What’s a Rich Port worth if it’s not a Free Port?
The irony of this colony’s name is made evident yet again by a new crisis. Puerto Rico’s ability to manage the COVID-19 pandemic has been restricted by our dependence on outside policies, food, medicine and capital. Our political immune system has a low level defense against tourist traffic and inefficient federal regulations. After the first confirmed cases–most of them tourists–local authorities prohibited the docking of cruise ships and the National Guard began screening all incoming travelers at the Luis Muñoz Marín Airport. Despite these preventive measures, we are facing this epidemic while recuperating from 2020’s brutal onset–earthquakes, a meteor (really?), gender violence–not to mention a large high risk elderly population of 21% supported by a broken public health system. Still, tourists continue to arrive. One week after strict curfew, round trip flights from JFK to SJU averaged around $30 USD. A popular meme circulating on social media reads: “Quédate en casa (stay at home) significa en inglés (means in English) Yanki Go Home.”
In addition to the late and inadequate filtration of travelers, the local government limits its response to the crisis by following protocols stipulated by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC recommends testing only for individuals that show clinical symptoms: high fever, dry cough and difficulty breathing. Scientists, epidemiologists and doctors from all over the world have made it clear that the virus is spreading through asymptomatic carriers, meaning infection can be transmitted by someone who doesn’t exhibit symptoms.
This and other misinformation circulating in local press and media stems from statements made by state epidemiologist Carmen Deseda. According to an investigation recently published by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (Center for Investigative Journalism), Governor Wanda Vázquez Gared assigned Deseda to lead a COVID-19 task force, despite her insufficient training in the field. During an interview at local station Radio Isla 1320 AM, Deseda underestimated the virus’ reach by stressing how countries “like Italy,” with confirmed cases are “closer to China.” While Italy is most certainly not close to China, the more serious miscalculation by Deseda was overlooking the heavy volume of international tourists traveling to Puerto Rico.
In the midst of everyone’s call to solitude and stillness at home–with many of us under-employed and living inside apartments–access to entertainment online or through television has been a helpful remedy for boredom. The kind of content that dominates these venues sheds light on other ways in which we are subordinated by our colonizers. Cultural programming in local television stations and cinemas have catered U.S. films and content for decades. Our borders are not only permeable to infected tourists, tax-evasive corporations, imported tropical fruits, and unelected fiscal control boards, we are subject to an ongoing cultural bombardment from our colonizers as well. Now more than ever, social media is offering spaces for collective recreation and a horizontal curatorial platform. There is no shortage of recommendations for books, articles and films. One such list of film recommendations in Puerto Rico is found in cinelocalpr.tumblr.com, an online Excel document created by local curator Marina Reyes Franco and filmmaker Gisela Rosario Ramos. Web designer Javier W. Vélez went ahead and created an online platform with a user-friendly interface based off the list. The selection is a collectively curated anthology of Puerto Rican films and video art, recent and past, and can be accessed completely free at cine.pr.
The project began with Rosario Ramos sharing her short documentary El Hijo de Ruby on social media and extending an invitation for others to share their work. Reyes Franco suggested to make the list and took action right away. The hashtag #coronandoelcinelocal (#crowninglocalcinema) was coined by Rosario Ramos and has reverberated throughout the social media platforms. “I gave myself the task to tag people that wanted to share old work,” explains Rosario Ramos. “I also saw it as a curatorial opportunity and I tagged queer artists, artists that are not from the metropolitan area or live outside Puerto Rico.”
“A certain generosity has flourished from this conjuncture in which people choose to engage without personalism,” explains curator Reyes Franco. “Some might claim that it’s unfair to give away your work without compensation, but I feel it’s important to consider our political context. If you make accessible what already exists–in particular the work of younger filmmakers–more people will demand diversity of content.”
As a colony we consume narratives and representations of realities far from our own, or that fail to dive into the complexities of our day to day lives. How do these moving images inform the construction of many Puerto Ricans’ películas mentales, or “mental films,” about themselves? Peliculas mentales is a popular phrase that refers to imaginary and inaccurate stories we tell ourselves. What inaccurate stories are feeding our collective psyche? How are we making sense of this pandemic and what narratives inform our action and inaction in the face of the State’s inefficiency?
As a ritual (and distraction) for quarantine, I screened as many local films and documentaries as I could from the 200+ available on the list. I drew stills from films and documentaries that resonated with me in their ability to illustrate the contradictions and complexities of living in this colony. May these images and this time of introspection re-boot our imagination with audiovisual storytelling that features new and underrepresented voices from Puerto Rico. Not just for the enjoyment of the international community, but for Puerto Ricans themselves. If we all really (truly) stay at home, may this be an opportunity for us to continue crowning Puerto Rican cinema with pride, from a place of authenticity, diversity and resistance.
Karla Claudio-Betancourt is a visual artist living in Santurce, Puerto Rico working primarily with illustration, natural paints, text and video. Her creative practice is guided by ethnobotanical investigation, oral history and regenerative practices connected to land and food sovereignty.