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Street art and the fight to resist gentrification in Puerto Rico

Street art and the fight to resist gentrification in Puerto Rico

In Santurce, Puerto Rico, street art climbs the neighborhood walls jousting for the attention of those who frequent the neighborhood. For a tourist visiting Calle Loiza in the search of  a trendy cafe, the messages in the art might go unnoticed as they become mere backdrops for social media posts. 

In favor of visibility, the Santurce-based women’s collective, Colectivo Morivivi, utilizes memory and imagination in their murals to resist a colonial narrative as imposed by the oversight board and recent tax acts furthering gentrification and the mass displacement of Boricuas. 

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Community art educators and co-founders of Colectivo Morivivi, Sharon “Chachi’ González Colón and Raysa Raquel Rodriguez Garcia, explain the evolution of the collective, which grew out of their studio art’s education and transformed into a community centered team. 

“After our first mural we realized how powerful it was to do murals over studio art,” Chachi says. “When painting murals, you’re painting outdoors and people pass by and ask you questions, giving you their interpretations.” 

Encouraged by the response to their first public mural, the two realized their calling and began creating inclusive workshops and community murals projects. 

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“It’s a way to make art more accessible and break the cycle of elitism that is in the art community, and a way of making people recognize that there is beautiful art happening within our community and that it must be visible,” Chachi says.  

Without the dedication of individuals like Chachi and Raysa, the collective memory of Puerto Rico is at risk as the population of natives dwindles due to the austerity measures which sow gentrification and displacement. 

Following 2017’s hurricane Maria, the population of Puerto Rico declined by 11.8 percent, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. Subjected to a prolonged electricity outage, the grotesque mismanagement of FEMA aid and severe neglect by the Trump Administration, Puerto Ricans escaped to the U.S. as climate refugees seeking solace from the devastation. 

Painted in the aftermath of Maria, Colectivo Morivivi’s two part piece, “Ellos se van con el éxodo aunque no se quieren ir,” resides in Springfield, Massachusetts as two murals in conversation with one another. 

Detail from Colectivo Morivivi’s mural “Ellos se van con el éxodo aunque no se quieren ir,” in Springfield, Massachusetts. Courtesy: Colectivo Morivivi

In the first mural, four girls stand looking to the sky at an unseen airplane that has taken flight to the states. Swirling in the foam of the ocean reads the message: “Ellos se van con el éxodo aunque no se quieren ir.”

The message, although brief, reveals a tragic reckoning. Hurricane Maria forced the decision of departure, as a means of survival, upon thousands of people who desired to remain in their homeland. 

In the waters, a girl stands with a mirror held before her face. On the mirror, the events of May 1, 2018 unfold—the day where teachers, students and working class people protested against austerity measures by the U.S.-imposed oversight board, which propelled forward tuition increases, the shut down of public schools and pension cuts.

“People were very angry about all of the situation we were suffering because of the hurricane and all of the disarray,” Chachi says. “We didn’t have food, electricity or anything. We were fighting for basic needs that are essential and the government in that moment was very retaliative and that manifestation was very hard for us.”

According to Chachi, police responded to the protests with brutality, retaliating with tear gas and pepper spray. 

In the second mural, a woman and her child arrive at their new home in the states. From their window, a clothing line hangs with a flyer that reads ‘promesa’.

Detail from Colectivo Morivivi’s mural “Ellos se van con el éxodo aunque no se quieren ir,” in Springfield, Massachusetts. Courtesy: Colectivo Morivivi

“You can see a mother and a daughter, reading a letter and the daughter is taking care of some friends in the house,” Chachi says. “It’s like the girl is taking care of her future and the mother is remembering her past and accepting the new place.”

The dialogue between these two murals confronts onlookers with the reality of Puerto Ricans who fled to the U.S. as climate refugees. For thousands, the practise of acceptance is a pathway forward although it exists in contention to their desire to return home. 

For those who do return, home may look vastly different. 

Since the passing of Act 20 and 22 in 2012 (in 2019, Acts 20 and 22 were consolidated into the new Act 60), hoards of real estate developers, crypto currency investors and influencers alike have flocked to the island. Act 20 lowers the corporate tax rate for businesses paying 21 percent in the states down to 4 percent while offering full tax exemption on all dividends. Act 22 allows for individuals to pay 0 percent capital gain taxes as opposed to the 37 percent capital gain taxes of the states. 

Although heralded as the answer to Puerto Rico’s struggling economy, economists such as Raul Santiago-Bartolomei point to its downfalls.

Bartolomei of the Center for a New Economy, who studies gentrification in Puerto Rico, explains in layman’s terms how the tax incentives drive forward gentrification and drastically exacerbate racial segregation and wealth segregation. 

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Those living in San Juan, Vieques, Isabella, Rincon and Aguadilla have watched the expulsion of their neighbors due to the tax incentives leading to price increases and expediting the impending reality—Puerto Rico is no longer a livable place for Puerto Ricans. 

Compounding concerns over the displacement occurring as the result of gentrification, Bartolomei highlights how the popularly cited study on the benefits of the tax incentives and the boasting of creation of jobs is questionable in nature, as it was provided by those who benefited from the tax breaks themselves and is information unavailable to the public. 

“With this kind of study, it’s always important to have access to the data so we can replicate that analysis to verify that it was well done,” Bartolomei told journalist Bianca Graulau. “If there is no way to replicate that analysis, then we have to take the findings of any study commissioned by the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC) on faith.”

This faith comes in short change as Puerto Rican people have suffered due to the corruption of their own government, most recently the 2019 ousting of former Governor Ricardo Rosello, and the exploitation of the U.S. government which oversees all public policy via the oversight board. 

“It is in these past years of tax havens and inaccessible incentives for natives that have strengthened and upheld colonialism,” Alexandra-Marie Figueroa Miranda of Taller Salud, a feminist organization in Puerto Rico, told Time Magazine. 

Figueroa Miranda continues to say how the tax laws were “crafted behind closed doors to make Puerto Rico a paradise for those that barge in and can afford it, but a life-sentence for those of us who try to hold on to what we have left of our country.”

The image of a life sentence under colonialism is meditated upon in Colectivo Morivivi’s piece, ‘Colonialism is a Hurricane.’ In the piece a hurricane, anthropomorphized as a woman, blows winds over Puerto Ricans who float above the Puerto Rican resistance flag. 

“She wears the same crown that the Statue of Liberty wears,” Chachi says. “To represent colonialism looking over us at all times.”

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