Ten days or so after Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico last September, Casa Pueblo—a solar-powered, self-sufficient environmental center in the mountainous municipality of Ajuntas—got in touch with the San Juan theater company Y No Había Luz. With the electrical grid destroyed, the entire island was in survival mode, focused on clearing debris and securing food and clean water. Casa Pueblo, one of the few sites anywhere with electricity, had become a hub of activity. Everything is crazy here, they told the group. We need cultural activities for the kids, for everyone. Can you come?
“We said YES,” remembers company cofounder Yari Helfeld. “Finally, we thought, we can help.” For the next three or more months, the company crisscrossed the island, teaming up with community kitchens and other ad hoc groups to stage street theater, lead workshops, and develop new work. Sing-along plena workshops guided people struggling to process and express what they’d lost in the storm. In Orocovis, Helfeld’s hometown, a huge mango tree that had been felled by the hurricane became the inspiration for a new cantastoria show, El Centinela de Mangó (The Mango Sentinel), that they took on tour to shelters, schools, and hospitals. Another piece, Diego el Ciego (Diego the Blind) urged the audience to grapple honestly with the challenges of Puerto Rican life. “People keep sewing their eyes together to stop seeing things like the Jones Act and overconsumption,” says ensemble member Carlos Torres Lopez. “If we don’t open our eyes we are blind, and we can’t do anything to help Puerto Rico.”
The artists in Y No Había Luz don’t shy away from big themes, and their work is often larger than life, encompassing 20-foot trees made of paper that grow and shrink; prosthetic hands and feet stretched to grotesque proportions; and oversize puppet heads that cry “rivers” of gauze tears. But after Hurricane Maria they, and artists all over Puerto Rico, found their work taking on new and urgent meaning. While the company was touring the municipalities, back in San Juan a small gallery show it had installed in August was resonating with visitors, now forced to experience the exhibit by flashlight, in an unexpectedly somber key.
Circo de la Ausencia (Circus of Absence) is an exhibit of 13 toy-theater scenes and one larger piece that uses circus characters to comment on the sociopolitics of contemporary Puerto Rico: colonialism, religion, food scarcity, the crisis of mental health. In one, a tightrope walker carrying a suitcase balances above a “sea” filled with crocodiles, speaking to the conundrum of migration—should I stay or should I go?—that many Puerto Ricans face, and which has only intensified since the disaster. It’s called Cruzando el charco, or Crossing the Puddle—Puerto Rican slang for travel to the mainland. In another, a straitjacketed magician struggles to escape from a shipping container. It’s a critique of the Jones Act, the 1920 maritime law that holds that only ships flying U.S. flags can deliver cargo to Puerto Rico’s ports, and which was lifted temporarily in the wake of the hurricane in an arguably pointless effort to facilitate the delivery of aid.
“Most of the pieces have deeper meaning now,” says Torres Lopez, gesturing to one featuring the figure of a contortionist that’s meant as an indictment of consumer culture. “After the hurricane we consumed everything—there was nothing in the stores, and it was, like, what do we do now?”
The pieces are intimate in scale, and invite contemplation. “It’s not super literal,” says Helfeld, who’s in Chicago this month with Torres Lopez and two other ensemble members to install the exhibition at Humboldt Park’s National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, where it will be up through January. “You need to take your time, see each piece, go through it in the right order. It’s metaphoric but it’s not super abstract.”
The company had a museum show at San Juan’s Museum of Art of Puerto Rico in 2015 on the occasion of its tenth anniversary, but that exhibition was made up of props, puppets, and other artifacts from past theatrical productions. Circo de la Ausencia is the group’s first original gallery installation. “We are a theater company,” says Helfeld, “but this definition is super open. We are more interested in what we can say than in which kind of techniques we can use.”
“I had seen the exhibit before in Puerto Rico, and I thought we should have it here,” says NMPRAC director of exhibits and programming Bianca Ortiz. “It joins theater and art, and it’s very manual, it’s very interactive. It’s very relevant to what is happening in Puerto Rico, but using characters and color and different materials that are very beautiful and detailed.”
The seed of Circo de Ausencia was actually planted in Chicago, during a 2016 workshop Helfeld and cofounder Julio César Morales led at the Albany Park Theater Project. The entire seven-person company returned to Chicago in 2017 for a residency at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center in Hermosa that culminated in a comparsa with music, vejigante masks, and puppets as part of the annual 606 Block Party. It went so well they extended their stay long enough to stage a second comparsa as part of the Puerto Rican People’s Parade a few weeks later.
This third trip is a joint project of the museum and Segundo Ruiz Belvis. After Maria the center launched a fund to support Puerto Rican artists both on the island and by providing opportunities for artists to tour. In partnership with the Old Town School and the Chicago Community Trust, the center has brought a suite of Puerto Rican visual and performing artists to Chicago over the past six months, of which Y No Había Luz is the latest.
“They’re an incredibly creative and self-sufficient and resourceful group of people,” says Segundo Ruiz Belvis executive director Omar Torres Kortright, noting that they had also hosted a group of SRBCC bomba students in San Juan in early 2017. “As we were looking to connect with artists after the hurricane, it just made sense to go to go back to people we trust so much and have done such amazing work with us, to see how we could help.”
“In Chicago we have a relationship now, with Segundo Ruiz Belvis and more and more with the diaspora community,” says Torres Lopez. “We didn’t know much about it before, but now we feel a bond.”
“I feel like we can keep this collaboration going, year by year,” says Helfeld, “and keep building this bridge between Chicago and Puerto Rico.”
Y No Había Luz performs Wednesday, July 11 at 7 PM at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, 4046 W. Armitage, on a shared bill with Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre. They’ll present Menos, a 15-minute performance piece, and screen videos documenting their work in Puerto Rico after Maria. Circo de Ausencia opens with a reception from 5 to 7 PM on Friday, July 13, at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, 3015 W. Division, and runs through January 2019. Y No Había Luz will also perform La Centinela de Mango as part of the museum’s BarrioFest July 14 and 15.