Alex Mendez '17

          Some Notes on Crisis Upon the Eve of the Closing of a Luxury Mall

One of my first days back home in San Juan I open an article by Bloomberg news titled “Everything Went Wrong for Puerto Rico’s $475 Million Mall.” I have only recently come to terms with the reality that since 18 I have spent more of my adult away from my native city than I have spent in it. This day when I open the article, sitting out in back yard enjoying the distinctive and familiar sound of palm leaves rustling marks the beginning of the longest stretch of time I will spend back home since I left for Williamstown 8 years ago. Since then, I have spent no more than two weeks back home at any given time which has created a skewed sense of temporality for me, while the state of Puerto Rican politics occupies a significant part of my consciousness, aside from speaking to my parents, my sense of what is happening on the ground back home beyond news sources, social media feed, and the accounts of my loved ones is limited. This makes it so every time I return home I loop back to the memories of the last time I was back home.

The mall referenced in the news story, The Mall of San Juan, figures strongly in my consciousness of home because it was constructed a few streets from my grandmother’s house which is where I spend a significant amount of my childhood. I remember the selling of the land, the construction of the property taking place during the latter part of my teen years, and its opening during my college years. I distinctly recall the animosity I felt, along with a large part of the populace, upon noting the staunch difference between the luxury retail offerings of the mall and the impoverished housing that surrounded it. The small businesses directly adjacent to the mall were paid to be painted in bright colors to echo the facades of the vibrant colonial houses of old San Juan.

As a result, I have been waiting for an article declaring the mall’s failure since its opening. This stands in staunch opposition to the opening of the Bloomberg news article which in its introductory paragraph underscores; “The grand opening of the Mall of San Juan (2015) was a celebration of Puerto Rico’s rosy future. There was confetti, a bomba band and roving politicians, including the governor and the mayor, glad-handing under the atrium’s blue-tinged skylight.” For most anyone paying attention, the opening of the Mall of San Juan was yet another example of a prioritizing of the investment in the island’s tourism sector which remained very much so out of synch with the needs of the majority of the populace. Part of this emphasis on the tourism sector was in part spurred by John Paulson, a billionaire hedge fund manager who invested heavily in hotel development and infamously predicted Puerto Rico would become the “Singapore of the Caribbean.” This rung particularly naïve with news of Puerto Ricos’ $72 million-dollar default on its debt becoming public August 3rd, 2015.

One of the reasons this sequence of events remains so visceral for me is because in 2015 I was a sophomore, home for the summer with a recently acquired interest for photography as a result of a studio art course and a modest grant to conduct summer research on small business development in Puerto Rico. My base question was whether the business model I saw popping up back home was a model for a more ethical consumption and potentially offered an alternative to a luxury tourism industry that was not built for the native Puerto Rican populace. The discourse I heard around small business highlighted the empowering the Puerto Rican public in the face of foreign investment and business in the island who had no stakes in its socio-political development. Unlike these faceless foreign corporations, this young new generation of small business owners framed the creation of their small businesses as a civic duty. Rather than leaving to pursue business opportunities in the U.S., these new young small business owners saw their choice to stay on the island and set up small business here as a gesture in trying to push the faltering economy forward.

The three months I spent back home were my first extensive foray into independent research which means I carried it out with about as much grace as can be expected from a nascent researcher trying to tease out the complexities of an economic crisis as it unfolds and the intra-personal crisis of coming into adulthood and trying to sculpt a narrative voice. My older self can now recognize that this is why I turned to my side project which was taking photographs of my closest high school friends. At the moment I was creating these images I could not articulate the tensions necessary to make a compelling and dynamic photo essay. Looking at this archive over and over again has become part of my coming home practice. With time I have come to read into these images the confusion of a generation trying to decide what paths they want to take in their adult lives amidst an unfolding financial crisis. I cannot help but feel particularly tender while looking at them.

When I revisit the archive of my friends I also look at the archive of images I took of small businesses developing along the Calle Loiza, a popular and historically important street that comprises one of the most popular and walkable parts of the city. The new small businesses owned by young entrepreneurs were the object of study of my summer research. I spent the summer interviewing many of them about their opinions about the changing economic landscape. My research on small businesses, however, soon inevitably turned into a study of the gentrification of this neighborhood.

While small business owners framed the creation of their small businesses as positive on a wider national scale, they failed to recognize the impact their businesses were having on the community level on the very street in which their businesses were located. New residents of the neighborhood described the area prior to the arrival of these new posh small businesses as abandoned and “run down” notably overlooking the fact that the street was previously largely populated by Dominican owned small businesses owners. Admonishing the small business establishments that had existed in Calle Loiza for generations and continued to punctuate the street, the narratives surrounding the new businesses that were taking over Calle Loiza clearly prioritized and heralded one form of small business ownership, that of a younger largely college educated and more accurate class of business owners while making invisible those of an older largely immigrant population.

One interview I distinctly remember with an owner of a neighborhood bar underscored that he was afraid that Calle Loiza would soon become like another street in the now financial district of Hato Rey, completely overrun by restaurants. With this forewarning, watching trendy restaurants open along Calle Loiza in the subsequent years has, thus, become one of the ways in which I now mark the passage of time back home.

Balancing a respect for my subjects alongside a sense the wider negative societal implications of their small business ownership was a delicate process. It required being critical of the work they were doing, the way in which the narratives they sustained around small business ownership were embedded in narratives of cosmopolitan modernization, of deriving pride in bringing businesses like those in major U.S. cities to San Juan in order to showcase that we too could host these elements of a cool modern city. I see this perhaps best illustrated by a new parking development in la Calle Loiza which has been named Las Ramblas de la Loiza, an allusion to Las Ramblas the Catalunya the busy central walkway that runs through the center of Barcelona. The young small business owners were, at once, trying to find alternatives to a toxic economic system and perpetuating it.

As my advisor Olga Shevchenko details in her book Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow “instances of crisis have been conceptualized as singular and unique while everyday life is imagined in the realm of routine and repetition.” This dovetails nicely with a comment I carried with me in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in order to make sense of the fallout. Puerto Rican photojournalist Christopher Gregory noted: “A catastrophe comes from nature; a crisis is political.” It took devastation on a massive scale to make what was happening in Puerto Rico visible on a national scale; that crisis was already a part of our lived experience and psyche.

While creating a tie between national identity and consumption has long been a focus of Puerto Rican academic discourse the attempt at creating this link in the aftermath of the hurricane rang particularly hollow. As much as communities were coming together to help each other in the aftermath of the hurricane there was a growing contempt for the political system which led to the peaceful ousting of our governor from office in the summer of 2019. It was amidst this distrust and collapse that we found new unique ways of surviving and finding agency rooted in community networks.

While I did not have a sense of how to articulate this in the immediate aftermath of the financial, environmental, and political crisis that I catalogued through my photographs, I now come to see that for me taking these pictures was a way of fragments that I could not yet put in a framework. In this way, it is not too different from the processing of trauma, in this case a collective trauma as memories are processed in spurts in an attempt to arrive at a more cohesive story. I am aware of the hazards of reading the archive through the perspective of the present, but there is a sense for me in which these images at once document a series of circumstances that would never be repeated and a foreboding that amidst the already present ambiguity things would soon be much worse.

The work I do now as an MA student in Art History, specifically Latin American art history, is deeply interested in this process of revisiting archives, specifically archives created in moments of political crisis. My work focuses on 1990s Cuba after the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies created a financial crisis on the island known as the Periodo Especial en Tiempos de Paz where the island opened itself to tourism. My work is interested in artists creation of new visual practices during this time period, specifically in the way they chose to depict the city as a site of community in the face of failing political and economic systems. It is profoundly informed by the research I did in my early career and my attempts at developing a photographic practice. “What is made visible during a time of crisis, precariousness, and unrecognizability?” is a question I pose in my academic work and in my personal life. So too, I hope that young researches now give themselves the grace to let their work mature in these times of crisis, to recognize the value of the archives they are creating, and to take care of themselves knowing more will unfold.