Cultural Workers and the Permanent Crisis

By: Dianne Brás Feliciano, Ph.D., curator, historian, and writer

Nearly all visual artists and cultural workers are used to a life without a safety net, in precarity and poverty. But the truth is we should not accept these conditions. To name recent events, since the aftermath of the Hurricane María, the working class -in general-, has suffered great need due to the loss of jobs and the corruption and incompetence of the local administration and the federal government. If we thought we were on our way to recovery, by the end of 2019, a series of earthquakes started affecting the island, mostly in the south side. Among hunger, poverty and panic, artists and cultural workers were looking for ways of surviving, while offering support to their communities. We started the new year with a 6.4 earthquake, that occurred on the 7th of January followed by a series of aftershocks. In March we had to suddenly face the Covid-19 pandemic and the imposition of a strict lockdown, ordered by non-elected Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced. Although isolation measures work to stop the spread, and protect, for example, the elderly, it does not pay attention to other vulnerable groups, such as the homeless and food industry workers who are forced to work. The confinement has opened the door for repressive -even unconstitutional- measures with the purpose of keeping citizens in line and avoiding the eruption of protests in face of the inefficiency and ineptitude of the colonial government.

Nahira Montcourt/Noticel

Creative workers, -especially those of us who are freelancers- have been severely affected. In the face of postponing or even losing our presentations, exhibitions, and creative projects, many of us have lost our sources of income. And the system implemented by the local government to distribute federal emergency funds through the CARES ACT, and to facilitate the process of applying for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance as well as food stamps, is not fully operational, leaving families with no source of income for another month. In times like these, when families spend most of their days at home, the importance and need of art and culture becomes evident. During the quarantine we have watched a movie or series, we have read a book, we have seen a live performance or concert, and/or we have virtually visited our favorite museums. Regardless, the State still does not recognize our work, the importance of our craft. Facing so much abuse and neglect towards our professions, I think we should look at how creative freelancers in other countries have been organizing. Here in Puerto Rico we have no protection nor rights. We are generally paid by the hour, with no sick leave nor vacations. In the city of New York, for example, -full of creatives- a self-organized collective of cultural workers got together to research and collect data, with which they later developed the “People’s Cultural Plan”. This Plan points out and condemns the inequity towards the cultural sector and the immigrants as well. It is community driven and aware of the need of providing access to vulnerable groups and promote diversity. And this is just one of the models we could follow to later develop our own plan, one that attends to our needs and claims.

Garvin Sierra, 2020, @tallergraficopr

During this isolation period, a few cultural institutions and organizations have offered grants and free workshops -mostly for artists- that have served as momentary assistance in these trying times. Nevertheless, charity should not be our safety net, but acquired rights and to be paid what we are worth.  To achieve this there is still a long way to go and a lot of work to do. I conclude inviting you to share your experiences and appreciations, so we can organize and develop sustainable alternatives for the cultural sector. Let the latest crisis be a catalyst to transform that which oppresses us!

Jotham Malavé, 2019, @jotham.malave

Feel free to get in contact with Puerto Rico Art News’s team ( to let us know what cultural community project has born from the crisis so we can help you spread word! Be safe and stay stong!


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