Talk on December, 2017 ...
Although capped landfills often blend into their surrounding landscape and appear static, they are living and breathing. These spaces are wild and artificial, both nature and architecture, and contain their own ecosystems that layer and blend into contiguous ecosystems. Decay and anaerobic processes cause decomposition and the land slowly transforms over time. These sites require continual maintenance to prevent leachate from seeping into groundwater and methane gas must be filtered out to prevent underground fires.
Like many artists, I have always been fascinated by materiality and through my lifetime of making and consuming I became compelled to research processing systems and trace the trajectory of objects from manufacturing to disposal. Over time this research became centered on post industrial sites, waste landscapes, and repurposed marginal land. Through investigating the physical malleability of earth, I expanded onto considering ways in which memories, stories, intentions, and representations alter landscape.
My understanding of the land in Puerto Rico is a disjointed assemblage of memories, old photographs, stories, and second hand stories that have become layered, blended, and obscured over the span of a decade. The place I imagine is idyllic, buzzing with wildlife, green, lush, balmy, tropical, serene. The place documented in news footage in late September was gray, damaged, chaotic, and frail as I watched from my laptop in Amherst, Massachusetts.
After the territory lost power, updates from my relatives stopped and I refreshed news websites until coverage became repetitive. In a futile attempt to feel connected, I continued reading about Puerto Rico and discovered a history of exploitation that was never mentioned in conversations with my relatives. The historical timeline I uncovered conflicted with the narrative I was familiar with and my new understanding of the land altered the way I perceived my family history. It was over 70 years ago that my grandmother immigrated to the U.S. and her stories are my primary access point to Puerto Rico. To reposition my perspective, I placed her timeline alongside the one I read about:
In 1940 a U.S. sponsored initiative called Operation Bootstrap was established. The intention was to rescue Puerto Rico’s failing economy by attracting heavy industry to the island. It led to the production of pharmaceuticals, machinery, electronics, and petrochemicals. Wages were very low and there were little to no environmental constraints, leading to pollution of the air, ground, and water for years to come.
Southern Puerto Rico was a zone of human exploitation and natural resource extraction. This environment was particularly valuable to residents in that area as many made a significant part of their living from fishing. Many of the sugar cane fields, mangrove forests, and ocean front lands were converted to housing developments, shopping plazas, and manufacturing and power plants.
Shortly after this initiative was established Ellie Marquez moved from Puerto Rico to the U.S. to work for the United Nations during Harry Truman’s presidency as the ambassador for Paraguay. While living in Washington D.C. she met a soft spoken english professor named William Burke who loved opera and collecting books. Although Bill’s timid and often short tempered demeanor contrasted Ellie’s vibrant, exuberant personality, they fell for each other right away. They were married in 1949 and moved into a sage green house in a sleepy suburb of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
By the 1960s Bill opened a stereo shop and taught literature at Kalamazoo College while Ellie took care of their six children and maintained an abundant garden. Ellie never taught her children Spanish but she cooked Puerto Rican recipes and told them stories of tiny frogs with loud voices, humid air, and hiking through El Yunque Rainforest.
El Yunque Rainforest is the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Forest system. In the 1960’s it was used as a testing ground by the U.S. military to observe the effects of dioxin, a powdered herbicide also known as Agent Orange. Further, parts of the forest were exposed to radiation in extensive experiments to observe the effects of these chemicals to animals and vegetation. The chemicals were found to cause illnesses such as leukemia, Parkinsons disease, and prostate and respiratory cancers.
By the 1970’s the incentives from Operation Bootstrap decreased and many companies left. The net effect of the initiative was to aggravate economic inequality, contribute to the territories debit, and develop a reliance on oil. Puerto Rico generates almost all of it’s electricity from fossil fuels and pay between two and three times higher for electricity than the U.S.
I was born in 1990. Growing up, my aunts and uncles noted that my small feet and brown-black eyes must be Ellie’s genes. When I visited the house in Kalamazoo, I looked at the black and white photographs of my grandmother when she was in her 20s which were displayed on shelves amongst my grandfather’s book collection. I hoped I would grow up to inherit her beauty, sharp wit, and ability to make friends with everyone she met.
Ellie hosted holiday gatherings for our large extended family and prepared everyones’ favorite dish each year, arroz con pollo y frijoles negros. One by one, she directed each grandchild to sit next to her chair at her feet while she slowly ran her fingernails up and down our backs and told stories about her adventures in New York City while my grandpa attended graduate school at Columbia.
Toa Alta landfill problems began in 1994. There are more than one hundred homes and businesses within four hundred yards of the landfill which was originally built in a sinkhole that forms part of one of the most productive ground water sources in Puerto Rico. The landfill expanded three acres outside of it’s boundaries and lacks a system to collect leachate, control stormwater runoff, and monitor the ground water to ensure that the drinking water does not become contaminated. The mayor of Tao Alta told the associated press that he could not meet the closure deadline because the municipality cannot afford the estimated fifteen to twenty million dollars it would cost.
Later in 2002 Applied Energy Systems, the American private energy company, opened a coal ash power plant in Guyana which has led to coal ash dumping throughout the island. The plant is adjacent to a Superfund site where Chevron Phillips operated an oil refinery from 1966 through 2002. Coal ash is known to contain high levels of arsenic, heavy metals, and radioactivity.
The companies initial strategy was to ship thousands of tons of ash to two rural costal communities in the Dominican Republic. After doctors reported increases in spontaneous abortions and birth defects in those areas, AES was ordered to clean up the ashes and pay six million dollars in a legal settlement with the Dominican republics’ environmental and natural resources agency.
AES then developed a construction product called Agremax, a filler based on coal ash. Some two million tons of coal ash were used throughout Puerto Rico to build roads, parking lots, malls, and as fill in tract housing developments. Including near public water wells, farms, wetlands, and beaches. Alarmed by fugitive dusts and other impact, environmental groups sued.
In 2006 my parents took my brother and I to Puerto Rico. We finally met my great aunts, uncles, and second cousins in person and they happily led us to clear water, the historic downtown area, and the tropical rainforest. We admired flowers, animals, pastel colored architecture, and warm breezes. We were brought to the most scenic locations, upscale restaurants, and patio dinner parties hosted by my aunts and uncles.
A few years later in 2008 I was writing an application essay for a multicultural scholarship to help pay for college and I asked my grandmother why she moved from Puerto Rico. She simply told me it was to expand her horizons.
Ellie Burke died in 2011. The same year that Puerto Rican government officials began describing the state of the island as an ‘energy emergency’.
In 2014 Agremax retired from the market and in response, Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board and the islands Public Power Company allowed AES to deposit coal ash in local landfills. However, most of Puerto Rico’s landfills are over capacity and many are open dumps that do not comply with regulations.
Due to its constitution, coal ash is water soluble so it is common for the substance to pollute aquifers, streams, and rivers, and can even be assimilated by plants, fish and humans. Meanwhile, AES has continued to produce toxic coal ash at a rate of four hundred to sixteen hundred tons per day or about three hundred thousand tons per year.
In 2017, 19 out of the 29 landfills on the island are far past capacity, making living conditions unbearable for surrounding communities. They still accept a large portion of the eighty five hundred tons of garbage that Puerto Ricans generate daily. While this has been a problem for years, the Puerto Rican government has not been able to afford to close these sites.
2017, in late September, is when I first questioned Ellie’s statement about expanding her horizons. I also deeply questioned the authenticity of my experience with Puerto Rico and my cultural heritage.