‘Art has power, students have power’: Puerto Rican students fundraise for Hurricane Fiona relief at art exhibition


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

An art exhibit to fundraise for hurricane Fiona relief in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic held in Frick Fine Arts on Wednesday.

By Renee Dubaich, Staff Writer

Student-made drawings, paintings, digital art, photography, poetry, jewelry, films and music filled the cloister in the Frick Fine Arts Building Friday night. Three Pitt students organized the exhibition as a fundraiser following the disastrous effects of Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico. 

Luciana Marie De Jesus, a sophomore double majoring in classics and women, gender and sexuality studies, acted as business manager for the event. She said she and her two friends,  Amaya Lobato and Irene Sofía Castillo Maldonado, got the idea for an art exhibition fundraiser because the trio wanted to spread awareness of cultural diversity and unity through art.

“Nothing really brings people together like artwork and culture does,” De Jesus said. “The combination of it being a fundraiser, getting people to come do something nice on a Friday night, and look at art — I think it was a really nice intersection. It’s something we all needed.”

About 200 attendees showed their support by talking to the artists, purchasing their work and donating to the relief fund. The pieces conveyed messages of hope, oppression, diversity, emotion, beauty, diaspora, culture and identity. Through donations and revenue from the sold artwork, the relief fund raised $1,621.

Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

De Jesus, Lobato and Maldonado organized the event in one week after hearing about how Hurricane Fiona impacted Puerto Rico. The post-tropical cyclone reached Puerto Rico on Sept. 17 and caused extensive damage to the island’s infrastructure. The magnitude of the damage reveals deeply-rooted political and human rights problems on the island.

De Jesus said her family has roots in Puerto Rico, so she felt a strong urge to advocate for people who couldn’t escape the disaster. She said she hoped the expo encouraged other students to help.

“Puerto Rican people are real, this is a present-day thing. These are all real people who are still around and are still being oppressed, and so that’s the more serious thing that I want people to take away,” De Jesus said. “Art has power, students have power. Anyone could do something like this, we just put our minds to it. At the end of the day students want to help each other.”

Chanita Russell, a junior public health major, said she attended the event to express her support for the important cause and appreciate other students’ artwork. 

“I wanted to come and show my support as best as I can,” Russell said. “The art is absolutely gorgeous. Seeing how people are able to express their feelings through something that they are passionate about is very beautiful, even through simple things like photography, you don’t ever take that into consideration, but when you sit and look at it you can really see how passionate people are.”

Lobato, a sophomore media and professional communications major and artistic manager for the event, exhibited her own work. Lobato’s display included colorful and black and white photos of her daily life in Puerto Rico with an old film camera. 

Lobato was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her roots are meaningful to her because she still has ties to friends and family there. She added that the exhibition allowed students, especially students of color, to display their artwork.

“We need more diversity and we need a place where people come together, and we have people from very different cultures who are going to show their art,” Lobato said. “Your culture shows through your art, so you’re gonna have a little melting pot of cultures.”

Zack Rodick, a sophomore philosophy and psychology major, sold CDs of his lo-fi indie music and copies of his original poetry at the event. He explained the urgency of the hurricane and how fundraising like this can make a huge impact, no matter how small.

“So many families have been devastated by Hurricane Fiona, especially in Puerto Rico. A lot of areas are completely without power and I think our government isn’t doing enough to help them out,”  Rodick said. “So all the revenue for this goes to relief funds in Puerto Rico, so that people can be provided with food, shelter, water, housing and power. It’s like a drop in the ocean, but anything counts at this point.”

Maldonado, a sophomore history of art and architecture major, was the curator and installer for the event. She explained how Puerto Rico faced a similar emergency back in 2017 with Hurricane Maria — and since then, little has changed to prepare the island for future risks.

“Hurricane Maria was catastrophic,” Maldonado said. “And that was five years ago, and five years later nothing had changed. They did not fix practically anything. They were not ready for a category one hurricane.”

Maldonado said this is not only an issue of natural disaster, but the hurricane also revealed the United States’ lack of support for Puerto Rico. A law from 1920 requires that imports into the island must be authorized by the U.S. government. Because of these restrictions, resources are scarce, putting the entire island at risk.

Maldonado added that it’s important to acknowledge art, culture and diversity especially within the Pittsburgh community in order to raise awareness. She encouraged others to embrace their roots in order to enact beneficial change. 

“These are real stories that you are reading, and the stories go beyond disastrous situations within the country, so if you can find it in your heart to help, and in a way where you are advocating for their voices,” Maldonado said. “Enjoy your culture, and advocate for your country. Be the reason that your country makes a change.”

Editor’s Note: Amaya Lobato is a photographer for The Pitt News.