Puerto Rico’s flag helped heal his pain — then lifted an island

An artist who’s been painting Puerto Rican flags across the island — with just a paint roll and a wide brush in a single day — stirred enough curiosity for a drive that lasted a little more than an hour from San Juan to Barceloneta.

Waiting in the town, on the north part of the island, was Héctor Collazo Hernández, who for the past two years has been carrying out his 78 pueblos y 1 bandera project — Spanish for 78 towns and one flag. His goal is to paint the Puerto Rican flag in each of the island’s towns, turning abandoned buildings into tourist attractions.

A week before the start of the protests that wound up forcing former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to resign, Collazo spoke to el Nuevo Herald about his project. And the best way to illustrate the work was to take a look at flag No. 60, which he painted on an abandoned hospital building in Barceloneta.

Collazo also painted the big Puerto Rican flag at the La Placita restaurant on Biscayne Blvd. and 68th Street — which has sparked some controversy and calls for its removal because owners failed to apply for a special permit from the board that oversees the historic MiMo District, where the building sits. The mural violates the code because it doesn’t use the historic color palette required of buildings in the district that features structures in the Miami Modern style.

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Members of the Puerto Rican diaspora in La Placita take a photo after a meeting in July to discuss the political crisis involving former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. Jennifer King

Drivers passing the restaurant often crane their necks to see the flag on the restaurant owned by chef José Mendín and actor Julián Gil, who commissioned the display as the first part of Collazo’s project outside the island, titled Plantando Bandera — Planting the Flag.

The flag in Barceloneta is not as obvious but can be sees from far away. But reaching it is complicated. It is emblazoned on an abandoned hospital building high up on a mountain.

Once there, it’s not difficult to imagine how the hospital looked at some point in the past. Its tall colonnades must have been pretty elegant, but today the empty and silent hallways give it the feel of a horror movie set. Yet the colors of the flag give it a new life.

Of all the buildings Collazo has painted — his photos are on his Instagram account — this one is the most impressive. And it was done with the help of volunteers from Barceloneta.

“A lot of people were thanking me. They said it was something important to them because they were born here, in this hospital. And that motivated me even more,” Collazo said as he recalled how his flag-painting project began.

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The title for the project was easy because Puerto Rico has 78 municipalities. But the reason the project began was painful.

Collazo lost his brother to suicide. He was the one who found the body. It was a hard blow for the family and family members dealt with the loss in their own way. Collazo decided to leave the home that held so many memories for him.

He traveled the island, getting to know each town, its culture, its local slang.

“During this process of healing, I began to develop a big love for Puerto Rico,” he said, adding that initially the flag project was totally spontaneous.

He would select a town and look for a building he could paint. He posted notices on social networks and people came to help.

With flag No. 30, in the town of Cataño, his story took a turn for the better. The mayor took on the initiative, posting a video on social networks and inviting Collazo to paint there.

“I have the wall that I think is perfect for you to paint the flag. We’ll even have music and everything,” Collazo recalled the mayor telling him.

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Interest grew, and with each call from each new town more helpers arrived with brushes in hand. By then, community leaders were extending invitations.

“More than wanting to see me on social networks, people wanted to meet me in person, paint with me, create a town activity out of all that,” the artist said, adding that currently he only provides the location of the building to be painted, and the people do the rest.

They start early in the morning and the job must be finished before nightfall, because Collazo likes to snap a photo of the group in front of the flag and post it on social media.

On paint day, they sell T-shirts from a tent to help finance the project. Local artisans are invited to display their work “to stimulate the local economy,” Collazo said. He’s paid nothing because it is “a project by Puerto Rico and for Puerto Rico.

“The essence of the project, aside from reaching all of the towns, is to rescue buildings, places that everyone thinks are lost, and turn them into tourist spots,” he added.

For the artist, a trained nurse, it is a way of remaining socially active. During the recent protests, he painted black over the red, white and blue Puerto Rican flag he had painted in La Perla, one of the toughest neighborhood in San Juan.

And when Rosselló announced he would resign, Collazo called in the people to restore the flag’s red, white and colors.

In Miami, there has been no decision yet on what will happen to the flag at La Placita, where Puerto Ricans from South Florida gathered during the height of the anti-Rosselló protests.

For Collazo, that flag marked a personal victory. “The first time I got on an airplane was to paint the flag of my homeland,” he said.

His next flag painting is scheduled for Aug. 24 on Culebra, a small, sparsely populated island off the east coast of Puerto Rico.

Some of the volunteers commented on social media that it would be their first time “crossing the puddle.” They will have to get on a ferry to get there.

Sarah Moreno cubre temas de negocios, entretenimiento y tendencias en el sur de la Florida. Se graduó de la Universidad de La Habana y de Florida International University.