10 Puerto Rican Creatives Disproving the Media’s Brain Drain Narrative

Lead Photo: Cromática, Caguas a Color. Photo provided by Sofia Maldonado
Cromática, Caguas a Color. Photo provided by Sofia Maldonado
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The mainstream media’s narrative of Puerto Rico tends to paint an image of helplessness, with the news cycle largely focusing on unpayable debt, drought, and what presidential candidates think of a bailout. Yes, the political and economic situation on the island is difficult, but too often we overlook the people working to revitalize the island’s culture and economy.

The Puerto Rican nation is one with complex history and rich talent that expands the archipelago beyond its borders. And though we often think about the mass migration of Puerto Rican workers to the United States, there is also a healthy exchange of ideas and knowledge going down between Puerto Ricans on the island and the mainland. Our diaspora is physically, culturally, and emotionally connected to la isla, and as a result, borders have become more porous and many entrepreneurs and creatives find themselves living and working aquí y allá.

We decided to take a look at the creatives who are fostering real dialogue between the island and the mainland, and all over the world. From alternative venue owners, to anthropologists and artists, these individuals are not only spreading Puerto Rican culture, they’re also bringing valuable knowledge to the island and exposing local products to larger markets.

Sofía Maldonado, Artist and Professor

After developing her career as a public space artist in New York City, Sofía Maldonado returned to Puerto Rico to educate and challenge the concept of art on the island. Maldonado opened her own studio practice, teaches at two universities, and most recently launched and administered alongside other artists Cromática, Caguas a Color—”a project that invades unused structures through color, abstraction, ephemeral art and community action,” she described calling from the streets of San Juan.

“I feel that in Puerto Rico I have more space to explore,” she continued, “I would’ve never been able to do a project like this in New York.” Inspired by similar work in Detroit and Berlin, the artist broke through the restrictions of city murals by creating Kalaña— a former tobacco factory transformed into a colorful, community space. Walls, roofs, floors— all were covered in art. Yet, the beautification was just the first part, Kalaña continues to serve as an educational hub with art workshops, documentary screenings, talks, concerts, and tours to the other art pieces. The project which started in August 15th ended on September 12th.

Cromática, Caguas a Color. Photo provided by Sofia Maldonado

In San Juan, Maldonado continues to maintain strong ties with New York City. She hopes to exhibit photographs of Cromática at the MET gallery in Chelsea in 2016. Her team is also working on a documentary of the entire process starting with the conceptual talks. “I feel that sometimes the process is more important than the actual work,” she said. As a professor of the University of Puerto Rico, she also hopes to create an art symposium where established international artists talk with students, in order, to bring the dialogue Maldonado was exposed to in New York. “The creative people are the ones who educate the country,” Maldonado said, “that’s a very big task and we have to see it like that.”

José “Fofito” Morales, Owner, La Respuesta

José “Fofito” Morales has been championing the alternative music scene in Puerto Rico for over a decade. Artists such as Velcro and Mima started playing at his 60 person venue in Old San Juan, ‘Aquí se puede.’ “We’ve all been growing up together as a group, as individuals and as a scene.” As the scene grew, so did Morales’ venues. He opened Café Seda and later La Respuesta—currently the top indie venue in Puerto Rico.

The independent bands that Morales has grown with and fostered have found challenges in Puerto Rico. “[In PR] You have a lot of great bands, but the consumers are not supporting these kind of projects….People like commercial music and the alternative scene is very small on the island,” explained Morales. In order to expose the bands to a broader market, for the past three years Morales has been going back and forth from NYC to San Juan.

“When I walk through the streets of El Barrio, I feel like I’m walking in Santurce.” Morales moved to NYC after being hired by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito to revive La Marqueta—a vendor market in Spanish Harlem forgotten with time. He described his work in the city as a continuation of La Respuesta.

“I’m taking these bands based in La Respuesta and bringing them to New York in order to strengthen the cultural breach that has been going on for years between New York City and Puerto Rico.” Morales is also bringing NYC-based groups to perform in Santurce. He travels back to Puerto Rico at least once a month.

Besides music, La Marqueta hosts theater groups and a weekly open mic. Recent shows include rapper SieteNueve‘s performance last Friday. In October Morales is organizing Monument Art: Public Art Project which is the second part of the successful “Los Muros Hablan”.

Michelle Pérez Kenderish, Founder, Puerto Rico Diseña and Co-founder Localista and ChicaPReneurs

Michelle Pérez Kenderish left Puerto Rico after high school and has pursued a career in marketing and communications outside of the island since. “I was never opposed to come back, I just needed something to pull me in that direction.” She found that something three years ago while searching for local, authentic pieces to gift her friends. “It was always a souvenir [type] offer that was often made in China [and] not very interesting visually.” It was then that she decided to launch her own houseware line inspired by Puerto Rican culture.

The project introduced Pérez Kenderish to Puerto Rico’s design world. “I was exposed to people doing the coolest stuff and nobody really knew about it,” she said. After attending an Art and Design Fair in Puerto Rico in early 2013, Pérez Kenderish launched a website called Puerto Rico Diseña to showcase local designs. The website was just the start, a year later she partnered with Javier Olmeda from Constructo and Vladimir García from Armada to create Localista— a space dedicated to Puerto Rican design in a commercial way. What started as a pop-up shop in the newly renovated Vanderbilt Hotel will now be a permanent space. “For me it’s not about a store, It’s about helping contribute to have this industry develop and grow.”

Pérez Kenderish visits Puerto Rico at least once a month in order to show a real commitment to the artists and designers. She feels that the media rarely talks about the people who return. “They don’t realize there’s brain circulation. We are a very powerful diaspora that feels very connected to Puerto Rico.”

Her most recent venture with Dyanis De Jesús (next on this list!) is ChicaPReneurs, a monthly meetup and platform for collaboration that brings together creative entrepreneurs and cultural innovators from Puerto Rico living abroad, especially NYC. The idea came about after both women bumped into each other at an event in PR, and realized they were both living in NYC but doing business in San Juan — and just like them, there were many others. They thought it would be helpful to create a network where they could run through ideas and support each other’s ventures.

Dyanis De Jesús, Creative Strategy Consultant

Dyanis De Jesús has seen how many of the artists she grew up with are part of a vibrant, growing creative economy in Puerto Rico. “A lot of countries that struggle with their economies, even developing countries, are looking at their creative industries (media, design, film, arts, etc.) as a way to drive entrepreneurship because, as a sector, they are a great alternative for economic development.” To diversify and fortify the local creative economy back on the island, De Jesús founded the Puerto Rico Creative Economy Initiative (PRCEI) alongside Ricardo Burgos, Ernesto Cruz, and Sofía Stolberg. The project’s aim is to “connect the creative and cultural industries in the way of creative assets, and promote Puerto Rico as the ‘Creative and Technology Hub of the Americas’.”

De Jesús lived in Puerto Rico until her 20s. Back then, her first entrepreneurial venture was Prototipo—a platform for various creative projects, including a print magazine, meant to capture the art and design scene on the island. Prototipo published seven editions and De Jesús was able to expose this growing Puerto Rican scene at local and international events such as Art Basel Fairs in Miami and Switzerland. Eventually, it caught the attention of global Ad Agency Leo Burnett, with headquarters in Chicago, where De Jesús was offered a role as Creative Director. She remembers deciding to leave Puerto Rico not because of economic pressures, but because she wanted to expand her career, gaining knowledge and experience abroad. She did just that, developing her business and leadership skills and exposing herself to multicultural international markets such as Milan, Italy where she worked for several years.

In 2011, a move to New York City served as a much anticipated reconnect with Puerto Rico, and the time felt right to formalize what she had been doing so far with personal and professional pursuits. This is when a business degree for creatives at Pratt Institute opened the door to the three pillars of her practice: Design Thinking, Creative Economies and Triple Bottom Line. Her thesis project, “Designing Sustainability into Creative Economies” argued that besides economic well-being, creative economies can have a positive impact on society, the environment, and culture. These are the topics that today allow her to contribute back to her country, while she also serves as visiting professor of the graduate program on Design, Arts & Cultural Management at Pratt.

De Jesús lives with her husband in New York City and works as a Creative Strategy Consultant. She flies to San Juan at least once every three months to attend forums, conferences and working sessions supported by her organization PRCEI. She helps educate public and private sectors, and the creative and entrepreneurial community about topics related to design thinking, innovation and creative economies. “One of the things that excites me most about a creative economy is that it’s leaning less on the government and leaning more on the people, our own ideas and resources, to spur innovation and growth” she said.

Her latest venture, ChicaPReneurs, in partnership with Michelle Pérez-Kenderish is a network of women that serves as a bridge between San Juan and NYC to support solo-preneurs working in creative industries acá y allá. They launched in NYC in the Fall of 2014 and already have a community of 20 chicas. On October 2, 2015 both women will be launching a chapter in Puerto Rico, via their participation in the Animus Conference: Women’s Innovation Journey where they are guest speakers.

Ryan M. Hamilton, Co-founder, ISER Caribe

Ryan Hamilton talked to us from Bushwick where he is getting ready to pack his bags and return to his hometown of Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. Once he arrives to the island, he’s going to dedicate himself full-time to the Institute for Socio-Ecological Research or (ISER Caribe), a non-profit, which aims to preserve the ecology of the island. The project is the product of a conversation that Hamilton had with his friends Braulio A. Quintero and Stacey Williams. “We wanted to create something where we do the research but were also engaged in the community,” explained Hamilton. He gives the example of La Parguera in Lajas, PR where they’re studying the parrot fish population. “We have to include the community in this process because everything they do around the ecosystem, impacts it.”

Hamilton first left the island when he was 19 years old, spending time in California getting his B.A. in International/Global Studies with a minor in Natural Resource Conservation and Economics and an M.S. on Environmental Systems. He returned to Puerto Rico after graduating, but couldn’t find an opportunity on the island. That’s when he moved to NYC to work with Stony Brook University as Director of the College of Human Development. He’s now finishing his doctorate in anthropology at CUNY and completing his dissertation on the processes, effects and community reactions to state-driven economic development and land dispossession in Samaná, Dominican Republic—where his mother is from.

Although working on ISER Caribe from New York has been a challenge, Hamilton has been able to seek collaborations, fuel meaningful conversations through conferences, and create a network in the city. He has also reclaimed empty spaces on the sidewalk of Bushwick to grow tomatoes, okra, corn and other produce. “At first the neighbors were concerned that someone would take or destroy it. But no one destroyed it, no one took anything.” The effect was the opposite—neighbors started to engage with the garden, taking care of it, and sharing stories of how they cooked certain vegetables in their home countries.

He hopes to continue fostering this type of community engagement in Puerto Rico by teaching families about huertos caseros and best practices for sustainable food growth at the Mayagüez Children’s Library, where he’s a member of the Board of Directors. For Hamilton, it’s very important to bring these conversations to the East of Puerto Rico. “Right now most of the things going on are in the San Juan-metro area, which is perfect, except folks like us in Mayagüez don’t get to access these ideas.” Hamilton hopes to reverse that pattern.

Sofía Gallisá Muriente, Co-Director, Beta Local Ivan Illich Program

In the nine years Sofía Gallisá Muriente lived in New York City she studied film, freelanced in production, got involved with Occupy Wall Street, and later with Occupy Sandy. “I came to a point that I needed to either to turn into a social worker or move to Puerto Rico and finally work on the art projects that I’ve been wanting to work on for years,” she said calling from San Juan.

She sat down with artist Beatriz Santiago and curator Michy Marxuach, two of the founders of Beta Local—a nonprofit in San Juan that offers programs and spaces for creatives to produce. “I remember telling them, ‘I need a pista de aterrizaje’ and they looked at me and said ‘we have an airport.’” Gallisá Muriente enrolled in La Práctica, an interdisciplinary post-academic study and production program, where fellows conceptualize and execute projects. Beta Local also offers others programs such as the Harbor, a residency program for international artists; and Ivan Illich, an open-school platform through which anyone can propose a class that he or she wants to take or can teach.

”Situationism and the City,” 2010. Four conferences by Javier Román Nieves, at La Ivan Illich, San Juan. Courtesy Beta-Local, San Juan.

During her time at La Práctica, Gallisá Muriente produced a video art piece about the arrival of snow to the capital in the early 50s. Gallisá Muriente also researched and worked on an exhibition and publication (still in the works) about Carlos “La Sombra” Torres Meléndez, who is a founding member of los Ñetas, the largest Puerto Rican inmate rights organization. While in the program, she was offered a position as co-director of Beta Local specifically for the Ivan Illich program. “I definitely feel really fortunate and appreciative of the scale and rhythm at which I can work in Puerto Rico.”

Gallisá Muriente explained that the organization is ever-evolving, always rethinking their practices and self-criticizing. “The work we do is broad and difficult to pinpoint,” she explained, “we’re reacting to the needs and interests and the practices of the people that participate in our program, that come to events, and that show up to the space and propose projects.” With an open door policy, she welcomes anyone to come in, connect and pitch proposals.

Radames “Juni” Figueroa, Artist

“My career has been successful because I was part of the group that stayed in Puerto Rico,” said artist Radames “Juni” Figueroa. After graduating from Escuelas de Artes Plásticas he said many of his friends moved to Berlin, New York City, or Los Angeles. Figueroa opted to set up his studio—La Isla— in Santurce. where he is part of a thriving art scene that takes it upon themselves to beautify and educate the community.

In 2009, he painted three roofs in La Perla, a low-income neighborhood on the shore of Old San Juan, with bold animal prints—tiger, zebra and leopard. This is meant to “question the perception of this area as a savage territory without law.” In response to the lack of exhibition spaces in Puerto Rico, he developed an artist-run space in his own home— La Loseta (2011).

Figueroa’s aesthetic comes from the island, but his travels keep him updated on global art trends. He’s particularly interested in tropical architecture, specifically how problems are solved with scarce materials. A tree-house structure he created in Naguabo, Puerto Rico caught the attention of various curators. Two simultaneous exhibitions at the Whitney Museum and the Sculpture Center in 2014 exposed his work to many people who weren’t familiar with him. Since then, he’s been constantly traveling to different countries such as the U.S., Guatemala, Mexico, the UK, and Argentina.

When he called me, he had just arrived to New York City to work on a piece that will be exhibited at Taymour Grahne, starting September 12th. The piece references the signs that homeless people on the island make to ask for money. “Everything that people posted on Facebook complaining about the crisis really affected me,” he explained.

Figueroa is making 25-30 signs with different handwriting that will make a big collage painting. He gives as an example one where he asks for a new iPhone and attaches his old, broken one. “All [of them] are me speaking about the crisis in an ironic way as an artist that comes from a bankrupt country.”

Isabel Rullán, Co-Director ConPRmetidos and Puerto Rico Global

Three years ago, ConPRmetidos launched as a movement to show that Puerto Ricans on and off the island care and want to help drive economic development. Looking back, co-founder Isabel Rullán laughs and admits it was a little naive. They launched in four major cities with large Puerto Rican populations: New York City, Miami, Washington D.C., and San Juan. The response was immediate. “People wanted us to tell them how exactly to help,” she said, “But, we were figuring out how we were going to help!”

Although she was offered job opportunities in the States upon graduation, Rullán wanted to stay in Puerto Rico and help from within. She’s the only one of the founding members that graduated on the island. Building on their early momentum, she called fellow founding member Miguel Columna, and they decided to work as co-directors, dedicating themselves full-time to the organization. After much research, they defined their three main goals: attract investment to the island, attract and retain talent, and create the most collaborative diaspora that supports the entry of Puerto Rican firms into new markets.

“We have a unique asset: Puerto Rican human capital accounts for 3.5 million on the island and 5.1 million abroad.” Rullán and Columna researched how other countries such as Chile, Ireland, and Scotland attracted economic development by engaging their diaspora.

Ultimately, they launched— a professional matchmaking tool for Puerto Ricans on and off the island. Since launching two months ago, they have had 500 registrations and successful connections bubbling, particularly with investors. She describes how many Puerto Ricans living off the island seem eager to be mentored by and mentor those still there. “Knowledge is what’s going to move the economy and we have that knowledge, we’re just not connecting with it. We’re not taking advantage of it,” she said.

Adrian Viajero Roman, Artist

Adrian Viajero Roman grew up in an artistic household in New York City. He recalls watching his oldest brother draw, his father sketch and doodle, and his grandfather paint landscapes on found objects in Puerto Rico, like coconuts and palm tree leaves. He became more confident in his own artistic talent after winning a middle school art contest that sent him to Pratt Institute for Saturday classes.

But it wasn’t until 2011, when he did his first Dia De Los Muertos installation, that he realized the impact his work could have within the community. “This project unified many of us in the community,” he said. “People from different cultural backgrounds and different religious beliefs came together and paid homage to those who came before us and those who’ve had untimely deaths.” Viajero continues this tradition every year with his friend Benjamin “Borish” Rojas.

Viajero has a day job as Art Director for Directv, and is constantly traveling back and forth to Puerto Rico. These travels, including trips to other places like as Cuba and West Africa, inspire his work. “I like to link moments in history with current imagery,” he told us. An example of this is Aguas de Libertad, a piece inspired by the abolitionist movement led by Ramón Emeterio Betances. “Before the child was baptized, Betances gave money to the parents, which they in turn used to buy the child’s freedom from his master. However, the child, once freed, was baptized minutes after. This action was later described as having the child receive las aguas de libertad.” The piece is a reconstruction of a photo Viajero took on his trip to Loiza.

Viajero is one of the artists collaborating on the Monument Art: Public Art Project in October. The project collaborates with local schools in the Bronx and El Barrio. “I’m excited about this project because the mural I did in El Barrio was an amazing experience. I worked with the kids in the area to help create an experience around the mural and not just a painting on a wall.”

Edgardo Larregui

In 1998, Edgardo Larregui made his mother’s marquesina an open studio called Coco de Oro. “I named it that because the conquistadors killed and extracted gold from the land. And the current colonizers consume and extract the gold from our minds,” Larregui said. Coco de Oro was a community platform where families of La Perla participated in workshops and cultural concepts. He is a contemporary of Radames “Juni” Figueroa, who participated in Coco de Oro.

In Puerto Rico, Larregui is helping beautify public spaces with La Maraña—a project which he founded with Cynthia Burgos and Sofía Unanue. The organization educates and helps communities revitalize unused, abandoned spaces.  

He travels off the island every couple of months. He’s currently working on a solo show titled Un Final Feliz which he will present from September 9th to October 9th at Boston’s el Villa Victoria Center For the Art.  “I will also be doing a studio installation in the community with the local kids.” Through his work, Larregui reflects issues that disturb him in society, while at the same time educating and inviting the community to participate.
This article was curated by María and Suset Laboy.