Puerto Rico’s landscape of mountains, waterfalls, thick forests and some of the world’s best stretches of sand has weathered Spanish conquest, centuries of land development, US Navy bombing practice and interminable storms. But Hurricane Maria was unlike anything before. It killed an estimated 3,000 people and caused an estimated $43 billion of damage. The US government’s response was criticized as inept and for turning a natural disaster into a man-made catastrophe, from which Puerto Rico still struggles to extricate itself.
In January 2019, the Broadway sensation Hamilton came to Puerto Rico. Bringing this hip-hop-inspired musical about the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton to the island was part homecoming: the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is of Puerto Rican descent. But the 24-show run also became a fundraising and tourist-enticing endeavor and a declaration of support for the island that was pulverized in September 2017 by Hurricane Maria, the strongest to hit the island in 89 years.
“We hope that our #HamiltonPR run serves as a reminder to the rest of the world that Puerto Rico is open and ready for business,” tweeted the Hamilton team.
The play’s storyline also had a cathartic role for the Puerto Rican audience. When Hamilton, played by Miranda, becomes enmeshed in a political scandal, he sings about being “in the eye of a hurricane.” He remembers the storm that destroyed his childhood Caribbean island, but which didn’t prevent him setting out to reinvent himself. For those watching, the performance became about the island’s trauma after the disaster and its ability overcome everything and rebound.
In many ways, it has. A stunning sense of community and resilience saw locals support each other through long months without power and water. After 11 months in the dark for some citizens, most of the power grid is now back in place. A popular phrase that has become the island’s unofficial motto, plastered on buildings or used in press releases and speeches, is “Puerto Rico se levanta”— “Puerto Rico is rising.” Indeed, many businesses and tourist resorts responded to the damage as a chance to renovate and revamp. Now, they are advertising their new environs to entice back the flocks of tourists who have long sought the island’s paradisiacal beaches and cultural vibrancy steeped in the history of Spanish and American influences.
At the same time, visitors can see the recovery is incomplete, perhaps even hollow in places. Blue tarps still act as makeshift roofs. Away from the capital, rural areas lag behind in recovery, compounding the miseries of poorer residents that existed before the storm. People remain deeply anxious about another climate-induced disaster hitting. “The whole island is living with PTSD,” a woman told the charity Oxfam.
Puerto Rico’s current struggles sit alongside a tempestuous past that brims with cannon fire and colonization, repression and revolt, celebration and setback. Such tensions are compounded by ideological rifts over how America relates to the island, which has been a US territory since 1898. But by the end of the premiere performance in San Juan, the island’s capital, it didn’t matter that the production was about one of the founding fathers. It had become the island’s own song of resilience. When Miranda reached into the breast of his Hamilton costume and jerked out a giant Puerto Rican flag, the audience erupted. Puerto Rico se levanta.