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St. Croix and Vieques: Remapping the Archipelago
Notes from the Field

Katherine Miranda

Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras

I.

      Until a recent fieldwork trip to St. Croix as a doctoral student of Caribbean literature from the University of Puerto Rico, what I knew of the island had been filtered through a Vieques lens. About forty miles northwest of St. Croix, the history of Vieques (the island-municipality “isla nena” of Puerto Rico) is intricately linked to that of her U.S. Virgin Island neighbor. Working as a newspaper editor and bartender and volunteering with efforts to stop U.S. military bombing practices in Vieques in 2001, I learned about St. Croix from the Viequenses I worked and volunteered with. I had, of course, heard of St. Croix before arriving in Vieques—I had seen the island on a map—but like many, I knew little of the Virgin Islands aside from tourist brochures. I first learned about Vieques’ connections with St. Croix through informal exchanges: tidbits of conversation about family members who lived there, the cousin of a friend who was visiting Vieques introduced to me as “Crucian” (the first time I heard the term for a St. Croix resident). Activists I worked with told me of the massive Viequense migrations to St. Croix when the U.S. navy expropriated two-thirds of the isla nena in the 1940s. And I saw Diego Conde’s photo exhibition “De Papa Dem” at the Fuerte Conde de Mirasol, which showcased Portocruzans (Crucians of Puerto Rican descent) and how popular Puerto Rican iconography—pinchos, güiros, guayaberas—manifested itself in this neighboring island with a different cultural, linguistic and historical background. But in Vieques, this vision of St. Croix centered around the many whose relatives and friends had migrated, for whom St. Croix symbolized a hollow, a blurry rim on the horizon, a hazy outline that meant disjuncture and loss. And then this vague introduction was cut short when I left Vieques and relocated to San Juan. For years in Puerto Rico’s capital, I learned nothing more about St. Croix, its history or its connection to Vieques or Puerto Rico—not through pieces of anyone’s conversation, not in any art exhibit, not in any of the textbooks I used during four years as a middle-school teacher. If St. Croix was an infrequent and informal topic of conversation in Vieques, in San Juan it disappeared altogether. References to las islitas (the “little islands” as Puerto Ricans often call the Virgin Islands) were made only in passing to describe cruise ship destinations visited for a day or two, a trip to a Crucian reggae festival. But aside from vacation, I heard no other mention of the connections between Puerto Rico and St. Croix. Ever.

      The invisibility of these connectionscompels a remapping of the archipelago. While a map of the Caribbean draws a slew of islands that slope in an arc between two hulking continents, the hinge of this larger chain—the nub of islands that lie between the larger Windward Antilles and the more numerous, smaller Leeward Antilles—is an archipelago unto itself. Divided into territorial units by the flat ink of a map, the demarcations that separate the U.S. Virgin Islands (U.S.V.I.) of St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas, the British Virgin Islands of Tortola and Virgin Gorda, and Puerto Rico’s two island-municipalities of Vieques and Culebra say little of the interconnectedness between these places and the ways they continue to influence each other. Two seemingly unrelated spots on a Caribbean map, the relationship between St. Croix and Vieques urge a rethinking of the way this map is geographically constructed, and insists on broader definitions of connectivity. The fixity of names on paper unravels in the ways the development of these two islands continues to be lived. Here is one place to begin a new map.