Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico in September 2017. Almost nine months later, some citizens remain without power or water, and a larger portion of the population still feels traumatized and abandoned.
Those less-than-effective relief efforts have inspired artists, musicians and organizers to raise awareness, funds and spirits to support victims of this natural disaster. Alynda Segarra, the Puerto Rican leader of Hurray for the Riff Raff, makes a point to represent the island and her lineage in her music, and shows support for the struggles Puerto Ricans are going through. Her song "Pa'lante," which NPR Music ranked No. 5 in its Best Songs Of 2017 list, is a fierce ode to her people's resilience. With samples from famous Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri and the titular reference to the name of the Young Lord's newspaper, justice and perseverance are at the center of the song's message.
The new visual accompanying this song captures the current state of the island and its people: struggling, beautiful and trying to fill its voids. Puerto Rican director Kristian Mercado spoke with Alt.Latino on telling stories of working class Puerto Ricans post-Hurricane Maria. The following transcript was edited for clarity.
Jessica Diaz-Hurtado: The first time you heard, "Pa'lante," what moved you to create this impactful and powerful visual?
Kristian Mercado: I got the song early in the morning and opened it, not knowing what the song was. I heard the song and was really moved by it, I even teared up a little bit. I'm Puerto Rican and [the phrase] "Pa'lante" is such a philosophical concept. No matter how bad things get, you can move forward. It's this weird life philosophy that permeates day to day for a lot of Puerto Ricans. The poetry break when Alynda has Pedro Pietri's poem, the "Puerto Rican Obituary" ... it's classic and one of my favorite poems. There was something about the song that I knew I had to work on it, no matter what.
You capture the beauty and the struggle that Puerto Rico is currently going through. Why do you think it's important to share this reality?
I saw that with this song, it's a great opportunity to showcase Puerto Ricans in some sort of light that cinematically hasn't been seen before. As a Puerto Rican filmmaker, there aren't a lot Puerto Rican stories that are told in a cinematic way. I felt compelled to show Puerto Ricans in honest and simple ways that emotionally connects with people. I'm into the feelings the working class goes through. I think the working class Puerto Rican is a story that hasn't been told. I think the story has to deal with absence and empty spaces, the feeling of you want or need something. Sometimes what you want and what you need are not interconnected. They might be separate things. The characters try to fill these voids, and set the tone for the film.
Humans tend to focus on micro-experiences. If something catastrophic happens, they look at it from a statistical standpoint. If somethings gets too big, it kind be hard to relate to and be emotional about it. Puerto Rico is still going through a lot and I think is put to the side. I was approaching this in a way to not be blunt about the hurricane, which has affected a lot of us, and me personally. It was easier to tell the story of one family. I wasn't overt about what they were going through, but at the end with the shots, you're able to step back into the reality. Those shots were shot recently and can put a strong emphasis of where the situation is. Within that one story, there is a lot of people dealing with this circumstance. Feeling that pain and letting that be part of the story was important to me.
How was it for you on a personal level to go back to Puerto Rico and tell this story?
To give you some background, when the hurricane hit, it was a difficult time. I had a lot of family in Puerto Rico. I tried connecting with my family for 10 days. I was on an emergency walkie talkie system to connect to towns. I was trying to connect with Arroyo [on the southeast coast], where my family was at. The conditions were bad. Me and my mom got plane tickets for my family to get out, around October. It was unlivable at the time. Three days before they flew out, my grandfather passed away. It was interconnected to the hurricane because he suffered from sleep apnea. It resulted in him getting cardiac arrest. They couldn't call an ambulance. It's a crazy thing that happened if you don't have access to electricity or communications and can affect so many facets of people's lives. There was something really brutal about that. He was a veteran, too, so there's this betrayal you feel about that. That really hurt me and my family; we are all feeling the trauma of that. That is where I was coming from. I myself felt that absence and I was trying to find something to pour myself into. I was depressed for three months, in a downward slope. So this project was a great thing to work on and to digest those emotions.
And that's something that you touch upon in your film, using these intimate portraits to tell this larger story. Why specifically choose relationships to portray these intimate moments?
I was thinking a lot about family. When I listened to the song, I heard "Milagros" and "Manuel", and that stuck out to me because I know so many Manuels and Milagros. I was trying to connect that to the idea of family. Also, my own experiences with complicated men and women in families who aren't this perfect cookie-cutter thing. They are complicated and flawed living their lives. I think the working class aspect resonates with me. My grandfather was working class his whole life. He was a construction worker. I pulled from people I knew and created different characters. I come from a complicated family myself. My mom and father aren't together, and there's that feeling of absence and trying to figure out what that means and how that feels. I was just trying to be very vulnerable on what a family dynamic was and how there's beauty and sadness to it. Also, to see people trying — and circumstances that keep pushing them down — is an important thing.