exist. A hurricane, she says, is a metaphor for a force you can't escape. Much of this exhibit is about those forces - colonialism, mismanagement, climate change, the failure of almost the entire electrical grid.

GUERRERO: You know, I want people to understand that it's not just an inconvenience. It's not just that you can't watch Netflix. You can't keep your medicines refrigerated. It makes living very hard.

VANASCO: Guerrero points out there's a wall of sharp, evocative posters by Garvin Sierra in a brightly colored grid, encouraging resistance.

GUERRERO: Sometimes with joy, with joy of saying, we are here. We're surviving. We are not going anywhere.

VANASCO: There is joy here in the exhibit, and love and hope, but also a deep anger, a feeling that the United States has never had Puerto Rico's best interest at heart, a feeling that the government prioritizes investing in beaches instead of infrastructure and tourists instead of the people who actually live there.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I am optimistic about the long-term growth prospects for Puerto Rico. It has a perfect climate. It's a very, very beautiful island.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You can essentially minimize your taxes.

VANASCO: This is a particularly pointed political video piece called "B-Roll" by the visual artist Sofia Gallisa Muriente. It juxtaposes lush tourist office scenes of an island paradise - the clear blue water, the palm trees - with remixed audio from the 2016 Puerto Rico Investment Summit extolling the archipelago to investors.

SOFIA GALLISA MURIENTE: You know, I just really wanted to kind of reveal how sinister sometimes this visual language can be with which we kind of sell the country.

VANASCO: The audio from the conference touches on the airport, on tourism opportunities. This place could be amazing, one man says. In this video piece, Puerto Rico is for play, for pleasure, for making even more money. Puerto Ricans? Well, in this video, they're all but invisible.

Jennifer Vanasco, NPR News, New York.

FADEL: If you want to experience the exhibit firsthand, you still can. It will run through April 23.

(SOUNDBITE OF LE YOUTH'S "WAVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Vanasco
Jennifer Vanasco is an editor on the NPR Culture Desk, where she also reports on theater, visual arts, cultural institutions, the intersection of tech/culture and the economics of the arts.