Lin-Manuel Miranda will never stop saying Maria – not whilst the people of Puerto Rico still need aid.
It has been over a month since devastation hit Puerto Rico in the form of Hurricane Maria, and the progress and aid still needed on the island has shocked the globe. On September 20, Hurricane Maria – a powerful Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds – hit the Caribbean island and US territory. The majority of the island’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, with over 90% of the island left without power. As of early November, the numbers aren’t much better. More than a third of Puerto Rican households still lack running water – in other words, over 1 million people. On top of this, 70% still lack power, and attempts to restore it have been complicated through suspect tenders and industrial controversy. Meanwhile, hospitals are running on generators, residents are queuing for hours in the hopes of getting petrol, and the death toll on the island has recently been revealed to have exceeded 900 – although the ‘official’ figure dubiously still sits at around 50.
It seems bleak, yet as with many tragedies in our world, Puerto Rico’s crisis has been met with an outpouring of love from those witnessing it. This love has been from the American people, those watching from abroad, and even school children moved to send their pocket money to the relief efforts. Amongst those moved to help have been countless celebrities, including Jenifer Lopez, Jimmy Fallon and Leonardo DiCaprio – yet for many, it is hard to say ‘Puerto Rico’ without thinking of work being inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
In case you didn’t know, the American composer has become an accolade magnet in recent years; he has won a Pulitzer Prize, several Emmys, Grammys and Tonys, an honorary doctorate and even an Oscar nomination. Most of these awards were for his two Broadway musicals, In the Heights and Hamilton, with the Oscar nomination going to the original song “How Far I’ll Go”, one of his uplifting ear-worms for Disney film Moana.
Miranda’s award shelf is as remarkable as it is well deserved; his work has succeeded in re-addressing the way we approach racial casting in theatre, with the phrase “doing a Hamilton” organically being coined as directors begin to free up traditionally white roles to a diverse range of actors. This was achieved by Miranda’s own ethnicity-blind casting in Hamilton, the self-proclaimed ‘American Musical’ that tells the story of the USA’s fight for independence via the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, through unexpected but extremely fitting hip-hop. The musical was seven years in the making and is so popular that it is still nearly impossible to get tickets. However, Hamilton is but one of many similarly inspiring projects from Miranda, telling under-told stories of immigrants and the US’s ethnic diversity through musicals such as In the Heights and 21 Chump Street, right through to Disney’s beloved Hawaiian animated feature.
Miranda has said that when he creates, he writes from a place of love, and perhaps that is why his work continues to move its audiences with contagious optimism time and again. Himself the child of Puerto Rican immigrants, Lin grew up in the Washington Heights, and the many voices of America and Puerto Rico have stayed close to his heart. It is unsurprising, then, that when tragedy hit the island of his family, he was amongst those to act.
On September 20th, Miranda was in Austria, and his experiences of attempting to contact friends and family were shared with many Puerto Ricans living abroad: with power and telecommunications on the island down, people were unable to get any word from their loved ones. Instead, they were contacting each other, asking if anyone had news from the various towns.
For 48 hours, it was next to impossible to contact residents on the island, and these pleas of town names became the only word. Frantic for something to do to channel his anxiety, Miranda turned to what he knows best. He penned each of the 78 town names into a song: they were lyrics that would snowball into a two-week collaboration between salsa and rap legends, and would result in an iTunes best-seller that would raise millions of dollars for his home.
The song, “Almost Like Praying”, takes its title from Sondheim’s “Maria” in West Side Story. As Miranda told Sway Calloway on The Wake Up Show, hip-hop often takes an idea and flips it – this is what he wanted to do with the name Maria and the song it usually evokes. Sondheim gave his blessing for lyrics from the song to be used, and the rest of the track – a celebratory, heartfelt mantra running through every town name – does, oddly enough, serve as a sort of prayer. Penned in the need to create change, sung by an amazing 22 collaborating artists, it is hard to ignore that this song feels like its own style of prayer every time it plays, as the 78 names are repeated with love once more.
The collaborators on the project are a roll call of music legends. Hispanic artists, rappers and pop influencers from Puerto Rico and beyond sing in powerful solidarity: the full roster features Ruben Blades, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Fat Joe, Joell Ortiz, Marc Anthony, Camila Cabello, Luis Fonsi, Rita Moreno, John Leguizamo, Gina Rodriguez, Juan Luis Guerra, Ana Villafañe, Tommy Torres, PJ Sin Suela, Anthony Ramos, Ednita Nazario, Gloria Estefan, Dessa, Pedro Capó, Alex Lacamoire and Jennifer Lopez. For those well versed in these genres, it’s an incredible line-up, and for those less in the known, JLo’s vocals are still sure to leap out at you! Whatever your tastes, this dance track is sure to get your feet moving: the tragedy it is responding to, the tune is a vibrant celebration of Puerto Rico, utilizing iconic sounds such as the steel drum, cowbell and even the haunting chirrup of the coqui – Puerto Rico’s iconic local tree frog.
A labour of love from all involved, collaborators joined the project in a chain reaction, passing it on to their contacts and drawing together the incredible group the track boasts. In Miranda’s words, “the artists made miracles happen,” with all 22 vocals recorded in under a week, and the finished track available for download only a fortnight after conception. An iTunes #1 seller in 17 countries, and top 10 in 25, the song helped raise the Hispanic Federation over $14 million in only 24 days. This is just some of the money rushing to the country, with Americans and those further afield moved to give both by Miranda’s team’s efforts and through other charities and initiatives, as well as simply seeing the heart-breaking news playing out day by day. However, it’s undeniable that “Almost Like Praying” and the running updates and appeals from both Lin-Manuel and his father, Luis Miranda, have kept Puerto Rico in people’s ears and on their lips.
The American government has been criticized by many over its own slow response to the crisis, especially given that the island is a US territory. Despite not being a part of the USA’s mainland, Puerto Rico is never the less home to 3.4 million US citizens – the Puerto Rican people – who have been left feeling unvalued by the US President due to his slow responses, as well as his derogatory comments about the island being “lazy” in the wake of the crisis. Miranda has not always been able to keep his frustration at the American president out of his tweets, but more than anything, he has been signal-boosting the amazing charity efforts coming in from around the globe. The composer has repeatedly expressed his amazement at people’s generosity and the strength of their responses – as well as calling the American government to match the passion of this response with their own.
These encouraging tweets and calls to action are far from rare on Miranda’s twitter, which bookends most days with a word of motivation to his fans to pursue their dreams, embrace their potential and do good deeds. In his own words regarding his Twitter feed, “I try to be the silver lining in the world, given what the world is today”. Leading by example, Lin has created a culture of kindness in his fanbase – one that has seen fans choose to stay in school, take risks on their dreams, reach out to others and, unsurprisingly, rally together for an island in need.
However, the real applause should perhaps go to Lin-Manuel’s father. Moving to New York from Puerto Rico, Luis Miranda became the founding President of the Hispanic Federation in 1990. The charity is a leading Latino non-profit organization dedicated to supporting Hispanic communities. As its President, Luis became one of New York’s key voices representing the need for increased support to Latino charities.
Now, the Hispanic Federation have been an essential responder to this crisis. In the first 24 days, the Federation was able to deliver more than 1,000,000 pounds of emergency supplies across the island, as well as chartering nine relief flights; they helped to open donation sites at 17 New York firehouses and worked with them on distribution; they spoke directly with the mayors of all 78 Puerto Rican towns, identifying their needs in order to streamline aid delivery; they made an initial investment of $1M to purchase food water & provisions from supplier/distribution companies on the island to maximize fast and reliable routes to harder-to-reach areas, and dedicated $2.5 million to identifying and vetting reliable community organisations to deliver the long-term support and social services necessary.
Phew! That was all in the first 24 days, with much more taking place since then. Many other charities and groups have also been jumping to get involved – but, given the scale of the destruction and slow response from the US government, there is still a long way to go. Thankfully, people are still giving. At the time of publication, Lin-Manuel is currently in Puerto Rico to catch up with the Hispanic Federation and report the ongoing situation to his followers and the wider world. These updates are posting alongside a Facebook fundraiser aiming to gather a further $100,000 towards the island’s ongoing needs. In a moving collective gesture, donations already broke the $50,000 mark on the campaign’s first day, most of which was given before Miranda had even landed on the island.
So how can you get involved? Every ‘follow’ of Miranda’s “Almost Like Praying” Spotify playlist, “For Puerto Rico Por Puerto Rico”, achieves a donation to the cause from Spotify, as does every save, stream and purchase of the “Almost Like Praying” track. You can buy it on iTunes, watch it on YouTube – there are a dozen ways to enjoy the song, and each one will get much needed funds to the island. However, the simplest and quickest way is to give to the Hispanic Federation directly. 100% of your donation will go to the relief effort, and there is still much work to be done.