Five years ago, artist Mara Torres Gonzalez and her husband ran a successful event design business in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Their young daughter was doing well in school and their teenage son followed his passion, training every day as a member of the Puerto Rico National Swim Team.
But in September 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, causing thousands of deaths, catastrophic flooding and the destruction of the electricity grid in the United States.
“We thought the windows were going to explode,” Torres Gonzalez said of the night Maria made landfall. “You could hear stuff flying around, like debris, and you were afraid some of it was coming through one of your windows. It was just the longest night of our lives.”
The next morning, it became apparent that life in Puerto Rico would never be the same.
“When we opened our front door, we opened a door to a new world,” she said. “It looked like a war zone or an apocalypse. No trees, everything was gray. Of course, there was no electricity, no water, no cellphones, no communication period .”
According to research, federal disaster assistance to Puerto Rico after Maria took significantly longer than for hurricane-affected communities in Texas and Florida in the 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 his family so he could continue his education.
“Swimming is his passion and we knew it wasn’t 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 one of more than 100,000 people to leave Puerto Rico to start a new life in Florida.
They settled in Sarasota where Torres González, is the owner of MARA Art Studio + Gallery.
“When they get home, they still lose power every other day,” she said of their decision to move. “I love Puerto Rico. I wish I was there right now, but it’s just harder. You have to go through so many hard things to get there. And here, if you work hard, life is easier. . Everything is working. “
But, says the artist, life on the continent required some adjustments.
“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, everyone is at home.”
But, says the artist, she found a sense of belonging through her work as an artist.
“My goal with the gallery is to include not only professional artists, but also emerging artists and art students,” she said. “So I’ve had Ringling art students here showing their work. I do opening nights. I teach. I’ve collaborated with nonprofits. So I’ve connected with community through art.”
Torres González tells the story of resilience, through “209”, which refers to the date Hurricane Maria took place – September 20. The new art book features images of Torres González’s mixed media paintings, along with photographs.
You can learn more about the project and meet the artist, Tuesday from 4 p.m. at the Sarasota Art Museum.