Plena, an Afro-Puerto Rican musical genre, is in many ways part of the beating heart of the barrio of Santurce, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“After [Hurricane Maria] passed,” Mariana Reyes Angleró said, “the first community meeting that we had was to try to figure out how to do an inventory of houses that were destroyed and people that needed help. That meeting ended with plena music. It is not only for celebration, it is for life in general. You can hear it at a funeral, or every baseball game or Christmas parties or whatever. So it is a kind of soundtrack for this community’s activism.”
Though historians consider Ponce, a town on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, the birthplace of Plena, Santurce holds a hallowed place in its history as a genre. “Many important artists, intellectuals, and culture creators have lived here for many years, including Ismael Rivera, who is one of the most important salsa singers of all time, and is very, very well-loved in Puerto Rico and all over Latin America,” Mariana said. “It’s like a cult figure, and he’s from this neighborhood.”
Plena is important to Mariana who, along with her husband who is also a Plenero, started a restaurant in Santurce some years ago where locals could enjoy affordable meals in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood (“[Santurce] is like three blocks from the ocean, so it makes it very attractive also for investors,” Mariana said). Along with their burgers, neighbors enjoyed Plena there several times a week—some enjoying it with their beer, others joining the circle to play, too.
When Hurricane Maria struck the island in 2017, the restaurant was among the wreckage it left behind. The need for music, and space to gather and be with one another, was all the more stark. “So this is where we start thinking about a tribute to plena music groups and performers in our neighborhood of Santurce,” Mariana said, “as a way to maintain that narrative alive on the street, and also as a way to gather the community together as part of this tribute.” Plena Cangrejera was born.
Formally, the Plena Cangrejera project is a multidisciplinary street exhibit paying tribute to the history of Plena music and the artists who hail from Santurce. Together with Tito Matos, a grammy-nominated plena performer, Mariana worked with a team of about 20 musicians, community members, designers, and musicians to envision the project. They did research, identifying Pleneros to include in the project, collecting interviews with performers and neighbors to create “stations” strung along a mile-long stretch of Loiza Street, the heart of Santurce.
“We’re going to have 15 stations all throughout the street,” Mariana said, “placed on buildings, private buildings, each one of them one or two blocks apart and each one is going to be a tribute to a specific group, performer, or movement with the Plena from Santurce.”
Each station is simple, with a photo, a placard, and a QR code. People can engage with the pieces as they stroll Loiza Street, or by joining monthly guided tours that include musicians who will play Plena music and share their connection to Santurce. “Through a QR code, you can visit a website where we’re going to have a more extensive bio and podcast with the person, if the person is still alive, or other interviews that we’re doing with their families or friends. So you can have a more in depth experience,” Mariana said.
In many ways Plena Cangrejera is a love letter to the community, and a celebration of the unique attributes that make Santurce the special place that it is. In other words, it’s creative placemaking—integrating arts and culture in a celebration of the uniqueness of a place.
“Actually, I didn’t know it was called creative placemaking until recently,” Mariana said, “but I think that’s what we’ve been doing for the past 20 years. We’ve got a festival here on our street presenting local musicians and local artists for a while, and Tito used to do a project that would move from one town to the other in Puerto Rico, taking Plena to street corners with Pleneros from that locality.”
To help fund Plena Cangrejera, Mariana and her team turned to ioby, where they came across an ioby match fund called Artists Lead! which was doubling donations for creative placemaking projects. “I felt like, wow, this is perfect because this is just what we’re doing. But I wasn’t sure how much we would be able to raise because I’m really aware that people who live in Puerto Rico, they are really struggling, in terms of their budget and their personal finances.”
Even so, they felt their project was important and felt that the community would think so too. So they approached a small group of people who they knew were interested and could afford to collaborate, as a start. Then, they put it out on social media and emailed people directly, including people they knew in the Puerto Rican diaspora—in California, New York, Baltimore, and elsewhere. Ultimately, they raised over $20,000.
“It’s interesting because you feel the support of people that are willing to put money in a project like this. And that also gives us focus and it helps with us to feel more energetic,” Mariana said. “At the same time, it can be a little bit hard to ask people for money, because we know that there’s not a lot of money around. But when they decide to chip in even $5 or $20 or $10 or whatever it is, in Spanish it’s conmovedor. It really moves us because we know that they are making an effort to support the project, and at the same time, we know that they’re expecting something in return within their community so we have a big responsibility. They’re our neighbors and fellow artists and fellow musicians, so we feel like it gives us a whole different level of responsibility receiving support from them.”
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