‘Visit Us, But Come Help’: Luis Fonsi on How Music and Tourism Help Puerto Rico Recover

“We’re trying to make Puerto Rico more beautiful than it already is. Tourism is the best medicine for Puerto Rico.”

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Luis Fonsi and ConPRmetidos founder Isabel Rullán. / Courtesy of Marriott’s #LoveTravels Beyond Barriers

“Music brings people together—it unites people, and you can bring your message across through music a lot better. I think it’s our duty to have a voice, have an opinion and give back,” global superstar Luis Fonsi, whose smash hit “Despacito” memorably reached meteoric heights in 2017, recently told ONE37pm in Puerto Rico. 

By the end of August 2017, no one was having a better year than Fonsi: “Despacito,” featuring Daddy Yankee was the most-watched video in YouTube history at the time, the song had already spent more than three months atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart with a nice push from the “Despacito” remix featuring Justin Bieber and Fonsi’s home of Puerto Rico was attracting nearly 170,000 non-residents to the island that August. Less than a month later, Hurricane Maria made landfall, crippling the island and changing Fonsi’s foreseeable future.

“I’m the ambassador of tourism for Puerto Rico, and we were shooting all of these commercials saying, ‘Hey come visit us.’ Then, all of a sudden, it became ‘Come help us.’ So, the message of that campaign changed quite drastically to ‘Come visit us, but come help,’” Fonsi said.

More than 2,900 people died as a result of the hurricane, which caused $90 billion worth of damages. Thousands are still living under blue tarps because their homes have yet to be fixed. ONE37pm traveled to Puerto Rico in November 2019, two years after Hurricane Maria devastated the area, to chat with Fonsi before he spoke at the Marriott #LoveTravels Beyond Barriers Summit at The St. Regis Bahia Beach about how the Latin music explosion helped give visibility to this island’s tragedy, how music has helped its recovery and how the most devastating natural disaster to hit Puerto Rico ended up being a wake-up call for the residents of the island.

A Wake-Up Call

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A contractor helps apply a FEMA tarp to a home damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017. / Mario Tama/Getty Images

From city workers in San Juan to the coffee farmers of Mameyes Abajo in Puerto Rico, they all saw the hurricane that killed thousands and displaced tens of thousands more in the same way: as a wake-up call.  

“If you would ask a Puerto Rican any time before Hurricane Maria, they’d tell you, ‘To us hurricanes were an excuse to play dominoes. Category 3 coming. Make sure you have beer, ice and dominoes.’ That’s how we grew up. That’s our culture,” Fonsi said. “Hurricane Maria was completely different. It’s not funny anymore. People realized how important it is to be prepared with more than just beer and dominoes.”

Nearly everyone you speak to in Puerto Rico has a different story of how the hurricane claimed the lives of loved ones. Isabel Rullán, cofounder and executive director of the ConPRmetidos nonprofit organization helping the recovery efforts, remembers her aunt’s partner dying after a hospital’s lack of electricity forced him to sit in the waiting room for two days in a coma after suffering a stroke. The low-income community of La Perla—where the “Despacito” music video was filmed—was ravaged. Much of the scenery that gave the music video an authentic vibe was reduced to discarded rubble for much of the past two years.

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The damaged La Perla neighborhood four weeks after Hurricane Maria in 2017. / Mario Tama/Getty Images

Before the hurricane, Fonsi stated in an interview a week after Maria, he had planned to donate musical instruments and a music room to the dilapidated barrio by Christmas 2017. After the devastation, he started a foundation focused specifically on La Perla to rebuild houses and other recovery work. 

“It started as a recovery. First, it was cleaning it up. We did a public laundromat, so everyone could wash their clothes. We brought generators in from Florida. So, little by little, I’ve been trying to give back. Now, we’re trying to make Puerto Rico more beautiful than it already is,” Fonsi said. 

Fonsi is not alone in helping the underserved areas of Puerto Rico. Community leader Francisco “Tito” Valentín is responsible for the operation of COSSAO, Puerto Rico’s only free health clinic in Utuado, a village sandwiched between mountains in central Puerto Rico. COSSAO was established by Dr. Antonia Novello, who is a former U.S. surgeon general and Puerto Rico native. The clinic, which runs on Sonnen solar energy, has free physical therapy, pediatric care and emergency ambulance services with dentistry services coming in the future.

Just getting to the clinic required nimbly traversing narrow roads near deep cliffs and weaving through paths that went from paved roads to dirt paths indistinguishable between someone’s front yard and the road. It’s a scary fact that this is the nearest medical facility for one of the largest municipalities in Puerto Rico for miles.

Musicians Continue to Help

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Luis Fonsi and Ricky Martin talk to media in 2017. / Gladys Vega/Getty Images

The revitalization of the lush environments, picturesque beaches where the sunset kisses the Atlantic Ocean and a cornucopia of delectable foods are integral to Puerto Rico’s recovery. In 2017, tourism accounted for 7 percent of Puerto Rico’s gross domestic product (GDP), amounting to roughly $2.5 billion. The number of daily flights in and out of Puerto Rico decreased from 130 before the hurricane to just 20 directly following the hurricane. Partly because of “Despactio” and the song’s immense international appeal, Fonsi was named the ambassador of tourism for the U.S. territory. The Puerto Rican singer views events like the inclusive #LoveTravels as a part of the island’s road to recovery. 

“To be able to have events like this and bring people from all over the world to get to know this island is the best way to recover. Tourism is the best medicine for Puerto Rico,” Fonsi said.

Fonsi and other musicians like Ricky Martin, Bad Bunny and Lin-Manuel Miranda have stepped in where the government has not. Hurricane Maria caused an estimated $90 billion in damages. President Trump virulently claimed in July that Congress “foolishly” gave $92 billion to Puerto Rico and the country, which he says was “squandered away or wasted, never to be seen again.” According to federal data, as of September 2019, Puerto Rico has been allocated a little more than $43 billion.

We had aid from private agencies and artists like Luis Fonsi, but we didn’t get a lot of help from the federal government, the island government or the mayor’s office.

- A La Perla resident

“We need to make sure we receive the funding that we deserve,” Rullán said. “The amount of Puerto Ricans that served in the Army in the United States is very high. We pay taxes. Eighty-five percent of everything we consume is imported and has to go through the U.S. Maritime system, which is the most expensive one. So we have taxes on everything we eat. We deserve that money as much as any other state.

Rullán and ConPRmetidos have helped provide more than $4 million in grants to companies looking to help with the recovery. Rullán was simply a dedicated Puerto Rico resident before the lack of help the island received mobilized her into action. A lifelong member of the La Perla community said in a September 2018 interview that “we had aid from private agencies and artists like Luis Fonsi, but we didn’t get a lot of help from the federal government, the island government or the mayor’s office.”

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ConPRmetidos founder Isabel Rullán. / Courtesy of Marriott’s #LoveTravels Beyond Barriers

Less than half a year after Hurricane Maria hit, hip-hop radio legend Angie Martinez, along with Rutgers University-Newark’s International Leadership Exchange Global scholars, helped deploy We Share Solar suitcases to schools and youth centers lacking electricity. Weeks after Maria made landfall, Fonsi’s “Despactio” collaborator Daddy Yankee donated $100,000 to the Food Bank of Puerto Rico, helping provide food for roughly 9,000 families in the impoverished Toa Baja community. 

The indie-pop duo of Raquel Berrios and Luis Alfredo Del Valle, along with musician Ani Cordero, started the PRIMA Fund—Puerto Rico Independent Musicians and Artists Fund—to get emergency money to independent musicians on the island to pay rent and other expenses after the hurricane. 

Fonsi doesn’t attribute the Latin music explosion of 2017 with being the sole reason for the attention given to Puerto Rico during its recovery. There are definitely people outside of the music world lending helping hands. Fonsi, however, concedes that without Bieber’s surprise remix of “Despacito,” the song may not have attracted as much international attention because it is in a different language. 

“I think it did sort of kick a door wide open for Latin music to take the stage it needed to take,” Fonsi said. “Even without ‘Despacito,’ it was a big responsibility for me to help however I could at every level.”

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