A Portrait of an Island
as Gentrifiers Playground
This essay was written months before Hurricane Maria. In the aftermath of the hurricane, the tensions I tried to articulate have become amplified, and for the first time in decades Puerto Rico and its colonial situation have become part of our national discourse. Much has been said of the President’s lack of action and his comments about the Puerto Rican people, but I fear his attitudes toward the island are being branded as the actions of a lone crazy person drunk on his own power, when history shows us that his treatment of the Puerto Rican people is in line with how American political leaders have dealt with the island since 1898. His behavior toward Puerto Rico may feel like a caricature of this oppressive relationship between the island and the U.S., but this caricature speaks a truth about how the American ruling class truly feels about the country's non-white, non-English speaking citizens.
My first time in Rincon was back in 2003. My wife and I had not yet married, but I was eager for her to meet my family that still lived in Puerto Rico. While there, she expressed a desire to try her hand at surfing, and though Puerto Rico is home to literally hundreds of beaches, Rincon is the only one that holds claim to a dedicated surf culture. We went to Rincon so she could surf, but found so much more there. Or perhaps much less.
With the nearest major city a thirty minute drive away, Rincon is less congested and more serene than the tourist ridden coasts near San Juan. We appreciated that people there were not rushing around in an attempt to knock things off their sightseeing list or peddling cartoon coqui t-shirts on every street corner. It seemed to us that people go to Rincon to do absolutely nothing, a state of being that is all too welcome, and rare, for overworked city folk like ourselves.
So ten years later when we agreed to create our own personal writer’s retreat, we decided to go back to Rincon. My wife and I rented a cozy one room flat from Joe, an American retiree from New Orleans who married a Puerto Rican school teacher and bought a home in the Corcega area of Rincon. The flat’s most appealing feature was its generous patio that stretched out across a hill perched directly above the beach. Each night as we dined on the terrace we caught a sunset we were sure was more astonishing that the one we saw the day before.
All around us life blossomed at a seemingly exponential rate, as if it were impossible for things to not grow there. Mangos trees were so fertile that most just fell off the trees and rotted on the roadsides faster than anyone could collect and consume them. Lizards, birds, coquis, cats, and insects all took up residence in and out of our cabana’s front yard. Each night we dined on the terrace as we witnessed the sun set over Desecheo Island. More than once my wife called Rincon paradise.
Rincon, which means “corner” in Spanish, is in fact a hidden little corner on the Northwest tip of the island. But the place actually takes its name from Don Gonzalo de Rincon, who founded the city in approximately 1770. Don Gonzalo inherited the land, which was originally a sugar plantation, from Don Tomas de Castellon. Gonzalo was Castellon’s most loyal employee. Castellon rewarded this loyalty by leaving the plantation to Gonzalo when he died. What Don Gonzalo did with this inheritance from Don Castellon was truly remarkable: He gave it all away, returning the land to the poor jibaros (farmers) whose families lived in service to it for generations. To fully appreciate the magnitude of this giveaway, we need to bear in the mind some details about Puerto Rico’s colonial history.
Spain officially made Puerto Rico a colony in 1493. Through permits given out by the Spanish crown, known as cedulas, Spain created legal means to take the land from the natives and distribute it to Spanish vassals who would colonize the island for the crown and take control of the territory. But the cedulas were only land grants. The King still “owned” the land up until 1778. When the crown finally did remit the territory that year as a tactic to appease those crying for autonomy from the crown, it certainly was not to those at the bottom of the colonial hierarchy. Most of it was ceded to the vassals and Spanish noblemen who created a hacienda plantation system in which the majority of the general population was forced into slavery or serfdom. To just give away thousands of acres of land to the poor is certainly a good deed, but to do it during a time of colonial slavery was nothing less than revolutionary.
Over the course of a few hundred years the impact of this “socialist” act of returning the land to the rightful owners has been undone. Colonialism has evolved along with the rest of the world, the invaders developing new, more sophisticated, less brutal tactics for imposing its will and seizing what it wants. The current face of Rincon, while still inhabited by working class native Puerto Ricans, is littered with English speaking “immigrants” from the mainland Unites States. Ernest Hemingway would have called these people, as he called himself and his American friends living in 1920’s Paris, “Ex-patriots.” (I read online recently someone saying that an “Ex-patriot” is someone who looks down upon the population that they have chosen to move next to, while an immigrant is someone who looks at their new neighbors with admiration.)
The hills of Rincon are home to dozens of inns and small stores that are almost entirely owned by American ex-patriots. The first wave of these immigrants from the North found their way to Rincon due to the popularity it garnered from surfers after Rincon hosted the World Surfing Championship in 1968. The laid back, bohemian lifestyle of the surfing subculture has since taken hold over the area, an attitude visible in every retired yuppie, beach bum, middle-aged divorcee, and white champagne liberal fed up with the workaholic tendencies and conservatism of mainstream America.
Wherever they came from, they must have made their way to Rincon with a bountiful savings account, as they clearly had enough resources to purchase property and establish businesses there; funds most natives certainly don’t have available to them. Gentrification, the new colonialism, is in full effect along the area’s two main roads, 115 and 413. The narrow, snakelike roads weave up into the hills, back down along the beaches, and back again. Along these routes you’ll find Banana Dang, the town’s very popular smoothie shop, The Lazy Parrot Inn, The English Rose Inn and Breakfast Restaurant (where you can have a traditional English breakfast. How very colonial!), Tamboo Seaside Grill, The Wine Cellar Café, and The Shipwreck Grill, which is near the ironically named Taino Divers, a company that provides snorkeling and scuba diving expeditions at prices most indigenous Boricuas could never afford. Admittedly, in these establishments the food was sometimes delicious, the staff was usually polite, if not friendly, and the ambience was as relaxing as a mid-day siesta on a cozy hammock. It’s hard to complain about good food, breathtaking views, fun music, and friendly conversation. But it is even harder to ignore that there is nothing remotely Puerto Rican about these establishments. The town still has a few Puerto Rican owned businesses, such as the restaurant Rincon Criollo, and E.C. Panaderia (Bakery). However, we rarely saw Ex-pats frequenting those spaces.
Three years after our writers retreat in 2013, we returned to Rincon for a family vacation, only to find that the white American owned businesses had multiplied. The town is now rife with establishments that are not owned by native Puerto Ricans and do not pretend to cater to them. Having ourselves a date night away from the rest of the family, my wife and I went to the town square for a drink and found ourselves at The Rincon Beer Company.
In the bar there was not a single conversation occurring in Spanish, and though my own Spanish is terrible, I found this to be unsettling given where the bar is located. The bar’s owner, Sage, approached us with a beer and asked my wife and I how we liked Rincon. To signal to him that we were not ex-pats or tourists, I explained that I come to Rincon regularly and that I have family all over the island. Sage responded with a non-sequitur by inviting us to the art fair that is held every Thursday in the square.
Within minutes he was gringo-splaining to us how “nothing was here” in the plaza just three or four years ago, how he and others are trying to make the place more exciting, that they were there to “help” the town’s economy. I had to bite my tongue. My urge was to interject with some Fanon and Galeano, school him on the history of colonizers casting themselves in the role of savior, but I was supposed to be having a pleasant night out with my wife. So instead, I smiled and nodded, silently marveling over how more than five hundred years since the first colonization, whites have never lost their superpower of voluntary blindness, of not seeing anything that they don’t want to see.
My wife, trained as a journalist, has always told me that she likes to remain quiet and friendly in those situations because if you let people keep going they will eventually reveal more. This proved to be absolutely correct, for as Sage felt more comfortable talking to us, he eventually backpedaled from his speech on his gentrifying heroics by confessing that, though business has been “okay,” it’s been difficult to get Puerto Ricans to come into the bar.
A few days later I would find myself glad that Sage at least expressed a desire to engage with the islanders. Looking to catch a sunset on the last day of that family trip, my wife and I went to The Beach House, a seaside bar with an absolutely exquisite view. The Beach House, like The Rincon Beer Company, was almost entirely devoid of native Puerto Ricans. But at The Beach House, both the patrons and the staff made it clear that the presence of natives, or anyone who wasn’t a white, English speaking, American, was not welcome there. Neither the bartenders nor the owner would look my wife in the eyes the entire time we were there. Being an Afro-Latina in the U.S., my wife is no stranger to this attitude. She’s gotten such responses in places like Wisconsin and Texas, but it felt absurd that a Latina should be made to feel ostracized in a Latin American country by those that are foreigners.
I suppose in some respects I prefer these new hipster immigrants in Rincon to the time share occupiers on Isla Verde or the cruise ship tourists who commit daily consumerist drive-bys in Old San Juan before they set off to the next “Third World Shopping Mall” on their itinerary. There are few places as beautiful as Rincon. I couldn’t fault anyone for wanting to spend the rest of their life there. I dream of doing just that myself. Yet I can’t help but consider the narrative arc of a land that was taken from the indigenous population, to be given back to them a few hundred years later by a man of the people, only to be re-appropriated another 150 years later, through the modern day imperialism of real estate development, by people who consider themselves rebels turning their backs on the American Dream.
The presence of the American immigrant in Rincon is empirical evidence that Magical Realism could have only been born in Latin America. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “100 Years of Solitude” the fate of the people of the town of Macondo is forever changed with the coming of the railroad. Once the outside world has access to their village, their town becomes a hurricane of inexplicably odd events that lead them all simultaneously to prosperity and tragedy. I recall cruising along the road that cuts through a mango farm, strewn with Burger Kings and Walgreens, and in front of me a kid in a Kobe Bryant jersey riding a horse while a a retired yuppie in a mint condition Ford Mustang shoots past us, and thinking to myself, “Puerto Rico is Macondo. Macondo is Puerto Rico.”
PALMAS DEL MAR
Juncos, where my uncle Mario and aunt Chi-Chi and their families live, is on the eastern part of the island, about 45 minutes southeast of San Juan. The last time we stayed with them we arrived on the night of Noche de San Juan, an annual event where tens of thousands of Puertorriquenos jump into the ocean at midnight to wash away their sins. Mario agreed to drive us to Naguabo to see the festivities, but he insisted that he first take us to Palmas Del Mar, “to see the big houses.” My aunts and cousins applauded his suggestion by waxing poetic about how celebrities like Bruce Willis vacation there. They obviously didn’t know or remember that I had been there several times in my life, and I was starving and had no interest in waiting longer to eat so we could stare at other people’s homes, but it had been years since I’d seen them and did not want to spoil their excitement, so we obliged.
As a child I stayed at one of the hotels at Palmas del Mar with my parents on a couple of occasions. My abuela’s house in Juncos had no air conditioning and it often lost water for long stretches of time as a result of the house being built so high up in the mountains, which sometimes irritated my very American mother to the point of her insisting to my father that they rent a hotel room just to shower and cool off. Palmas del Mar was quite an expensive shower, a shower that also conveniently left them a stone’s throw from their beloved casino, but when you’re a bunch of Sorta Ricans from Nueva York used to a certain amount of mass produced convenience, a kind of illogical desperation for comfort can consume you. Admittedly, my younger self looked forward to these overnight visits, primarily because as a child I had a fear of the sea and enjoyed that I could swim in a pool, but also I had never seen anything like Palmas del Mar in my short life. You certainly weren’t going to find this kind of luxury in my working class New Jersey neighborhood. At ten years old, I had only seen places like Palmas del Mar in movies; movies usually involving gangsters.
Built in the 1970’s just at the apex of the Caribbean Resort boom, Palmas del Mar is a 2,750 acre resort, casino, and “master-planned community” less than 20 minutes from Juncos at the end of Route 30. Like the town of Rincon, Palmas del Mar also existed on territory that was once a sugar plantation- the largest on the island, in fact. This isn’t exactly a coincidence, as Spain had turned nearly half of the island into sugar plantations by the mid-1700’s. Though it’s no surprise that the two regions had parallel fates, they stand as twin symbols, empirical evidence of colonization’s far reaching impact.
We were greeted at the front gate to the resort by two guards. Mario explained to them in Spanish that we were all headed to the casino. When I asked my tio why he lied about going to the casino he told me, “if you’re from P.R. they won’t let you in unless you’re going to spend money in the casino.” Minutes after the guard’s inquisition of our three tailgating vehicles, we were cruising through the unlit roads to catch glimpses of the manors, most of which were designed to emulate the Spanish colonial design brought by the island’s first colonizers. While the designs evoked the Spanish architectural tradition, it was mostly veneer. The structures were nonetheless void of any cultural or historical resonance, a reminder that Puerto Rico is very much part of the American Technopoly, where, to paraphrase Neil Postman (from his book Technopoly), one must exist as an ahistorical being in order to garner the privileges of a state that trades away a life of meaning for technological comfort.
The buildings and their roads, mostly uninhabited in a gated community where the majority of the homeowners live for just a few weeks every year, felt frigid, even in ninety degree heat. The vacancy of it all was more than literal. This feeling would later be juxtaposed by the electricity of Naguabo during the festival, the roads packed with thirty year old Hondas, local bands jangling out bomba and plena tunes while kids run through the dark kicking up sand, the adults sipping from cans of Medalla and ordering another plate of pinchos.
Out of nostalgia mixed with intellectual curiosity, we returned a few days later to this “master-planned community” hoping to learn something more about the island’s resort culture and the people who inhabit these spaces. As American tourists in a rental car, we were able to enter the resort with much less explanation than when we had been there with our family. What we saw in daylight was also considerably revealing. We learned that the houses my uncle took us to were not the “big” houses, just the ones we were allowed to get near. Now we could see that most of the housing communities were sectioned off and protected from the general public by electronic gates. In essence, Palmas del Mar is a series of gated communities within a gated community, fortresses within fortresses within fortresses, like a Borges story with a spa and happy hour.
The parts of Palmas del Mar that we did have access to were essentially strips of pre-fab mansions, golf courses, and corporate hotels that serve as the offensive line perched between the line backers (the pesky natives) and the quarterback (the beaches). Buzzing between them were schools of golf carts, most of them not en route to the golf courses. My wife, upon seeing the townhouses and mansions, remarked that she was shocked at how boring two million dollar homes could actually appear. I agreed that two million dollars should at least buy you living quarters that look different from all the other houses on your block. Palmas del Mar had far more money and far less charm or imagination than Rincon.
While having lunch at the resort’s boat harbor, I couldn’t help but crave a return to the less polished, quirkier, decidedly more ecologically sensitive ambience of Rincon’s café’s and bars. Palmas del Mar is like every resort on every island in every country around the globe, a symbol of excess built by the local peasants to appease the pleasure centers of the world’s ruling class, but like a McDonald’s or a Starbucks, it promises that ruling class that there will be nothing unexpected or original. You won’t live like a king, you’ll live like how you think a king lives. Or more accurately, you’ll live like how an advertiser has told you king’s live. Yes, Palmas Del Mar insures comfort and a semblance of luxury, but it also insures that you will feel “better than,” that what you are indulging in is only accessible to those who have the kind of bankroll that can only be earned with a fervent dedication to exploitation. It reminds me of something I heard Chris Rock say about being on Broadway where most people of color could not afford to see him perform, “In the old days, they used to have signs up that said ‘Whites Only.’ Now they have a new thing. It’s called prices.”
I won’t deny that Palmas Del Mar is pretty, but for me it feels more like the title of the Sex Pistols song, “Pretty Vacant.” It is void of the constant chatter and booming laughter of the bars and cafes in town further inland. You probably won’t get eye contact from guests, residents, or staff. And Unlike Rincon, those who have come to occupy space at Palmas del Mar don’t even pretend to have any interest in Puerto Rico’s heritage and cultural gifts. Here Puerto Rico is completely reduced to island pastiche. They want the palm trees, the serenity of the beaches, the perfect weather, occasionally a taste of the local cuisine, but everything else they can do without. It makes me wonder why such people venture thousands of miles away from their homes to live, permanently or temporarily, where they don’t want anything to do with the people who live there. Are the weather and the view that enticing? I could never imagine myself handing over a small truck full of money to travel to a country that I had no interest in learning about. Why not get a five star hotel in your own country? Is the home they come from that ugly and repressive? Does it produce a stimulating flood of endorphins in their brain to know they’ve taken something from someone else and denied them access to it? Or do they just like paying to see brown people serve them? I ask all this with genuine interest, void of sarcasm (okay, maybe with a little sarcasm).
Rincon and Palmas Del Mar are two of the faces of Global Neoliberal Capitalism. Both are implemented through real estate development contracts, marketing strategies, and branding. Both depend on forcefully destabilizing the economy of a territory in order to seize the resources at a bargain. In Rincon, the culture of hipster gentrification reigns, where all things, though given unequal value, are welcome at the table to mix and mingle, as long as the colonizer makes a profit. If you are a native you can play there too, but you can’t own any of it. Palmas del Mar however, is the embodiment of the ultra elite and conservative brand of colonialism that seizes the land and resources and cuts the native population almost entirely out of the equation (save the bell hops and pool cleaners).
This is what is what happens to land when it is not owned and controlled by its native residents. It is class stratification disguised as luxury and glamour available to all, if you have the cash to pay for a piece of it. And who among us can really afford that? Sure, they’ll let you in to leave your weekly paycheck at the card table or to have a drink at the poolside bar to fantasize for 5 minutes that you live like the 1 percent, but who do you have to be and what do you have to do in order to gain entrance to the gate within a gate within a gate? And isn’t this a much more pleasant way of keeping the undesirable natives out. The “Whites Only” sign just wouldn’t fly anymore, it’s too brutal and can get ugly. Now the colonizer has something much more savvy and sophisticated. Like Chris Rock said, now they got prices!
DON’T YOU WISH YOUR ISLAND WAS HOT LIKE MINE?
Rincon and Palmas del Mar are two vastly different environments sprawled across the same tiny island. One is a bohemian hideaway for foreigners (and a few natives) in search of the perfect wave or refuge from the rat race. The other is a 3000 acre V.I.P room at the night club where the patrons get to place themselves at the top of the imaginary social hierarchy they’ve constructed in their minds (though a few come for a $200 shower). Both are former sugar plantations, wrought with the class struggles and concentration of wealth implicit in any capitalistic center of mass production. Ironically the two communities of invaders see themselves as different. The white hippies of Rincon would judge the white resort crowd as conservative and dull, and the resort crowd would look down upon the Rincon hippies and hipsters as without culture or ambition. Yet they both serve the same gentrifying/colonial master.
Now with La PROMESA, after U.S. interests have forced a bankruptcy of its economy, Puerto Rico is being carved up, sold off to Wall Street vulture fund capitalists, and versions of Rincon and Palmas Del Mar are going to sprout on the landscape like hives faster than you can yell “bomba!” And to insure that there are plenty of pool cleaners and porters, the vulture fund invaders have already forced the closure of 184 schools on the island and are pushing tuition hikes at the University of Puerto Rico, because it’s hard to come by cheap labor to serve as waiters and hotel maids if the population is educated. But remember, we have to be thankful about all this because, as Sage made it clear to us, there was “nothing” here before the immigrants from the north came to the island anyway. First they made this “nothing” into a plantation, then into a military outpost, and now it is a playground for the global elite.
This is why Jesus Colon wrote in A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Stories, “So when you come to the door of a Puerto Rican home you will be encountered by this feeling in the Puerto Rican, sometimes unconscious in himself, of having been taken for a ride for centuries. He senses that 99 persons out of 100 knock at his door because they want something from him and not because they desire to be his friend…”
My Cuban mother-in-law says that of all Latin Americans, she finds Puerto Ricans to be the sweetest. Of course my bias leads me to agree with her. Yet I know this sweetness is understandably served with a hint of bitterness, of the kind of skepticism that Jesus Colon wrote about. And I wonder if maybe we’ve been too welcoming, too friendly. Perhaps then maybe we wouldn’t live with the painful history of erasure and forced transition from autonomous paradise to outpost to plantation to playground for the wealthy. And I worry that the fate of this U.S. territory with an unemployment rate twice as high as the mainland is to forever serve for the pleasure of the global elite. And I have to think that in some respect the blanquito immigrant occupiers must feel a little jealous that their points of origin were lacking in this kind of flavor. Consider this: If Puerto Rico was just a dead block of dirt and ice in the South Pole, would the Arawaks, Caribes, Spanish, English, Dutch, Portuguese, French, and Americans all have spilled so much blood trying to possess a piece of land only one hundred miles by thirty five in length?
Now that Puerto Rico’s infrastructure has been completely destroyed, the mechanisms of disaster Capitalism are ready to be set in motion. Before the hurricane, Wall Street was already pushing to take control of the land and resources through the PROMESA Bill. The decimated economy will now make it easier for this corporate takeover of the island to take place. Way back in 2005 when the current President was just a failed businessman and reality TV blowhard, he went on television in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and said what the business world was already thinking: that the Hurricane would be good for he and his associates because it will be easier for them to get past bureaucratic red tape and community resistance to their projects. The community doesn’t resist when they’re too busy looking for clean drinking water.
As I watch the news come in about the situation in Puerto Rico, my thoughts keep returning to his claim, because I know that is exactly what he and others are thinking right now: that Puerto Rico is once again ripe for the taking. So when I see the delay to temporarily lift the Jones Act, the lack of action on the part of FEMA and other federal agencies, I can’t help but see the feigned incompetency and idleness as a sophisticated form of aggression.
And yet I have hope, if not in U.S. leadership, then in the Puerto Rican people and our millions of allies. I have hope that we will learn from this and become unified. Puerto Ricans have long been torn about our relationship to the U.S. 1/3 of us are complacent and okay with the Commonwealth status, 1/3 are for independence, and 1/3 support statehood. Perhaps the aggressive mishandling of Hurricane Maria relief and the President’s overt racism and hostility might get some of us to see that we cannot rely on America to be our caregiver.
Many private citizens, as well, have been generous in a way the federal government has not. One, Orlando Bravo, a Puerto Rican tech billionaire based in the Silicon Valley, has donated 10 million dollars to relief efforts and is bringing medical supplies to the island with his private plane. Donations have been pouring in by non-billionaire, non-Puerto Rican citizens as well. I have been deeply moved by people’s acts of kindness and solidarity. Their willingness to help and their desire to understand has helped me through the despair I have felt the last two weeks. But then I read that it will take 30 years for the island to completely recover. I’ll be 72 years old. How many people will die of neglect before there is recovery? And who will the island belong to when we get there?
Vincent Toro is the author or STEREO.ISLAND.MOSAIC., which was awarded the Sawtooth Poetry Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. He is recipient of a Poet’s House Emerging Poets Fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, The Caribbean Writer’s Cecile De Jongh Poetry Prize, and the Metlife Nuestras Voces Playwriting Award. Vincent teaches English at Bronx Community College, is poet in the schools for Dreamyard and the Dodge Poetry Foundation, is writing liaison for Cooper Union’s Saturday Program, and is a contributing editor at Kweli Literary Journal.