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Politics

Of Mosquitoes and Men: The Condition of Puerto Rico

Carolyn Drake finds a complex relationship between Puerto Rico and its American parent

Carolyn Drake

Carolyn Drake Kids picking quenapa from trees in the Santurce neighborhood. San Juan, Puerto Rico. 2016. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos

Puerto Rico has a complicated existence. An island that belongs to the United States of America, it is a Commonwealth that does not benefit from federal state status. It suffers from huge debts, and on 1st July, the Senate passed a bill called PROMESA: The Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, devised to restructure the region’s debt and encourage growth, while placing an Oversight Board on the island to enforce changes. For many, while these are necessary measures to guard against economic collapse in the region over spilling into the US, this bill downgrades the island’s position to that of mere colony, a possession of Congress with an unelected board in charge of its governance, and whose inhabitants enjoy lesser rights than most US citizens.

 

Carolyn Drake Pine Grove beach. In 2005, the Marriot cut down the forest on the beach to make a parking lot. In protest people set up a camp and started to replant the forest, including native species of trees. (...)
Carolyn Drake A family at Ocean Park beach who said they did not know anyone with Zika. San Juan, Puerto Rico. 2016. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos
Carolyn Drake Ocean Park Beach, on 4th July. San Juan, Puerto Rico. 2016. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos
Carolyn Drake Pregnant women who visit WIC centers in Puerto Rico are offered a Zika education slideshow. WIC provides federal grants for food, health, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant and postpar (...)
Carolyn Drake Zika Action Day. A health fair with public health experts, workshops, and product demos in The Home Depot parking lot of Las Catalinas Mall. San Juan, Puerto Rico. 2016. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos

In July 2016 Carolyn Drake headed out to Puerto Rico with the intention of documenting the Zika crisis–the virus primarily transmitted by mosquitoes, linked to microcephaly in the babies of infected mothers, and which has punctuated news reports from the region over the past year.

What she found on the ground was that Zika is generally thought of as only a minor threat in a long history of viruses in Puerto Rico, where the relationship to its US parent is more than fraught.

From protests against the PROMESA bill and mourning the loss of its Commonwealth status, Puerto Ricans had more on their minds than Zika, as described in the captions accompanying this photo-essay.

Here, Drake gives a first-hand account of her trip.

“What I knew of Puerto Rico was block parties in Brooklyn, where I lived fifteen years ago, and the Puerto Rican Day Parade. That’s Newyorico, not Puerto Rico, my translator Gabi told me upon my arrival.

Carolyn Drake Patients from all over the island came to the hospital for their prenatal care visit and a group Zika prevention session. Zika prevention kits with pink mosquito nets and bug spray were distributed (...)
Carolyn Drake Zika Action Day. A health fair with public health experts, workshops, and product demos in The Home Depot parking lot of Las Catalinas Mall. San Juan, Puerto Rico. 2016. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos

The shot list for the first day involved driving to a series of mind-numbing press events. The first: a “Group Prevention Session” at a hospital in San Juan. After a lengthy lecture, the pregnant couples in attendance were given a Zika packet containing a condom, a pink mosquito net, and a can of mosquito repellent.

Next was ‘Zika Action Day’ in a Home Depot parking lot. Visitors were invited to inspect mosquitoes grown in beakers by the Center for Disease Control and stand in line for free hot dogs, fly swatters, and mosquito spray.

Carolyn Drake Auto shop in Puerta de Tierra, a low income neighborhood where Drake was told there had been cases of Zika. The people they met had no comment about the virus. San Juan, Puerto Rico. 2016. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos

Feeling like I was riding a conveyer belt rather than connecting with anyone, I asked the CDC experts there for suggestions about how to find local people, labs and communities affected by Zika. They said I wasn’t allowed to see their lab but that I could go to a poor neighbourhood. Apparently, where there are a lot of people, there’s a lot of Zika.

The next day we went to Barrio Obrero and Puerto de Tierra but nobody there had much to say about Zika. I photographed a guy polishing a car in a rundown lot.

 

Carolyn Drake Protest in front of Capitolio in Old San Juan. Actors performed a ritual to say farewell to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. They are opposed to the increasing control the US is exerting over Puert (...)
Carolyn Drake Protest in front of Capitolio in Old San Juan. Actors performed a ritual to say farewell to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. They are opposed to the increasing control the US is exerting over Puert (...)

My translator, meanwhile, was seeing Facebook posts about protests taking place around the city. Barack Obama had just signed the PROMESA bill, which gave a federally appointed board control of Puerto Rico’s economy.

We decided to divert from the prescribed path and follow her social network, asking about PROMESA and Zika along the way. We went to a birthday party in the park, where we saw a mother spraying repellent on her child, but nobody we asked knew anyone with Zika; we went to a protest in front of the Capitolio, a protest in front of the health department, and a protest in front of the courthouse; we visited an organic farm where we learned about Puerto Rico’s dependence on the US for food (and all other imports) and Monsanto’s domination of the island’s farmland; we snuck around abandoned buildings in which (we imagined) mosquitoes, and therefore Zika, were multiplying by the day; we ordered dinner from a waitress who had received a call from her doctor that day notifying her she had Zika.

 

Carolyn Drake Organic farm in Aibonito run by Daniella Rodriguez Besosa. She grows organic produce for her sister’s restaurant in San Juan. She says Puerto Rico has a crisis in self-sustainability. The island wo (...)
Carolyn Drake Organic farm in Aibonito run by Daniella Rodriguez Besosa. She grows organic produce for her sister’s restaurant in San Juan. She says Puerto Rico has a crisis in self-sustainability. The island wo (...)
Carolyn Drake El Colegio la Milagrosa, near Paseo de Diego. In 1996 a gas leak across the street caused 33 people in the school to die. The school closed in May 2009 for economic problems. San Juan, Puerto Rico. (...)
Carolyn Drake El Colegio la Milagrosa, near Paseo de Diego. In 1996 a gas leak across the street caused 33 people in the school to die. The school closed in May 2009 for economic problems. San Juan, Puerto Rico. (...)

She took the following day off to talk with us about Puerto Rican history and the horrors of the Chikungunya virus. I noted she had no screens on her windows. You must meet Jesus Vasquez, she insisted. Turns out we had seen him before at the anti-fumigation rally. We met Vasquez in his office at the university. “It’s like pointing a gun at us in the farming aspect,” he said. “The solution they’ve come up with for Zika ends up causing more damage than the actual virus.” They had already sprayed Florida but people there didn’t seem to notice.

Carolyn Drake Rosio Cancel, who Drake and her translator met at a restaurant on the day she was diagnosed with Zika. The next day they visited her at her apartment. She had another virus, Chikungunya, last year (...)
Carolyn Drake Jesus Vazquez, environmental lawyer and activist in his office at UPR. He organized a protest against Nalid fumigation earlier in the week: “It's like pointing a gun at us in the farming aspect. Th (...)

The last day was Fourth of July. Everyone had the day off work, so the hot asphalt streets emptied onto the sandy beaches, but the fireworks over the lagoon were cancelled. We weren’t sure if it was because there wasn’t enough money in the budget or because Puerto Rico didn’t want to celebrate its re-affirmed status as a US colony. “Fourth of July festivities” was on my shotlist, though. Struggling to find anything related, we drove the empty streets, at last arriving in the Old Town. There they were, the red, white, and blue we were looking for. Yes, despite the island’s numerous crises, there are still some tourists from the mainland with the courage to visit Puerto Rico. Last item on the shot list. Check.” – Carolyn Drake

Carolyn Drake Tourists in Old San Juan on Fourth of July. The annual fireworks on the lagoon were cancelled, either due to lack of funds or in protest to the PROMESA bill which just passed. Most Puerto Ricans do (...)
Carolyn Drake Birthday party in Parque Luis Munoz Rivera. The people Drake and translator met here did not know anyone with Zika but one of them sprayed insect repellant on her child. San Juan, Puerto Rico. 2016. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos
Carolyn Drake Birthday party in Parque Luis Munoz Rivera. The people Drake and translator met here did not know anyone with Zika but one of them sprayed insect repellant on her child. San Juan, Puerto Rico. 2016. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos
Carolyn Drake Parking lot at Parque Luis Munoz Rivera, where Drake visited a birthday party. San Juan, Puerto Rico. 2016. © Carolyn Drake | Magnum Photos