On a Saturday in late September, the air was stagnant inside a room of Arlington Street Church. People started to sweat; the crisp coolness of fall had yet to begin.
A woman in white opens the evening with prayers to the four directions and to Mother Earth and Grandmother Moon. She later carries in a small coffin draped in the Puerto Rican flag.
"Part of the prayer was to crate a container where people felt held," says Luana Morales, an ancestral healing arts practitioner. "A vessel where people felt safe and whatever came through was going to be supported."
On the outskirts of the crowd, energy workers from Morales' group Seeds of Our Ancestors were all dressed in white and present to assist, if needed.
The church gallery transformed into a space to process grief. Everyone in the room was invited to confront and share in the mourning, loss, and rage that arose following the devastation of 2017's Hurricane Maria.
The night was a collaborative effort by a group of women and nonbinary Puerto Rican diaspora artists. It was the brainchild of Yara Liceaga-Rojas, a queer Afro-Caribbean Puerto Rican poet/writer, performer and educator, and funded by a Live Arts Boston grant from the Boston Foundation. Liceaga-Rojas titled the evening, “El despojo: ¿Alguien ha/Has Anyone?” (It's happening for the second time on Saturday, Oct. 19 at the BCA's Mills Gallery.)
Puerto Rican artists created illustrations that were projected on the ceiling of the space. One resembled a cyclone. We were told to time travel together to Puerto Rico during and after the storm.
At one point, the only light in the room was a lantern. People who lived through this devastation both on the island and in the mainland used ritual, ceremonial-like performances, audio-visual works, music, participatory poetry, and art installations, to unpack and confront their trauma.
The meaning of the title, "El despojo," is two-fold. Liceaga-Rojas defines a despojo as "a spiritual and energetic ritual, usually related to water and herbs." Its intent is to provide a sense of comfort, to heal. Yet, it is also the residue what’s left after this process of cleansing, that heaviness of release, catharsis, or dispossession.
"It's a bit like we're getting out our guts and showing them," Liceaga-Rojas said. "'Like look, here are our guts.' And it's terrible and it's sad, but the most beautiful part has been seeing the reactions of those from the United States. People of different backgrounds, generations, and social statuses have all said, 'Thank you for including me and allowing me to be in this space.' "
Liceaga-Rojas, who was recently chosen as one of the Boston Foundation's Brother Thomas Fellows, began conceptualizing "El despojo" in December of 2018 while she was conducting an after-school writing workshop with teens that live in the predominantly Puerto Rican South End community development, Villa Victoria. Three young girls began to open up about their life during and after Maria.
They told her what they witnessed, the massive amounts of destruction, of loss, and leaving home to live in hotels. She quickly realized Puerto Ricans in the diaspora, and Puerto Ricans on the island during and after Maria were living parallel traumas.
"And I said, 'My God, we have to do work with these young women who went through something so traumatic,' " Liceaga-Rojas said. "And that made me think of our trauma, which are very distinct. It's an immense amount of pain, but they are two completely different experiences."
The second half of the title refers to the questions that so many in the Puerto Rican diaspora were left with in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The words “alguien ha” or "has anyone?" This was the question asked on social media. Has anyone heard from my mother? Has anyone seen my aunts who lived deep in the mountains? Has anyone seen my loved ones?
"What was the most devastating was number one, not knowing where your family was, not knowing anything, and starting to see the circle of dead closing, closing in," Liceaga-Rojas remembered. "Initially, it was a random person and then suddenly on Facebook you’d go, ‘Oh damn,’ and realize it's a friend or familiar person that passed.”
Liceaga-Rojas, who had been living in Massachusetts since 2016, didn’t hear from her own family, including her daughter, for days after Hurricane Maria. It’s with this panic, this uncertainty that a lyric coloratura soprano, who goes by Karish, begins her portion of the evening. She sings while playing guitar. She then gets up, her voice emotional and pretends to take a phone call.
She gets frantic as someone tells her that she has to leave her house immediately; she must take everything and evacuate right away. As the room watched, the woman put water bottles in a bag, but one-by-one they fall out.
More than 4,000 people lost their lives in Hurricane Maria. It also left many without access to proper health care, food, power or water. Thousands were displaced, forced to live in hotel rooms on the mainland, their lives and homes destroyed.
Morales asked people to touch a care package similar to those sent right after Maria, to imagine that the supplies had reached its destination. She handed out juniper leaves dipped in spirit water to lift some of life's burdens.
"I loved the way that all of our pieces inhaled and exhaled into each other," Morales said. "There were elements that opened us up and other elements that grounded us and others that invited us to grieve and others that invited us to sing."
Shey Rivera, a Puerto Rican interdisciplinary artist based out of Providence, looked out at the crowd of people. In their hand, Rivera held a long black piece of fine mesh fabric. They draped it across the laps of strangers and asked them to slowly rip it.
This was their trauma, Rivera told the audience. Please help heal it.
"We do a lot of damage to ourselves when we remain isolated and feel angry," said Rivera in a recent phone interview. "I wanted to just make a space of vulnerability and use this fabric to connect us all. I wanted to it to be a participatory thing. Like I wanted people to touch it and tear it and everyone hear the sound of it and everyone engaged in that ritual of just letting it go together."
At the end of the evening, the audience stood in a circle. They were handed a long, intricately painted scroll canvas covered with illustrations. Created by the political theater troupe AgitArte, the scroll told the history of Puerto Rico, beginning with the Taino. It delved into colonization, gentrification, corruption, and showed people rising up and speaking out.
Liceaga-Rojas dream's of bringing this evening to Puerto Rico; to work with artists and find new ways to heal and address this trauma together.
"I would bring the skeleton," she says, "but what are the muscles it needs? The nervous system? The blood stream? How will it breath there?"