By Morgan Smith
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the two amazing women who are using art to change the lives of hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.
On Sept. 20, when Category 5 Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Erica Sanchez panicked. In the two weeks before Sanchez heard from her sister Tanya, the panic grew.
Tanya finally called Erica while she and her close friend, Janice Aponte, were buying supplies for their families at Target. Both Sanchez and Aponte have relatives in Puerto Rico, and they wanted to be ready to send emergency supplies if needed.
“I had waited so long just to hear her voice … I felt a wave of relief,” Erica Sanchez says. Aponte and Sanchez rejoiced over the small victory in the checkout line. But they knew other Puerto Ricans weren’t as lucky, and wanted to help more than just their relatives.
It was then, Aponte says, that the women decided to turn their distress into action. The Puerto Rican women from Humboldt Park began an organization that has raised over $18,000 to benefit victims of Hurricane Maria.
At work Aponte and Sanchez would weep at the barrage of graphic news reports from Puerto Rico: gas line fires, displaced people wandering the streets without access to clean water or electricity. Their weeping became so routine that someone from human resources called a meeting with the women to check in on them.
Aponte and Sanchez were disappointed to hear how aid appeared to be “dripping in” from larger organizations such as the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Sanchez says. “If we just write a check to a larger organization, then that’s the end,” Sanchez says. “You don’t really know where it’s going,” Aponte adds.
An artist-in-residence at Workshop 4200 in Kelvyn Park, Aponte turned to her art for inspiration. She and Sanchez decided to start an art-driven nonprofit organization that could collect donations and provide art-based relief to victims of Hurricane Maria, and Arte al Rescate (“Art to the Rescue” in Spanish) was born.
“We’re trying to rescue Puerto Rico so it only makes sense, right?” Aponte says. “Especially (with) the name being in Spanish, it creates curiosity about our work.”
Their first project, an art show, was in October at Hairpin Arts Center in Logan Square. Aponte put out a call for artists on Facebook and received an outpouring of support. Within two weeks, Arte al Rescate collected more than 100 pieces of artwork from such places as New York, Wisconsin, Texas, Spain and London.
Chicago also showed support. Aponte and Sanchez went door to door around Logan Square and Humboldt Park to businesses, advertising the art show and asking for donations or raffle items, “crying most of the time,” because of how kindly they were received, Aponte says.
Donations fueled the show by helping provide food vendors, a raffle, event staff and a live band. In one night, Aponte and Sanchez raised $17,000. “The only thing we spent money on was paper plates,” says Sanchez. “100 percent of the proceeds went directly to Puerto Rico, which felt incredible.”
This is when the real work began for Arte al Rescate. Using their connections, Aponte and Sanchez identified people on the island whose homes were severely damaged. Arte al Rescate focused its initial efforts on two particularly vulnerable groups: children and the elderly. They used money from the show to send medical supplies to elderly citizens who lived alone. Aponte’s mother, Milagros, and her sister Denise, still in Puerto Rico, scouted families in need.
Aponte and Sanchez’s personal connections to the island as well as their openness are what prompted Mike Vazquez, a building manager at Workshop 4200, to offer his space as Arte al Rescate’s headquarters, he says. “I’ve been disappointed by the lack of transparency a lot of relief organizations display in their work, but Janice and Erica are passionate, and so open about what they do,” says Vazquez, who is of Puerto Rican descent.
Next, Arte al Rescate targeted schools on the island. “We wanted to find ways to give these kids comfort and normalcy through donations and more importantly, give them routine back … they basically had nothing,” says Sanchez.
They partnered with Colegio Mi Primera Ensenanza, a primary school in Puerto Rico where Sanchez’s sister, Tanya, teaches English, to donate school and art supplies. As of December, the school had one functioning toilet and no electricity. So Aponte and Sanchez surprised Tanya’s class with Christmas gifts.
“It’s hard to do well and be happy at school when your family is suffering on a daily basis,” the teacher says. “Their (Arte al Rescate) gesture gave some happiness back to the community.”
Aponte and Sanchez want to sponsor more school missions and supplies for artists who lost work after the hurricane. They especially want to assist families who “can’t prove they own their homes and so can’t get federal support from FEMA, but also families who may have access to their electricity again, but their appliances have burnt out,” Sanchez says.
The women are eager to build more support for their mission, increase donations and prepare for their fall art show at the Green Exchange in Logan Square. “We don’t sleep,” Aponte says.
In one of the program’s most recent missions, Arte al Rescate donated supplies to support an arts program for “at risk” teenagers at Agustin Stahl High School. Aponte said that she wants to highlight not only the physical devastation wrought by the hurricane, but also the impact on victims’ mental health.
“People didn’t get an opportunity to see the devastation firsthand, and if you didn’t really know about it … through family or friends … the desperation of what people were going through is glazed over in the news,” says Sanchez. “But art is a great outlet to cope with the under-discussed depression and anxiety brought on by the hurricane.”