Art Walk, A Community Effort to Revitalize Rincón’s Social Infrastructure
What started as a community effort to support starving artists six years ago, quickly evolved into one of the most popular cultural happenings in the west, breathing new life into Rincón’s Plaza and strengthening the link between Puerto Rican culture and this surfing town’s economy.
By Lauce Colón Perez
Every Thursday, when the sun sets, Rincón’s town square, rare amongst Puerto Rican cities, lights up to welcome hundreds of locals and tourists who’ve come to town to enjoy its music, art, and culture. While storefronts in other towns shut down and board up, restaurants, cafes, bars, and even bakeries around Rincón’s Plaza stay open late into the night, bustling with locals and visitors who’ve come downtown to enjoy the arts and meet the once starving but now thriving artesanos of Art Walk.
“Artesanía is the ability to take the raw material from our land and turn it into something useful that represents our Puerto Rican culture,” explained Wanda Ramírez, one of the many passionate craftswomen that take center stage every Thursday night, about her art, heavily inspired by her rich tri-cultural heritage: African, Spanish and Taíno. “I work with leather, a craft passed down from our African ancestors,” she added as the ground beneath her feet reverberated with the beating of Bomba drums, the barriles.
Many who’ve moved to Rincón in the last few years have come to know and love the plaza thanks to Art Walk, this eclectic mix of all the arts that has made the public plaza the cultural and economic hub of this surfing town, but six years ago it all started as a community lifeline for starving artists.
“We wanted to help artesanos that were going through homelessness; living on the beach, living in the woods,” Vanessa Rodríguez, one of the founders of Art Walk, told A Rinconvenient Truth, “because how can we have successful businesses without a thriving community?”
When Vanessa and her partner, Heidi, moved to Rincón from New Jersey in 2012, they sought to open their own business in town square. Other than a handmade shoe store, Cosmic Sole was an open gallery where local artists could showcase their creations. Soon enough, local craftswomen and men came walking in. “Artesanos would be the ones coming into our store asking for help. They needed help selling their jewelry, selling their craft,” Rodríguez remembered.
In response, Vanessa joined forces with other downtown business owners, like Anthony Smith (Taller Caribe), Melvin Cardona (Dulcis Vita), and Addie Canino (Sabai Tao), and many others, to create a weekly venue for artesanos to cash in on their creations. Their original idea was to have visitors hop from one business to another, peruse the art, talk to the artists, and buy their favorite pieces, all on the sidewalks around the plaza.
In 2013, this community collective came up with creative strategies, including some flyers that were art in and of itself, in an effort to market the newly created event to everyone in town. One of the original flyers, a hand-drawn map, guided the visitors on their Art Walk.
Visitors came for the music and local craftworks, and stayed for the great food and drinks as local restaurants and bars quickly saw Art Walk’s economic potential. The Brother’s Pizza and what used to be Pancho Villa (where Café 413 is now) had happy hours and food specials during the event. The combination of art, music and gastronomy made this unique scene a popular event in Rincón, attracting hundreds of locals and tourists to the plaza once a month.
Summer Hogan from The Uncharted Studio, a local shop that designs and prints original ocean-inspired apparel, also played a pivotal role in making this community effort a tradition. On Art Walk nights, Uncharted would transform into a live music stage and an art gallery for local talent, attracting a younger audience, many surfers among them, downtown after a full day at the beach.
“There was not a whole lot of businesses in the plaza before Art Walk,” Hogan said. “There was Tata’s, there was us, The Brothers Pizza, the bakeries… everything else was pretty much vacant.” Today, however, most of the buildings in town square have storefronts, businesses are thriving, and the plaza is where people come to gather.
As Art Walk became more popular with the locals, the word quickly traveled to towns far and wide thanks to tourists. More artesanos settled around the plaza to sell their original pieces, and more customers poured in every month to buy them.
“Artists never had to ask if they could join in and sell their art,” continued explaining Uncharted’s owner. “They would just join in… like a conga line.” Because of this constant growth, in 2014, the art collective decided to take Art Walk from a monthly event to a weekly one. This decision, she added, rocketed the event to its popularity nowadays, breathing new life into Rincon’s Plaza and making it the busiest spot in town.
“It all happened very organically. It just started growing even more when it became a consistent thing every Thursday. It couldn’t have been organized any better,” Summer Hogan remembered humorously.
Art Walk grew and so did the local economy, according to Rodríguez. “The bulk of the businesses’ weekly income is from Art Walk.” Soon, long-standing businesses like The Brothers Pizza started seeing new customers, while new shops like Café 413 and Roots Restaurant popped up across the around the plaza.
“Art Walk helps us keep our door opens,” Kyneisha Muñiz, a member of the Muñiz family who owns and operates The Brother’s Pizza, told A Rinconvenient Truth. The 22-year-old has worked in the family restaurant since she was 15, witnessing how Art Walk has given the local economy a much needed boost.
When Banco Popular de Puerto Rico and other businesses closed their doors downtown, Kyneisha explained, the plaza’s economy took a big hit. When it came along, “Art Walk has had a positive impact on our business,” she added with a big smile on her face, “On Thursdays, we serve a lot of tourists and visitors, making it our best night of the week!”
According to Juan Carlos Pérez Ruíz, Rincón’s press director, Art Walk is “a complement to the economy of the urban center of our town.” That’s why, he explained, the municipality has provided the community collective with sale permits for free. “We’ve given them our hand in everything they need and to this day everything has gone very well!"
But Art Walk has not only improved the livelihood of many Rincoeños. It has also transformed the downtown into a gallery for Puerto Rican art and culture, a safe haven for artesanos.
“I think it’s been helpful for Puerto Rican artists to keep their culture and history alive,” Summer Hogan emphasized. “A lot of the tourist shops sell things made in China that says ‘Puerto Rico’ on them… [while] artisans here make their products out of things from the island, pouring their hearts and souls into it.”
Wanda Ramírez, whose African roots run deep into her art, shared how, as artesanos, making a living out of their art is hardly financially stable. For most of her colleagues, owning or renting a storefront is simply unaffordable, “. . . because if you’re really an artesano and you make your pieces with your own hands, it’s very difficult to produce them in mass quantities.”
Art Walk, she said, takes this financial weight off their shoulders, while nurturing local traditions and exporting them one original artesanía at a time.
For Vanessa, Summer, Kyneisha, Wanda, the more than 60 artesanos and the hundreds of visitors who have made Art Walk a weekly tradition, Rincón’s Plaza is a lot more than just a gallery for the arts. By now, what started as a community effort to support starving artists is now part of the social infrastructure that makes this downtown, full of nightlife, local art and economic activity, one of the biggest drivers for tourism in the west coast of Puerto Rico.