The town of Hatillo isn’t exactly the epicenter of street art in Puerto Rico. While it’s known for its nearly 200-year old annual mask festival, Hatillo is largely left outside of the capital’s arts and culture scene, even though it’s just 57 miles from San Juan.
But Color Libre, an event that launched last week, may signal a shift towards street art’s greater inclusiveness beyond Puerto Rico’s main urban centers. Color Libre is a collaboration among five street artists: Gaia of New York City; Mata Ruda of Costa Rica and the U.S.; Lunar New Year of Ecuador and the U.S.; Don Rimx, a Puerto Rican now living in Miami; and Ricardo Cabret, a Puerto Rican living in New York City. The artists, who met and nurtured a deep friendship in New York, conceived of Color Libre because they wanted to “talk about identity and how we relate with each other, while creating conversation with the community,” says Cabret. “Our main goal is to capture a transcultural exchange of ideas about the social and cultural backgrounds that unite us, as opposed to divide us,” he adds. To do this, Cabret invited the other four artists to join him to create a single work on a wall in Hatillo.
Why Hatillo? Cabret says it’s important to begin looking mas allá when it comes to developing public art interventions. The metropolitan area is the setting for all of these exciting, intriguing projects, he points out, but “bringing art and conversation to places outside San Juan, Santurce, and Bayamón was our goal.” The idea for Color Libre was already cooking when Cabret learned about a neighborhood in Hatillo that was celebrating its 100th anniversary and marking a significant transition, changing its name from “Barriada Clan” to “Comunidad Clan.” “The Hatillo story aligned with our values about union and strength,” Cabret says. “When we found out about the history behind the barriada and the pride that its people felt in their 100 years of history, the idea of gifting them with a mural emerged organically. The values of the community with respect to the importance of being united in spite of differences that might exist among them was something that complemented the values we wanted to share,” Cabret says.
The mural was unveiled last Friday in Hatillo’s Comunidad Clan, but that won’t be the end of the Color Libre project. The artists will return to the capital to show their own work at La Respuesta on November 14; from there, Cabret says, they will continue fostering the collaboration with an annual iteration of the event. “We plan on doing Color Libre every year with different artists and different areas around the island,” he says, “always inside communities that never get the chance to experience these fruitful conversations, art, and events.”
The significance of Color Libre at this particular moment in Puerto Rican history isn’t lost on those who are following current events on the island. Gripped by an acute, pervasive fiscal crisis, Puerto Ricans are struggling with many aspects of their identity– from their political views regarding independence, to their own decisions about whether they should remain on the island or move to the mainland or elsewhere to pursue a better quality of life. “Identity is a very important long-standing conversation for Puerto Ricans,” Cabret notes. “Identity is about knowing who you are, knowing your history, knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and having a voice.” He hopes, as do the other collaborators in Color Libre, that their project will add something to the national conversation. “As artists we are continuously searching for an identity,” Cabret points out. “We are compelled by this struggle and we will forever find ways to talk about it via our medium.”