That must be the saddest piña colada in the world, I thought as I walked by Barrachina, the restaurant famous for being the birthplace of the Caribbean drink. This was a few months after Hurricane María destroyed everything we knew, and Old San Juan, an epicenter of tourism in Puerto Rico, was still without power. No one was drinking piña coladas. No one remembered that this place was the world’s idea of paradise. A lush, tropical island in the Caribbean with a landscape that offers all shades of green, blue, orange, red, pink, yellow, and purple. White sand and turquoise waters, ripe fruits, and a breeze that smells fresh and salty as the sea or deep and powerful as the soil. The sun is warm all year long, and the tropical humidity just makes it all feel more sensual.
Adál Maldonado’s photographic career is marked by surrealism and politics. And since Adál is Puerto Rican, both things frequently coalesce in images that are dark and humorous, introspective and ferociously critical. After studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, he spent several decades working in close contact with the the Nuyorican scene, creating a conceptual “embassy” and “passport for Puerto Ricans,” U.S. citizens who frequently get treated as foreigners in the United States because of their language, race, and culture. El Puerto Rican Embassy, which today has its own website, was designed to represent: “a new generation of experimental Puerto Rican artists working at the margins of established art movements – who take risks which illuminate contemporary issues, question established cultural aesthetics and challenge dominant political issues.” He has published seven books, the most recent of which are I Love My Selfie, in collaboration with Ilan Stavans, and Los ahogados / Puerto RicansUnderwater, a series first published through social media. In 2016 he relocated from the island of Manhattan to the island of Puerto Rico. (In)visibility and identity are the central concerns of his works, which he has explored extensively through self-portraits, celebrity portraits, and staged photography.
We thought it was just going to be a tour of the defunct coal mine’s aboveground facility, which was already troubling enough. The winding wheels and framework for the conveyor system at the “pit head” were like the superstructure of an abandoned carnival, like the one I’d read about near Chernobyl.
By lunchtime, Beijing had reached 102 degrees and our four-year old twins were hungry. We’d spent the morning exploring the shadeless Yonghegong Lama temple and now sought out the refuge of the simple vegetarian buffet nearby where my vegetarian husband and I had had a transcendent meal on our last trip six years before. To our dismay, it had been, according to a nearby security guard, demolished. One of our twins emitted hangry squeals, the other went boneless. The air was dense with humidity and pollution. On our way to the temple from the subway stop at the top of Yonghegong Street, we’d passed another, fancier-looking, vegetarian restaurant and so we elbowed our way all the way back up the narrow corridor of manic Buddhist commercialism thick with incense and the calls of hawkers selling religious tchotchkes and crowds of midday worshippers and tourists; we drowned in sweat.
It was the summer of 2013, a formidable summer in Egypt. We walked from our villa toward the sea, carrying collapsible aluminum chairs, bags of cucumber-and-cheese sandwiches and pea-sized yellow grapes that are called banaati—literally, “girlish.” This had been our ritual for the past seven Fridays. My grandmother walked ahead with my aunt, and I followed floppily in their morning shadow. We spent every weekend at Qariyet El Muhandiseen, one of many gated compounds that have sprung up in the last four decades, providing summer getaways for the Egyptian elite. Completed in the late eighties, only twenty-six kilometers west of Alexandria, this one in particular is considered démodé.
When people speak of my city’s river, they say: declined. What they mean is: dry. Only modern cities can survive on the promise of water. Early people settled just east of the river, on the then-fertile floodplain that offered easy access to water, mud, fish, grasses, all the necessary components to forge a life in the desert. In the summer, I imagine cool breezes.
Tucson lies in a valley between four mountain ranges, so each range becomes a landmark. A trained eye can decipher a way through the desert using these mountains alone, though this eye will also see the lines of cottonwood trees, will find where water runs silently underground—the Santa Cruz River (translation: “Holy Cross”) long buried under a bed of pummeled stone, sand, bits of mica.
Sixteen years ago, my mother found my father behind the shed on a Saturday morning in June. “Get up off the ground in your good shirt,” she told him, before she understood he was dead. “He looked like he was sleeping,” she told us. “The gun glinted in the grass.”
Seven years after my father’s suicide, I opened the envelope containing police photographs of the scene. He did not look like he was sleeping. Limbs: a swastika. Angles inhuman. Violence and velocity rendered in two hundred pounds of a six-foot man. The gun glinted in the grass—she was right about that.
I think in words, not images, which I imagine is a form of dementia rarely studied by brain scientists—it’s a disadvantage when looking at a map or a set of architectural plans, and I have long believed it also to be a disadvantage when building the big complex geography of even the most pared-down fictional world.