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The Holidays Post-Maria: Puerto Ricans Still 'Need To Party,' Musician Says


In August and September of this year, hurricanes ripped through Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. Today and tomorrow on the program, we're going to check back in with a few people we heard from shortly after the hurricanes made landfall.


Hector Matos is 49 years old. He lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Matos is a Grammy-nominated musician. He plays traditional Puerto Rican music called bomba and plena.


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

SUAREZ: When we last heard from him, he was walking the streets of San Juan.


HECTOR MATOS: 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.

SHAPIRO: Hurricane Maria had just demolished his burger joint and music venue. It was called La Junta. Before the hurricane, you could see film screenings there. There were workshops, and there was always live music. Three months later, he recalls in vivid detail how hectic the first few days after the hurricane were.

MATOS: There was no communication. I couldn't talk to my wife through the cellphone because there was no connection at all. There were no power, so during the night, we couldn't do anything. But during the day, we called some friends with pickups and all that, and I emptied most of the restaurant equipment and the sound system that we had inside and the TVs and all that. Of course things got stolen, but I will say that at least 85 percent of the most valuable stuff still in our hands for hopefully a future venture with La Junta.

As soon as we got our stuff in a safe place, we started going out of San Juan, recognizing other bomba and plena practitioners like me who were struggling, recognizing their needs and starting to find help for them. You know, we didn't have time to feel sad (laughter). We just wanted to, you know, keep doing whatever was needed from us in order to help people who were in even worse shape than us.

SUAREZ: And Hector Matos, his wife, his friends haven't stopped visiting those rural communities. Now they're putting on holiday parrandas. Parrandas are a Puerto Rican tradition. Musicians go door to door singing Christmas songs. They're offered food and drink, and they invite people at each house to come join them - a moveable fiesta, if you will.

MATOS: (Singing in Spanish). That's a traditional plena song that we use when we are giving the parranda. So can you imagine, it's, like, 12 midnight or maybe close to 1 a.m. We are approaching the door of the home. And we start playing, and we open with that song that says, open the door, please. Open the windows because we are going to be having a Christmas party until next morning.

The reaction - to see at least for a couple of hours people laughing, people forgetting that there is no water and no power, forgetting that maybe they lost some part or their complete home - at least for a couple of hours, they forgot about everything, and they just sing with us. They dance with us. They eat with us.

SHAPIRO: Puerto Ricans are trying to hold on to tradition. But three months after Maria, thousands of people are still without power. According to some estimates, more than a hundred thousand people have left for the mainland, and officials are still trying to figure out the death toll. Matos says he doesn't know if Puerto Rico will ever be the same.

MATOS: Now after Maria, this is going to take decades for the island to be back again. And I am not even sure if it's going to be as it was before. I mean, everything is being touched by Maria in many respects. So parties are going to happen. Families are going to meet and having a good time. But again, it's going to be different in the sense that not everybody is going to have the chance. And almost everybody has that in their head.

SUAREZ: Hector Matos is a bomba and plena musician in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "RUINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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