Musicians are finding inspiration in faulty refrigerators and lines for gas after Hurricane Maria.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico —
O n Christmas Eve, receptionist Kala Ronda planned to cook rice and beans for her husband and three kids.
“But when I came home, we didn’t have water running,” said Ronda, 36, who lives in San Juan’s Las Lomas neighborhood. This was after suffering through three months without power before it finally returned in early December.
There’s a song for that.
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In “Mi Navidad No Se Apaga,” which in English means “My Christmas Won’t Go Out,” written by Grammy-nominated salsa singer Victor Manuelle, the Spanish lyrics translate to:
“This Christmas in my Puerto Rico is going to be great.
“And if we don’t get electricity, we’ll light a candle.
“And if there’s no ‘pasteles’ [meat pies] or rice and beans for dinner
“We’ll eat Spam on Christmas Eve.”
Ronda said she didn’t serve Spam; she bought fried chicken.
Hurricane Maria hit in late September, and its devastating effects have permeated the holiday season in Puerto Rico.
The storm leveled thousands of homes, felled trees, blocked roads, knocked out communications and wrecked the electrical grid. Now, as recovery plods along, famous and amateur musicians have used the unique circumstances as inspiration, creating songs that resonate with the island’s weary citizens.
Turn on the radio, and you might hear Joseph Fonseca’s rollicking merengue song asking the Three Kings for a new power generator. In Puerto Rico, Jan. 6 is Three Kings Day, or Epiphany, celebrated with parades and presents.
“And when I turn it on, it shouldn’t sound like this: Trrrrrrrrrr,” he sings in “La Planta Nueva,” or “The New Generator,” which has gotten more than 300,000 views on YouTube.
“When I’m deep in sleep to rest for work, I jump, and I get up, and I think I’m dreaming, but nothing has happened,” he adds. “It’s just that the fuel is finished.”
Fonseca said he was inspired by the loud throttle of the three generators he used to power through a 45-day blackout at home in Caguas, south of San Juan. He had solar panels, too, but Hurricane Maria blew them off his roof.
In late December, Gov. Ricardo Rossello announced that electricity had been restored to only 55 percent of the island’s residents who could receive it. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the full grid restoration will take until February or March at the earliest.
“This song is not a critique of the system,” Fonseca said. “It’s a way to bring some joy to people.”
Fonseca performed his song at a corporate holiday party in San Juan’s Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in mid-December. Soft light illuminated palm trees outside, and bellboys in white polo shirts and pants opened doors for guests in elegant evening gowns and suits. A 15-person live band backed Fonseca, as couples rocked on the dance floor.
One guest was Luis, 46, a manager at a beverage company who asked to be identified only by first name for privacy. He said Fonseca’s song captured his routine with generators after more than 80 days without power in his San Juan home.
“Every 20 hours, we have to change the oils,” he said. “One already broke down, so I’m working with my second one.”
Another merengue song, by the Grammy-winning Grupo Manía, is “Navidad Con Vela,” or “Christmas With a Candle.” “We already ran out of ice. We emptied the fridge. We have two iguanas left. Sammy will cook them outside,” the song goes. Instead of lights, the Christmas tree will have candles, “and if the tree burns, we’ll just call FEMA.”
In “La Fila De La Gasolina,” or “The Gasoline Line,” the group Algareplena sings of the hours that Puerto Ricans had to wait for gas in the days after the hurricane hit. Rapper PJ Sin Suela, who contributed to Manuelle’s “Mi Navidad No Se Apaga,” wrote a ballad immediately after the storm and called it “Ave Maria.” Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote “Almost Like Praying” as a call to help the island, and he is soliciting funds to pay for thousands of donated toys.
The island has a history of packaging the news in music, said Pepe Flores, a Puerto Rican musicologist based in New York. A few years ago, he heard a song about the territory’s outbreak of the chikungunya virus.
“And the person was singing, ‘I’m in bed, crippled, I can’t party because of the chikungunya,’ “ Flores said. As more songs emerge from Hurricane Maria, he added, “Twenty, 30 years from now, another generation is going to hear this music, and they’re going to know that something very bad happened in Puerto Rico.”
Ronda, the receptionist, said music helped her laugh about her situation. Her son was sickened by floodwaters during the hurricane. Without power, she couldn’t run fans to keep mosquitoes at bay, and she had to wash her family’s clothes by hand. A few weeks ago, Ronda set her tribulations to a Spanish version of “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” but instead of “you,” it’s “luz,” the word for light.
Ronda, a church choir veteran, recorded a version of the song in her car featuring her kids and friends.
Puerto Rico’s holiday season stretches through January, with Saturday’s Three Kings Day leading into eight more days of celebration, followed by a musical festival on San Juan’s San Sebastian Street from Jan. 17 to 21.
“We thought that they were going to cancel the festival because of the hurricane,” Ronda said. “But no, we want to celebrate that we are still here.”
The music has also connected to Puerto Ricans living in the diaspora.
Marangeli Mejia Rabell left the island in 1988 and produces Latin music out of Philadelphia. She said she had planned to make her first trip to Puerto Rico in five years this Christmas to visit her sister in San Juan. Then the storm hit. Her sister brought her daughter and baby granddaughter to Philadelphia instead. They made a Puerto Rican Christmas on the mainland, with rice and beans, pasteles and the holiday drink known as coquito — and played “Mi Navidad No Se Apaga.”
“My sister was told she won’t have electricity until April,” Mejia said. The song makes them laugh — “and it opens a door for her to tell me her story.”