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Photo Essay: Street Art Activism in San Juan

10 street art murals with a message in the Puerto Rican capital

Puerto Rico is going through tough times, with an economic crisis so debilitating it could precipitate a government shutdown by month's end. While politicians may be ineffective in their response, one reason to be hopeful is that artists—and street artists in particular—are more engaged than ever in addressing social problems. 

Two notable projects include Santurce Es Ley street art festival and the social engagement project Color Libre. Santurce Es Ley began a few years back as a spontaneous community art event, and has since grown into an annual, international festival that has helped rejuvenate the formerly depressed neighborhood. Color Libre is currently in progress. The five artists collaborating on a mural in the town of Hatillo describe it as a “transcultural exchange of ideas about the social and cultural backgrounds that unite [them].”

As well as contributing powerful commentary on the current crisis, street artists are also highlighting the historical factors that led to this moment. Here are 10 works of street art in Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan, that visitors must see.

1. Confrontation with police [header image, above]—Rio Piedras (Pueblo) barrio
In this mural in Rio Piedras, one of several San Juan districts with a concentration of street art, a confrontation with police is depicted. As on the U.S. mainland, police are a subject frequently found in Puerto Rican street art. The mural's proximity to the University of Puerto Rico isn't coincidental: The university is the site of frequent protests, particularly regarding the increasing cost of tuition. While in Rio Piedra, try to make time to visit. The belltower building, built in 1939, is particularly beautiful. The university's theater program (Teatro UPR) hosts performances here that are open to the public.

2. Christopher Columbus—Santurce

Schoolchildren on the U.S. mainland learn the chant: “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue...,” in which Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus is portrayed as an intrepid explorer who obediently found some gold “to bring back home as he'd been told.” Schoolchildren in Puerto Rico know the parts of the Columbus story that were left out of the rhyme, namely, the extermination of the indigenous Taínos. In this massive work in the Santurce neighborhood, artists from the collective El Basta help make the collateral damage of Columbus's “achievements” more visible.    

3. The Taínos—Rio Piedras

This work depicts the indigenous Taínos, who were described in great detail by the chronicler Ramon Pané, a friar from Catalonia who accompanied Columbus on his New World voyage. In his lengthy acounts, Pané related that Cazivaquel, a chief, had had a vision in which he saw "a clothed people who would [come to] rule them, and slay them." Which is exactly what happened. While in Rio Piedras, stop by Librería La Tertulia to pick up some books about Puerto Rican history. The bookstore, whch also has an on-site café, is a favorite among students and professors from the university, whose main campus is just across the street.

4. To allow yourself to be defeated by life—Avenida de Diego, Santurce 

This piece, on the same street as Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, depicts some of Puerto Rico's most iconic images: the garita (or sentry box) found on the capital's colonial-era forts; the Puerto Rican flag; the flamboyán tree; and the straw hat. It would be a feel-good landscape, except the ominous skull transforms the art into a cautionary message. That message is reinforced by the quote beneath, drawn from the work of early 20th-century Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, which translates as: "To allow yourself to be defeated by life is worse than to allow yourself to be defeated by death."

5. Head Start—Calle Ernesto Cerra, Santurce 

This mural on Calle Ernesto Cerra is one of many found on this street and in the Santurce neighborhood of Trastalleres; most of them were painted during the Santurce Es Ley street art festival. Showing Puerto Rican children and the island's flag, it's particularly poignant because it was painted on the face of a Head Start center. Head Start, a federally funded pre-school education program, only reaches 27% of eligible kids in Puerto Rico. The current fiscal crisis is likely to reduce that percentage further. Rightly or wrongly, officials widely view tourism as the most promising industry to help the island recover from its economic woes.

6. Ismael Rivera —Santurce 

Ismael Rivera, or Maelo, as he was affectionately nicknamed, was born in Santurce in 1931 and died there 55 years later, so it's fitting this tribute was painted in the neighborhood where he spent most of his life. The famed salsa composer and singer's songs are known far and wide, from New York's Spanish Harlem to, of course, his hometown. There are several other spots where tribute is paid to Maelo, including Plaza de los Salseros, a square in Santurce where a bust of Rivera can be found, as well as in the Villa Palmeras cemetery, where he is buried.

7. Roberto Clemente —Santurce

Puerto Rican celebrities tend to be larger than life and more accessible to the general public than on the U.S. mainland. Perhaps that's due to the island's size. In death, these beloved celebrities often take on near mythical status, immortalized for posterity in songs, stories, and even street art. Such is the case for baseball player Roberto Clemente, who was killed in a plane crash in 1972 while on a humanitarian mission to aid earthquake victims in Nicaragua. More than 40 years after his death, he remains a deeply admired sports star. This mural is almost hidden by tree branches, and you have to cross a littered gravel lot to reach it.

8. Oscar López Rivera—Avenida Fernández Juncos, Santurce 

A modern-day folk hero for many Puerto Ricans, Oscar López Rivera advocates independence for Puerto Rico, which is currently a U.S. commonwealth. López Rivera is also a political prisoner who has been held in a federal prison on the U.S. mainland since 1981; he is considered one of the longest held political prisoners in history. Frequent protests and other actions, including self-imposed, symbolic house arrests, are held on the island to call for his release. López Rivera is also the subject of numerous pieces of street art, including this one on Avenida Fernández Juncos in San Juan.

9. Why allow them to dilute our identity—Rio Piedras 

You find work by Moriviví, an all-female collective of street artists, all over San Juan, as well as on Culebra, one of Puerto Rico's little sister islands. The images and themes typically seen in their work address women's treatment—especially Afro-Latin women's treatment—by society at large, a subject which has recently made their work the target of vandalism and censorship. This piece, a large-scale work in an alley in Rio Piedras, is accompanied by the question: “Why allow them to dilute our identity?” The collective participates in numerous public works projects. For example, they've been commissioned by the Department of Transportation to paint inside a metro station, and by a women's rights NGO to paint a mural for International Day for the Elimination of Violence aginst Women.

10. Taller Alacrán—Santurce 

This colorful mural, created during a past iteration of the Santurce Es Ley street art festival, is a scene-stealer, despite all the surrounding pieces clamoring for the viewer's attention. It references Taller Alacrán (Scorpion Studio), which was founded by Carmelo Sobrino and Antonio Martorell with the purpose of teaching graphic arts to young people. The island has a strong graphic arts history, and while there have been many such studios, especially in the latter part of the 20th century, artists and scholars view Alacrán as having been one of the most important and politically conscious ones.

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