Caja De Memoria Viva III: Sobreviviente. Digna Quiles

Charcoal on wood (outside)
Found objects and audio (inside)
48”(h) x 49”(w) x 48”(d)

This installation is dedicated to the survivors of one of the most catastrophic events in history. Hurricane Maria, a category 5 storm hit my homeland of Puerto Rico on September 20th, 2017.  Maria made landfall on the island with over 185 mph winds and rain lasting for more than 30 hours. It completely wiped out the power infrastructure, and destroyed homes, schools, hospitals, businesses, and agriculture. Hundreds of thousands of people were left to live for many months without basic necessities, and thousands of lives were lost as a result of the lack of resources.

Since October 2nd of 2017, a week after the hurricane made landfall, I’ve traveled every month to Puerto Rico to bring relief aid and assist in the recovery and rebuilding efforts. One of the municipalities I've chosen to focus on is San Sebastian, where my paternal family is from.  San Sebastian is in the mountainous northwestern part of the island, and has many rivers running through it. In the weeks after the storm, the municipality had areas that experienced difficulties receiving assistance due to blocked roads from fallen trees, flooding, and landslides. While delivering aid to these areas, I met many people with heart breaking survival stories. The first community in San Sebastian I delivered supplies to was in El Culebrinas where I met Digna Quiles. While Digna was very welcoming and invited me into her home, she was clearly very traumatized from the effects of Maria.

My time spent with Digna inspired me to create a new series of Caja De Memoria Viva portrait installations called Sobrevivientes (Survivors).  Digna is the first subject of the series which provides an intimate view of life post-Maria, and reflects the unfortunate “new normal” being lived by the Puerto Rican people. Digna is approximately 60 years old and about 5 feet tall.  At the time Maria hit, she lived alone with her dog because her husband had passed away 8 months prior to storm. She lives in a small part of the El Culebrinas neighborhood known as, Villa Sofia, which is adjacent to the Rio Culebrinas (Culebrinas River). During the storm, the river, as well as the the smaller tributaries and waterways that branch off of it, swelled and rose into the streets flooding the neighborhood, including Digna’s home. With the water level rising to over 8ft inside, the force of the flood water combined with constant rain and hurricane winds, pulled Digna and her dog out of their home. Digna was rescued by a neighbor, but unfortunately her companion dog could not be rescued. When I entered Digna’s home, she had no furniture, visible water damage everywhere, and was sleeping on a mattress on the floor. She hadn’t had clean drinking water in days, and was collecting the rainwater in 5 gallon buckets. The desperation for basic needs like clean water was heartbreaking.

The inside of the box also replicates what tens of thousands of houses looked like after the storm. The peeled back zinc roof, exposed wood beams, a blue tarp, and hanging solar lanterns became the normal landscape. Torn tropical colored walls replicate the damage caused by the winds ripping through houses. Flood water lines mark the walls left by the overflowing rivers and ocean waters, along with wood rot stains and growing black mold. For weeks and months following Maria, families were cleaning up this type of damage from their homes...and for many the work still continues.

An audio recording of Digna’s voice speaking about her experience before and after the hurricane hit her home plays from inside the box. Digna’s voice does not only represent her personal experience, but also that of the other hundreds of thousands of voices affected that we may never hear.

A few of the PR-tifacts collected and hanging inside the installation include; Toy trucks that resemble actual construction trucks used to clear roads of fallen trees and debris. Religious items like rosaries and prayer cards that symbolize the immense faith in God the Puerto Rican people have. A Puerto Rico history book and United States encyclopedia covers symbolizing the struggle Puerto Ricans have been living through as a colony of the United States for 120 years. Medication bottles and insulin that symbolize the lack of medical attention and care for the sick, that lead to the deaths of many people post-Maria. A Military food bag, pack of candy, crackers, Vienna sausage cans, and a fruit bar are REAL examples of the foods given to the Puerto Rican people to survive on by the United States government agencies.