2022 marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island of Puerto Rico and its residents. Artist Alvilda Sophia Anaya-Alegría experienced that devastation firsthand and turned to art to document the hurricane and heal from the trauma caused by the natural disaster. 

Zydalis Bauer visited Anaya-Alegría to hear her story and learn how she was able to channel the cultural beliefs of her ancestors to begin healing.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: This year marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island of Puerto Rico and its residents. Artist Alvilda Sophia Anaya-Alegría experienced that devastation firsthand and has turned to art to both document and heal from the trauma this natural disaster caused.

I visited Anaya-Alegría to hear her story and learn how she was able to channel the cultural beliefs of her ancestors to begin healing.

Alvilda Sophia Anaya-Alegría, Artist: September 11, 2017, we had Hurricane Maria right after the other hurricane, Irma. So, when Maria comes, there is no other place to put water in, right? So, we have this container that is the island, just getting water and sucking everything in.

And for me, when I started to paint, they bring in that whole conversation about being involved…atragantados with — with all of this water. And you’re just holding your breath and you’re trying to hold those elements outside of you, but at the same time, all the windows are rattling, and water is coming through them.

Zydalis Bauer: And how are you able to express that emotion in your paintings through the techniques, the tools, and the colors that you use?

How does that come across?

Alvilda Sophia Anaya-Alegría: What I ended up having to do was to…sit and embrace my inner pain.

I’m from Guayama, Puerto Rico, and as a professor, I kept thinking, “How am I going to offer something visual to the community, to my students, to anybody who looks at this work and have them think about where are those pieces coming from?”

So, for example, the blue that I’m using is the blue that you see in Guayama because the sun hits the island around, so all the colors in the four points are different. The latitude of the sun makes the colors vibrate in a different color. So, for example, Guayama has this blue, but Ponce has a different kind of blue when the sun is coming up or going down.

Same thing with Cabo Rojo, which is the colors are purple and orange and bright orange like at Rincon, you know, and — and you go, “Oh, my goodness, this this is just amazing!”

So I — I — the first thing I do was take out all those colors that meant my hometown flag, which is yellow, black, and red. And I said, “Okay, so I’m going to take these three colors, the water and the ocean color, which is blue. And I’m going to keep those separate and I’m going to start with that.”

And I started just scraping the paintings with tools rather than with brushes. And I started to scrape because…for me, there was this sound in my ear of the windows, scraping the water, scraping the windows, and I needed that scraping on the canvas.

So, you see a lot of white, a lot of lines just that don’t have anything, but they have that movement. And so that’s part of the sound that people need to bring on their own when they’re looking at the work.

Zydalis Bauer: Let’s talk a little bit about your heritage, because I know that that — that’s something that’s really important — you mentioned you’re from Guayama, Puerto Rico — but also, it’s important for you to highlight your African and Taino ancestry.

Why is that important for you to talk about and express in your artwork?

Alvilda Sophia Anaya-Alegría: It’s important because my grandmother was from Puerto Rico. My great-grandmother was from Puerto Rico. So, for me, I have — well, my mother is — is Tiano, which means Indigenous American, which is interesting. My Africanness is also on my great grandfather side, who they were also slaves, and they came from Nigeria and the Congo.

So, I embraced all this Africanness because also in the African Diaspora and the Taino, we celebrate Earth, and women always were the caretakers, we always were the child bearers. We — we help women have children. We, you know, people still to this day, somebody has a baby, and for 40 days, the neighborhood women are coming in and helping you. I have a little bit of Spanish, but the majority of me is Black and Taino.

And going back to the aesthetics of the work, I put in symbolisms that maybe other people won’t understand, I certainly know that the Puerto Rican community will, and a lot of Latin America will go, “Oh, I recognize that Three Pico Mountain,” you know? “I recognize that African semi.”

Zydalis Bauer: And you speak about this — all of this history and there’s so much there’s — it’s so deep. And even when you think about Hurricane Maria and the devastation that happened there, and I know that you describe this artwork for you as a center of healing.

So, what — what do you think it is about artwork that it has that power to offer that type of healing for an individual?

Alvilda Sophia Anaya-Alegría: When you paint, you zoom in. And you forget. Because the mind can only think of one thing at a time. And I didn’t know that. I didn’t understand how, for example, when you listen to music, you forget about everything else but the lyrics, right? So, the same thing happens when you’re painting.

And for me, as I was painting, I was crying and I was shivering and I was vomiting and I was — all the post-traumatic stress that I lived through, I was re-feeling it. I would cry for days. I would paint one part and cry for days.

And there were moments I couldn’t paint for three and six weeks. There were moments where I couldn’t paint for nine months.

Zydalis Bauer: And so, knowing all that you went through, just to be able to paint these murals and how long it took you, what would you like other people who view it?

What do you want them to take away from it? What conversations do you want these pieces to ignite?

Alvilda Sophia Anaya-Alegría: I want people to know that we lost 4,654 people and that was unnecessary. People were dying from diabetes, dying from heart attacks, dying because they didn’t have the pump to do their kidney dialysis, not — not at home, not at the hospitals. People were being saved according to who could survive more. Who was younger.

Then, we ended up having a lot of suicides because the older community were like, “We lost our family,” because then people started leaving the island also, and they were left alone because if somebody had to leave, it had to be the mom with the children, right?

And I want people to remember those stories. It’s not just looking at the images behind me or in front of you or, you know, it’s — it’s what happened. And do you care?

And if anything, you know, I see these images as like altars where you can just sit in front of them and cry. You can bring your chancletas and — and — and dance also and celebrate the dead and celebrate the lives of people that you loved.

You know, you can heal in community, making circles in front of these pieces and they’ll…hum to you because they have that power of movement that I have put through them.