Embodying the Archipelago-8 Years In

8 years and 1 month ago, we arrived. Our anniversary was a month ago. But life’s pace changes in the Caribbean. Life’s pace changes amidst climate change, colonialism, pandemic. Life also gets really real once your body has been cut into, repaired, once your sense of invincibility has given way to nature’s forces. Forced to flow after the revelation that your flesh is finite. The clocks of societal standards suddenly seem obsolete. Time stops when the lights go out. Searching for batteries becomes a hassle. It’s wet season again. Se supone que debo organizar todo. Get the batteries and solar stuff together. These days I know the time by the arrival of the rains from the east and the light left in the west. I look for the moon rising over la loma or the orchestrated multiple moments in which the gallos sing in unison. Falling into sync with this, deadlines and timelines fall away. Things happen when they happen. Anniversaries observed one month after the fact. I go months without a blog post, months without replying. In these trifling times, breath becomes more precious. The need to say, share, do, tones down. Desperate energy must be checked, or it might mess with our effectiveness. The focus becomes getting yourself right within. Unlearning, detoxing, decolonizing. Falling in sync with your ancestral island in this archipelago and surrounding waters.

I use the term Rematriation to refer to my arrival from NYC to Borikén and everything since, but I do believe that rematriation begins in your mind and body before a physical move. Falling in sync with this island where I live is to align my body, my self to it. Like looking at the sun and not seeing it as one, but as part of a system. Not the solar system of our planets that orbit it but a network of stars in this galaxy. This galaxy: one in an infinite network of a universe.

This sun, this star, Borikén, called by its colonial name Puerto Rico, transcends “la isla.” It is part of this archipelago of three inhabited islands and a vast network of smaller estrellita islands y cayos and so much more. A vast system that extends to the Caribbean islands to our north, south, east, and west. Carried high on a shelf bordered by the trench to our north and the trough to our south. But we are taught to see only sprawling flat water. Tourism seeks to diminish us into the state of our beaches, flat for seasonal swimmers, high waves for surfers. But underneath there are endless mountains and valleys, depths only surpassed by one other trench on Earth. We sit on the highest pedestal, even if unseen, even if submerged. There is so much beyond what we see—when we allow ourselves to see.

Where Borikén is my ancestral womb, I too recognize Brooklyn as my mother. If there was another place for me to have been born, far from the island of my ancestors, I am glad it was Brooklyn, on an island of another archipelago. Island-girl since birth. Border-crosser since infancy, traversing boroughs, bridges, tunnels, beaches, rivers, and sounds. I grew up along the waters of Jamaica Bay. Playing with sea snails in tidal pools while my father fished with line wrapped around brown beer bottles and caught crabs in cages. As he brought the fish in, mom would slice their bellies opens, empty their contents into the sea to attract more abundance for my father to catch. Once back in our East New York apartment, they’d fry these, bien adobao, serve them on a plate con tostones y ensalada de cebolla y tomate. If we were even luckier, con aguacate. In Aguadilla, my husband and I swim with fish often long like our legs. The crystal blue water contrasting the bright colors of yolas docked on the sand. The pungent smell of salt and sea as pescadores clean the contents of their catch, toss them into the water, and the giant fish that feed off scraps our sons toss from their plates to the waters off Joyuda, come to feast. Together circling a symbiotic cycle, a harmony of people and fish. A harmony I learned not in Aguadilla where we swim and my children learn, not in my family’s Ponce, but across the Atlantic charco in Brooklyn.

Rematriation was, and under colonialism still is, a balance between unlearning the colonial conditioning and syncing to ancestral ways, waters, and lands. I go to the sea to remember. The molecules of water are a record of all the shitty shit history dealt us. The arrival of Colón’s ships. Enslaved ancestors forced across. The fleets of invading US Americans. The molecules of water are a liberatory, healing salve. They remember the canoas that once navigated them. The populous communities of manatí y carey that thrived in them. The treasure of defiance and dignity that was Cofresí. The water is where I go to feel complete.

Colonialism would rather have us forget. The grim parts and the triumphant parts. Colonialism works intently to have us forget ourselves to the point that subsequent generations are born without this wisdom. But like water molecules holding these memories, so to do our genes. They remember the pain, the trauma. They remember our greatness. Syncing ourselves to the wise memory of water molecules, to the memory of the healing in plants and the foods pulled from the earth. What they created in labs, froze and canned, is similar to their slave quarter scraps. Before slavery our people worked the lands, cultivated foods, medicine and magic from it.

We sync to the land, the water, the sun, the moon, the foods, the plants to heal. To move through grief and rage, detox from their hate. To cultivate love for ourselves and each other enough to keep ourselves and each other healthy, well and free. To live liberation when the colonizers have long been experts at inflicting death and we the colonized have long been experts at dying. Embodying the archipelago is taking into our bodies and becoming the very transcendent expanse that this network of islands, water and wisdom have long been.

This is why so many flock here, insist on being here, ravaging all that is. The disregard and disrespect from the colonizers son un desvío, a detour further down the path of forgetting ourselves and essence, the path of rage, illness. To protect all this, to protect ourselves is to align to this place, these ancestral lands, these ancestral ways. It is to embody this, become this, to build the liberated state we wish to see, first within then we extend it all around us.

I’ve worked on this self-portrait slowly over the last year. I finished it around the time of this eight-year anniversary. It is inspired by the Rematriating Borikén manifesto I wrote for my fifth anniversary here. I wrote about the grueling journey here, rising from the trenches as we all must cross the Puerto Rico Trench when arriving from the US. Meditating on the metaphor of this deep abyss, I continue on this journey, envision those of us who crossed and will cross. The excerpt reads:

We repurpose venomous tentacles of abyss creatures as our weapons.
We master the survival skills of symbiosis
Shine our light to secure sustainable meals or to repel predators.

Painting myself tangled in venomous tentacles, tentacles become curls, curls become tentacles…I become one with these surroundings. This is what I have been learning over the last eight years, a symbiosis with my ancestral origins and my ancestors. Balancing the nourishing and challenging forces of this environment. Learning a sustainability informed by this very land, not imposed, or governed by colonizer standards. Embodying the archipelago, I become ungovernable, autonomous in my own essence.

Painting of a glowing woman tangled in the tentacles of a bioluminescent jelly fish in lavendars and light blues on a black background.
Yasmin Hernandez Art, “Tentacle” 2022. Acrylic on canvas 16×20.

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