by Á.R. Vázquez-Concepción
12 Vecinas (12 Neighbors) is the most recent project by Puerto Rican artist Marisol Plard-Narváez (b. 1966, Puerto Rico), it consists of a three hundred and sixty-degree view, twelve channel video installation showcasing the testimonies and anecdotal accounts of life in the San Juan district of La Perla by a dozen residents. Eleven females and one gay male are the protagonists of a storytelling round-robin where each narrates recent events and different struggles in their personal lives —with economic hardship, exclusionary cultural and economic policies, and in cases even drug addiction. Each person is chillingly forthcoming, and each speaks from a different screen, making us shift our gaze in all directions as we move to match the source of the sound of each of their voices with the corresponding moving image. Their stories are all real, and they are raw.
The video installation is set up inside the small house Plard lives in La Perla, where she has invited the public to come and spend time by the rocky Atlantic shore, with her neighbors who casually stroll over when public comes to see the presentation, and with her. The total duration of the video experience is short of thirty-three minutes.
La Perla is a historically marginalized community that lies along the northern city wall of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, protruding out to sea about 650 yards (600 m) along the coast immediately east of the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, and north of Calle Norzagaray. It is a community that rose around San Juan’s old slaughterhouse district, which by Spanish law had to be kept outside of the city’s massive protective walls. During old colonial times, the poor, rejected by the wealthy living inside the walls, built a shantytown near and around the slaughterhouse, as the island nation’s economy grew and San Juan became the seat of municipal, state, and since the 1898 Invasion, US federal power. This spinoff community grew to become a tightly knit, self-policing enclave, with its businesses, improvised electrical and water infrastructure, and independent cultural activity. Aged, shoddy structures, torn down by hurricanes and other tropical weather phenomena, have over the decades been replaced by a colorful cement and asphalt maze, where today hundreds of humble abodes exist amalgamated and connected by labyrinthine stairwells and trails.
There are only three dry access points to La Perla, one through the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, a road which descends from Calle Norzagaray, and one through a staircase along the northern wall. This particularity, complemented by direct access to the sea, and the countless tourists and locals who come to partake in cultural recreation, has made La Perla into a contested smuggling and illegal distribution haven since the old colonial days. This story of economic informalism, as you can perhaps guess, has only become more and more complicated as time has passed.
It is important to note that drug trafficking in Puerto Rico is not sequestered to poor communities. As a matter of fact in recent years, the people of Puerto Rico have witnessed a rise in the number of scandals involving the political establishment and the wealthy, revealing conspiracies between members of their ranks and players from the underground drug economy of Puerto Rico. Hypocritically, many official accounts about La Perla come charged, uttered from positions flawed with classist and racist assumptions and prejudices. Some of the women in 12 Vecinas speak about the unjust stigma that people who live in La Perla carry, and how difficult it is for them to find work if they say they live there, and how they have had to on occasion lie to avoid being discriminated against.
On July 2011, the Puerto Rico Police Department conducted a raid where several high profile community leaders who coincidentally resisted attempts at expropriation of land in La Perla —mainly men— were arrested for alleged heroin distribution. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) figures that the illegal drug trade in La Perla is a twenty million dollar a year enterprise, a number that highly contrasts the very humble constructions people inhabit there, and the modest lives everyone works hard to make for themselves.
As the speculative calculation of how much drug money actually flows through La Perla is made so is the calculation to determine the real estate value of the land upon which that community sits —right now the value of that land is astronomical due to its proximity to one of the busiest ports in the Caribbean.
It is no secret some politicians and real estate brokers want to remove the poor from the manicured tourist trap that the Old San Juan has become.
These conflicting forces shape contemporary life within La Perla, and 12 Vecinas captures a glimpse of life there by interviewing some of the women and queer members of the community, some of them spouses, friends, and relatives of those men who were taken by police forces five years ago.
It is important to Plard that her fellow residents get to speak on how they feel about their circumstances today. Especially in the face of representatives of market interests who seek to disarticulate and destroy a community that has since its origins fought for their right to exist —that since those origins have lived short of forsaken by local politicians and Puerto Rican society as a whole.
Plard is one of the dozens of artists that lives and works in La Perla. Because of its proximity to the Escuela de Artes Plásticas de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico School of Visual Arts), where she has taught, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, and the many museums and galleries of the old city, La Perla has always been important to generation after generation of artists. It exists imagined and depicted in songs, and virtually every visual medium.
12 Vecinas is an incisive and efficient gesture of resistance by Plard to the neoliberal forces that threaten La Perla and the future of its community. It is an artwork that now after it has been exhibited in its ground zero, the place where it was made, should be presented in official museum spaces across Puerto Rico, to create empathic bridges between those other communities and La Perla. It is up to the people to prevent the rumored plans to turn La Perla into yet another resort complex, blocking even more public access to the island’s shores and beaches, and worse of all displacing a distinct community that has been there for generations.
Marisol Plard-Narváez (b. 1966, Puerto Rico) completed her B.A. in Art at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas de Puerto Rico, and an M.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Text by A.R. Vázquez-Concepción. The following photographs were taken by artist and curator Abdiel Segarra-Ríos during the opening event for 12 Vecinas.
©2016 Abdiel Segarra-Ríos & Cranium Corporation April 2016, San Francisco, California