In the aftermath of Maria, Puerto Rican students create at MassArt

Katelyn Rios is one of four students who left Puerto Rico for MassArt four months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Katelyn Rios is one of four students who left Puerto Rico for MassArt four months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

In a plant that sprouts across Puerto Rico, student artist Katelyn Rios sees a symbol. On the island, the plant is known as a “morivivi.”

Its sensitive leaves fold inward to shield itself from harm. Eventually, it opens again.

Rios, 23, left Puerto Rico in early January, four months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. She is one of 10 Puerto Rican artists from the School of Visual Arts and Design in San Juan who were selected to spend the spring semester studying at Massachusetts College of Art and Design — making art, mourning losses, gathering strength. Like the morivivi, she says, Puerto Rico and its artists will recover.


“We’ve proven ourselves to ourselves. Nobody can tell me I can’t do anything,” said Rios, a sculptor. “I survived what I survived and even got accustomed to it. . . . I know how strong my friends and my family are. I know how strong Puerto Rico is.”

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MassArt is paying for all of the students’ expenses, including tuition, room, and board. In the application, the school asked for an essay and experience. No artwork was necessary, which was important since a few artists lost their work in the hurricane.

The students flew into Logan two weekends after the bomb cyclone clobbered Boston. Two days after their arrival Rios’s mom called joyfully: “Llego la luz!” she said. “The lights are back on!”

Her family’s home finally had power.

Saul Nava, an associate professor of Biology and Life Sciences and the students’s faculty adviser at MassArt, pushed for the school to sponsor the artists. The school is still fund-raising for supplies and winter attire for the students. Many had never seen snow before.


“It was bittersweet,” Nava said. “I’m so grateful that they’re here, I’m so grateful to help. I wish it was under different circumstances so that’s the bitter part, but it’s sweet that we’re able to offer some help. I wish we could help more.”

Sitting in one of MassArt’s residence halls one morning, several of the artists said they were thankful for the opportunity to focus on their work. They left Puerto Rico knowing they would return with a renewed energy. Nature heals itself. They hoped art will heal them.

“People were waiting for anything, either help from outside or help from ourselves, for the trees to come back, and for everything to be green again,” said Sabrina Sorondo Casado, 21, an industrial design major. “So many people left, so many students were given the opportunity like we were.

“I think the island is just waiting for us to come back much more mature, intelligent, and professional. . . . [W]e do want to go back and help rebuild what is left.”

Their school in San Juan shut down for two months after Maria. Rios remembers artists collecting fallen caoba or mahogany trees. An expensive wood she said was illegal to chop down, it was suddenly everywhere. Painting major Ashley Martinez Rivera, 21, picked up her paintbrush.


“Two days after the storm, I had to push myself forward,” Martinez Rivera said. “I had to do something because I thought it was the only thing I could do. We couldn’t really get out of our house anyway. After cleaning the glass and everything around, that’s what I was focusing on.”

‘I think the island is just waiting for us to come back much more mature, intelligent, and professional. . . . [W]e do want to go back and help rebuild what is left.’

Life was a line. Everyone waited hours to get water, food, and gas every single day for weeks.

Once their school opened, there was still no power or water.

Each person coped differently, Sorondo Casado said. She helped cook meals as a volunteer with chef José Andrés’s organization for nearly a month. It was a way to keep herself sane, bringing paella, sandwiches, and other meals to thousands of people around the island.

“Everyone became laborers those first few days,” Sorondo Casado said. “Even kids, all the community was helping. Once we cleared the streets and could move around it was a bit easier. I distracted myself working with a relief program because my house was OK and my family was OK.”

Tanisha Pacheco Rodriguez, 22, a painting major, said she lost her entire art portfolio to the storm.

Water damage and mold ruined years of work. Pacheco Rodriguez created black and white prints of the paintings and brought them to Boston as a reminder of what she was capable of producing.

She hadn’t painted in months.

Instead, she supported her family working long hours as a waitress because no one else in her household could go back to their jobs. It was a time of listening, commiserating, and feeding people what they could cook with power from a generator.

Since arriving in Boston, Pacheco Rodriguez has started producing a new body of work. It’s exhausting and incredibly satisfying, she said.

“To see how many artists joined together to create and to rebuild the community [in Puerto Rico], that’s what keeps me thinking. There’s a high possibility that when I go back home things are going to be slightly the same,” Pacheco Rodriguez said. “So what am I going to do as an artist?”

Rios already knows. Inspired by nature even when it isn’t beautiful, the sculptor plans to focus on ceramics this semester.

“I’m going to work on a piece that’s raw,” Rios said. “No color, I’m not going to glaze or do anything. I’m going to let the material react to pressure.”

Cristela Guerra can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.