November 26, 2016
Life in Between: Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean
By Ana Portnoy
In the Caribbean, living life in between, in a constant liminal state, whether culturally, identity-wise, or in any other dimension of life, is commonplace. The diversity of the region, of the particular historical experiences of each individual nation, makes for a polysemous way of life.
It’s no surprise then that, not only does Puerto Rico find itself living in the middle conceptually and culturally, but it also finds itself physically in between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
I stood on El Corredor Ecológico del Noroeste (1), in the town of Luquillo, famous for its raw and untamed beauty, sea salt on my lashes, the bright glare of the sun bouncing off the water, contemplating our life in between. Puerto Rico, both Island and Archipelago, could not be more intimately related to the sea and ocean: it’s surrounded by them.
And just as it finds itself in between these ancient and interconnected bodies of water, its relationship to them is a dual one as well, constantly shifting back and forth from, finding itself in between of, fear and antagonism and inevitable alliance and adoration.
As I watched myself leave footprints on what seemed like an endless coastline, wind and sea mist indistinguishable from one another, I further pursued this analysis, thinking back to all of those friends and acquaintances, to the surprising number of people in Puerto Rico, who don’t know how to swim.
The reasons for this may differ and are legitimate: a lack of accessible or proper natural or artificial bodies of water in which to learn (living in the center of the Island rather than on the coast is a good example of this); the person’s parents or caretakers not knowing how to swim either; religious modesty with regards to exhibiting oneself on the beach; the list could go on.
But when you live in a place where no matter what direction you walk in, you’ll inevitably end up by the sea or ocean, you start to wonder whether there’s something more to this phenomenon. Whether it’s something buried deep down in our collective unconscious, a fear of the sea and the ocean (perhaps for a number of historical reasons), a fear, actually, that I remember a number of acquaintances openly expressing.
Another intriguing phenomenon I considered, another aspect of our subconsciously antagonistic relationship to the sea and the ocean, is the way we build our infrastructure, in opposition to the sea and ocean, rather than in sync with them.
Joyuda, a borough in the town of Cabo Rojo, and currently known as La Milla de Oro del Buen Comer (2) and officially labeled as a tourist zone, is perplexing with regards to the way it’s structured in relation to the bodies of water we find ourselves in between of.
Joyuda, in fact, finds itself right in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and a lagoon known as the Albufera de Joyuda, a natural reservoir, and you can’t see either from the main road, la carretera 102. This road, which runs alongside the coastline of Joyuda, is blockaded from the Caribbean Sea by large, elegant houses and apartment complexes (which, by modern construction standards and with respect to the maritime-terrestrial line, would be illegal), abandoned lots with rundown buildings, and restaurants.
That dividing line of housing installations and gastronomic establishments discourages and makes it hard for the general public to access one of the few public spaces freely and indiscriminately available to everyone in Puerto Rico: the beach. Even catching glimpses of the sea is hard enough, you have to either live in one of the units or spend money at one of the restaurants to enjoy a few hours by it, leading to an implicit commercialization of the sea.
This example is repeated throughout Puerto Rico in different variations and manifestations, and is proof of our structural antagonism with the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
And then I thought, it’s also very puzzling, how, despite being surrounded by water, there is no established, stable and truly productive local fishing industry in Puerto Rico. Most of the seafood we consume is imported (a market-dependence relationship with the US being part of the reason for our lack of a local fishing industry), and there are very few fishing villages on the Archipelago that have survived and continue to live a sea/ocean-faring life and make a living off fishing.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the surrounding waters aren’t particularly rich in marine animal life. And it also doesn’t help that, unfortunately, there is residual implicit bias against seaside living and the poverty and lower social classes traditionally associated to it. Waterfront living has recently become glamorous among foreigners and certain higher class sectors of Puerto Rican society.
SPLASH, the crash of a big wave right on the surf interrupted my contemplations, the salty foam around my toes slowly vanishing. I started walking back towards La Pared, the well-known surfer’s beach on the other side of the huge rock separating El Corredor Ecológico del Noroeste from La Pared. Unlike Joyuda, La Pared is outlined by a long boardwalk with a mosaic-covered banister, benches and tables with surrounding seats available all throughout the promenade. El malecón (3) allows the general public easy physical and visual access to the beach, producing a feeling of openness and collective freedom of admission.
I leaned on the banister and closed my eyes, listening to the waves, to the Atlantic Ocean, to its dance. And behind closed eyes, in the depths of my mind, another side of our dual relationship to the sea and ocean, our beautiful affiliation to and adoration for them, came to the fore: I imagined people dancing, salsa playing in the background of my imagination. I smiled: our music, the way we dance and move in Puerto Rico, like the sea and ocean themselves, is polyrhythmic (4).
Clashes, collisions and intercommunication between sounds and oscillations, such is our connection to the waves, to their flow and dynamism, to the happenings taking place deep inside Caribbean and Atlantic waters.
And continuing to ride on that same wave of thought, I appreciated how the sea is our connection to the rest of the Insular and Continental Caribbean. The sea doesn’t separate or divide, the sea unites, making Puerto Rico a part of a cultural network. The Caribbean Sea is a reminder of our shared history with the region and a liminal space on which solidarity and relationships can be built.
Puerto Rico’s history, although often unfortunate and atrocity-filled, is linked to the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean as well. From these bodies of water having served as routes for precolonial Indigenous transportation, exchange and unification; to the TransAtlantic Slave Trade; to the mass migration, el brinco del charco, of the 50s to mainland U.S.A.; our history is drenched in Caribbean and Atlantic waters.
And in a way, beautifully so, because the sea and the ocean, stretching back in time to the very beginnings of the Earth, are two of the few elements that still hold true the fact that there is history in the Caribbean, in Puerto Rico, before the arrival of conquistadors and the Old World; that we were not discovered, but existed prior to Western versions of history.
The Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean are reminders of our precolonial past, and waves of hope for a truly postcolonial future.
The salsa orchestra playing in my imagination receded, and instead, I heard the laughter of children covered in sand; the bachata (5) spewing from speakers all throughout the beach; the creaking of swinging hammocks; the temporary, carefree happiness brewing among the people enjoying the warm, Atlantic waters of La Pared.
I walked down the boardwalk steps right onto the sand, enjoying the cold exfoliation enfolding my toes. The water, alluringly licking the shore, was calling to me. My feet slowly found their way to the point where water meets land, where the sand sinks under the weight of your body.
I remembered I had my bathing suit on, and made my way further into the water, the currents softly tugging at my legs, ducking under waves right before they crashed. I submerged myself under the water, and stayed there for as long as my breath would allow me to. And for the slightest moment, rather than feeling myself in between, I felt myself at one with the ocean, with the sea, with everything they represent and mean to us, to Puerto Rico. I emerged from under the water to find a coastline full of people at one with the ocean and sea as well.
And so I went back down to the depths of La Pared, letting myself move effortlessly to the flow of the undercurrents.
- The Northeast Ecological Corridor Nature Reserve refers to an area designated as a protected Nature Reserve located on the northeast coast of Puerto Rico, between the municipalities of Luquillo and Fajardo.
- The Golden Mile of Good Eating
- The boardwalk
- The Repeating Island, by Antonio Benítez-Rojo
- A style of music and dance originating in the Dominican Republic.