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by Lilliana Ramos Collado

(S)exotic Carmen Miranda surrounded by equally (s)exotic and phallic bananas. An interesting actress and entertainer who decided to become a (s)exile in the United States…

I. Brought to you by Botox®

“Claude forem thalami! / Quid rudes prodis opus?”[1] —P. Ovidius Naso, Artis amatoriae, III v. 228

When stumbling upon a travel guide to Puerto Rico, one wonders whether its writers and editors have actually visited our island. The difference between what we locals experience as our place[2] on Earth and what the guide offers to entice foreign eyes is so extreme that we tend to either yield to belief or stick to disbelief. Although we feel it would be nice to see ourselves reflected on the rosy mirror of tourism, gross reality keeps our temptations in check. But in a while, we become split into two: we become, at once, the surveyor and the surveyed:[3] we start trying to see ourselves as we are seen by our visitors[4].

The phrase, famously coined by John Berger forty years ago in 1972, has undergone severe scrutiny by feminists as Berger originally attributed it to women, who in his eyes would be close to what Gayatri Spivak called “subalterns”.[5] Which brings me to a question insistently posed by postcolonial  and subaltern studies: is the colonized —the subaltern— always pushed into the place of woman? The surveyor/surveyed split becomes even stronger in the tourism agenda: especially in less-developed countries, such places as cities and islands are marketed as tourism destinations usually dressed in seductive, feminine garments. Commercial and personal travel writers foreground mystery, pleasure, adventure, excitement, romance, while also conveying safety, acquiescence, legibility, and leisurely possession. In the afore-cited text, Spivak herself has stressed the link between the subaltern body and the subaltern (colonial or postcolonial) territory. What we now call the “Third World” is but the imaginary construct of the desirous Western traveler-as-conqueror. Ever since Columbus set his eyes on the New World he identified these new-found lands with fertility, lushness, excess, and the docility of natives, all indications of the femininity of the territory itself. [6]

Some of the most popular travel guides for Puerto Rico.

No wonder Italo Calvino gave women’s names to all his città invisibili[7], located way beyond the “known world” in time as well as in space. He was probably following the steps of  John II of Castile, who in the XIVth century, wooed Granada from afar, while the beautiful city warned the king that she was already married to a moor who truly loved her.[8]  The feminized city or island, fashioned according to the desire of the would-be conqueror, is nothing but a phantasm; in Lacan’s words, woman is a symptom of man[9], the fleshing-out of lack, a chimera. Thus, third-world tourism marketing arguably follows upon the timeless Western fantasy of male conquest of woman, even though it promises to make such conquest easy enough to keep the fantasy “up”.  In fact, imaginary as well as real travelers tread these “welcoming lands” as if they were going “down the Argentina Way” to be greeted by Carmen Miranda wearing the fruits of the land atop her erotically swaying head. Doubtless, under “imperial eyes”, women and territory have been hard to tell apart. Supposedly open, wild (as in “wilderness”, not as in  Jimmi Hendrix’s version of The Troggs’ song…), and willing to be inseminated by the West, their sweet and innocent virginity sells itself cheap: in the eyes of the conquerors,

“[… n]ature had been created in a state of potentiality, as an inert undriven mass whose actuality could only be realized through the purposeful action of men. Europeans [were] also unusual in their belief that to transform nature in this way was a crucial part of what it is to be a man; for Nature had been given by God to man for his use. Men where thus encouraged to see in the natural world a design of which they were the final beneficiaries.”[10]

A typical Caribbean beach, soft and welcoming.

Nothing more “natural” than the awesome American nature minutely recorded by European travelers from Columbus’ own travelogue onward. His first view of Caribbean land already implied his will to transform it for profit: a lush, fertile land ready to bend to the will of men who would make it bear its fruit. What is there for the conqueror’s gaze to focus on are land and bodies. “Obedience and passivity are the predominant aspects to be contemplated.”[11] Thus, virginal Paradise —as Caribbean islands have been marketed since 1492— can only be made intelligible if conquered: taxonomized, ordered, named: civilized. As we know, Paradise was not invented in the Renaissance: it is a fairly old notion of a perfect Ur-past from which we have strayed. In this sense, part of the agenda of civilizing the new lands had to do with settling down, with transforming the exotic and unintelligible into a creditable home, the city being the surest and most pervasive form of civilized living. The American Paradise could only be conquered by building an agricultural, a mining, a military or any other type of industrial settlement, surrounded, of course, by exuberant nature, whose exuberance would bear witness to man’s extraordinary capacity to transform nature into culture. It bears noting that, different from most Latin American countries, the islands of the Caribbean still consider these colonial towns and cities as our only creditable patrimony marketable as tourism destinations, even though these cities are first of all material proof of the island’s colonial past that showed off  the passivity of the conquered and the tenacity of the conquerors.

However, “imperial” travel writing —an essential part of the whole process of conquest and civilization in the New World—, as well as those ubiquitous travel guides, usually disguise their own conquest “intent” under what Mary Louise Pratt has called an “anti-conquest”: this discursive gimmick allows the “imperial” subjects to “secure their innocence in the same moment they assert […] their hegemony.”  The end result of this travel-writing that records the product of the “imperial” gaze —whether we are talking about Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, or about the Lonely Planet Guide To Chile and Easter Island— is what Pratt calls “autoethnography”, a text that evinces “a collaboration with and appropriation [by the conquered] of the idioms of the conqueror”[12]. Thus, the inhabitant of the Third-World city or island imagines his or her ethnicity as Berger proposed that we women see ourselves: simultaneously as surveyor and surveyed: we are, as bodies and as territories, women-as-subalterns.

Travel guides for Puerto Rico divide the island “attractions” between Old San Juan and the rest, as shown on this page taken from the latest Fodor’s guide.

In Puerto Rico, there are only two things that, according to the travel guides, are supposed to thrill the visitor: the colonial city of Old San Juan and the rest, that is, the countryside and the beach. Thus, our island is still described as ancient novelists described Ephesus or Miletus: the bustling noise of the prosperous —though rather quaint— capital city, and the pleasures of the lush Mediterranean landscape and seascape. The old city is awash in traditions counterpointed by the multi-ethnicity of commercial products and food fare: a true metropolis is always multicultural because it originally was a lay-over town. In Old San Juan, the visitor will find a colorful architecture, generous in its Spanish colonial accents and quaint details, cobblestoned streets, lots of tereques to buy and lots of different foods to gorge down. Town & Country are neatly separated in our tourism business as if frozen in time. Part of what makes us colonial is that, in fact, even for ourselves, there is only San Juan and the rest. To paraphrase Henri Lefebvre in his classic book on cities, (Old) San Juan is an oeuvre[13] where transformations are the passive outcome of tourism and where history has become a façade.  It bears noting —as David Lowenthal has wisely proposed— that “the past is a foreign country”. Thus, Town & Country, as an opposition of spaces and places, puts Puerto Rico in the past: suburbia, consumerism, interdependence are all invisibilized, and what we are allowed to see in our own place is the opposition between an old colonial town and a picture-perfect paradisiacal landscape and seascape. We are smack in the 18th century. For tourism purposes, we are stuck in the colonial past.

Old San Juan façades… frozen in time.

This frozen façade is not “historical” in the narrow sense of the word. Old San Juan has experienced a slow evolution from military outpost housing soldiers within huge walls beginning and ending in strong forts, to walled and tightly-governed civilian development, to poor and dilapidated ruins, to old heritage restored to new life under the regulatory wisdom by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and the local State Historic Preservation Office. Spurred by meager tax breaks and with little or no help from the municipal government, private homeowners in Old San Juan must invest huge amounts of money every year to keep their houses in tiptop “colonial” shape inside out, while storeowners keep the colonial façade and refurbish interiors to accommodate business, regardless of preservation codes.  As Campesino Fernández comments on the financial plight of patrimonial cities, these old communities must face a strong urban competitiveness unleashed by globalization, and the new economy of service and active leisure. Cities have been pushed into a rat race to position themselves at the forefront of the cultural-tourism market based on a type of branding that spawns outright rivalry between them and the rest of the surrounding built environment.[14] Old San Juan has been able to survive insofar as it has been torn from the rest of the island, and even locals tend not to grasp the functional separation between the old city and the sprawling metropolitan area where we carry on with our daily lives. We have become accustomed to accepting that, in our tourism agenda, local cultural identity is defined along the traditional split of Town & Country[15] and that, technically —as far as visibility is concerned— there is no in-between.[16]

Ironically, since this split is based just on the external look of most “colonial” buildings, in what I could call the “Botox® approach to urban restoration”, this heritage city is lacking wise patrimonial use, and —since the constant architectural facelift is defrayed by dwindling commerce and by staunch Sanjuaneros who refuse to abandon their high-maintenance dwellings— it is now overtaxed by gentrification, museification, population drain, tourism, and the evident erosion of the kind of multifunctionality that should characterize a living city[17]. Slow and/or defective restoration processes have led to the loss of key patrimony despite the efforts of a community committed to saving its cultural heritage.[18] The consolation prize is seeing how travel guides to Puerto Rico flash beautiful photographic long shots of some choice streets of the old city, or enclose us in the visual claustrophobia of photogenic details that reduce the façade to the well-composed cosmetic face of this born-again old city. The representation of the old city is always already contrived, restricted to the long shot where the inconvenient detail is invisible, and/or to the dramatic close-up of a lovingly painted cornice or of a small, well-turned window grill. Tourists do what they always do under the instruction of the travel guide: they look for the same shots and angles they have already seen, and just repeat the image promised to them on the glossy pages of the guide. As Marc Augé reminds us, wherever tourists go, they only find what they expect to find.[19]  In this sense, they are getting exactly what they bargained for: to confirm what they already “knew”.

This redundant tourism flies in the face of real adventure. Old San Juan has been typecast as a bland consumer destination where conscious travelers may purchase a bagful of cheap thrills. Here I follow Jean Baudrillard’s 1970 proposals consigned in his book The Consumer Society. Its Myths and Structures. In an important chapter titled “The Drama of Leisure, or The Impossibility to Lose Time”[20], he argues that spare-time-as-freedom is a myth that consoles those who must engage in exploitative work, and who must own a certain amount of culture in order to  transform the leisure experience into a commodity, an object of sorts that can supposedly be owned and/or exchanged. Tourism is a way to give use value back to leisure, to assume it as some kind of capital. (Leisure) time is (also) money. Even though, according to Baudrillard, time cannot be spent or lost, no matter how hard you try. In this sense, vacations are a desperate trick to squander precious, productive time. You cannot give it away, but only keep it as private property. Jacques Derrida has also reminded us of this cruel, intransitive condition of time[21], whether working or leisure. Time can only be gained to do more work, even leisure is work. For Baudrillard, you can only make leisure good if you exchange it for positive investments: consumption during leisure time is such an investment. That is the importance of souvenirs that return us to a by-gone time. That is why we make sure we take the right photos for our album. As Susan Sontag has said, to photograph is to posses the world as an image[22] we (and our friends back home) can recognize in the future. In fact, exchangeability depends on recognizability.

Old San Juan buildings.

This leisure-as-consumption is way different from traveling to what are now called touristed places, which are

“[…] about the complexity of different people doing different things, locals and visitors, sojourners and residents, locals becoming visitors, sojourners becoming residents, residents ‘being tourists,’ travelers denying being tourists: resident part-time tourists, tourists working hard to fit in as locals. […] This kind of landscape necessarily reflects histories of travel and mobility, relations between local, national, and global economies, the possibilities of different identity positions, and the environmental contexts, built and natural, of places and sites. While landscape studies in the new cultural geography have taken account of different and contested identity dimensions in landscape formation as well as their representational qualities, including perspectives on race,  ethnicity, class, gender, sex, and sexuality […], the touristed landscape consciously seeks to complicate these positions by signaling and shifting points of view in the context of leisure economy production and consumption. [23]

A touristed place or landscape seduces us with its flux, its indeterminacy, its contingency, the otherworldly and othertimely feeling that poses a challenge to our mind and to our senses, unexplainable places that may sometimes resist language, be it in the form of words or of images. I had that touristed experience during a three-week visit to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in 2008, but I lived in Old San Juan for ten years and it felt from the start like a normal neighborhood behind colonial, botoxed, unchanging façades you could not see (or remember) from inside the house. The Old San Juan invented by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and by the Tourism Company absolutely does not fit the description of a touristed place or a cityscape that would afford the visitor an actual sense of rootlessness, of a real change of place. I can now advance an explanation why.

II. The Past is our Proper Country

“Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” — T.S. Eliot. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Women’s bodies and Old San Juan façades have always gone together: beautiful young women standing behind grills or looking out from a banistered balcony of the old city, looking happy probably because they feel protected inside traditional, venerably patriarchal architecture! As I mentioned above, in old books on Puerto Rico, written, published and disseminated at the turn of the century through government efforts —Our Islands and their People with Camera and Pencil, El libro de oro de Puerto Rico, and El libro azul, just to name a few—, Puerto Rico is split into two: town and country. San Juan stands for a by-gone architecture that, while acquiescing to the prestige carried by ancient objects[24], stores the wealth of the land (women), and the rest of the island is reduced to prosperous and eventful agricultural concerns, the photos of which are also profusely adorned with young women’s bodies. Interestingly, the invisible in-between holds in cachet the slow evolution of Puerto Rico towards modernization. It was not until late 1940s that the in-between started to appear in brief official glimpses: new Government agencies that produced electric power and clean water, the Government Development Bank, the Office of Management and the Budget, and the Planning Board go hand in hand with images of new ports facilities, the construction of our main airport, plus images of a timid consumerism that gained momentum when the first shopping malls opened in the late 1950s. Prosperity became an asset precisely with the advent of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico under a new constitution in 1952. The will to achieve of the people of Puerto Rico was fleshed out by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín’s Operation Bootstrap.

Women as ornament: a house on a Puerto Rican town, circa 1920.

It bears noting that this will to modernization ran along with the creation of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture in 1955 —to care for the colonial and local heritage of Puerto Rico, including folk traditions and our Taíno archaeological past, a heritage we had to unearth from our very soil— plus the creation of the Casals Festival and similar government-sponsored cultural pursuits. The split was right there: to bring back our colonial and aboriginal past as a repository of local tradition, as well as the “classical” European past to place us in the global map of high culture. Town/Country became, so to say, Present/Past, Local/Global. If on the one hand, the ICP promoted Old San Juan and Spanish colonial architecture as a our historical link with Europe, the Development agencies created by the Government bet on the capacity of Puerto Rico at that time to embark the rest of the island in a one-way trip to a better future.

The Muñoz Marín governorship had a reason for this move and our history totally supported him: when the Europeans were recruiting brave young men to come colonize the new lands they eventually called the Americas, Columbus’ first view of our lands was shared by all: a fertile paradise full of promise. The dark underbelly of paradise was cannibalism, disease, the hardships of a dangerous and protracted sea crossing, terrible hurricanes, unknown peoples and cultures. Heroism was the ideal to pursue: with heroism, all hardships would be overcome or at least mitigated. With colonization came the hard work on the land that decimated the Taíno population, the plantation culture that brought in slaves from Africa, the exoticism of African and indigenous cultures, and brisk trade for most Islands of the Caribbean. Puerto Rico, as a continued military outpost, received little, not enough to promote, much less sustain, an affluent local community, and poverty became entrenched due to constant deprivation of the most basic things. That started to change in the late 18th century, and the 19th century under Spanish rule witnessed the slow progress of Puerto Rico towards civilization.

Local literature portrayed the population as illiterate, coarse, uncouth and lacking a work ethic. Education became a fundamental concept voiced by the most important public and cultural figures. During that time, as commented by a thinker like Alejandro Tapia y Rivera in his memoirs, we had to run away from barbarism as represented in the jíbaro (the local name for the farm-hand). The anti-jíbaro drive could be seen in other important cultural works such as El jíbaro, by Manuel Alonso, La charca, by Manuel Zeno Gandía, and was famously portrayed in the most important painting in the history of Puerto Rican art: The Wake by Francisco Oller. This rejection of rural culture could still be felt in the famous 1946 short-story book by Emilio S. Beleval, Cuentos para fomentar el turismo, specifically aimed at telling the foreign tourist how treacherous and barbaric could the Puerto Rican jíbaro be. Severe criticism against jíbaro culture could be seen everywhere. This changed during the upbeat political campaign by Luis Muñoz Marin to be elected governor of Puerto Rico during the mid 1940s. In order to pull Puerto Rico together, this former socialist realized that he would need the hands of the jíbaros for industrializing Puerto Rico, and thus the idea of the jíbaro, as well of the idea of Puerto Rico, took the positive turn I already mentioned above. That helps may explain why, suddenly, folk culture and high culture went together during the Muñoz era, and why tourism and industry went the way they did.

Francisco Oller, “El velorio” (1892-93).

But as far as development was concerned, the Town/Country split was reversed in the form of town-past/island-present. The initial push of the Tourism Company sponsored new hotels like the Caribe Hilton throughout the island while small factory urbanizations started to crop up beyond the Municipality of San Juan to entice foreign and local concerns into establishing business here.[25] Thus the Tourism Company went after the colonial past — and further back to our pre-Columbian paradise— with scant allusions to modernization, while the government was making an all-out push towards bringing industry and business to the island by insisting on a regime of law and order, cheap labor, and skilled or trainable hands for hire. Docile, good-natured and trainable, as the Development Company portrayed us, Puerto Ricans were ideal employees for foreign enterprises. Just as Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, in his Breve relación de la destrucción de Indias, pinpointed the need to save the indigenous peoples of the Americas through training and better living conditions on behalf of an optimal return-on-investment for the Spanish Crown in the 16th century, during the 1950s, the Government of Puerto Rico offered foreign business the same image of our people, though this time, we were not bons sauvages but nice poor people striving for modernization and willing to learn the ropes.

Thus, the 1950s bore witness to a double image of Puerto Rico, one for business, another for tourism. An examination of the present tourism marketing agenda for our island shows that a simplification of sorts has taken place, and it would be fair to say that we are back to the Town/Country split: one real city (San Juan as represented by Old San Juan) and the rest. This reductionist representation is almost exactly the same as the way Puerto Rico was represented in Our Islands and Their People with Camera and Pencil 1899: the frozen beauty of our Spanish colonial past, plus the pleasures of tropical nature and the warm coziness of our breathtaking, paradisiacal beaches. To paraphrase David Lowenthal, the past is our proper country, and thus our here is a there, and our now is a back then. However, it bears inquiring into whether the contents of the invisible in-between is now the same as it was in the 1950s: striving prosperity and modernization.

III. “Noir” is where we’ve always been…

“donde es la cualidad de lo inefable, de lo que excede la razón; como la ficción: lo que traicione las certezas.” —Eduardo Lalo, Donde[26]

 

According to Aberto Pérez Gómez in his aforecited article,

“[m]arginal sites that shun the clarity of naming and institutionalization are especially apt for revealing that void that is not nothingness, that common sense takes as the space that excludes action, that is the meaning of architecture. However, in architectural works that transcend the reductions of functional “modern architecture” and the pastiches of “historicism”, that space reveals itself as infinitely dense and impenetrable. […] The place of architecture is that where imagination may crack technology, marginal and liminal places of our postindustrial culture, places where humanity may become aware of its capacity for true understanding in the dark and silent space of metaphor, but also spaces within technology, that may reveal the actual presence of mortality, the imminence of being.”[27]

An important part of the invisible in-between: the 5,000-house project called Puerto Nuevo (ca. 1940).

Interstitial, in-between spaces operate as caesurae between the public and the private realms, even though we may always harbor many doubts as to the clear-cut separation between those two spaces. For example, according to Hannah Arendt, public space is but the space of appearances, a mask formed and sustained by rituals imposed on us by the powers that rule the city[28]. That space behind the mask of public space is, probably, the true in-between, the surprise that awaits us behind the everyday and the too-well-known. Home to the Unheimlich (uncanny), normalcy is its deceitful face. Terror ensues whenever the world as we know it collapses into a crisis of categories, whenever there is a reversal or an erasure of the fine line between spheres of action. Monsters patrol that disappearing borderline where new languages are about to be born. On its part, private space is not so private as it is also regulated by the ruling powers. Architectural technologies such as Bentham’s Panopticon prove that those powers may, in fact, delegate their authority on the surveyed him or herself, and the surveyed may thus become the surveyor who in turn may crack under the pressure exerted by the surveyed. Private life, already donning a mask to protect itself from the intrusive gaze of the outside, may become more entrenched in isolation, less and less willing to stay in the in-between and watch the world crumble down.

Please note that, in this context, noir does not stand for that kind of tourism that feeds on pain and death, and is related to what is called “dark patrimony or heritage” by UNESCO. Visiting concentration camps like Auschwitz or Dachau would be examples of this “dark tourism”. In the context of this essay, noir rather tags along with a Raymond Chandler or a Dashiel Hammet novel: the idea that cities have two personalities: one during the day and another during the night. This idea stems from the actual dangers of 18th and 19th century European and US cities before gas lights were installed and before the police came into existence. In fact, it is a gothic idea originally attributed to the melancholy forest in, for example, Anne Radcliffe’s novels like The Mysteries of Udolpho or The Italian. The success of gothic fiction had everything to do with words. To tickle the imagination, words work better than images because images already give you a specific visual rendering of a concept. Writing, on the other hand, invites you to play with diverse images, and, finally, to create your own in your mind. A good example of the connotative power of words in the context of noir is the disquieting semantic breadth of the word “dangerous”. As Foucault reminds us in his essay on the “dangerous individual”, this word operates like the wild card in poker: any person can substitute the word “dangerous” for something else. Thus, to utter a word is to open up a whole and very complex imaginary. Noir resorts to that sense of danger and to its wide semantic reach.[29]

It is my belief that Pérez Gómez’s euphoric and very ethical view of the in-between as an opportunity to refurbish “being” and to place us in contact with our own mortality by means of restating the “architectural void”, is very similar to what other rather dysphoric writers on the city have said about what Gyan Prakash has called noir urbanism. According to Prakash,

A “noir” street in present-day Paris.

“[…a]s the world becomes increasingly urban, dire predictions of an impending crisis have reached a feverish pitch. […] Unprecedented agglomeration of the poor produces the specter of an unremittingly bleak ‘planet of slums’. Monstrous megacities do not promise the pleasures or urbanity but the misery and strife of the Hobbesian jungle. [… It is necessary] to examine the dark form [of the city] as a mode of urban representation. This form is not new. Since the turn of the century, dystopic images have figured prominently in literary, cinematic and sociological representations of the city. In these portrayals, the city often appears as dark, insurgent (or forced into total obedience), dysfunctional (or forced into machine-like functioning), engulfed in ecological and social crises, seduced by capitalist consumption, paralyzed by crime, wars, class, gender, and racial conflicts, and subjected to excessive technological and technocratic control. What characterizes such representation is not just their bleak mood but also their mode of interpretation, which ratchets up a critical reading of specific historical conditions to diagnose crisis and catastrophe.”[30]

The noir city is a city in crisis. The image of the city in certain Hollywood films suggests that, in the urban context, noir has to do with the “suspense [that] is produced to the extent that the structure manages to suspend psychology: that is, to the extent that what we know of the characters and the abilities of the pursuer and the pursued is superseded by the technical assumption that the next image has the power to reverse all our expectations and render any psychological profile of the characters irrelevant.”[31]  This means that, in order to convey suspense and impending doom, the image of place as a backdrop of the action must be presented to us in fragments so that, whether or not the darkness will not let us quite see the characters, the place itself propitiates this fragmentation effect. Everything that may fragment vision will be helpful to provoke the suspense of noir: darkness, narrow perspectives, the fact that you cannot have a full view of the place —as in a labyrinth—, clutter, unexpected twists and turns on the visual path, strangely-shaped objects, shadows that do not correspond to visible light sources or patterns… as if the whole scene were fragmented into smaller scenes without the possibility of summation or integrated perception. An extraordinary example of this fragmented noir rendition of a dark city  —breathtaking Venice— in sharp contrast with the same city viewed during the day is the impeccable 1973 thriller by Nicolas Roeg, Don’t Look Now, starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. In this movie, while you follow the anxious steps of the protagonist along the narrow streets of the labyrinthine city, you can be sure that nothing is like it seems, and that, as you turn the next corner, you may face death and/or catastrophe.

An abandoned pesticide plant in the United States: a typical place for present-day gothic horror.

We know from Charles Baudelaire himself that, after dusk, any city is noir in that sense. Night in the city, as portrayed in films like Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and After Hours (1985), Jim Jarmusch‘s 1991 A Night on Earth, or Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 warped swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, is always elusive, not a time of day but a place on earth: the place where, precisely, you may encounter mortality running along the in-between, the architectural void. In the late-modern Western imaginary, the city at night constitutes a dystopia, fueled by acousmatic noise, troubled vision and all kinds of weird things. As Prakash reminds us, the shabby spots of the city where the poor live, abandoned buildings and streets, or the old urban industrial enclaves, now dark and moldy and empty, are the scenarios of choice for urban noir. But not every noir city is a modern city. Also, not all crises and catastrophes are huge and collective, metonymically implying the end of the world as we know it.

In the travel guides, Old San Juan may seem to us too squeaky-clean, too colorful, to be given the chance to seem noir. In fact, as I said, these guides focus on the façades of brightly-colored colonial buildings. However, there is an aspect of noir that can be invoked for Old San Juan: the gothic, as I already anticipated. The gothic noir has to do with historical darkness, past omens and predictions, old feuds and conflicts, complicated castles, narrow views, confusion of historical time and place and, especially, physiognomic misinterpretations of facial expressions or, in our case, building façades. Roeg’s Venice is a case in point. Umberto Eco, when describing Paris as portrayed in the novels of Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo, analyses these texts as detective stories where the city, as a stage  of noir, banks on the present elusive memory of urban history. Dark passages, unexpected meanders, the change of street names, transform the city into a medieval or early-modern labyrinth. In this context, blind and mute façades surmise an inner crisis; a muffled sound foretells peril and disaster. The daytime beauty of the city spells the opposite: all houses are Kubrick’s beautifully ominous Overlook Hotel where the guest house becomes a guess what… The enemy is within, behind a neat closed-up façade. For the feverish imagination, every old house is hiding an ominous secret. In fact, every old city holds a mystery in store.

But let’s go back to the façades of Old San Juan. It bears noting that amateur and professional photography of Old San Juan have focused on either the beauty of architectural restoration, or the poverty of its marginal barrios. This is interesting because the old walled city became so overcrowded by mid-19th century that the municipal government decided to expand towards the east between the first and second walls that opened to land at “Puerta de Tierra” or “The Land Gate”. Expansion also went beyond the south wall, towards a small peninsula called “La Puntilla”. Careful site maps, plus segregation and urbanization plans, were made for these expansions at Puerta de Tierra and La Puntilla. The less affluent inhabitants of Old San Juan and newcomers trying to make a living in the Capital also found their home in these two new barrios. Puerta de Tierra slowly became a place for commercial concerns and storehouses where workers would live. La Puntilla, right on the San Juan harbor had a harbor community.[32]

La Perla, squeezed between Old San Juan’s northern wall and the Atlantic Ocean.

There were two barrios that also thrived in or near the old city: La Perla, squeezed between the northern city wall and the Atlantic Ocean, and Santurce (formerly Cangrejos), initially inhabited by freed black slaves. Although Santurce eventually became prime property for the affluent who started moving beyond the overcrowded citadel into Miramar, and early in the 20th century became a posh commercial strip down to Hato Rey[33] along Ponce de León Avenue, La Perla stayed as the ominous, unknown, very poor enclave whose existence the municipality refused to acknowledge. La Perla became —and still is— the Other of Old San Juan: mythically populated by bandits, drug abusers, old and useless people, the odd and the mad —literally borderline people. You could enter La Perla through a small slit on the wall that eventually was enlarged into a narrow road, or through the cemetery next to the El Morro grounds. Both entrances carried —and still carry— a negative load: the slit on the wall makes the wall insecure, unsafe, and the cemetery entrance recalls issues of purity and danger as those studied by Mary Douglas[34] that bear on the sanctity and wholesomeness of the city once its skin —the wall— allows the entrance of death and pollution from the outside.

Old San Juan, and the Puerta de Tierra and La Puntilla wards, were built following careful traditional urban form, have an orthogonal plan based on the original Roman castra, common in urban planning throughout the whole island, as Aníbal Sepúlveda has shown in his four-volume historical urban atlas of Puerto Rico[35].In contrast, La Perla’s urban layout follows topographic accidents, the oscillating coastline and the outer shape of the wall. Houses form tight clusters and, if seen from the sea, the barrio looks like a small Yauco, whose urban arrangement follows the profile of a small hill. There are no ICP preservation codes in La Perla, no heed for government building regulations, etc. Deregulated and de-territorialized, La Perla lives outside the space-time coordinates of the old city, and thus thrives on sheer urban deconstruction and denial. Challenged by meandering streets and unexpected gradients, everything in La Perla contradicts what Old San Juan stands for in the minds of Puerto Ricans. La Perla’s myth is part of the reason why Old San Juan is stuck in the past, as La Perla is, too, stuck in the past. It is in that shared and fixed past where we may find the noir twist of Old San Juan.

La Perla follows the sloping terrain.

Noir narratives have to do with difference, deviance, lack of rational control. They have to do with the uncanny, oppressiveness, both indoors and outdoors. The world outside feels like a threatening forest full of dangerous flora and fauna. The world inside is inhabited by the past as memory and by the future as omen. It should not surprise us when the inventors of the gothic novel resorted to the medieval castle or citadel, and its surrounding environment, as emblems of gothic space. Old walled towns —Paris, for example— would perfectly fit the description. The threats of the gothic do not have to do with collective destiny, but with the domestic destiny of its characters. The pursuer is a man and the pursued is a woman, and chastity or virginity are always at stake. Dysphoria and melancholia mar both the space and the characters. Time is cyclical, and space is labyrinthine, dense, suffocating, like a tomb. This typology also works the other way around: the castle is surrounded by evil enemies, by terrible monsters. Thus, the castle must take care of its gates in order to stay clean and safe.[36] Clearly, the Old San Juan noir belongs to the second category.

It bears noting that these categories are linked by a coincidentia oppositorum: one implies the other, just as Foucault’s definition of heterotopia. According to the French philosopher, each community invents a space that is the Other of its lived space, a beyond. For many centuries, the European colonies in the New World were exactly that: a sort of virtual place where virtue could be restored to a morally exhausted civilization[37], as in Thomas More’s Utopia or Tomasso Campanella’s Città del sole, both located beyond the known world. Foucault proposes that heterotopias challenge every other space, whether creating an Other place that is so perfect, orderly ad spruced up that, by comparison, our daily space is disorganized, confused, or creating an illusion that denounces the delusional character of the rest of reality. Of the first heterotopia, Foucault cites examples such as the Puritan communities in the early British colonies in what were to become the United States, and the Jesuit colonies in Paraguay, so perfect that they had to be labeled as heretical and destroyed. In this case, too, the fixed, the orderly, the beautiful, seems to demand its opposite, a space that does not recognize categories, and that will not. A good example of the second type of heterotopia would be the brothel, or a place like Las Vegas. This seems to be the relationship between Old San Juan and La Perla: to each other, they are the flip side of a coin.

Now, then, in the noir narrative that links Old San Juan and La Perla, what is outside the venerable city walls? As I already intimated: monsters, I mean, all live characters and creatures  that are the offspring of that place beyond the city limits, beyond the pure and safe. I find it useful here to follow Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “monster theory”, as it explores the nature of monstrosity and why the monster is always portrayed as the threat that lives outside the city walls.  First of all, “the monster’s body is a cultural body”, and it is shaped according to our fears. It “always escapes”, as the proof that we cannot completely control it. It announces “a category crisis”, insofar as the monster is usually a hybrid composed on cultural trash that dwells at the “gates of difference”, a borderline being. Nevertheless, the monster “patrols the borders of the possible”, reason why it always defies profiling and planning. Seductive as all things opaque, the monster is feared as “a kind of desire” for what it represents: a creature “at the threshold of becoming”.  Impossible to pin down or describe, the monster is the necessary Other of the city. The description I already made of La Perla exactly fits this description.[38]

A view of La Perla from the San Juan cemetery.

What is even more interesting is how local novelists and poets have found the same monstrosity precisely behind the façades of Old San Juan. Thus we find a theater play by René Marqués, Los soles truncos, based on an earlier short story by him titled Purificación en la Calle del Cristo, that ascribes all the oppressive characteristics of gothic space to a house in old San Juan, where a woman has stifled the lives of her daughters by keeping them inside and chasing all their suitors away. There is also Francisco Font Acevedo’s La belleza bruta whose characters are monsters who roam the city during the night and who come from marginal enclaves similar to La Perla. There is also Mundo cruel, a best-selling short story book by Luis Negrón that transforms Santurce into a mythic place very similar to La Perla. Luz Ivonne Ochart’s book of poems Este es nuestro paraíso, keeps taking the poet’s voice up and down old San Juan streets that touch the wall: looking down towards La Perla, at the foot of the massive wall, is part of a ritual whereby sighting the monster below constitutes an epiphany. In literature, Old San Juan is usually represented as a fragile construct always already threatened by the Others that live in the depths of the colonial houses and on its surroundings. In short, for locals, Old San Juan is more than a façade, it is the mask Hannah Arendt tells us about. It has a depth that has little to do with history and a lot to say about our own myths of communal origins and the feeling that, as a people, we are stuck in the past waiting for a monstrous future to arrive. The fact that Old San Juan residents and visitors have to look several feet down the wall to see La Perla proposes the Fall —a metaphor of original sin— as the mythical origin of the community.

Artist Radamés Figueroa has painted tiger and zebra rooftops on some La Perla houses to take advantage of the downward view from the colonial wall.

It would be helpful to go back to Cartier’s definition of touristed place or landscape, because the similarities between gothic space, monster theory and touristed place are many and meaningful. And these connections and similarities deserve further examination. Who knows! Maybe, within the tourism context, Old San Juan “noir” could sell better that the tepid colonial version of the city that nobody can believe in anymore. A branded city in shades of “noir” could be a more seductive tourism destination than a city whose branding projects it as a subaltern place lamely split into surveyor and surveyed fighting for a daily shot of Botox®.


*This essay was originally submitted to (in)forma, the journal published by the University of Puerto School or Architecture, on june 23, 2011, and published on (in)forma no. 6 (2012), pp. 22-29. The images used in the Bodegón con Teclado version are different, and some important contents and style changes have been made.

[1] In the third book of The Art of Love dedicated to women (published on year 2 b.C.), Ovid advises a lady who just woke up and has forgotten to put on her cosmetics (in Latin, cosmetica is the art of giving order —cosmos— to the face) as follows: “Close the bedroom door! Why show a work that is still imperfect?” (The translation from Latin is mine.)

[2] “Knowledge of place stems from human experiences, feeling and thought. Space is far more abstract [… Places] have primary ontological significance as centres of bodily activity, human significance and emotional attachment. The meaning of place is grounded in existential or lived consciousness of it.. […] People are immersed in a world of places which geographical imagination aims to understand and recover —places as contexts for human experience, constructed in movement, memory, encounter and association. […P]laces are always far more than points or locations, because they have distinctive meanings and values for persons. Personal and cultural identity is bound up with place.” Christopher Tilley. A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments. Oxford: Berg (1994): 15.

[3] John Berger. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books (1973): 46.

[4] Lilliana Ramos-Collado. “Sueños patrimoniales: Chile reinventa su historia ante la UNESCO.” Románitas: Lenguas y literaturas romances, Vol. III No. 1 (2008). http://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=2783665.

[5] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography”. In Other Worlds. Essays in Cultural Politics. London: Routledge (1988): 215-221.

[6] See the excellent and varied anthology of papers by Rod Edmond and Vanessa Smith, eds. Islands in History and Representation. London: Routledge (2003), especially the “Introduction” by the editors, and the essays by John Gillis, Gillian Beer and Markman Ellis, that deal with the Caribbean.

[7]  “ Nelle Città invisibili non si trovano città riconoscibili . Sono tutte città inventate; le ho chiamate ognuna con un nome di donna…” Italo Calvino. Le città invisibili. Milano: Palomar e Arnoldo Mondadori Editore (1993): v. “In Invisible Cities, no recognizable cities can be found. All of them are invented; I have given each of them a woman’s name…” The translation from Italian is mine.

[8]  “—Si tú quisieras, Granada, / contigo me casaría; / daréte en arras y dote / a Córdoba y a Sevilla. / —Casada soy, rey don Juan, / casada soy, que no viuda; / el moro que a mí me tiene / muy grande y bien me quería.” Anónimo. “Romance de Abenámar”, in Ramón Menéndez Pidal. Flor nueva de romances viejos. Buenos Aires: Espasa Calpe (1965): 203. “If you so wished, Granada / I would marry you / I would give you as dowry / Cordoba and Seville. / I’m married, King John, / I am a wife, not a widow; / the moor who owns me / loves me great and dearly.” The translation from Spanish is mine.

[9] Jacques Lacan. “Conferencia en Ginebra sobre el síntoma.” http://elpsicoanalistalector.blogspot.com/2009/03/jacques-lacan-conferencia-en-ginebra.html.

[10] Anthony Pagden. European Encounters with the New World. New Haven: Yale U Press (1993): 6.

[11] Ileana Rodríguez. Transatlantic Topographies. islands, Highlands, Jungles. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press (2004): 21.

[12] Mary Louise Pratt. “ Narrating the anti-conquest” and “Anti-conquest II: The mystique of reciprocity”. Imperial Eyes. Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge (1992): 38-68; 69-85. See also p. 7. Edward Said. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books (1979).

[13] Henri Lefebvre. “The Specificity of the City”. Writings on Cities. London: Blackwell Publishing (2004): 101.

[14] Antonio Campesino Fernández. “El patrimonio ‘estrella’ del siglo XXI en las viejas ciudades históricas: la competitividad cultural”. In M.A. Castillo, ed. Ciudades históricas: conservación y desarrollo. Madrid: Fundación Argentaria and Visor Dist. (2000): 35. See also a most revealing essay by Dennis Judd. “Promoting Tourism in US Cities”, in Susan Fainstein and Scott Campbell, eds. Readings in Urban Theory (Third Edition); Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell (2011): 247-270. The article deals with municipal budget cuts during the Reagan administration and how the federal government led cities into making up for lost government funds by promoting regional tourism, and how this led to fierce competition among cities within the United States.

[15] Of course, that artificially archaic Town/Country split still holds sway worldwide. Marc Augé carefully documents this in his suggestive essay “Un etnólogo en Center Parcs”. El viaje imposible. El turismo y sus imágenes. Barcelona: Gedisa (1998): 45-60. See also Niamh M. Moore. “Valorizing Urban Heritage? Redevelopment in a Changing City”. In Niamh M. Moore and Yvonne Whelan. Heritage, Memory and the Politics of Identity. New Perspectives on the Cultural Landscape. Aldershot: Ashgate (2007): 95-108. See also Raymond Williams’ classic book The Country and the City. New York: Oxford U Press (1973), especially Ch. 5, “Town and Country”, pp. 46-54.

[16] In-between spaces, a concept I take from Alberto Pérez Gómez, stands for those unchartered or unspeakable spaces that do not belong to either the private or the public realm, like Pérez Gómez’s example of de Chirico’s industrial parks and melancholy train stations, or Edgar Poe’s streets in the short story The Man in the Crowd (my example). They are places “that have greater potential for escaping the hegemony of panoptical domination and technological control”. “Espacios intermedios.” Presente y futuros: Arquitectura de las ciudades. Barcelona: Unión Internacional de Arquitectos (1996): 274-279. The translation from the Spanish is mine. More about in-between spaces below.

[17] “The city is a mediation among mediations.” It is situated between the “near order”, which comprises relations between groups and individuals, and the “far order”, which stands for a society regulated by large and powerful institutions such as Church and State that impose moral and legal principles on the population. Lefebvre, op. cit. p. 101.

[18] Campesino Fernández, op. cit., p. 36.

[19] Augé, op, cit., p. 15.

[20] References are to the Spanish edition. Jean Baudrillard. La sociedad de consumo. Sus mitos, sus estructuras. México: Siglo XXI (1992): 187- 198.

[21] Jacques Derrida. “Un don sans présent.” Donner le temps. Paris: Galilée (1991): 51-93.

[22] I refer to the famous overture to one of her most important essays: “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge —and, therefore, like power[…] Photographic images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can acquire.” Susan Sontag. On Photography. New York: Dell Publishing (1973): 4.

[23] Carolyn Cartier. “Introduction”.  In Carolyn Cartier and Alan Lew, eds. Seductions of Place. Geographical Perspectives on Globalization and Touristed Landscapes. London: Routledge (2005): 3.

[24] Jean Baudrillard. “L’objet ancien”. Système des objets. Paris: Gallimard (1968): Ch. 1. See my article on the ancient object and the restoration of the Cabo Rojo Light House, “Shored! Ann Hamilton’s Intervention at the Cabo Rojo Light House.” http://www.artepublicopr.com/english/ambitos/la_costa/cabo_rojo/espacio_tangente/contenido.htm

[25] Lilliana Ramos Collado. Innovación, experiencia y solidez para Puerto Rico: Historia del Banco Gubernamental de Fomento (Bilingual edition), San Juan: BGF (1992).

[26] “where is the quality of the ineffable, of what  brims over reason; like fiction: that which will betray certainties.” [sic] Eduardo Lalo. Donde. San Juan: Editorial Tal Cual (2005): [28]. The translation from the Spanish is mine.

[27] Pérez Gómez, op. cit., p. 278.

[28] Hannah Arendt. “La cuestión social”. Sobre la revolución. Madrid: Alianza Editorial (1988): 60-114.

[29] Michel Foucault. “La evolución de la noción de ‘individuo peligroso’ en la psiquiatría legal”. La vida de los hombres infames. Madrid: Las Ediciones de La Piqueta (1990): 231-264.

[30] Gyan Prakash. “Imagining the Modern City, Darkly.” In Gyan Prakash, ed. Noir Urbanisms. Dystopic Images of the Modern City. Princeton: Princeton U Press (2010): 1. See also the challenging essay by Paul Virilio, “City of Panic” in his book by the same title. Oxford: Berg (2007): 85-112.

[31] Joan Copjec, ed. “Introduction.” Shades of Noir: A Reader. London: Verso (1996):vii.

[32] Anibal Sepúlveda. San Juan. Historia ilustrada de su desarrollo urbano, 1508-1898. San Juan: Carimar (1989).

[33] Aníbal Sepúlveda. Cangrejos – Santurce. Historia ilustrada de su desarrollo urbano (1519-1950). San Juan: Carimar (1988).

[34] Mary Douglas. “External Boundaries.” Purity and Danger. An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo. London: ARK (1984): 115-129.

[35] Aníbal Sepúlveda. Puerto Rico Urbano. Atlas histórico de la ciudad puertorriqueña (4 vols). San Juan: Carimar (2004)

[36] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Methuen (1986), and Fred Botting. Gothic. London: Routledge (1999).

[37] Michel Foucault. “Espacios diferentes” In Estética, Ética y Hermenéutica. Obras Esenciales Vol. III. Barcelona: Paidós (1999):  220-223.

[38] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”, In Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Theory. Reading Culture. Minneapolis: Minnesota U Press (1996): 3-25.