"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Puerto Rico: A Photographic Essay

I have mentioned here before how I come from a family of artists. My mom and the aunts teach on the weekends at one of the art schools in Old San Juan, PR, and I grew up in that environment. Most weekends you could find my brother and me at the school sitting in my mom's or one of the aunts' classes, participating in the lesson because they were doing something particularly cool that day, or just quietly sitting in a corner of the classroom doing our own thing. The two classes that I actually signed up for were Ceramics when I was a teenager, and Photography when I was in my late teens-early 20's. I took 2 years of Ceramics and 3 years of Photography. Photography was my favorite. My professor was Alina Luciano, a photojournalist for the Claridad newspaper on the island, and one hell of a photographer in her own right. I LOVE that woman, her feisty, outspoken personality, and her incredible work, both within the context of the newspaper and outside of it. She was, and continues to be, a great teacher. I can't think of any other classes I've taken where I've consistently laughed more!

These are photos of photos, and thus the images do not do the originals justice. Each photo has its story, with a full array of sensory memories attached to each one.

Taken at the barn where I boarded Lucero. This little calico was one of the barn cats; she was actually walking down this wood panel that was leaning against one of the fences; I deliberately took the photo at a weird angle. This kitty was the sweetest little thing, and my BO's favorite of the cats. She was killed by one of the neighborhood strays, and my BO was extremely upset. I gave her a copy of this photo for her to remember her favorite kitty by. It was the only photo ever taken of this cat.
Lucero, back when I still kept him at home. I often tied him with a long rope to a sturdy tree on our hill to let him graze at will. Check out all that lushness around him. The vegetation would go nuts growing with our summer rains; our groundskeeper could not keep up with it, and thus Lucero was a huge help!
If I didn't tie him, Lucero would invariably end up in our backyard, where he would upset my grandmother and the dogs. He was very smart about ropes. 
Woven hammock on our back patio. It was a beautiful hammock, but quite uncomfortable to lay in! The fence overlooked the hill on the side of our property. This photo brings back the smells of wet earth, and that sweet green smell that accompanies the rainforest; it brings back the sounds of the pitirres singing in the trees, the coqui tree frogs chirping happily after the rain; the sharp tang of the humidity against my skin.
Ananda, one of the many strays that showed up at our doorstep and we kept. Here she was curled up in her favorite chair. The name came from Madeleine L'Engle's "A Swiftly Tilting Planet." It is Sanskrit for "That joy in existence without which the Universe would fall apart and collapse." She was one of the happiest dogs I'd ever known. She would break up arguments between our other dogs and lick their faces to put them at ease, until everyone was happily wagging their tails again.
She was not a purebred Dalmatian; we always thought she might have Lab in her as well. She just showed up one morning, a 6-month old pup that was so hearbreakingly thin, you could count her ribs and vertebrae. She was a little skeleton covered in spotted fur. My grandmother loved Dalmatians; she let us keep her. My grandmother would be outlived by her. Ananda passed away early last year; she was 17 years old.
One of the first photos I ever took where I deliberately captured a leaf with the light hitting it from behind.
This was an elephant ear plant. The leaves of the variety that is found on the island (I think the ones we have are Philodendron) can reach 3' in length.

We were given an assignment in Photography class where we had to take a self-portrait. However, our faces could not be part of this self-portrait; the photo had to be something intimately representative of ourselves in our truest form.
This was the photo I submitted for this project: Lucero's shadow at full attention, my leg disappearing around his side.
He had the thickest, most beautiful golden mane.
 Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery.
It is one of the historical places in Old San Juan; there are tombs that date back all the way to the 1800's. It is a desolate, eerily beautiful place full of the bodies of Puerto Rico's past, the people that come to life in our history books.
The ocean breeze always blows here, and you can always hear the roar and thump of the ocean against the fortress walls that surround the cemetery. 
A tree's shadow painted across an Old San Juan wall by the light of the early morning sun.
On Saturdays, we'd arrive in San Juan early, before the rush of tourists and general weekend activity started. There is something special about such an ancient city when it is still asleep in the morning. Centuries of history slowly waking up as the sun rises higher in the sky, the restaurants and shops opening their doors one-by-one, the sweet smells of baking mayorcas, toasted bread, and fresh-brewed coffee filling the air.
A child's innocent graffiti in the art school. I remember this window: it separated the upstairs hallway from one of the classrooms, and was right above one of the large, deep sinks where you could clean out your painting materials.
The photography classroom was right next to this window.
It brings back the musty smell of the concrete walls of the school, the plasicky smell of acrylic paints, the acrid scent of the chemicals we used to develop our film and photos in class, the echo of children's voices in the hallways.

Every couple of months, Old San Juan hosts all sorts of craft and art shows, where local artists can sell their wares.
This was a class contest: we had to take 1 single photo that captured the essence of this particular craft show.
This photo won. 
A grackle on one of the fountains in El Paseo de la Princesa in Old San Juan.
There are tons of pigeons in the area, but also grackles. The grackles are the bravest: if you are eating a snack, they will follow in your footsteps as you walk down the sidewalk, or hop around the bench you are sitting on, waiting for crumbs to drop. We call the grackles "changos" on the island.

A chocolate Lab attentively watching the streets of Old San Juan from his home. I remember what color he was because at the time I took the photo, he reminded me so much of my uncle's own chocolate Lab, Rufo.

My brother and me; the only photo in this series not taken by myself. :) My mom took this one; we were playing in the living room at home.
My brother was playing the electric base, and I was playing my acoustic guitar. In my early 20's I entertained a short-lived obsession with music. It was the only art I had not explored yet.

My brother with his bass.
This would eventually lead to one of my bigger projects for Photography class. The following 8 photos were part of that project.
In early 2000, I decided to do a photographic essay of some of Puerto Rico's local bands; the project lasted about a year.  This was the bass player of the local punk rock band, "La Experiencia de Tonito Cabanillas." The band still exists! Though the members are completely different now, they still strive to bring to light some of PR's political and cultural injustices through their music and videos. If you want to hear what island punk sounds like, you can go here

Lead guitarist of "La Experiencia de Tonito Cabanillas."

Lead singer of "La Experiencia de Tonito Cabanillas." His name was Tony. I loved his tattoo; I'd often see him from a distance at school, as he was working on a music degree at the time and was in my same department.
Trumpet player of "Kampo Viejo." I love this photo, how his silhouette is etched in light.
For these photos, I used ASA 1600 film by Fuji.
Around 2000, Kampo Viejo was an up-and-coming Puerto Rican ska band. They had a local record deal and were trying very hard to achieve national recognition by coming over to the States to play. You did not get radio play on the island unless you had already had radio play in the US, a very stupid rule that I believe still exists to this day. They never made it; they had a really hard time finding a good manager and promoter to get them recognition on the mainland, and later there were some disagreements among the band members that I think were the cause of their ultimate demise. I honestly don't know what became of them and there are no online records to be found explaining what happened.
I dated their bass player for a year, though at the time I expressed my interest in him, I didn't even know he was in a band. He worked at the music store where I purchased my guitar strings and we'd been flirting for awhile.
My personal interests aside, I discovered ska as a genre because of this band. Actually, I learned to really listen to music, to pick out individual instruments, chords and notes, because of this band and my relationship with Victor. They were good. It was a pity they never made it. You can listen to one of their big hits here.
Eduardo, on the left, was the rhythm guitarist and lead singer. I sadly cannot remember the name of the guy on the right.
Victor, Kampo Viejo's bass player. 
Kampo Viejo's percussionist. His name was David. He was a spicy, happy-go-lucky guy that attracted girls like flies! This is among my favorite of the hundreds of band photos I took. At the time, they were playing at a skating competition, and had been told to set up in the middle of a steel skating "U". Thus, they had a ton of light reflecting back at them from the metal surface surrounding them. It was a really hot summer day; they were all roasting by the time they finished playing their set.

You can read about both La Experiencia and Kampo Viejo within the context of Puerto Rican rock in this article. I share these with you because it is a part of the island that outsiders never get to experience unless they know where to go to listen to these bands.

That time with the bands was a very weird time in my life. When I was playing guitar and was so interested in music, I attracted musicians in the sense that I was surrounded by them most of the time; the majority of my friends were musicians. I didn't know a single musician prior to this time. It was like something about me had changed and we could scent one another out.
The day I broke up with Victor was the same day I lost interest in music as anything other than something I enjoy listening to. I never played the guitar again. And I have never been among musicians again; when I stopped being one of them, I surrendered the ability to find them out of context.

My uncle still owns a beach house in the southeast corner of the island, in the tiny, tiny town of Arroyo. Every summer and spring break, and sometimes other holidays, we would borrow his beach house for anywhere from a weekend to two weeks. To get there, we had to cross the island's central mountain range. It was always bright and sunny when we went, except for this one trip. It was Thanksgiving. It was chilly and raining from the time we left our house to the time we packed our things at the beach. The mountains, as we crossed them on the way to the beach, were shrouded in mist.

Old sugar cane field in Guayama, the town next to Arroyo. This was taken during the same trip as the previous photo.

Two rivers lead to the ocean in Arroyo, which means you can find tons of smooth river stones strewn across the beach after storms. I have a collection of them that I keep in a ceramic bowl on our dresser.

My brother. I loved photographing him, and it used to drive him crazy at times.
I think photographing him in the starkness of black and white was my attempt at keeping him in the light, at preserving the part of him that made him unique, the part of him that he was rapidly having to change in order to fit in in the world.
When my brother was born, the doctors thought there was something seriously wrong with him because he didn't cry.
He was silent. And then he laughed.
He was born laughing, a brilliant little boy that glowed with happiness and light. He could see and understand things that the average person could not. He had a sensitivity, an aura about him that marked him as different. And he was taunted mercilessly in school because of it. It almost broke him, and it's why I have no forgiveness for bullying.
We were close growing up, not like your average siblings that squabble and bicker constantly. We were best friends, partners in our adventures. We kept one another's secrets and could often speak without using words. We literally saved one another's lives multiple times in our adventures together. 
I wish I could have protected him from the bullying as well.
He lives in Ohio now and is happily married; he was the first of our family to move to the great white North.

My aunt Lucy at the beach house. She was staring out the front entrance of the house towards the parking lot. I love the soft dreamy quality of this photo.
My aunt Lucy and I have always been so very much alike that people still think I'm her daughter. Not only were we alike physically; we were alike personality-wise too. We butted heads a lot when we all lived under one roof. Now that we are separated by some 1,600 miles, we get along quite well and talk more often than when we lived together!

My brother sketching while sitting out on the beach house's patio after a morning in the ocean.

My brother in the foreground and his best friend, Jerry, in the background.

Jerry. He was my brother's best friend from the time they were 6 years old, and we referred to him as the third sibling. He fit right in. He was a gifted gymnast as a child and went on to be a professional dancer and instructor. Like most of the people our age we knew growing up, he now lives in the continental US.

One more coconut, rolling back and forth on the shore with the sway of the waves.

Dried up brambles found on the beach after a storm.

A typical morning in Arroyo. My brother is in the rocking chair by the windows, his friend Jerry is leaning back on the couch. The girl leaning forward on the couch was my friend from university, Alice, and that's her little sister sitting on the couch armrest. Everyone reading. We had a strict no technology rule at the beach house, and it was us kids that had set it: we could listen to music and talk to family on the phone, but no TV and no video games were allowed.  Time that was not spent physically in the ocean or walking along the beach was spent writing, drawing, reading.

Huge piles of driftwood still on the beach a couple of months after one of the big hurricanes.

Another self portrait.
That's my hand on my bodyboard, ready to go ride the waves.
There are beaches far more beautiful than Arroyo on the island, but Arroyo for me was the one place where my soul could rest, where I could find peace within myself. It was my haven. It is the place where I would want my ashes spread.
Part of that peace was obtained from riding the waves, the sport that I discovered on this beach that always kept me safe, with its sandy bottom and gentler waves. I lived for that lift-off from the sandy bottom as the wave crested behind me, allowing myself to be captured by the power of the ocean as I maneuvered my board to slice across the waves at top speed in the wake of their breaking force. I loved it almost as much as I do riding horses. You can't dominate the ocean, you can't force your will upon it. You have to wait for that wave and give yourself to it so that you can ride it. You become one with it, with one of the most primal forces on Earth: the ocean. The waves.

My bedroom at the beach house in the morning.  The southern side of the island where Arroyo is located has a more arid, desert-like climate, which meant that the days were blazing hot and dry, but the evenings were wonderfully cool. You did not need air conditioning to sleep well at night; I just had a fan. My bedroom faced east and there were no curtains over the main glass windows; I liked it like that. It meant I was woken up bright and early by the fiery heat of the sun, despite the cool air from the fan. I'd lie in bed for awhile, enjoying the increasing heat as the sun crept higher in the sky, listening to the waves crash distantly on the shore, knowing that any minute now I'd be getting out of bed to get straight into my swimsuit so I could run down to the beach for yet another morning of surfing.

A generic beach photo. Except it is my beach: Arroyo.

The rearview mirror of my Toyota Tercel; I was in the passenger seat and we were coming home from the art school on a Saturday evening. It had been raining all day.

The view of the city from our backyard at night.


  1. Lovely photos, thanks for sharing!

  2. Beautiful. I'm glad your brother is happy and in a relationship. Sometimes those among us who hear a different drum struggle to achieve peace. I'm sure your protection and connection were key in his life.

    Arroyo lives in my heart, now.

    1. I think so too. I love that description "Those among us who hear a different drum". Yes, that's exactly it. And yes, it can be so hard to find a way to fit in without giving up on who you are.

      Everyone should have an Arroyo.

  3. I love these! Gorgeous, and so vividly capture a slice of world.