Arts & Culture

How a Song Provided Comfort after Hurricane Maria

Arleen Ramirez didn’t know the full strength of her music until it mattered the most.

By Robert Stephens |
May 2, 2018

Master's student Arleen Ramirez performs a solo during her grad recital at UCF.

Master's student Arleen Ramirez performs a solo during her grad recital at UCF.

Arleen Ramirez doesn’t think the word “busy” applies to her. But just try to keep up. Ramirez is a family-first wife and mother of four, ranging in age from 3 to 19. She is a studio artist at Opera Orlando, mentors aspiring musical artists on Skype, and writes and performs her own music — including one song, Isla del Cordero, that recently gained international acclaim on YouTube. More on that later.

And Thursday, Ramirez will graduate from UCF with a master’s degree in music.

“Thankfully, it’s a morning ceremony,” Ramirez says. That same afternoon she’ll host a birthday party for her oldest daughter. One day later, her youngest celebrates her fourth birthday.

Ramirez’s song, Isla del Cordero, has received international acclaim and more than 8,000 views on YouTube.

Busy?

“No, I’m blessed,” says Ramirez, 43, who embodies the Puerto Rican spirit of blue skies on the horizon. It’s an outlook that was never more clear than it was in the days following Sept. 20, 2017.

To fully appreciate her song that has garnered more than 8,000 views on YouTube, first you should understand some of her background. Born and raised in Mayaguez on Puerto Rico’s west coast, she would sing and hum all day long. In church. On the beach. In the rain forest. With cousins, aunts and uncles. And with her mother before she died from a stroke when Ramirez was just 7.

“My passion for music came from her side of the family,” says Ramirez, “and it has always kept us going through the toughest moments.”

By the time Ramirez was 14, she was singing semi-professionally and writing songs. Her interests ranged from salsa to Skid Row, but eventually she fell in love with opera, and upon graduating from Interamerican University in Puerto Rico, took up teaching music at her alma mater.

“As I grew up, I noticed the impact I could make on people through music,” she says.

At the age of 36, Ramirez and her family moved so she could pursue her master’s at UCF.

Life became busier…more blessed.

“Writing the song helped me so much … we thought maybe the song could help others.”

Then, while training with Opera Orlando in September 2017, she watched the reports on TV as Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico from coast to coast, the island’s worst natural disaster on record. Mayaguez suffered some of the most extensive damage.

“I didn’t know anything about my family or community for 14 days,” says Ramirez. “It was very difficult not knowing if the island would ever be the same. By the second week, I decided to channel my emotion into a new song.”

She sat at a piano and let it all pour out. The tears. The lyrics. The childhood memories.

“Writing the song helped me so much,” she says. “As my husband and I were sending supplies to Puerto Rico, we thought maybe the song could help others.”

The connections started. Ramirez contacted a music colleague, internationally known pianist Adlan Cruz, who was doing outreach work for The Hand Foundation in New Jersey, which itself had become active in relief efforts for Puerto Rico. Within a few weeks, Cruz and Ramirez had 25 Puerto Rican musicians, including singer and songwriter Ismael Miranda, gathered in a studio in Kissimmee to record her song, Isla del Cordero— a combination of tropical rhythms, salsa and every emotion from deep concern to pure joy.

“It was very humbling,” says Ramirez, “to go from just the piano and me, to all of these amazing singers and musicians in a studio together.

“We literally had to stop recording at times so people could cry and pray together.”

“Some of the artists you see in the music video had been displaced from the worst-hit areas of Puerto Rico. The flute player lost everything, I mean…everything. We literally had to stop recording at times so people could cry and pray together.”

The lyrics of the song include memories of running across mountains, of beautiful beaches and of a mother drinking coffee on a balcony. But as a woman of Christian faith, Ramirez wants everyone to know the overriding message of her song is not despair. Far from it.

Isla del Cordero means “Island of the Lamb.” A lamb is on the official seal of Puerto Rico, but it also has a spiritual meaning of a shepherd, of purpose, and of an unbreakable eternal promise.

“We know that even in the midst of tragedy,” says Ramirez, “that we will be back on our feet. We have hope. We will rise again. We can dance and we can sing — because we are blessed.”

Watch the music video.