As news coverage about the rescue and recovery in Puerto Rico moves slowly, and the government response moves even slower, Etrane Martinez wants to make one think abundantly clear: “these are American citizens.” He goes on to say, on a more personal note, “for [me and] many of us, this isn’t just about saving American citizens, it’s about saving our families.”
It was with this sobering thought in mind that Etrane mobilized the Boston comedy community to present Boston Stands with Puerto Rico, a multi-show benefit effort to aid the US territory currently ailing after a devastating hit by Hurricane Maria back in September. He, and several other comedians of Puerto Rican descent, spent a great deal of time worrying about friends and family on the island, but eventually those thoughts turned to action.
“Talking about it at work or with friends, just trying to make people aware didn’t seem like enough given the level of devastation that happened, and is still going on,” Etrane shared shortly before the November 11th “opening” show. “I’m a simple guy, I don’t have great means to do many changes, but one thing I can do is put on a comedy show. I’ve been a comic for several years now, and it was one of those moments where I [said], ‘I can do this, and I can do it well, with justice.’” Recognizing how essential it would be to get show details correct, while also ensuring that the focus of the shows – efficient and effective relief for the people of Puerto Rico – remained at the front of everyone’s minds. And Martinez was pleasantly surprised at the willingness of comics and promoters across the city to honor that goal.
“As soon as I started talking to people inside the comedy community, more and more people were interested. People who have rooms, who put on their own shows, were interested in hosting a night to put on their own fundraiser. That grew from 1 room, to 2 rooms, and now we have several.” At press time, the effort stood at seven shows, including established shows like The Gas and McGreevy’s, and special shows at popular venues like The Riot Theater, ImprovBoston, and Nick’s Comedy Stop. Nearly fifty comics on the regional and national level are lending their talents to the shows, a fact that continues to blow Martinez away.
“All the comics have been amazing. Comics who I’ve thought, “maybe they’re too booked or have too many things going on” have been stepping up, approaching me about asking for spots, because they just want to help. It’s not like this is the ‘it show,’ it’s just that everyone really wants to help, they want to do something. Even if it’s just to perform for ten minutes, they are very much willing to do so.” Among those possibly too-booked comedians? Rhode Island’s Ray Harrington (Be a Man), Nick Chambers (Two Dope Queens), and Lamont Price (multi-year Best Comedian in Boston), all of whom enthusiastically lent their time and energy to the cause.
And speaking of the cause, I spent some time chatting with Martinez about how a charity was selected to benefit from the shows’ proceeds. He acknowledges that it was challenging to find a cause that would make the best use of funds. Corruption and theft issues across the island have made it difficult to identify someone who would use the money in good faith, but the chosen outlet, Puerto Rico No Esta Apaga’o (roughly translated as “Puerto Rico Cannot Be Turned Off”), has a comedy connection of its own. Established by Puerto Rican comic and media personality Jorge Pabón, PRNEA was selected for its grassroots approach to helping people directly. Says Martinez about Pabón’s contributions to the relief effort,
“We spoke to some people, some comics who grew up in the neighborhoods where he’s doing a lot of work. They’re saying they see him on a daily basis out in the street. A lot of people have said that he was the first person to actually offer help, and it had been weeks and weeks [with] nothing […] going on.”
He went on to say of their transparency, “You can go on to their Facebook, they post pictures and videos daily. They post what they’re spending, on what, and where it’s going. He wants people to know, this is what’s going on. This is what we’re doing. I want people to know exactly where their money is going. Because he knows how things are in Puerto Rico, he knows how politics can be.”
Lest anyone considering the shows worry that politics will be at center stage, please know that it was never the goal of Boston Stands with Puerto Rico to be a political statement. “We’re not here to talk about the president or whether Puerto Rico should [have] statehood or not. We just want to bring the fact to light that if this was a state- if this was Connecticut, if this was Texas, if this was New Jersey – we wouldn’t see this type of response,” Martinez assured me. “We’re not trying to make light of the subject, but it is a time where I think we could use a little laugh release.”
If you’re in the Boston area during the month of November, take a quick peek at the Boston Stands with Puerto Rico Facebook page for a list of shows and comics, show prices, and more details on Puerto Rico No Esta Apaga’o.