As Puerto Rico reels from an unprecedented string of earthquakes off its southern coast, residents of the island — in true Boricua fashion — have banded together to take care of one another as their government continues to leave them without help or resources.
No one can testify to the tenacity of the Puerto Rican spirit better than Grammy-winning singer iLe. During last year’s island-wide protests against a corrupt administration that drew more than 500,000 demonstrators, iLe — along with prominent Puerto Rican artists such as Bad Bunny and Ricky Martin — took a stand against then-Gov. Ricky Roselló to call for his resignation and even released a protest song with Bad Bunny and Residente for the occasion. Now, as was the case in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the government’s mismanagement of its emergency services in the wake of the earthquakes has prompted a new wave of frustration among the Puerto Rican people as they work to rebuild their homes and lives.
“People are not trusting the government anymore to provide assistance directly to the community,” iLe tells New Times. “It’s tough to see so many houses and structures that have been completely destroyed and so many families and children who don’t know what their next step is. But at the same time, it’s beautiful to see so much support from everyone here on the island... We’re helping each other out without expecting any help from anyone else, and we’re restructuring things ourselves — and that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
What makes the reaction to Gov. Wanda Vázquez’s inaction in the aftermath of the earthquakes different from Roselló’s ineffective Hurricane Maria relief is that Puerto Ricans are now more cognizant of corruption in their government. “I think that because people are more aware of that after what happened with Roselló, they’re starting to notice that she’s part of the same thing,” iLe remarks. “These are the moments when you actually know if they will work or not, and she’s obviously showing us that she’s not doing anything at all. That makes us think everything through a lot more.”
Of course, Puerto Rico’s governmental problems don’t stem entirely from the corruption of a group of bad politicians. Indeed, the Island of Enchantment’s status as a commonwealth of the United States for the past century has prevented Puerto Ricans from dictating much of their financial destiny, especially in moments of crisis when help from the States is more crucial than ever. (The Trump administration, for example, recently released $8 billion in hurricane relief aid after a months-long hold.)
“It’s all part of a system that has never worked,” iLe says. “For me, I have never believed in that system, but the important thing is that more people need to notice that instead of trusting other people who don’t even live here and don’t even know enough about our country.” Despite the pride Puerto Ricans take in their national origin and the mistreatment (especially in recent years) at the hands of the U.S. government, many residents still favor statehood or remaining a colonial territory over becoming an independent nation.
“I think it’s just a misunderstanding. We’ve been taught all our lives in our history to be afraid of the word ‘independence’ and to be afraid of being self-sufficient and to think that we are not capable of doing things on our own,” iLe says, calling this generational indoctrination “a colonial mindset.”
She adds, “I don’t think it has anything to do with how we are, because I think we are very resilient and very strong people, but it has a lot to do with what [the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments] have told us that we are. We started to believe a lie; we started to believe something that is not true, and we underestimate ourselves and then suddenly our self-esteem is very low.”
That lack of faith in Puerto Rican self-determination makes this inflection point that much more significant. “That’s why the moment we’re living in now is so important for us, because we’re living in a moment where, finally, more people are realizing that we are strong enough and that we are more than enough, and we don’t need to depend on anyone else,” she says, citing more than 500 years of colonial history as a deep-seated cause. In spite of that, iLe believes it’s the strict definition of Puerto Rico’s status as an independent entity, not the idea of governing and taking care of themselves, that scares Puerto Ricans the most.
“We’re acting independently without noticing that we’re acting independently,” she quips. “We don’t need to depend on anyone else, because we have it all. We have enough, and we need to notice that.”
The emotional gravity of Puerto Rico’s political situation in the past two years was in part what inspired iLe’s Grammy-nominated sophomore album, Almadura. Next Friday, February 21, iLe will perform Almadura at the North Beach Bandshell and share this story of inner strength and outward action with the help of her eight-piece band.
iLe was introduced to audiences around the world as PG-13, the younger sister and back-up vocalist of singers Residente and Visitante; together, the trio formed the Grammy-winning group Calle 13. iLe (full name Ileana Cabra Joglar) recalls her affinity for music from a young age, when she’d sing around the house and learned how to play the piano.
“I never thought I was going to end up singing [professionally] if it weren’t for my brothers inviting me to sing in their project,” she reminisces, “so I think their initiative motivated me to pay more attention to something that was already there that I didn’t notice... They’ve always influenced me, not only as musicians but as human beings and as family.”
And as is customary with Latin families, blood always runs thicker than water. “We’ve always been a very connected family where whenever we feel far away from each other, we always try to find a way to be together because we’re not in the same place all the time, and we need to feel rooted and grounded with ourselves. I don’t like to say that we depend on each other, but in a way we do!” she laughs. “Our love depends on each of us, and that’s something that I value a lot.”
iLe used many of the lessons she learned in Calle 13 to create Almadura. After the success of her Grammy-winning debut album, iLevitable, in 2016, she struggled to find her voice and what to say with it. It wasn’t long after that that Governor Roselló took power and began his corrupt rule over the island. “Suddenly I noticed that I was feeling very angry with many things,” iLe remembers. "So I was very connected to that energy that I was feeling, and I started to let go and started writing about what bothers me about society — not only as a Puerto Rican but as a human.”
The album’s title is a play on words that speaks to the strength iLe exhibited in the years she spent creating it: Armadura means "armor," but the spelling change in the title translates to “hard soul.”
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“I started to write from my own perspective, but obviously I wanted it to feel empowering,” she says. “I wanted to not only talk about bad situations or bad things that we go through, but what can we do to react in some way and to do something about it. That’s what I like about the album: It comes from a very big part of something that I needed to let go of in a way.”
Working with Puerto Rican pianist Eddie Palmieri for the album was one of the highlights for iLe because she and her family had listened to the legend’s music for years. “I would’ve never thought that I could do a song with Eddie Palmieri,” she admits. “He’s someone who I admire so much... I felt that we share a lot of things, as Puerto Ricans and as musicians as well, and that’s something that I love about him.”
The tour in support of Almadura, then, will bring to life a piece of work that deserves a full stage and band production. Performance is cathartic for iLe, and an album such as Almadura is one that is best presented and expressed in a live setting. “It’s healing for me, so I’m very excited,” she says. "It’s going to be powerful, and I hope people enjoy it as much as we’re going to. It’s like therapy.”