• Cabo Rojo
  • Salinas de Cabo Rojo
  • Playa El Combate
  • Sierra Bermeja
  • Valle de Lajas
  • Poblado de Boquerón
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After Hurricane Maria swept Puerto Rico in September 2017, Sofía Gallisá Muriente vowed the next catastrophe wouldn’t catch her in San Juan. Soon after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out globally and Puerto Ricans were ordered to go on lockdown, she packed up her apartment, put everything but some clothes and her mobile artist studio in storage, and made her way to Cabo Rojo with a few close friends who were committed to each other “in disinfectants and in health.”

We started to plan our day together in early March, mere days before life seemed to screech to a halt and our time became governed by daily news conferences by our unelected governor, numerous and confusing Executive Orders, nightly cell phone alarms that remind us of curfew times, and so on. This year marked Sofía’s sixth and final year as co-director of Beta Local, a non-profit arts organization based in Old San Juan. She was eager to travel, dive into research as part of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship program, collaborate with fellow artist Natalia Lasalle Morillo in a project about the Puerto Rican diaspora in Florida, and generally continue her explorations into the historical sites with many contested narratives that she tackles in her work. Although Sofía and I are not working on a particular project at the moment, we have plotted together in the past on shows like Projections from Home, Summer of ’19 (2019), Watch your step / Mind your head (2017), the Bienal Tropical (2016), and I invited her to be part of an artist residency in La Ene in Buenos Aires (2012). We share the same suspicion of tourism, as well as a fascination with its symbols and places, as much as we like to talk about underrepresented Puerto Rican history. We are engrossed, amused and outraged by similar things, which makes for a great road trip.

Cabo Rojo and the Southwesternmost part of Puerto Rico wasn’t the first area we spoke of wanting to tour. Originally, I was interested in what Sofía could show me around Levittown, a mid-century housing development where her grandmother had lived, and the new work she was filming using 16mm film that has been rotting since Hurricane Maria. “It is an area full of symbols of the collapse of the Commonwealth,” she told me, knowing I’d love it. (The country’s official name is Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.) Naturally, Covid-19 had other plans, but the theme of the collapse of the colonial order that our political system represents remained. We made up lists of possible places that symbolize this and enumerated them over several emails and texts. What’s really rotting away, what’s captured on celluloid or the celluloid itself? When the opportunity arose to stay in a rented house in Cabo Rojo, I jumped for joy and made a whole weekend out of it with my partner Oswaldo and our friend José. As it happens, we’d inadvertently made plans for the weekend of the local primaries between the two main political parties. The official date had been the previous weekend, but they were postponed in some polling places due to the shortage and lateness of ballots, and rescheduled in a highly irregular manner for one week later.

Sofía has been singing praises of the house we stayed in for years, and it didn’t disappoint. I woke up to a beautiful view of a Flamboyán tree (Delonix regia) and several neighboring cows. Getting breakfast proved a little more complicated because many shops, being banned from selling alcohol on Sundays due to yet another Covid-19 Executive Order, would rather stay closed than continue losing money. Not a single beer was drunk in the entire trip. We ate and discussed our plans, mentioning way more places than we could realistically visit, finally settling on heading to the Cabo Rojo salt flats first. We also decided to make this a working road trip, bringing her film changing room and 16mm camera along. The final selection of spots for this tour is representative of places that are currently influencing Sofía’s work as either metaphors or subjects, and will most likely make their presence felt in an upcoming, much longer than usual, video piece.

The salt flats are an example of an iconic and picturesque spot in Puerto Rico, but Sofía has been coming here to learn how to use salt to decay film, not necessarily film a beautiful view. A mural with contrasting images of Taínos, conquistadores and modern machinery welcomes us as we trespass to catch a better glimpse of the piles of salt. I’m fascinated to learn this particular kind of salt is used to make saline for IV bags, this being the main reason why there was a shortage of them in the US right after Hurricane Maria. Salt is also given to cows to lick so they produce more milk. I leave convinced salt has many ulterior motives. These salt flats have been mined for so long that they must continue to be, otherwise the ecosystem won’t thrive. It’s like nature itself assimilated capitalism and can’t escape it.

The first beach stop coincides with lunch, so we headed to El Combate beach, ordered ceviche, a delicious assortment of fried delicacies and the most ornate (virgin) piña coladas I’ve ever seen. The beach wasn’t completely empty, but the scene was a far cry from a regular Sunday. Covid-19 lockdown in Puerto Rico also means we’re not even legally permitted to lounge on the beach. It seems odd to punish people for being in the open air, but the lockdown measures have continued for months, even mandating people to stay at home on regular, non-election Sundays as part of a 24-hour lockdown. So we swam a little, ate, and quickly made our way towards Lajas, the next town over, for our next tour stop.

Next we headed to Sierra Bermeja, a geologic formation approximately 195 million years old located in the Lajas Valley that suggests there was a collision between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates. Sofía stays busy along the way by filming the drive over, and quickly changing rolls of film in the back of the car. Most of the land in Puerto Rico consists of secondary forest, that which grows once for-profit cultivation is abandoned. Everywhere we drive around this area, we can see wild cotton and cane flowers. Both of these highly symbolic crops, so tied to histories of exploitation and colonialism, are now left unclaimed by the side of the road, and scattered across fields. They grow wild and “go to waste” without making themselves useful to capitalist productivism. We drove up to the road that leads to a Customs and Border Protection aerostat located in restricted Federal land, only to see it from afar. Another common thread during our trip was that of stumbling or trespassing into Federal land. In a not entirely uncommon twist, we later learned that the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge where the salt flats are located was established in 1974 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on land acquired from the Central Intelligence Agency. I’ve made a note to myself to learn more about the Caribbean Bureau of the Foreign Broadcast Information Service that operated out of here. In the future, we’ll be able to legally survey the land around the aerostat. I recently found a B roll of its launch in a Department of Defense information services website.

The Lajas Valley area is also well known as a UFO sighting area, even triggering the creation of a UFO landing strip as a tourist attraction several years ago. Now, however, Sofía and I are more entranced by the sight of vultures circling over a municipal dumpster. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery also consists of the beautiful, velvety green hills and mountains that surround the valley. The absolute perfection of this scene —seeing real vultures reminiscent of vulture funds that own Puerto Rico’s public debt— is not lost on Sofía, who asks to make more stops to film the birds.

For our final stop, we headed to Boquerón, the site of many small hotels, beachside cabins, vacationing homes and the biggest Pride month celebration in Puerto Rico. A perfect ending required another dip in the beach and more food. Seeing this town so empty was eerie, yet reassuring in a very messed up way. Maybe we won’t have another Covid-19 spike this weekend.

During these months, Sofía has been looking closely at the times of nature and decay. The pandemic has forced her into dealing with this other kind of time too. Doubting what is easily seen has long been intrinsic to her work, but now it has taken other proportions. The work she speaks of making now is simultaneously deeply personal, particularly in relation to her deceased grandmother, while also addressing the slow death of the status quo we grew up in. Through different kinds of cameras and textures, she is assembling a sort of quarantine diary, filming many kinds of rocks and sediments that evoke the layered histories of these places.

Shortly before we drove back to San Juan, news of the primary results started to trickle out. The unelected governor lost the primary, and a few conservative, religious and corrupt members of the ruling PNP political party, including some who had been recently arrested by the FBI, also lost their seats. The two candidates for governorship from the parties that have historically ruled Puerto Rico are two dudes few people can legitimately claim to be enthusiastic about: one is literally a lawyer for the Fiscal Control Board, and the other, who has been the mayor of a coastal town in the West for twenty years, is a status quo religious conservative. His son, who was running to succeed him, lost his primary challenge. “I didn't really take you on a road trip to the cemetery of the Commonwealth, just a tour of Cabo Rojo that reveals some of my interests, but it’s okay,” Sofía emailed me afterwards. Of course, they’re actually one and the same.


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.