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Sarasota artist creates images of resiliency, five years after Hurricane Maria uprooted life in Puerto Rico

Image of concrete home after hurricane
Mara Torres González’, IMPOTENCIA
Months after Hurricane María, a quarter of the island still lacked electricity. “209,” a new book of artwork, features images of Mara Torres González’s mixed-media paintings, with photography.

Hurricane Fiona's arrival in Puerto Rico on Sunday came almost exactly five years after Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island, causing thousands of deaths and widespread destruction.

Five years ago, artist Mara Torres Gonzalez and her husband were running a successful events design company in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Their young daughter was doing well in school and their teenage son was following his passion, training everyday as a member of Puerto Rico's national swim team.

But in September 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, causing thousands of deaths, catastrophic flooding, and the destruction of the U.S. territory's power grid.

"We thought windows were going to just explode," said Torres Gonzalez of the night Maria made landfall. "You could hear stuff flying, like debris, and you were afraid that some of that was going to go through one of your windows. It was just the longest night of our lives."

The next morning, it became clear that life in Puerto Rico would not be the same.

"When we opened our front door, we opened a door to a new world," she said. "It looked like between a war zone or an apocalypse. No trees, everything was gray. Of course there was no power, no water, no cell phone, no communication period."

Painting in white and blue of eye of hurricane
Mara Torres González, @MARIA
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane María made landfall in Puerto Rico with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour and torrential rain for more than 30 hours.

According to research, federal disaster aid to Puerto Rico after Maria took far longer than it did for hurricane impacted communities in Texas and Florida that same year.

That's why in the weeks that followed, Torres Gonzalez and her husband made the tough decision to send their son to live in Colorado with family so that he would be able to continue his training.

"Swimming is his passion and we knew that it was not going to be just a month out of the water for him," she said. "It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do but it was the right thing to do for him."

In July 2018, the rest of the family became among the more than 100,000 people to leave Puerto Rico to make a new life in Florida.

They settled in Sarasota where Torres González, is the owner of MARA Art Studio + Gallery.

"Back home, they're still losing power every other day," she said of their decision to relocate. "I love Puerto Rico. I would love to be there right now but it's just tougher. You have to go through so many hard things to make it through. And here, if you work hard, life is easier. Everything kind of works."

But, the artist says, life on the mainland took some adjusting.

"It's been a challenge because it's different," she said. "Like in Puerto Rico, your neighbors are your family. Here, you don't see your neighbors, everybody is in their homes."

In 'Reconocidos,' numbers on the right side of artwork refer to the changing death toll in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.
Mara Torres González,@ Reconocidos
In 'Reconocidos,' numbers on the right side of artwork refer to the changing death toll in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

But, the artist says, she has found a sense of belonging through her work as an artist.

"My purpose with the gallery is to include not only professional artists, but emerging artists and art students," she said. "So, I've had here art students from the Ringling show their work. I do opening nights. I teach. I've collaborated with nonprofits. So, I've been connecting with the community through art."

Torres González tells the story of the resilient, through “209,” which refers to the date Hurricane Maria took place — September 20. The new book of artworks features images of Torres González’s mixed-media paintings, with photography.

You can hear more about the project and meet the artist, Tuesday starting at 4 pm at the Sarasota Art Museum.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.