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Spreading Joy to US Citizens in Puerto Rico Who Feel Forgotten

Spreading Joy to US Citizens in Puerto Rico Who Feel Forgotten

The devastation caused by Hurricane Maria is no laughing matter. In 2017, it compelled nearly 5% of Puerto Rico residents to leave the island.

But for those determined to stay — or unable to leave — recovery feels like running with a rubber band around your waist, yanking you back.

In May 2023, Clowns Without Borders arrived in Puerto Rico for a two-week tour that brought laughter and joy to survivors of storms, Covid, and earthquakes. The tour included CWB artists Arturo Gaskins (Puerto Rico), Leo Maldonado (Puerto Rico), Robin Lara (Mainland), and Bella Schleiker (Mainland). Our partner was Circo Nacional de Puerto Rico.

In this post, you’ll learn what recovery looks like for those trying not to be displaced and see the delight of children who experienced their first clown show.

All aboard!

The Quest for Post-Disaster Recovery: Avast, Is it Sailing the Silly Seas?

A clown in Puerto Rico looks 'through' a rubber chicken, serving as his scope.
CWB Artist-turned-pirate Arturo Gaskins is on the lookout with his spyglass.

Puerto Ricans love their home: the natural beauty, delicious fruits, salsa music, and gatherings with friends and family.

But since Maria, the deadliest storm in US history since 1900, the quality of life for many Puerto Ricans has deteriorated. 

  • Power outages are frequent because the infrastructure is old and inadequate.
  • There are 150 schools that haven’t received government funding since the storm.
  • In some places, decreased access to medical care puts people’s lives at risk.

[Hurricane Maria] … left the island in the longest and largest blackout in US history and the second-largest blackout in the world on record.

Vox, May 8, 2018

What Went Wrong?

Yes, Hurricane Maria was a tremendously strong storm. But the US government’s slow and inadequate response made life in the aftermath less safe, more scary, and far more deadly.

In Puerto Rico, a clown in a dress holds a hoop for a clown in a jumpsuit attempting to jump through.
Metaphor in motion: Arturo’s determination echoes Puerto Rico’s quest for recovery.

A study published by BMJ Global Health concluded that the response to Maria did “not align with storm severity or prevention and recovery needs” when compared to government responses for Hurricanes Irma and Harvey that same year.

And the mortality outcomes show it:

A bar graph shows that mortality rates in Puerto Rico were outrageously higher compared to death rates from other Hurricanes that same year.
Willison CE, Singer PM, Creary MS, et al. Quantifying inequities in US federal response to hurricane disaster in Texas and Florida compared with Puerto Rico BMJ Global Health 2019;4:e001191.

It took 11 months to fully restore power.

The US government’s differential response to Hurricane Maria aligns with a history of using financial tools of colonization, the result of which has entrenched poverty and increased inequality.

No Joke: What Our Clowns Saw

CWB teams in Puerto Rico witnessed the pace of recovery in 2018 and in 2023.

One year after the hurricane, the streetlamps that line the freeway to Yabucoa are still twisted around, lighting the plantain fields instead of the road. Locals tell us that the government attitude is, ‘Why fix the stuff before the next hurricane season is over?’

— Molly Shannon, CWB Artist, 2018

It’s the US Department of Education, but the schools are still closed. It’s easy to hide that in Old San Juan, where the cruise ships land, but leave that part of the island and it’s a mess.

— Bella Schleiker, CWB Artist, 2023

As Puerto Rico team members bore witness to the slow pace of recovery and the lingering effects of Hurricane Maria, they remained steadfast in their mission to lift spirits and bring people together.

Not Forgotten: Lifting Laughter and Spreading Joy in Puerto Rico

A clown performs on his cyr wheel in front of an audience in Puerto Rico.
CWB Artist Arturo Gaskins performs with a cyr wheel in his native Puerto Rico, 2023.

Clowns transport people to a world full of magic and play, helping children and families shift their perspectives, connect with others, and heal trauma.

To learn more about the power of clown magic, see Why Clowns.

Through lively performances that included unicycle knife juggling, giant-sized underwear, and the thrilling cyr wheel, Team Puerto Rico created a joyful and carefree atmosphere for young and old.

Here’s what happened at three locations:

1. Las Marias, Puerto Rico

Las Marias is a rural mountain community that was cut off the grid for nine months following Hurricane Maria.

The team performed at a school there — one of the 150 schools that have not received government funding since Maria. The community opened the school, anyway! Though just once a week for now, it’s a brave start.

This show will stay everlasting in people’s memories, as they have never seen anything like this before. It’s a very poor and rural community that was hit hard by Hurricane Maria.

— Lu, Community Organizer in Las Marias

A clown in a dress and with a blue umbrella performs for children in Puerto Rico.
Little Mateo joined CWB Artist Bella Schleiker on stage for almost the entire show in Las Marias. He loved getting laughs from the audience.

2. Comerío, Puerto Rico

Comerío is a mountain town in the eastern central region where 1,500 houses were destroyed and another 2,400 sustained significant damage. The slow pace of recovery here reminded residents of the second-class citizen treatment they receive from the US government.

Team Puerto Rico performed on a school basketball court. There were a lot of kids, teens, and young moms in the audience.

A mother told us she was grateful because most of the kids here didn’t have any contact with the arts. And, after the pandemic, many people can no longer pay to see shows.

— Bella Schleiker

A clown on a unicycle performs for a crowd in Puerto Rico.
CWB Artist Robin Lara performs on a giraffe unicycle.

3. Islote, Puerto Rico

In Islote, a community on the north coast of the island, the team performed at an old school that is now a turtle sanctuary.

During the juggling, children joined us on stage and became part of the act! At the end of the show, all the kids played with our beach balls.

It’s so good that you’re here because there’s nothing for the kids in Islote. Not even a park. So they’re happy you’re here. Before you even start, it’s golden just to be here. It brings the community together.

— A young mother from the audience

You reminded me of when I was young and we placed a circus tent in front of this school.

— An older woman from the audience

Clowns laugh with adults in Puerto Rico.
CWB Artist Robin Lara shares a laugh with audience members in Puerto Rico, 2023.

Conclusion

Following the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria, the pandemic, and earthquakes, CWB artists brought a much-needed respite of laughter to 1210 people in 15 communities throughout the island.

US citizens of Puerto Rico showcased the power of shared joy in strengthening bonds, fostering unity, and improving well-being.


To share joy with you, we’re leaving you with this montage of more photos from Puerto Rico.

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