Why Puerto Rico mourns a musician

In 2004, Reyes Angleró invited friends to celebrate Matos’ birthday in Plaza del Mercado de Santurce. Word quickly spread that Tito Matos was playing, and pleneros from around San Juan and beyond began to arrive. A crowd sang and danced as musicians played an impromptu traveling concert, which made its way through the streets. (Frequent in the past, these events had mostly fallen out of fashion decades earlier.) By the end of the night, a plan had been hatched: Matos would organize plenazos callejeros, as he called them, in a different city every month. Over the next few years he organized seventy-one, each attended by hundreds of people.

A few thousand people, including pleneros with their panderetaswaders, cabezudosfriends and neighbors – gathered to say goodbye to Matos. Photograph by Ricardo Alcaraz Diaz

Matos taught plena to dozens of children and adults (including women) plenazos. Pandereta manufacturers prospered. “A lot of people started playing plena, thanks to Tito,” Monxo López, environmental activist and curator at the Museum of the City of New York, told me. During a visit one summer, López, to his astonishment, found his father playing in a plenazo callejero. In 2015, Matos and Reyes Angleró opened La Junta, a bar, theater and concert hall, not far from their home. It became a center of San Juan’s social life, a meeting place for artists, intellectuals and musicians, but also for their neighbors. Matos felt as much at home among the workers as among the thinkers. “When Tito was in the room, everyone gravitated towards him,” Zenón said.

At that time, the island was in crisis. Puerto Ricans had been suffering from an economic recession since 2006, when the US Congress ended longstanding federal tax benefits for corporations operating on the island. This was followed by reckless indebtedness and – after the local government was unable to service its debt and its bonds were written down to junk status – formal bankruptcy, in 2017. Congress created a board of supervisors that took control of the island’s finances, leading to cuts in pension benefits and the gutting of public services. According to At the Pew Research Center, data from the US Census Bureau shows that between 2010 and 2013, one hundred and forty-four thousand more people left the island for the American mainland than the reverse, in the “first sustained population decline of its history as a US territory. Around this time, the Puerto Rico legislature passed Bill 22, which created a tax haven for wealthy Americans, who began moving in. Matos collaborated on the song “PR No Se Vende” (“Puerto Rico Is Not For Sale”), which tells the story of a family who travels to a favorite beach only to find it closed, as it has been bought by “a grumpy who can’t even speak Spanish.

Then came Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s most catastrophic natural disaster in over a hundred years. The storm hit the island on September 20, 2017. It knocked out the power grid, left sixty percent of the population without water and, according to a Harvard University study, led to the death of more than forty five hundred people. The damage was estimated at more than one hundred billion dollars. Everywhere, but especially in remote rural areas, people were left without electricity, water, fuel or food. “The island has gone back forty years in time”, El Nuevo Diathe most widely circulated newspaper on the island, reported. Adding to the calamity, Governor Ricardo Rosselló downplayed the death toll (for months the official tally was sixty-four), an official mocked the victims in privateand other officials turned out to have fraud the government.

There were many protests. The Junta had been destroyed, so Matos joined them, led songs and wrote plenas, including one after Donald Trump, on a brief trip to the island, threw rolls of paper towels at a crowd. (“Go home!”) In the summer of 2019, Matos was at the forefront of major protests that preceded Rosselló’s resignation. But he also played an important role in post-Maria reconstruction, his friend Libertad Guerra, a cultural anthropologist, told me. Meanwhile, Matos and Reyes Angleró organized people to recover an old public school that had been abandoned by the city government, and in 2020 they turned it into a community center, named Taller Comunidad La Goyco, from name of 19th century anti-slavery leader Pedro Goyco. One of their models was the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, run by Guerra, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side; it is named after the poet and activist who mentored many generations of Latinx artists and was created by the local Puerto Rican and Latinx community in the 1990s.

Goyco offers plena classes, art workshops, movie nights, jazz concerts, a public library and recycling services. It also houses La Casa de la Plena, a museum dedicated to music. (Matos, at the time of his death, was pursuing a master’s degree in cultural administration at the University of Puerto Rico, in order to better document plena history.) When covidAffected by -19, the center has also become a vaccination and screening site. “After years of incompetence on the part of our leaders,” Sánchez told me, “his movement has empowered people. It has freed their minds. Yet it continues to play on street corners and in the bars. Rita Indiana told me that, each week, there would be three different events involving Matos. “Tito carried all of San Juan’s cultural nightlife on his shoulders,” she said. effort to describe his role, López asked me to imagine “someone with the talent of John Coltrane, who directs, plugs in the microphones, brings the beers, plays brilliantly and, after the concert, puts everything away for that, the next day, everything is ready for the next person who will come to play.

On the morning of January 18, Matos cooked breakfast for his eight-year-old son (he also had two adult children from his first marriage), who had a school day away, due to the pandemic, and told Reyes Angleró that he was going to La Goyco. As he was getting ready, he collapsed. He never regained consciousness. News of his death “spread like wildfire,” Reyes Angleró told me. Three days later, a few thousand people gathered to bid him farewell. Pleneros with their panderetaswaders, cabezudos (giant papier-mâché puppets), friends and neighbors walked behind his coffin for fifteen blocks, from where La Junta had stood to La Goyco. There, for several hours into the night, his life and legacy were celebrated as he would have wished: with music, dancing, beer, stories, laughter and lots of tears.


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