It's not easy packing your bags and saying goodbye to your family after a Category 5 hurricane has wiped out what you call home, leaving so many places — tied so closely with childhood memories and routine — bare and unusable.
Around 179,000 Puerto Ricans fled the island in the months following Hurricane María, with 69,000 moving to Florida alone. Nearly all power on the island has now been restored, but the aging electric grid is still suffering from abrupt outages. FEMA is already preparing for this year's hurricane season.
Kevin Ortiz was studying at the University of Puerto Rico before fleeing the island after the storm decimated his hometown. After caring for his sister, who had to be transferred to a hospital in Florida due to the lack of power, Ortiz went on to continue his sophomore year at Brown University. Having only four days to pack all of his belongings, he spent the next seven months in Providence. After such an abrupt move, he didn't have enough time to give his hometown a proper goodbye — but there was one thing, during his months in that small colonial city in Rhode Island, that kept him connected to the island: reggaetón.
Before moving to Providence, Ortiz didn't listen to reggaetón, a hip-hop influenced genre of Latin music that has been taking over streaming platforms for the last year. He categorizes the music as cafre, a derogatory term for someone who is uneducated and is considered low class. The association is not uncommon among those who have ever listened to a reggaetón song before; the male-dominated genre often includes lyrics that objectify women, encourage drug use and boast about criminal acts.
"When I arrived at Brown University, I was completely separated from Puerto Rico, and I had acquired this new idea that the feelings I had towards this genre weren't actually founded on anything," says the 19-year-old Ortiz. To him, judging someone based on listening to reggaetón now seems classist and elitist. "I said 'I might as well give it a shot.' I started listening and I couldn't stop. It's really catchy, and it made me think of Puerto Rico — I would say that is the reason I started. I kept listening because I felt identified with this music."
I met Ortiz at Brown — I was also one of the students accepted to the school as part of its hurricane relief program. We bonded over the genre; it made us both feel closer to home.
Just before María, Puerto Rico was making headlines for more positive reasons; "Despacito" had just become the most-viewed video in YouTube history, and the most-streamed song of all time. The attention snowballed into a wave of reggaetón and Latin-inspired songs quickly climbing the charts, with tracks like this year's "I Like It" — by Dominican-Trinidadian rapper Cardi B, Colombian singer J Balvin and Puerto Rican Latin trap artist Bad Bunny, with a prominent sample Pete Rodriguez's 1967 hit "I Like It Like That" — going on to define the summer of 2018.
It's no question that the streaming percentage of songs in Spanish has skyrocketed over the last year. In general, Latin music listening increased by 110% on Spotify during that period.
But what does this increase in visibility mean to Puerto Ricans, post-María?
In cities where large populations of Puerto Ricans moved after the storm — such as New York, Orlando, Kissimmee, Fla. and Lehigh Valley, N.J. — reggaetón's share has, predictably, continued to increase.According to Ramón Gómez, DJ and producer for Kissimmee radio station Urbana FM, "there has been an increase in the growth of our audience because there are more Puerto Ricans here, and they are looking to feel more identified with Puerto Rico." He adds that they are looking "to feel as though they never left Puerto Rico."
Before María, Central Florida was becoming an attractive place for Puerto Rican business owners to recover from living the midst of the island's financial crisis.(Orlando still remains the main sector where the majority Puerto Ricans settle in the state.)
Prior to "Despacito" helping reggaetón become a widespread genre in the U.S., the way people perceive the genre music has been undergoing a gradual shift in perception over the past two decades.
"Reggaetón was highly stigmatized when it first came out. This is because it came from poor, urban and black communities that were subject to racial discrimination," sociologist Petra Rivera-Rideau, author of Remixing Reggaetón: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico, tells NPR. She explains that the music and its fans were portrayed through several racial and class stereotypes. But as the genre became more commercially viable, it started to become more accepted across class and racial lines, leading to upper class youth listening and consuming it. "Some say reggaetón even became a national symbol in Puerto Rico," she added.
Berklee College of Music and Harvard music history professor Wayne Marshall says he finds a resemblance between reggaetón and salsa, in the way they were both marginal music, and criminalized when they first emerged. "[Salsa] was embraced by some people, but also rejected by some, like reggaetón. It was rejected by the national elite. Then it went from the working-class margins to the mainstream," Marshall tells NPR over the phone. "It's a striking shift from the mid-'90s to now," he added.
Curiously, even people more inclined to listen to rock music or its derivatives are embracing reggaetón as its popularity increases, to the point where Hot Topic has started selling Bad Bunny merch — putting an awkward pause to the "rockero vs. rapero" duel Puerto Ricans took part in after reggaetón emerged.
(Some background: Just like the tension between salsa listeners — cocolos — and rock listeners — rockeros — existed during the '70s, islanders who listened to North American rock bands have, typically, rarely been inclined to listen to reggaetón. The divide can be traced back, at least in part, to the racial and socioeconomic divides referenced by Rivera-Rideau and Marshall. Author Jorge Duany described the stereotype of the cocolo as "a teenager who wears outmoded, flowered shirts, polyester pants, tennis shoes, and an Afro pick in the hair... They live in Nemesio Canales or another of the public housing projects in San Juan" , while a rockero is "dressed in tight jeans, Playero T-shirt, sandals, the latest in American fashion, and long, tousled hair... They probably live in Garden Hills or one of the more exclusive urbanizaciones." Instead of cocolos, today's marginalized group are the "raperos" or "cacos." The brawl between the two intensified by the mid-90's and early 2000s, when artists like Tego Calderon, Ivy Queen and Daddy Yankee popularized reggaeton. However, with its rise in the music industry, groups are more often coming together to enjoy the latest hits and newcomers.)
Like Ortiz, 20-year-old Angela Elliston, from Río Grande, Puerto Rico, moved to the US after the hurricane, but instead of Providence, she moved to a city more known for its Latinx population: New York. Elliston didn't listen to reggaetón before moving to the city either, but when she heardit in bars, grocery stores or other places she'd visit during the week, the music reminded her of home. "When they would play it in those random spots, I would see the Latinos that blend in come to life. It was fun, like spotting a family member," says Elliston. She found herself searching for reggaetón on Spotify and listening to it during her daily routine. "It made me feel different from the rest ... It almost keeps me sane from this culture clash."
For now, Elliston feels certain of staying in the city after she finishes her studies in Puerto Rico, regardless of the culture clash, which is becoming more bearable thanks to the connections she's finding to the island through music. "In a way, I've discovered that it's almost all I have left from home. I've really learned to appreciate this music. It unites us when we're out in the world."