October 2, 2017

La Tierra de Borinquen

Bruce Ridge shares thoughts on la Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico

Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico's in America!

--From West Side Story

One full week after hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, the strongest to hit the island since 1928, the New York Times published a poll confirming that nearly half of all Americans do not know that Puerto Ricans are also American citizens. Perhaps this is one of the unsettling reasons for the inexplicably slow response from our federal government to offer assistance to the people of Puerto Rico, where 3.5 million Americans live on an island in the Atlantic that is 35 miles by 100 miles, and where people are currently dying. They are not dying from the storm; they are dying from neglect that has now surpassed eight days.

Administration officials in Washington maintain that they are doing a great job in aiding the recovery, despite evidence to the contrary. The Acting Secretary of Homeland Security even had the audacity to claim that this is a “good news story.”

The actress Rosie Perez stated in an interview this week that Puerto Ricans have always been made to feel “less-than, sub-par, second-hand citizens.” It now appears they are being treated that way at their greatest moment of crisis.

Tonight as I worry about my friends in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, I draw some comfort from knowing how resilient and brave the people of Puerto Rico have always been, and I know this because I know the musicians of la Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico.

I first visited Puerto Rico in 2005, arriving at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport at 2:40 am on the morning of December 12. I had traveled to meet with the musicians of the Puerto Rico Symphony. My scheduled traveling companions weren’t with me, as one became too ill for such a long trip, and the other missed a flight. So I was alone, in the middle of the night, unsure of what language to speak, unsure of how to get to a hotel, and unsure how to find the meetings the next day. This was before smart phones, and I had a few concerns.

But any concerns I had were immediately dispelled, as everyone I approached was eager to assist me. I found a hotel, and shortly after sunrise I heard from José Martín, the orchestra’s timpanist and ICSOM delegate. José then served as my translator and guide, starting a long friendship.

As I read through all of my correspondence from Puerto Rico, I found a note that José sent me on October 11, 2016, as Hurricane Matthew was hitting my home state of North Carolina. I was not in any peril from this storm, though the eastern part of the state suffered terribly. But me, my basement flooded and that was all, yet José was so concerned. I was especially touched to re-read that note this week.

In that visit in 2005 I met the entire orchestra (at the time ICSOM’s newest member), and heard a rehearsal at Sala Sinfónica Casals, the performing arts center that is home to the orchestra, adorned with a huge portrait of Pablo Casals in the lobby.

Following the rehearsal, we all had to move through Old San Juan to a street that housed many of the island’s unions. The entire orchestra met with me, along with then-ICSOM Chair Jan Gippo, in a room where the walls were covered with portraits of rifle-carrying revolutionaries. We met for hours, and every member of the orchestra stayed. We all left together.

The musicians were fighting for their orchestra’s survival against the actions of a governmental agency that sought to change the laws and take the right of collective bargaining from the musicians. The orchestra has always been managed by governmental entities, and often the managers appointed by the government have had no real arts management experience. There have been many such fights over the years. In these struggles the musicians have always been unified, and in 2005 they were all wearing orange armbands of protest. I still have one of those armbands on display in my music room.

The orchestra was created by Pablo Casals himself, and then officially by the legislature of Puerto Rico, and its first concert was played on April 6, 1958. It is a beautiful legacy and the musicians have kept Pau Casals’s dream alive for almost 60 years. It is a dream that cannot die with this storm.

I found in that first visit that I knew many of the musicians from my own childhood. A number of music students traveled to North Carolina in the early 80’s to study at the Eastern Music Festival, and they have all had amazing careers, some remaining in Puerto Rico, and some achieving the highest positions in our field. Ricardo Morales, the principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was among that group of my childhood friends. Puerto Rico has always been a rich environment for musical talent.

But as rich as the island is with music, it is poor in many ways. Puerto Rico has been in a recession for 11 years, and the territorial government has accumulated debt. But that debt should not be cited by officials in Washington at this time. Debt doesn’t serve as a reason why people can’t have water, or medicine, or basic sanitation.

It does seem that the people of Puerto Rico have been treated as “less-thans” all too often. If 50% of Americans don’t know that Puerto Rico is in America, I imagine at least as many don’t know that Puerto Ricans living on the island can’t vote in the presidential election. They can have a primary, but they have no voice in the general election. And Congress? They have a representative in Congress who has no vote.

One wonders if the people of Puerto Rico were viewed as voters by politicians, would there be military planes arriving with supplies the day after the storm? America was able to deliver supplies during the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49, landing over 200,000 flights in one year. It was a great country that brought supplies to Berlin over 68 years ago, and such a great country can surely reach San Juan in 2017.

I returned to San Juan in 2016 to see my great friends and to hear a performance that featured the orchestra alongside music students from across the island. Before the concert I dined with the musicians backstage, and then as they prepared, I wandered in the plaza in front of the hall among stunning statues of the Muses of art, poetry, music, and dance. The Muses are beautifully portrayed in a modest state of undress, and every time I’m there I marvel at such a tribute to the arts, and then I wonder how many cities across America would find such statues controversial.

The concert was the most joyous performance I heard during my time travelling for ICSOM. The positive impact of the orchestra was clear as I watched and listened to the performance with the students. After the concert, no one left. Parents, students, and musicians all stayed together, onstage and backstage, talking about music and their dreams…a dream created by Casals.

Tonight as I write I realize that surely almost everyone I saw that night, the young hopeful faces, the proud parents, the indefatigable musicians of the orchestra, are standing in lines for hours, hoping for water. They are hoping that help arrives before the elderly succumb in the heat that persists in late September, they are wondering if their instruments survived the storm, and after so long without aid they must be wondering if they themselves will survive.

Puerto Rico is the most beautiful place I’ve been in my life, and it’s not just because of the natural beauty of the island, or how peaceful and buoyant you feel swimming in the Atlantic off Isle Verde, so far from my own home. More importantly, it is beautiful to me because of the people I’ve met there. The orchestra is deeply important to the island and all its people, and I know that when the time comes, musicians from throughout ICSOM—and throughout the world—will rally to ensure this orchestra survives. But before that, we must find a way for the people to survive. There is almost no water, food is running low, and what electricity they have is from generators that are now running out of fuel.

The anthem of Puerto Rico is La Borinqueña, from the original name of the island. The lyrics proclaim:

“Borinquen is the daughter,
the daughter of the sea and the sun.”

Somehow I find it difficult to worry about who is or isn’t kneeling for our National Anthem at a time when Americans, no matter how far away, have been forced to their knees by this storm. America is a great country, and now we can demonstrate greatness by focusing on what is important: helping our fellow human beings and citizens.

ICSOM Chairperson Meredith Snow, along with the ICSOM Governing Board, has been monitoring the situation in Puerto Rico closely. An ICSOM Call to Action to assist the musicians of the Puerto Rico Symphony has now been issued by the Board. Donations can be made by contacting ICSOM President Paul Austin at

Puerto Rico will recover, and the orchestra will serve as a source of inspiration for the people as they rebuild their lives. But every musician, and every American, must be prepared to assist so that the words of the island’s anthem will once again ring true.

A constantly clear sky
serves as its canopy.
And placid lullabies are sung
by the waves at its feet.

Former ICSOM Chair Bruce Ridge with members of la Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico