In the Beginning Was the Water: On inciertas-eroded spectacle by/with Teresa Hernández


BEATRIZ LLENÍN FIGUEROA

This is our entire history:
salt, aridity, exhaustion,
a vague, undefinable, sorrow,
an immobile fixity like a swamp,
and a scream over there, [over here,] in the depths,
as a terrible and obstinate fungus,
settling on the flabby fleshes
of useless, muffled, desires.

(Luis Palés Matos, fragment of “Topografía,” in the sea urchin woman’s voice)1

In the beginning was not the word. Although we are all subjects of language today, it is imperative that we imagine a world in the word’s absence, and that we commit ourselves to the attempt. Humanity — with our habits of life and death, with our always insufficient or excessive words — has been in existence for a negligible amount of time, compared to the planet (0.004% of the age of the world, to be exact). This world without words was and is significantly more world than ours.

In the beginning was the water, which is the same as saying the becoming. Humanity’s myths show that for much of the little time our species has walked on Earth, we have understood this well. These myths, which appear across a variety of cultures, situate the water-becoming as the origin. We did not think of ourselves as important, singular, or essential. Myths occur in a scattered time without history, in space without places. They accept mystery as a kind of knowledge. They are not bothered by the logic of the ordinary or by the mandate of verisimilitude. In fact, the ordinary can become incredible, irrational, impossible: a lioness’s head had a fish’s tail yesterday, a human torso today, and tomorrow an eagle’s feet; a gigantic turtle carries the world on its shell; someone peeks through a little hole and falls for thousands of millions of years only to find themselves in the end the same age as when they began. All along, myth knew what the theory of evolution only came to confirm in the 19th century. We come from water and do nothing but mutate. 

Only a species such as ours — seduced by impossible contradictions — forgets its past and acts against what we know is the origin of our lives. Tragically, humanity has devoted a good part of its history to the effort of strangulating water, making it our prisoner, commodifying it, intoxicating it, drying it up, abandoning it, containing it, stopping its flow. And, also, plowing it with our ships of death and finance, capital and weapons, merchandise and petroleum, the enslaved and forcibly migrated. We have turned water, the symbol of plenitude, into the symbol of misery. Islands, made and unmade by landslides or submarine volcanoes, have the most intimate relationship with water. They appear and disappear on the water’s surface over the longue durée of geological time. They also find themselves subjugated to humanity’s most ruthless ravages: the conversion of water into stages of abjection.

Originally streamed online on November 28, 2020 as an official selection of the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña’s 2020 Theater Festival, inciertas-eroded spectacle,2 a transdisciplinary — theater, performance, dance, video — piece by/with the Puerto Rican artist Teresa Hernández, is resolutely insular, oceanic, salty, and distinctively Puerto Rican/Caribbean. This inter-disciplinary piece of art takes the moment of water-becoming seriously, and produces a kind of performative and affective knowledge akin to the world’s earliest myths. As the sea urchin woman — one of the piece’s “presences”3 — tells the audience, the plot of inciertas is the “bravata.” The word “bravata” is used on Puerto Rico’s northwestern coast to mean “the swelling sea, the agitated sea, the rough waters that come onto land without asking for permission.” In the piece, the concept of bravata helps locate the enormous scope of thematic and conceptual concerns Teresa  is investigating. While the word’s dictionary definition, as the sea urchin woman explains, is a “threat proffered with arrogance in order to intimidate someone,” Teresa  uses it in the Puerto Rican sense to explore the violent erosion of Puerto Rico’s natural ecosystem, not simply on the coast, but across the archipelago and its living beings, and over history.

Teresa Hernández is joined by guest artist Miosoti Alvarado Burgos on the stage. They are two uncertain, eroded, Puerto Rican women who, at the same time, embody legions of other women and living beings through their various presences in the piece. In a little over 35 minutes, inciertas-eroded spectacle tells the story of many uncertainties: the history of theater, of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, of the region’s women, and the literal and metaphorical erosion of each. From a city in ruins to the womb of water, from güiro to sargasso, from knife to seashell, from cement to salt, the piece also recounts, poetically and in reverse order, the story of the human species.

At first, each woman appears on her own on the outskirts of a ruinous city/archipelago, ranging from a demolished building in Río Piedras to the closed ferry terminal from Fajardo on Puerto Rico’s east coast, to the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra.4 Teresa — the knife woman — stabs at the US Customs House, while Miosoti —  the güiro woman — attacks the main offices of Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor by fiercely maneuvering her instrument. The artists’ presence is defined by the objects they hold. When not attacking the US Customs House, the knife woman holds the domestic gun in her mouth (con el cuchillo en la boca), an evocation of her dogged will to survive while the güiro woman turns the musical instrument — a “national, traditional symbol” in Puerto Rico — into a defiant  weapon.  Their movements of protest are performed in and around the ruins of Puerto Rico’s bipartisan, patriarchal, neoliberal regime, spearheaded by the bankrupt Estado Libre Asociado and its exploitative, colonial, debt-addicted “arrangement” with the USA. Then, the audience hears the sound of the güiro and the song of the knife woman. Her voice is both a rallying call and an elemental cry as she recites: 

Uncertainty is not unfamiliar.
Over here they flood and flush us.
Extraction is sinister.
The winds are not random.

A hyperreality smears everything.
The prolonged present is a threat.

We are more and more, we are more,
the women who earn less.

The guilty should beware,
for the insular bravatas
can reach their hideouts.

Knife and güiro meet, resolute, in front of the Arriví theater in Santurce. Before entering together, stepping on sargasso, the women walk below a random banner for Manuel Natal’s mayoral candidacy in San Juan — an election so closely contested that significant doubts still remain about the legitimacy of the eventual winner’s victory — under the newly formed Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana, a multisector coalition that managed to win four legislative posts. The image reminds us of inciertas’ immediate context: leading up to the November 2020 elections in Puerto Rico, a significant dent was finally made on the bipartisan ruling edifice of the pro-US statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista and the pro-status quo Partido Popular Democrático.

Upon entering the theater building, Teresa’s and Miosoti’s temperature is taken — this is a pandemic piece, as well — before they start walking through corridors and going up and down stairs in a seemingly endless effort to arrive on stage. They show us that the survival of theater and its artists has become increasingly more arduous in the extant political climate. While walking, the artists encounter a sort of history of dramatic theater told through the posters hanging on the walls. Here Gabriel Coss Ríos’s superb camerawork gives the audience a more intimate look into the two women’s point-of-view as they traverse the halls of the Arrivi. Two of these posters illustrate patriarchal female archetypes: one is Molière’s satire, The Wise Women, which mocks the educational aspirations of women; and the other is Luis Rafael Sánchez’s rewriting of Antigone, The Passion according to Antígona Pérez, in which the female protagonist becomes a political subject, but must pay for it with her life.

Traversing with these women the interiors of a theater that, as a live audience, we would not have been able to see without the camera’s gaze, we feel a potent undercurrent: two histories are being rewritten in tandem. The first is that of theater itself. The Arriví is not yet a ruin, but it might well be on its way to becoming one, as has been the fate of so many others in Puerto Rico. Teresa has explored this concept in previous works, and in this piece, this state of theater has been compounded by the “hyperreality” — a recurrent concept in inciertas — of the pandemic world. At the same time, however, the conventional theater’s ruin-erosion opens the possibility of other theaters in its interior. inciertas constitutes an offering of this kind of other theater. The second historical rewriting is that of the figure of women that dramatic, patriarchal theater has traditionally named. The ruin-erosion of these figures is welcomed by both the women in the piece, as well as by the audience. We are positioned to prefer the knife’s and güiro’s impetus and potency to the staid, patriarchal depictions of women that theater has offered us before. We, as the audience, feel called upon by the two women. We come. Ready. Avid.

When we finally reach the theater’s stage with the two women, we discover that it is the sea, with Puerto Rico’s “big island” silhouette made of sargasso on the floor. Vieques and Culebra, in contrast, are molded from salt, and their topography is complete, solid, lovingly placed on a coffee table. Their salty structure is illuminated, radiant. These Puerto Rican islands are highlighted in a way they never are in the archipelago’s political discourse. Considering the rest of the objects brought on stage — two rocking chairs, one sea salt bag from Cabo Rojo (with all its historical weight of labor exploitation and struggle), a blue tarp, a stool with casters, and a lectern — the coffee table with Vieques and Culebra stands out as an altar of sorts. This altar offers the audience the possibility to mobilize our sensible archipelagic wills to live differently, by honoring our scale, our landscapes and seascapes.  Upon their arrival on stage, in the interior of Puerto Rico’s map, the women — who were knife and güiro before — become rolling bodies, swells, uncertain tides between littorals, seaweed dancing to the water’s rhythm. They mimic the images that accompany the piece’s title when projected on screen. They are the swell women.

I wrote before that inciertas-eroded spectacle is the human species’ history narrated in reverse. This is not the same as saying that the piece returns to the past of myth — to its knowledge about the liquid origins of life. Rather, it bursts intobravata — the intolerable present of a Puerto Rico/Caribbean that has almost, but not yet, terminally collapsed.  Whether such an eruption is “a gift or an invasion” is asked very early in the piece by the sea urchin woman.

Over the course of inciertas, the audience feels the bursting bravata with increasing potency. The next scene features the knife woman, now without it, swaying in a rocking chair with a violence that ranges from subtle to overt. The woman and the rocking chair are in the ruins of a cultural center in Loíza — a municipality on Puerto Rico’s northeastern coast considered a bastion of Afro-Puerto Rican and working-class heritage and struggle. She is confronted by an imposing swelling sea. Meanwhile, the güiro woman, now without it, sways, with the same alternating motions, in another rocking chair. She is surrounded by empty seats and projections on the theater’s walls of the agitated sea and a military boot on a ferry. The rocking chair in inciertas — which in Puerto Rico tends to be situated in the same nationalist liturgy as the güiro — is evocative of the inclement exterior, because it is not the traditional, wicker-style rocking chair. Rather, it is made of metal and covered in rust. History and the sea’s salt residue have left their trace. Precisely because political complaints — proverbially shared in boricua rocking chairs — have come out into the open, in inciertas the rocking chairs become political platforms, even springboards from which to demand and achieve a justice that we are still in the course of naming. There is something of Puerto Rico’s Summer 2019 rebellion in those rocking chairs, with which these women maneuver in sways that become leaps.

The next scene features Teresa as the swell woman counting wooden clothespins at the lectern. She talks to us while pinching her face, ears, and head, becoming the sea urchin woman. She worries about us: “I wonder how you are.” “Even if I don’t see you, I always imagine you,” she says, as if having a conversation with herself. With the tone of a measured professor, she gives both the dictionary and the Puerto Rican definitions of bravata.

The sea urchin woman also poses unsettling, half-poetic, half-sociological, questions, such as:

     Are you a bravata?
     Are the bravatas only those of the sea?
     Do you step out of your house with salt?
     Is a life with lots of salt necessarily a salaera, an 
     unfortunate life? If not, what kind of life is it?
     Is surviving today, in Puerto Rico, a bravata? How so?
     Are there other tempestuous things that come onto land?
     Do they provoke fear or pleasure in you?
     What or who is responsible for the erosion?  

In this monologue, the sea urchin woman is ostensibly referring to the inciertas piece itself, saying, “there’s no drama” in this “something” (algo). “The narrating voice is not yet defined,” she says, but her embodiment of irony disarms her words. With the sea urchin woman, Palés Matos’s “history” becomes “hysteria,” the “literal” becomes the “littoral.”  The drama intensifies, bringing the myth’s beginning — its eruption — increasingly closer to the present. That trace may well be a bravata, “another tempestuous thing that comes onto land.”

After asking the audience, “Don’t you have the sensation that crises wear down the body just as erosion wears away the coast?,” the sea urchin woman falls between empty seats and transforms once again. She looks like the swell woman but is no longer swelling. Now in the theater’s basement, and in the space of a low-lying square, she executes a long sequence of arrested, mechanical, compressed movements. We have the palpitating sensation that at any moment she could be crushed, attacked, restrained, or turned into dust. Her circumstance — that of the multitude of uncertain women “who earn less” — reveals an unsayable anguish, a no exit, a confinement, a merciless hammering over the head, an I’ve-tried-everything, a disturbing drama, an absolute exhaustion.

Then, a stool with casters bursts into the basement. It is a small bravata, capable of rescuing her, returning her, now on wheels rather than on her feet, as the sea urchin woman to the theater’s main floor. While she rolls across the aisles, there is a gestural echo of the piece’s initial rolls on the map. The sea projections on the theater’s walls are not the only images that signal that we are at sea. This is the masterful act of resignification that theater is capable of performing: a stool with casters can be the sea, upon which the sea urchin woman searches “over here, over here, over here” for the origin myth’s trace of salt and sargasso.  

Earlier in the piece the sea urchin woman posed perhaps the most important political question for island lives: “Are you a bravata?” Thus, it comes as no surprise — although it hurts all the same — when she reminds us that, having turned our islands into “the zone of transition and transaction,” “they want our habit of misery.”5 Still, she declares assuredly, “over here, in the country captured by investment banking, we are alive!” At this point, the sea urchin woman removes the pins of her/our pain from her hair, face, and neck. The sound of the güiro accompanies the liberatory sequence of gestures, which feels in direct opposition to the confined basement where this woman had been in the previous scene. Her skin, hung out to dry in the merciless sun of colonial, capitalist, and patriarchal pillage, is left marked, wounded. Showing us the evidence of her harm with an astonishing sense of calm, the sea urchin woman leaves us with her last question: “Could this be the moment to take our eyes out in order to see?”

The reference to classical, Greek tragedy is evident. But I think this question, considered in the context of the entire piece, becomes something more. Because sight has been the overwhelmingly privileged human sense in the artistic and ideological traditions of Western modernity, “to take our eyes out in order to see” necessarily entails becoming non-human. Only if we are willing to roll in the salt and sargasso that the bravata leaves in its wake, “will we see” that our horizons are common and shared in our uncertain, Caribbean archipelagos. If our species, with its capitalist, colonial, patriarchal violence, has unleashed a colossal erosion — in every sense of the word — inciertas-eroded spectacle tells us that this is the result of disregarding, abandoning, and humiliating the foundational vitality of water, and all its attendant traces of connections and becomings. That is our tragedy.

The güiro woman — who, from the beginning of inciertas, had weaponized the instrument — has already taken her eyes out in order to see. She breakdances onto the undercover exit of the empty, elegant theater. Until this moment, none of the women had exited the theater on their own feet. But the güiro woman, with her bravata, goes up a very long stairwell towards the theater’s rooftop, from where she activates her weapon — the güiro — with fury. Her forceful scratching seems to produce a rain of sea salt that shelters the last, which is also the first, becoming of Teresa: the seashell woman.

The blue tarp from the spectacle’s first scene — with all its devastating associations with 2017’s Hurricane Maria, state abandonment, FEMA’s criminal neglect, and generalized misery and death in Puerto Rico’s recent history — is now the salty sea. In it, a body’s naked flesh and loose hair are tossed around. This body becomes, all at once, insular promontories, gelatinous creatures from the ocean’s depths, and the closest to the bare human/woman/artist that we have seen in inciertas. This body’s movement, characterized by carefully studied and at the same time spontaneous — even primitive — fluidity and slothfulness, dramatically contrasts with that of the rest of the women in inciertas. The amalgam of flesh agitating (in) the depths carries a seashell in its mouth. From knife to seashell is a long stretch, of course. But faced with the most mythic, atavistic, feminist scene in the piece, I feel — and I repeat myself — that there is no return. There is only eruption. Without the seashell, there’s no knife. Without salt, no life. Without the sea, no land.

The women in/of inciertas-eroded spectacle have become so human that they are no more. They have taken their eyes out in order to see, with such passion, that it is only when the seashell woman looks through the shell, with her non-human, oceanic eyes, that she can stand on her own two feet. Now, she has seen. She walks, dragging her salty seas — those of historically exploited women, workers, and life forms. Finding the exit, she returns their plenitude to the waters. She does not have, nor will she make, a habit of misery. Staring directly at us with new eyes of defiance and conviction, she disappears through the elevator, leaving the trace of her salt, her survival, on the floor of a theater that, were we to take our eyes out, we would see as an other theater, capable of reviving us.


[1] “Over here” (acá), an adverb of special importance in inciertas, was added by Teresa to Palés Matos’ verse.

[2] The word inciertas is left untranslated to openly signal the impossibility of doing so. Functioning as both an adjective and noun in this context, the word literally means “uncertain,” but is marked as feminine and plural. Although “uncertain women” would be a possible translation, it misses the essential plurality in the word, as much as the ambiguity of that which is uncertain: women, islands, lives, things… These are all feminine nouns in Spanish and possible inciertas in the piece. The use of lower-case letters in the piece’s title is a deliberate decision of the artist.

[3] This concept is Teresa’s, who prefers the term ‘presences’ over ‘characters’. ‘Presences’ do not correlate to the dramatic or narrative conventions associated with characterization.

[4] The island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra have endured a long history of US military occupation and tourist exploitation, with all its attendant economic, social, ecological, and public health effects. During the second half of the 20th century, their inhabitants have engaged in widespread, popular struggle, having successfully expelled the US Navy from both islands, although the necessary cleanup was never completed by the US military forces. For the most part, the colonial Puerto Rican government has been complicit with these forms of exploitation, either by outright design or through indifferent abandonment. In fact, as this piece is being published, the people from Vieques and Culebra continue to actively resist the Puerto Rican government’s utter neglect of the maritime transportation system. For islands that continue to lack basic services guaranteed by the state, including functioning public hospitals, the constant failures, delays, and cancellations of the ferry system between the “main” island and Vieques and Culebra have, quite literally, deadly effects.

[5] The sea urchin woman does not specify who exactly “they” are. But it is clear from its context that she means the ruling class, both in Puerto Rico and the USA: bankers, corporate CEOs, politicians, investors, patriarchs, and all those who benefit from the exploitation of the majority.


CREDITS

Direction, Concept, Interpretation: Teresa Hernández
Film Direction and Editing: Gabriel Coss Ríos
Guest Artist: Miosoti Alvarado Burgos
Technical Direction, Stage Design, Lighting Design: Juan Fernando Morales
Projections: María del Mar Rosario
General Production and Film Assistant: Alicia Vega
Film Production: Rojo Chiringa
Lighting Setup – Arriví Theater: Manotéknica LLC
Text-Writing: Teresa Hernández, based on texts by Luis Palés Matos, Anayra Santory, Beatriz Llenín Figueroa, Hélène Cixous, and other anonymous phrases, words, and protest chants.
Music: DEFORMA; Hi Heal
Advising and Additional Sound Design: Eduardo Alegría
Sounds of Güiro and Minor Percussion: Miosoti Alvarado Burgos
Footage Teresa in rocking chair, exterior (Loíza): María del Mar Rosario
Footage in Projections: Teresa Hernández
Artistic Production: producciones teresa, no inc.
General Production: Taller de Otra Cosa

This essay was originally published in Spanish in the Puerto Rican online journal 80grados, January 2021.

Beatriz Llenín Figueroa’s research and creative writing revolve around Caribbean literatures and philosophies, island and archipelagic studies, gender and queer theory, decoloniality, and street theater and performance. Some of her creative work in the midst of Puerto Rico’s current crisis was published in the book Puerto Islas: crónicas, crisis, amor (2018). She regularly publishes in the Puerto Rican newspaper Claridad, as well as in several online journals, and she is currently at work on a critical-creative book on Puerto Rico’s affective archive of Caribbean relations. She is also an editor for Editora Educación Emergente and works as freelance editor and translator. Through her collaborations with activist collectives and live arts artists in the archipelago, she is committed to a decolonial future for Puerto Rico, debt relief and reparations, public education and independent art.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.