Para ser de uso
Kiteboarders near Isabela, Puerto Rico.
Photo by Kathryn Miles.
I am writing this column from a Puerto Rican surf shack, where I have migrated for the winter in search of warm temperatures and surfable waves. I have found both in abundance, along with all that is both vexing and postcard beautiful about a region Puerto Ricans call Porta del Sol.
Each morning, an old man wearing a large wooden cross sells me papayas and avocados for pocket change. In the afternoon, I traverse an endless beach with only an occasional horseback rider or feral dog for company. Flocks of egrets bed for the night in the almond trees outside our little villa, and a bald-headed fisherman who swims to his skiff each morning wanders by in the evening selling lobster and conch for dinner. He knows he will have many buyers. After all, this is a place where people come to play—and at the end of the day, they are hungry.
For well over a decade, Porta del Sol has been a paradise for water sports enthusiasts. As the winds pick up each day, kiteboarders throng to the beach. Snorkelers and divers spend hours skimming across elkhorn coral, where they vie for space with groupers, an occasional barracuda, and me—a novice surfer trying to learn my way in waves far larger and terrain much harder than any I have known. It’s a daily practice, and one that is met alternately with fear, dogged determination, and bouts of wild exuberance. To surf the reef of Puerto Rico is to give yourself over to forces foreign and beyond your control. Boarders who acknowledge that fact find the ride of their lives here. Those who don’t sometimes die while trying to prove their autonomy. Or, at the bare minimum, find themselves worked over and immensely humbled by the conditions.
Trust me, I know.
After two successful days catching waves at Playa Jobos, a popular right break with a fair amount of swell, I was feeling pretty confident. The next afternoon, I paddled out with impunity. Yes, the waves looked bigger, but that was why I had flown all this way. And so I continued to make my way to the break, positioning myself on a borrowed nine-foot board and waiting for the wave in a pod of far more experienced surfers. When a ten-year-old kid who seems to own the beach told me I shouldn’t be out there on a longboard, I smiled indulgently. He, after all, is an 80-pound child. I am a full-grown adult. Forget about the fact that his tan bespeaks a daily session at this wave—that, in contrast, I am so pasty white we have nicknamed me la fantasma (or, “the ghost”). Forget about the fact that I do not really know these waves—his waves—or any waves at all, for that matter. I had had two good days at this break; I was ready for a third.
That was over a week ago, but the experience has lost none of its potency. And so when the swell forecast begins to heat up, I now bow out, opting instead for the calmer pursuits recommended by my pocket guidebook. At its urging, I consider bioluminescent bays, where to find the best piña colada, and how to visit indigenous lacemakers and waterfalls and petroglyphs. I read about the street food that has made Puerto Rico famous and the festivals that define its still largely Catholic culture.
Along the way, I am also beginning to learn a little bit about the history of this place I am (at least temporarily) calling home. And this education has called into question why I am here.
Just minutes from our shack, Christopher Columbus first made landfall in the place he would soon dub America. His is an arrival many Puerto Ricans celebrate not just once but twice every year: first with the American Columbus Day in October (a holiday most other islands in the Caribbean pointedly refer to as “the day of the people”), and then again in November with Puerto Rican Discovery Day. Both are holidays as complex and saturated with tradition as the archipelago itself, and they speak to the conflation of uses the environment here has endured.
When Columbus and his crew made contact here in 1493, they found a densely forested landscape occupied by the Taíno people. Theirs was an existence with which it is easy for many of us to identify even today: the Taíno practiced democracy, made garlic bread, played baseball, and lounged in hammocks, one of their most prized inventions. They struggled to maintain their identity first against the warring Caribs and then the invading Spanish. Pantheists, they worshipped the ground upon which they walked. They named rivers, studied birds, and cultivated the land.
A faded No Parking sign marks the start
of a coffee plantation high up in the
Puerto Rican mountains.
Photo by Kathryn Miles.
Little of this lifestyle resonated with Columbus’s cohort, Ponce de León, who first changed the name of the island from Borinquén (Land of the Valiant Lord) to Puerto Rico (Rich Port). This was no mere semantic change, but rather represented the shift from indigenous to colonizing land ethic that has marked so much of the Caribbean. But while other islands grew overnight into colonial strongholds, Puerto Rico’s future was less determined. de León and his men made ready use of Puerto Rico’s modest gold stores but then quickly decided the archipelago had little to offer that wasn’t already found in greater abundance in places like Hispaniola and Jamaica, which is where most of the Spanish soon returned. de León, on the other hand, continued northward, searching for still greater treasure, including the Fountain of Youth and its eternalizing properties. What he found instead was a Caloosahatchee’s poisoned arrow. He died shortly thereafter in Cuba.
In the subsequent decades, Spain’s colonization of Puerto Rico continued in fits and starts. For years, it functioned primarily as a port of call for vessels in need of provisions and as a military outpost designed to thwart Danish and French encroachment. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the archipelago found traction as a site for major tobacco and coffee production and, of course, the sugar boom: an industry that would define Puerto Rico for over a century. That is, until industrialization and a global market system rendered all but rum, cane’s fiery byproduct, unprofitable. With the sugar bust came questions about how best to use the rich land and limited resources here—a debate that continues today.
Puerto Rico’s story of contact and colonial settlement is not a particularly novel one, but it is one worth considering—and considering deeply—particularly given the archipelago’s continued existence as a United States territory. The U.S. claimed Puerto Rico, along with the Philippines and Guam, as booty from the Spanish-American War. Without it, argued government bureaucrats, the U.S. policy of military expansion would end as quickly as it began. And so, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898, Puerto Rico became the Caribbean stronghold for the United States military. We afforded its residents citizenship in 1917—just in time to be eligible for the World War I draft. And then we set about building an elaborate military complex on the island: an Air Force base in Aguadilla, an Army fort just south of San Juan. The U.S. Navy acquired Vieques, just south of Puerto Rico’s main island, in 1947 and began experimental bomb testing the next year.
And this is where Puerto Rico found its real value for America—not just as a Caribbean fortification (after all, we also have Guantanamo for that)—but as a place we could use for the kind of experimentation deemed too risky elsewhere. For over 50 years, the military dropped prototypical munitions on the island of Vieques, ceasing only when a civilian death and reports of bioaccumulation of napalm, uranium, and mercury prompted an international protest. That much of Vieques was declared a Superfund site—that its shellfish still test 1,000 times higher than United Nations allowable levels of radiation, that its humans continue to suffer cancer rates 27 percent higher than their peers on the main island of Puerto Rico—has not deterred us.
Domes and Spanish Wall Beach near Rincón, Puerto Rico.
Photo courtesy Tourism Association of Rincón.
Just outside the surf mecca of Rincón, there is a monument to this colonial expansion right where Christopher Columbus was said to have first landed. It’s not a wrought iron replica of his ship or even a marble bust of his profile. Instead, it is a giant blue dome surrounded by rusty barbed wire and a vintage sign portraying a weirdly friendly Atom Man, who waves unmenacingly at no one in particular. One of only two Boiling Nuclear Superheated Reactors (BONUS) ever attempted by the United States government, Domes was built in the early 1960s as a place to test the viability of creating electricity by forcing superheated steam into a turbine. What the Nuclear Regulatory Commission dubbed recurrent “technical difficulties,” however, prompted the site’s closure in 1968. Shortly thereafter, active nuclear fuel was removed to the U.S. mainland, and lower-grade contaminates were entombed in concrete on site.
Less than a decade ago, locals again expressed concern that radiation levels surrounding the site may not be safe. In response, the U.S. government placed Domes on the National Register of Historic Places and promised to open a museum on site, which would regale visitors with information about the history of nuclear development and testing. A 2003 governmental inquiry insisted that the radiation level of Domes would prove no threat to museum-goers. Construction of the proposed interpretive center has yet to begin.
A crumbling vestige from Puerto Rico's colonial history.
Some locals speculate that this building was once a large
Photo by Kathryn Miles.
Meanwhile, misuse of the island in the name of experimentation and advancement continues. As a territory, Puerto Rico is not hemmed in by the same laws that limit corporate behavior in the States. And that has made it a particularly valuable testing ground for companies like Monsanto, Bayer, and Dow Agrosciences, all of whom are currently using Puerto Rico as a new frontier for GMO development and testing. Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (the Center for Investigative Journalism, or CPI for short) recently published a three-part series on the subject, in which they detail both the corporations’ flouting of restrictions concerning the amount of land that can be held for purposes of experimentation, as well as their heavy use of Puerto Rican soil for the genetic manipulation of corn and cotton seeds, neither of which are endemic to the region.
Nor are the countless other vestiges of both Manifest Destiny and the Cold War one sees when travelling across this archipelago. And that includes the tourism and recreation in the region. I’d like to believe that I am somehow different—which is to say, somehow better—than this colonizing culture, but these days I’m not sure.
Here in Puerto Rico, I have joined a local CSA and befriended coffee growers high up in the mountains, where I walk with their children, reverently, through the plantation fields. I have left my dollars at local stores and watering holes. But is that enough? After all, I am also here to drive the washed out back roads, leaving my own ruts as I look for the perfect wave. And once I find it, I am an inexperienced blanca paddling her way out, vying for space amongst locals and hoping I can catch a ride over delicate reef and, eventually, back to shore. Once there, I will drink a rum and tonic, eat heartily, and plan my next adventure.
Is this fair to ask of a place?
Those of us who practice outdoor pursuits such as surfing or hiking like to absent ourselves from indictments of wear and tear, saying that because we only use wave or trail we are somehow different than our four-wheeling, chairlift-riding, bolt-leaving brethren. That may be true in terms of scale, but not necessarily intentionality.
A Puerto Rican fisherman cleans his net.
Photo by Kathryn Miles.
There is an expression in the surfing world known by its acronym SUBA: show up and blow up. SUBA was coined as an invective by purists who resented the conquering attitudes of young surfers who would descend, locust-like, upon a landscape just long enough to catch a killer wave and jam up its beach with cars, gear, and bashes. SUBA, in other words, was what you didn’t want to do—not if you really understood the Zen-like heart of the sport. In recent years, however, SUBA has become a driving marketing tool for companies like Billabong, which has even gone so far as to name its competitive surfing tour after the expression.
It’s impossible to escape the bellicose implications of marketing strategies such as these. And maybe that’s a good thing. Because whenever we travel for recreation—and whether we venture halfway around the world or just to our favorite local trail—we are asking the landscape to be of use. That’s a tricky proposition and one that can quickly become exploitative if we aren’t careful.
Sitting here in this surf shack, surrounded by a culture and a landscape that are not my own, I have been struck by the enormity of the ethical considerations that underlie this proposition. And I find myself drawn again and again to Marge Piercy’s poem by the same name. Piercy, of course, is writing about something far grander than watersports and vacation recreation: she is writing about honest labor—the place where our motions and exertions meet the landscape, where the hand and the trowel and the soil in which it digs are no longer distinguishable from one another. There’s a kind of reciprocity there: a submission to the land in order to become it, to serve it as it serves us.
That’s a valuable lesson, I think. And one we would all probably be well served in considering as we summit each mountain and wait for each wave—as we migrate and alight, if only for a moment, in a new place. How, we might ask of these landscapes we visit and inevitably come to love—how can we be of use?
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