As I write this we are on week 23 of the lockdown in Puerto Rico, at a peak of Covid-19 contagion, in the midst of an active hurricane season, and enduring an earthquake swarm that began last December. At this point of 2020, all we’ve got is each other and our discipline for self-care, as we buckle up for a black hole future. So let’s do this! Driving around is a great, Covid-safe activity.
CABO ROJO Marina, come visit me and I’ll make you breakfast while you hang out in the hammock watching the flamboyán tree and the cows. Right now my studio is here, in a plastic bin and some tote bags, in the southwestern corner of the island, in a raised wooden house with a wrap around balcony. This is my favorite place in the world, so when I realized now I could live and work from anywhere, I moved out here with friends. It’s our refuge, in a time when defending joy and togetherness seems more urgent than ever.
SALINAS DE CABO ROJO I learned about the history and science of salt and of the Cabo Rojo Salt Flats when I was researching how it corrodes black-and-white film for my piece Assimilate & Destroy I (2018). What fascinates me is that it’s a place where capitalist production has become part of the ecosystem. Indigenous people extracted salt from here as far back as 700 BC and Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León began exploiting them with Taíno slaves in 1511. Now it is part of a wildlife refuge, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has to ensure that commercial salt production continues so the plants and animals of this area survive.
PLAYA EL COMBATE We’ll need a beach stop, so let’s eat lunch and get cold drinks on the sand under a tree, while chango birds look on waiting to get a bite. The Caribbean Sea is calm and lukewarm, great for floating endlessly. In 1769, there was an armed confrontation here between salt workers and people from Aguada (further north) trying to steal salt. That’s how the beach got its name. Now it’s empty because of the lockdown, but usually walking along the crowded shore is like tuning in and out of radio stations, creating an amazing sound mix in your head.
SIERRA BERMEJA I’ve been meaning to go film here, so let’s go for a walk. This mountain range has the oldest rocks in Puerto Rico, with fossils only found in the Pacific, as part of a crazy geological history that sounds like science fiction. I’ve been hoping to make friends with geologists so that they’ll explain things like this to me. Bermeja (vermilion) is also just such a beautiful word. In this case, it refers to red rocks made of silica that form at great depths underwater and are probably related to the name of this town.
VALLE DE LAJAS As we drive around, look up at the sky. There’s two recurring sights that seem like ominous signs to me; the aerostat and the vultures. The first is a white blimp tied to the ground that hovers over the Lajas Valley, purportedly scanning for drug traffickers and illegal immigrants. It is a simple reminder that the federal government is watching. The second are the birds. In a time of vulture funds holding us hostage and crypto-investors buying up the country, the Guaraguaos (Red-tailed Hawks) and Auras Tiñosas (Turkey Vultures) flying in circles always make me feel like prey. I saw Hitchcock’s film The Birds (1963) at the beginning of quarantine, which adds a sinister touch.
POBLADO DE BOQUERÓN Boquerón is the queer capital of the south, a small coastal neighborhood with a big public beach and a street full of restaurants and bars where the only Pride in Puerto Rico outside of San Juan takes place. There are carts on the street selling fresh oysters and clams, shark and swordfish pinchos. We can grab a snack and take a swim. There are still traces of 2017’s Hurricane Maria here, too. The docks are destroyed and the vacation housing complex for government employees that was on the beach was never rebuilt after the ocean claimed its foundations. Right now it’s a ghost town, but I come to swim, see the sunset, and visit my father, whose ashes we scattered in this bay last year.
— SOFÍA GALLISÁ MURIENTE