The Online Journal of Contour biennale

September 29 2016

The Littoral

By Beatriz Santiago Muñoz

Artistic rendering, BONUS Nuclear Plant, Rincon, Puerto Rico El Mundo, 1960

Artistic rendering, BONUS Nuclear Plant, Rincon, Puerto Rico
El Mundo, 1960, courtesy of the artist.

The year 2160 is the last year of the legacy-management activities under the Puerto Rico Power Authority and the now-defunct United States Atomic Energy Commission. The decommissioned reactor has been closed for fifty years. It was a model thermonuclear plant for seven years, between 1960 and 1967, but it required too many modifications to work properly. It has been at least a couple of decades since surfers baptized the place Domes. The word on the street is that it leaks radiation, and as we walk around the dome at night we see that the fortified cliff is falling apart.

 In 1960, the thermonuclear model plant was built on the northwest tip of the island, the place where the shoreline turns to face west, on a high cliff. The spot must have been chosen for its inaccessibility from the sea, but the rock and concrete walls will not last ten years more. Carefully you tread the narrow muddy path that circles the plant. Bright yellow-orange lights are good stand-ins for the fear of a radioactive leak. The barbed wire fence encloses a single confused and weary-looking guard who stands between the gate and the structure. “Where did you all come from?” It is nighttime so we have caught him by surprise. It has taken us about two hours to circle the power plant. It has been raining so the mud is deep and swallows your shoes every so often. The water laps up against the cliff. Most radioactive materials were shipped off and buried. Soon the sea will come up to meet it. After 1967 the inside was turned into—what else?—a museum. But the museum is now also entombed.

Nearby is the old Ramey Air Force Base. The military always has a stake in the idea of wild and rugged nature. Rockaway surfers can fly direct from New York to Aguadilla on JetBlue for as little as $250. Once the base closed, parts of it were transferred to other American quasi-military operations: Homeland Security, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and the United States Coast Guard all have administrative offices, holding pens, and surveillance equipment within the base’s footprint. Its suburban-plan housing, everywhere accentuated by ornamental, too-groomed plant life, is now a closed residential area, populated by coast guard families and related others. Here is the airport, “now open to commercial flights,” and a radar, also a dome, another mystery for civilians in terms of range and purpose. The golf course is dotted with the odd palm tree, not one of the native species or the much-appreciated coconut palm, but a tall leafy variety that was planted in Aguadilla during a time when artisanal basket weaving was promoted by the government as a new industry. Now it is biotech. All the dogs and horses are leashed here and there is an official sign warning against kite activity.

A food truck selling wheatgrass shots sits on the main strip. The wheatgrass hawker is a fantastic geomythologist. The location of the base has something to do with the “Nazis and their relationship to Castro. Millennia ago the island became unhinged from the continental plates and as it floated through the Panama Canal giant sloths landed on the volcanic rock.” Another important riff makes it into the story. “The littoral that borders the coast guard residential area, once military owned, is undeveloped because the mayor has protected it against tourism encroachment.” The mayor has been around for at least three terms. Later on we stroll past his home. Next to his residence sits an 18-feet-high, full-color, glossy-coated canvas showing a three-quarter-length portrait of the mayor. His figure stands guard in camouflage pants and aviator glasses, and with crossed arms. No slogan, name, or political party is given. His house is an oversized doll’s house with a golden dome on top, a tiny jeweled twin of the nuclear reactor.

This wheatgrass history is like a layer of Vaseline. Thoroughly coated, nothing sticks here.

Because access to this part of the coast is restricted through policing and physical barriers, the way to the beach is a one- or two-hour walk, depending on which detour you take, down the hill or through the mud. The forest below is a secondary forest of tall, 60- to 80-feet-tall almond trees. The lack of diversity in tree species signals that this is a relatively new forest, but it feels lush, healthy, and, because of the access restriction, secluded, which is confusing. What we had thought was called Punta Agujereada is now called Survival Beach.

There are some concrete structures under the almond tree forest as well. They seem to be from the 1940s or 1960s. This area is a coastal plain and was probably farmed up until the 1940s with pineapple, papaya, or similar crops. Up above the cliff, houses have video monitors to survey sea transit. Let’s speculate about the ownership of these monitors. Why does the lady cleaning house on Sunday need a camera permanently trained on the shore? She is afraid of migrants. She helps migrants and offers her phone so they can contact their families. She is a snitch who calls the coast guard the minute she sees something. She works for the fisherman and keeps an eye out. She monitors the coast guard. The camera is trained on the shore. One plane has no lights on. We hear a drone approaching but we cannot fix its location before the sound fades away. The image of the coast says “deserted, rugged, pure, wild”—but we walk a bit further and within the cave there is a photographer with very nice set of lenses taking photographs of “deserted,” “rugged,” “pure,” and “wild.” At night helicopters and planes survey the area. On the beach, a boat has made it ashore but is now disintegrating. You have the feeling of a find, of an accidental encounter with a vessel perhaps used by Dominican or Haitian migrants. But the nature photographer is there as well, already capturing that event, and the following week you find a few other views of the boat on Flickr.

Close to five hours from the base, walking south along the coast, our path is blocked by a radio relay tower operated by the United States navy. The neighbors play up the mystery of control and surveillance. The radio tower does not appear on the satellite. The map showed a clear path to the beach but the neighbors tell us with misplaced pride that the radio transmitter is the navy’s secret weapon against migrants. It is impossible to pass, they are sure of this. We walk past a row of sealed, manicured houses and up to the barbed wire fence. There are only cattle on the other side of the fence, and beyond yelling distance a small, sealed-shut air-conditioned concrete structure next to the transmitter. The land around the military radio towers is leased as cattle pasture in order to keep the grass under control. But the administrator of this bio-maintenance system does not tend to the herd and has neglected to feed them and fill their water tank. They are famished—thin and bony. At the gate there is an intercom with a dialing pad. Some neighbors look out of their balconies and counsel us not to attempt to pass. A few minutes later they say that their boys, young boys from the neighborhood, used to sneak through the house next door and by negotiating carefully between the fence and the river, they could get eventually to the beach. But they stopped venturing to the beach six months ago because the rains have brought too many mosquitoes. And now that the mosquitoes bring Chikungunya, and Zika as well as Dengue, even young boys think twice about trespassing. In the tropics, a path that is not trod for six months will be lost, and now as we try out the path the grass is as high as our heads. Still, we walk for about twenty minutes down the river path, there is no more clearing.

 Where the beach becomes a state-run recreational area, out of nowhere there are evenly spaced concrete structures, electrical outlets, sometimes barbecue pits, basic indicators of dwelling. There is plumbing, bathrooms, showers, instructions, warnings, but it may all be out of order with or without workarounds. At Añasco beach there is a full bar with nice single malt whiskeys as well as the good local rum. There are large parking lots and opening and closing hours. The level of management and rule enforcement depends on the men employed as caretakers. “I have been told to tell you that the bathrooms are broken, and that there is no running water. But I don’t see why this should be a hindrance.” In another spot, they leave their showers open all night for us. Another guard says, “I have been told not to let you in but as you see there is no fencing on the back area and I have been asked not to leave my post.” The concrete structures are overwritten with graffiti demanding sexual and political liberation. On two sides of the same column there is a drawing of a vulva accompanied by the word “wet” and a call for decolonization. Cars come into the lot on Friday and Saturday nights to show off their loudspeakers. Lots of adolescent bodies leaning back in their cars, male drivers, women in the passenger seats. Energy saving lights with a bluish glow.

In the 1980s the mayor of Mayagüez and the governor of the island argued before the United States Congress against the imposition of environmental protections by the EPA (the United States Environmental Protection Agency), in order to keep the tuna canning factories on the island. Bumble Bee and StarKist tuna were both here, across the street from each other. Refrigerated shipping containers full of frozen fish would come directly from the cargo boats into the factory. Each tuna cannery had their own bus line because the workers stunk after a day’s work of pruning fishy viscera and also because then there was no excuse for being late. The women separated the innards from the meat and bones, one part went toward the canning line and the other for the paste destined for cat food. The men worked in the canning and heating sections, as well as pulling the frozen fish out of the containers. “Back then there was work,” they say. There is some talk of the mighty machines, of the cold, the danger, and the colossal scale of the operation. The ruin remembers you, worker. It insists that you were part of something great and greater than your current life. We walk up to the shore. Do not go in the water here.

John Malmin, Tuna Cannery 1974, for the LA times

John Malmin, Tuna Cannery 1974, for the LA times, courtesy of the artist.

Most of the western coast is a long stretch of beach house after beach house. Walls built right to the edge slowly fall into the sea. Hotels and luxury homes enforce the prohibition against camping on the non-designated beaches. We remind them that we are walking through and for now, only resting our feet.

Each time we encounter a river mouth we cross the brown brackish water and wash our feet. The color and smell of the water worries us. The river mouth is where the poor live, but even at the mouth there has been some pressure to sell the three wooden stilt houses that sit close to the ocean. In Caño Boquilla there are no walls or blocked paths, anyone can come in and out. There are three or four structures built from corrugated zinc or aluminum, pieces of appliances, and a variety of salvaged and scavenged furniture which doubles as building material. The structures are used as a horse stable, an area for cleaning and marinating freshly killed iguana meat, an outdoor shower, and a strange sort of living room, complete with carpeting overlaid with a sheet of dirt. Three related families live in the houses nearest to the river mouth. “Can we go in?” We make a fire among the pine trees, share some food with the family, and sleep in hammocks. They have lived here since the 1940s. Her father planted these pine trees. There are 8 pounds of iguana meat marinating by the kitchen. There are no walls between the beach and the houses.

The constitutional provision in Puerto Rican law that defines common access to the littoral has not changed in many decades but in the new context of erosion, sea level rise, and increasing privatization of land its meaning and application, already under dispute from various pressures, has become even more unstable.

The word “littoral” refers to an abstract concept of coast imagined as a strip which includes the ground under lapping waves, sand—whether wet or dry—up to the point where it is submerged at high tide or in storms, and usually up to the beginning of a continuous strip of vegetation, but sometimes including it as well, if the plant life is typically coastal or essential to the structural integrity of the seaboard.

Pity the law, so far away from all this.

The everyday mythology of the coast, the actual sand and rock, trod by humans and other animals, all of which can be morphed by Gaia into something else while you sleep, is not the law. Form, structure, materials, the porosity or rigidity of the littoral strip, all of these are determined in and with the river mouth, nuclear plant, public beach, or wall. The law is for now a heap of words entombed in concrete.

Playa Stella, Rincón, Puerto Rico

Playa Stella, Rincón, Puerto Rico, courtesy of the artist.







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The Littoral

By Beatriz Santiago Muñoz