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Puerto Rico's 'Singing Newspapers'


We're going to switch gears now, shift the focus over to Puerto Rico. The governor there says the official death toll from Hurricane Maria has risen to 34. That's more than double the previous estimate of 16. And this comes after President Trump's visit to San Juan, where he congratulated Puerto Rico on what he described as a low death toll. The storm that struck two weeks ago knocked out electricity and access to clean water all around Puerto Rico. Many are still in shelters. Some are living in the ruins of their homes. The once lush green trees were stripped bare and uprooted. NPR's Mandalit del Barco sent this report from Puerto Rico about how people there are coping.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: There are two quintessential Puerto Rican sounds that survived Hurricanes Irma and Maria. One is the tiny coqui frog.


DEL BARCO: The other is the improvised Afro-Puerto Rican call-and-reponse tradition known as plena.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICIANS: (Singing) Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico...

DEL BARCO: Last Sunday a group of musicians gathered in Loiza, a small town known for African-inspired folklore. The annual Calle Loiza Festival was canceled because of the hurricane, but that didn't let them stop them from parading through the streets with hand drums. Drumming and singing with them was Emmanuel Santana from the band Plena Libre.

EMMANUEL SANTANA: It is very, very Puerto Rican. Every time a Puerto Rican hears the drums, called panderos, you can have them come down in tears in - in a time like this. Course, there is no electricity to even hear music. You can - you don't have no MP3s right now so we're back to basics.

DEL BARCO: As they traveled on the sidewalk from bar to bar, they attracted followers who sang along. Leading them was Hector Matos, known as Tito Matos, a Grammy nominee and one of Puerto Rico's best-known known pleneros. He drums and sings plenas about the love he has for the island.

HECTOR MATOS: Love Mother Earth, respect of nature, you know, environment. Trying to use the moment to also teach the young generation these hurricanes are coming faster, bigger and stronger than ever, and that's because of us.

DEL BARCO: Matos is a member of the group Los Pleneros de la 21. He's recorded and toured with Eddie Palmieri, David Sanchez and Ricky Martin. He also owns a restaurant in Loiza, in a wooden building that was demolished in the hurricane. Then it was vandalized.

MATOS: I had to deal with the issues of the hurricane and also go back every day to try to salvage some stuff. But look at my face. We are happy. I mean, we - we are alive. All my family members are fine and well. And we can rebuild with our without [expletive] Trump.

DEL BARCO: Matos says he's not impressed by President Trump's declarations that the hurricane relief is going well. Puerto Ricans continue to struggle without food, water and electricity. He says he and his pleneros wanted to bring them a little joy with the music.


DEL BARCO: Missy Adamus is a chef at Matos's restaurant.

MISSY ADAMUS: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: She says while they're on standby trying to rebuild the restaurant, their homes, their lives, at least they still have their music.

ADAMUS: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "Music has brought to life what was dead on Loiza Street," she says. Plenas are known as sung newspapers, giving the latest updates on what people are feeling and the news of the day. The headline of this week's plenas was about the devastation of Hurricane Maria.


DEL BARCO: Winding through the streets of Loiza, they sang about resilience. Emmanuel Santana translated.

SANTANA: Our plena, our song, our music is stronger. Our community is stronger than Maria.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Loiza, Puerto Rico.


[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, the location is misidentified as the town of Loiza, Puerto Rico. The story was reported in the San Juan neighborhood of Calle Loiza.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 5, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this report, the location is misidentified as the town of Loiza, Puerto Rico. The story was reported in the San Juan neighborhood of Calle Loiza.
As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition,, and