Art & Design

This Photo Series Spotlights the Queer Millennial Scene in Post-María Puerto Rico

"When you're struggling to find water and a place to charge your phone every day, putting together a sickening look isn't exactly top priority."

When Hurricane María ravaged the Caribbean, it destroyed electrical grids, homes, agriculture, and anything else in its path. But the lasting effects are a complex kind of catastrophe: It’s been a month since the storm passed, and the damage continues.

Puerto Rican photographer Anthony Velázquez is exploring a less-considered aspect: The ramifications for the millennial queer community of San Juan.

He didn’t have a full series in mind when he posed Anoma Lía, a San Juan drag queen, in a shower a few weeks ago. Aldrin Manuel Cañals saw the photos and wanted his own, and so did Victoria Holiday, another local queen. All of them missed dressing up; when you’re struggling to find water and a place to charge your phone every day, putting together a sickening look isn’t exactly top priority.

The project snowballed from there, and grew to include more drag performers, artists, students, and other members of the San Juan queer scene. The background elements intentionally reflect the times: A propane tank to power gas stoves closed businesses with storm shutters still in place, and a refrigerator that’s empty for lack of electricity, but also reflects the frightening reality of food shortages on the island.

With every shoot, Velázquez conducted an interview, asking the subject questions about how María has changed their life.

“Most people are saying that the hurricane has shaken up all the plans that they had,” he says. “It’s made them prioritize, and they really can’t achieve their immediate goals that they had at the moment, and they’re trying to reorganize and see how they will make ends meet, little by little. They’re not thinking about their long-term plans. They’re just thinking of surviving day to day.”

He’s noticed some of the community has toned down their queerness, maybe as a means of precaution. In searching for supplies or electricity to charge devices, they’re visiting unfamiliar places, making queer self-expression more precarious. (“It was like they didn’t feel safe,” he says).

The day he photographed Cañals—when Cañals wasn’t wearing makeup, but donned high-waisted pants—they felt the “weird looks” intensely.

“I don’t know if [people outside the community] just think it’s not necessary for people to be fashionable or trendy or weird, or they think I do it because I want to impress them,” he says. “But I’m just doing it because this is how I feel comfortable… I wasn’t wearing the gold pants because I was trying to impress everybody. These are the pants that were clean, and I wear them all the time. When we dress up, it’s because we feel more comfortable; we do it for fun.”

Communication issues were a hurdle, too. More cell towers have been restored just recently, but there are still areas on the island with absolutely no reception. Outside the metro area especially, things are generally more difficult, he notes.

“We’re here in San Juan, and we really are very privileged [in that] I can go charge my camera batteries. I have to do it two days before, but I have that privilege that I can just go to the mall and charge my things, and yeah, I might not have cell reception but I’ll just stop at the Burger King,” he says. “To us, now, in Puerto Rico, that’s privilege—just being able to do that. That’s a huge privilege that other areas on the island don’t have. In all of this, the people represented in the series, we’ve been a little more fortunate because we’ve had more access to these things, at least quicker.”

After the interview, Velázquez was headed to Aguadilla, the northwestern coastal town he’s from. His family was expecting to receive a generator from his sister, who lives in the states. Water service was restored to their neighborhood just last week, but they were still without electricity.

Of the 12 subjects featured, five have made the difficult decision to leave Puerto Rico, Velázquez says. That choice is inherently personal, and the reasons vary—but one major factor behind the exodus of Puerto Ricans is undeniably economic strife. In August, unemployment clocked in last at 10 percent; today, with so many businesses still unable to open, it’s fair to assume that number has risen drastically. Velázquez says he’s considering relocating, too.

“I graduated in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics and Communication. I graduated with a 3.95, the highest grade of my department, and I can’t find a job anywhere,” he says.

The Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York estimates that 14 percent of the Puerto Rican population will relocate by 2019. For San Juan’s young queer scene, the impact could be significant.

“I know there’s still a lot of people here who aren’t leaving and that can maintain it,” Velázquez says. “But it’s a sad reality, and we took a long time to build [this community]. Maybe four, five years, and even people before us were building it, but us? It took us a long time to find these places we felt comfortable in, people we felt comfortable dressing up around. We put work into this scene.”

Aldrin Manuel Cañals, 23
The change my life has had after the hurricane is undeniable. What has affected me the most is having to adapt to the limitations of my resources to work on my artistic thread. It’s frustrating not being able to externalize how I feel because it’s an exercise I did on the daily before the disaster and it’s a vital part of my artistic development.”

Galaxia Venus
“Mainly I feel confused because I don’t know what the future has in store for Puerto Rico. I feel saddened because I’ll be leaving shortly and I have to leave my family knowing that the situation in Puerto Rico is not a simple one. My plan truly is to help my family while I’m outside Puerto Rico because I know the situation here is not well and it’s a bit complicated.”

Ramdie Bermudez, 23
“I took the decision to leave the island because I looked at my reality and there are not many opportunities available. My apartments roof was blown off and I lost my job. I was affected both emotionally and economically. I feel I’ll be able to take advantage of a new context and of being exposed to new experiences.”

Anoma Lía, 22
“My life post-María has become a certain kind of routine. I wake up and the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘What will eat for breakfast, and what for dinner?’ The second is, ‘Where will I charge my phone and my computer?’ And lastly, ‘Do I have money to go out tonight?’ These are the questions that dictate my daily plans.”

Michael J. Sanchez, 20
“The Boricuas humanistic integrity came out for a stroll during these difficult times. Neighbors became childhood friends, helping each other, and even fooling around to pass the time. During all this I’ve been reminded that material things are nothing.”

Pó, 23
“I went to Naranjito for a week and the surroundings were completely destroyed. I went to my girlfriend’s house; she lives in the upper part of Narajito, where you can see the lake. That lake is usually green, very high, and there are many trees around it. Usually, to see the lake from the house you’d have to get up on the roof and I got to the house and you couldn’t even see a single tree. The lake was drying up and was full of zinc plates on the sides due to the houses that were taken by the river.”

Victoria Holiday, 26
“Living through María is not only feeling the 200 mph winds, nor the imminent thought that everything you know outside the four walls that protect you is lost. It’s the days that follow, days that feel infinite, days that feed the thought. It’s nights in complete darkness in the heat, where you feel the bites, but can’t see the mosquitoes.”

Ana Macho, 19
“I don’t like when people say that ‘we’ve lost a lot of commodities;’ the reality is that we have lost a lot of necessities. And I feel we Puerto Ricans are used to being constantly denied basic things and we have reached the point where we accept that they don’t even provide us with water, electricity, nor essential services.”

Natalia de la Cruz, 22
“I’ve learned that solidarity is the best policy. It was devastating to see the university initially, but at the same time considering the fact that I saw so many people putting in the work and showing up for their community it made me very hopeful and after we finished the four whole days, the way it looked made me think that we are going to be ok at some point if we continue to put in that community effort.”

Oli Warmer, 29
“When we were flying back here, we came back with six suitcases full of supplies to bring to the other towns in the island. It was really stressful because the airline wasn’t allowing us, even when we showed them that we had permission. There was this family next to us asking us where we were going, and we said ‘Puerto Rico.’ They asked ‘For vacation?’ and we explained there was just a giant hurricane. ‘Did you not hear about that?’ We are bringing supplies cause no one has supplies, water, or electricity. At the end, they said ‘have a good time’ like we were still going on vacation and it was very surreal how little people know or choose to know about the situation in the U.S.”

Roma Riviera, 22
“I feel very confused because the future has always been uncertain for us artists, especially those who don’t have support from our families. This uncertainty grew even more with María’s arrival and I’ve had to focus on what I want for my future, and if I really want to dedicate myself to the arts, which route I want to take.”

Luis Gabriél Sanabria, 24
“All of my plans regarding what I wanted to develop have changed, not only artistically, but also on a personal level. What has changed the most is how I plan my next move, since I wake up, until I go to bed.”

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