Santurce Es Ley, Puerto Rico’s Massive Annual Arts Fest, Might Be Coming to an End

Lead Photo: Photo by Steph Segarra
Photo by Steph Segarra
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The sixth annual edition of Santurce es Ley, Puerto Rico’s urban art and music festival, starts today. Last year more than 10,000 came to Calle Cerra daily; this go around, that number will likely be greater. But founder Alexis Bousquet has some startling news: This could be the event’s final year. It’s not for waning attendance, obviously. And Bousquet actually has the artists in mind here.

“What we’re trying to do behind the whole project is build an urban art museum…We’re trying to actually create an infinite loop…for the artists,” he says. “We have a lot of tourists that come to Calle Cerra, and they take a lot of pictures and they leave. They don’t leave any money for the artists; they don’t buy any articles.”

Artists will work in the “laboratory” for three months, Bousquet says, and at the end of each period there will be an exhibit.

Mural by The Stencil Network
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Let’s not panic about SEL proper, though. Just because the fest as we know it may end doesn’t mean Bousquet won’t be helming something similar elsewhere. Bringing the concept to stateside Puerto Rico communities — namely Chicago — is something he’s strongly considering. “Chicago has murals; it has Puerto Rican murals, but it has late 70s and 80s murals, and some are really distant from the reality of Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico,” he says. “Some are really beautiful, but they still have a coqui frog and a Puerto Rican flag.”

While iconic, those images aren’t very timely reflections of reality of life on the island today. What’s showcased this year in Santurce, though, definitely is.

A slew of native artists like Alex Diaz, Carlitos Skills, Fisu, and The Stencil Network are also featured. Bousquet says what makes this a singular year is the driving message of all the work commissioned.

Recap #2 | SANTURCE ES LEYRecap del día de ayer y hoy. Seguimos. #santurceesley6 #sel6@speartorres @alexis_diaz @piedeamigo15 @cloquellart

Posted by Santurce es Ley on Saturday, March 5, 2016

“The whole crisis, the monetary crisis in Puerto Rico, has given the festival a more meaningful [angle with] what the artists are trying to say,” he explains.

Unemployment was most recently clocked at 12.2 percent by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the rut of a more than $70 billion debt certainly doesn’t help. There are 35,400 taxpayers who still haven’t received returns from last year.

Bousquet says this year’s artworks not only reflect the economic disaster, but issues like climate change, too. For one, there’s an image of a boy carrying an iceberg in his backpack depicted on a water tower by Australian artist Fintan Magee.

Mural by Fintan Magee
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Really, this could be the best selection of artwork yet. There’s an increased focus on works beyond murals: a giant 25-foot troglodyte made of recycled wood, courtesy of Danish artist Thomas Dambo, as the fest’s literal centerpiece, and local collective Poncili Creacion is rolling out an installation and performance piece. There’s also a rooftop work by French duo Ella and Pitr that’s really breathtaking. The pair’s painted mother and child, both in fetal position, is striking both visually and in scale. They already hold the world record for the largest mural in the world; now Puerto Rico boasts the biggest in the Caribbean.

Despite the island’s inescapable woes, the independent arts scene is thriving. There’s no shortage of important subject matter, of course, but existing galleries are going strong, and new ones are popping up regularly, especially in Santurce. Throw local music into the mix — which is similarly booming — and the general outlook for independent culture is overwhelmingly positive.

For the second year in a row, the sounds of Santurce es Ley were curated by the production crew Mental Intensivo, with Jorge Ramos and Raymond Rivera at the helm. It’s the first time the fest has involved music from outside Puerto Rico; two of those newcomers are Great Dane from LA and New York City’s Juan MacLean. Where their hand-picking truly shines, though, is the platter of Puerto Rican bands they’ve arranged.

Este próximo sábado 12 de marzo en #santurceesley6, se presentará por primera vez en Puerto Rico, The Juan MacLean, pionero de la escena electronica vanguardista de Nueva York. #santurceesley6 #sel6

Posted by Santurce es Ley on Thursday, March 10, 2016

They were picked not for crowd clout, but for their hard work. These are the up-and-comers on a “trajectory,” says Rivera, who’s been a player and fan in Puerto Rico’s music scene since the 90s.

Everyone selected is truly logrando. Macha Colón y Los Okapi, a blissfully eccentric pop troupe, just released a long-awaited album. Psych rock act Fantasmes are slated to play Levitation in Austin next month, and have a flexi disc in the works, adding to a growing catalog. Burger and Wiener Records jointly delivered a cassette of Reanimadores‘ garage-punk jams early this year. International Dub Ambassadors have been making strides in their plot to take over the world; they toured the States last year and regularly play alongside visiting reggae greats all over Puerto Rico. And then there’s hip-hop artist Audri Nix, a hometown heroine and Remezcla favorite.

Additionally, some beloved Puerto Ricans living outside the island will return: Prettiest Eyes, a garage-psych-synth combo based in LA, and the dreamy electronic group Balún now living in NYC.

Of course, there had to be salsa. The residents of Calle Cerra, who Rivera notes are the ones really metiendo mano at SEL, gave their input. Storied Puerto Rican salsa group Orquesta Zodiac was his response.

If, in the coming years, the festival does assume a new form, or if Bousquet takes on a totally different project, Rivera says he’ll surely be on board.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Bousquet says. “We’re trying to expand or we’ll see it break in our hands. We don’t know.”

No matter the outcome, this sixth Santurce is Ley is another historic addition to contemporary Puerto Rican culture. No te lo pierdes.

Santurce es Ley takes place March 11, 12, and 13, 2016.