On a warm balmy night in Old San Juan, I strolled the comfortably narrow and cobbled streets while I smoked a local hand-rolled cigar. I ambled along casually taking in the sights and sounds of a vibrant city. One thing that stands out to me now is just how colorful the city is. The old historic homes and shopfronts are painted brightly with soft pastel hues. Murals adorn city walls expressing the hopes and dreams of the people within.
I turned the corner down a narrow alleyway and saw the words Echa Pa’lante! splashed across a brick façade. These words, seeming almost violently flung against the surface, are painted in the traditional red, white, and blue of the Puerto Rican flag. I would come to find out later that these words are somewhat of a rallying cry for the recovery of the Puerto Rican people. The words translate literally as moving forward. This mantra expresses the tenacious attitude and resilience of the Puerto Ricans in the face of Hurricane Maria. I could see this strength and courage in nearly every person I encountered.
Many of the murals and graffiti in old San Juan depict the range of emotions felt by the community. It was invigorating to see art being used in the public realm as a form of protest, activism, encouragement, and engagement. Art has a unique way of bringing people together and visualizing the intangible emotion of a community. Art can empower people and draw attention to important issues. If utilized well, art helps bring to life the collective vision of a community.
While attending a workshop on green infrastructure, I met an inspiring woman named Sonia Villaverde. She really personified the power of art. Sonia is an educator, environmental activist, and a photographer. These three skills merged to form her non-government organization called LOLA Costanera. The objective of LOLA Costanera is to engage and educate the youth of Puerto Rico through the medium of art. Sonia and her volunteers travel across the island to teach children the environmental values of the island. She advocates for the preservation of the environmental and historical heritage for the enjoyment of all Puerto Rican communities, visitors, and future generations. LOLA Costanera is nourished by the voluntary work of professionals in the arts, as well as in the sciences. These include photographers, graphic artists, writers, scientists, historians, university professors, students and families, among others.
Sonia reminded me that the brilliant green engineering strategies being presented were in fact useless without the appropriate buy-in and capacity for the community to sustain them in the long term. Sonia hopes her work will build the human capital necessary to continue carrying green infrastructure projects forward. By educating and engaging the youth, she is providing positive values and creating a culture for the future generations to care for the environment and live harmoniously with nature.
Sonia’s workshops are also fun! She opened her Facebook and showed me photos taken from past events. I saw finger paintings of long white stretches of sandy beaches along with the rolling green limestone hills. Visible were sidewalks chalked with a polychrome of coral heads and lazy green sea turtles. The smiles on the children’s faces say it all. Their expressions of hope and pride for their community is tangible.
Echa Pa’lante! Resilience strategies take unexpected forms. As Puerto Rico moves forward with recovery efforts, the stories of the people’s pain and hope are made visible to the world through artistic expression.