"What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

Nov 4, 2012

A Political Stalker Comes Clean

San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini, AJ
I lived on my boat anchored off the southwest coast of Puerto Rico in a little town called la Parguera, for 12 years.  During that time I became a licensed artesan, required to attend the best fairs on the island, and met my share of politicians.

Puerto Rico was especially entertaining politically, and it was easy to sit on the sidelines since my Español is awful.  But I’ve got photos of me with three former Governors (the island is still a Commonwealth), the Mayor of San Juan, and one or two other political hopefuls.  They‘d show up unexpectedly at Artesan fairs; wherever there were crowds.

I belonged to a group of artists who would set up once a month in Plaza de Armas, Old San Juan, in front of City Hall.  We paid the reasonable amount of about $15 each to set up our 6’ tables for 3 days, which covered the costs of the tent, insurance and advertising.  It was always an ordeal since I lived on the opposite side of the island and would have to impose on someone for a place to stay, but compared to stateside shows requiring individual canopies, rental vans and exorbitant entrance fees, in hindsight it was a tropical breeze.

Hon. Sila Calderon (l) and me,
red faced and sweaty by 8am
The Hon. Sila Calderon, Popular Party (my poor political terms, but the Spanish wouldn’t make sense to most Gringos anyway) was the first female Governor, and the first in my collection.  She strolled by early one Saturday morning as we were setting up.  I didn’t know who she was, but my fellow artesans seemed excited to see her so I grabbed my camera.  She was most gracious.  Sila ousted former pro-Statehood Gov. Pedro Rossello, who was accused (but not convicted) of corruption.  Everyone around him was, but he was kept in the dark.  Similar attacks followed Sila on her way out and I think they’re doing the same to Gov. Fortuño, so I guess it comes with the job.
La Fortalenza,
the Governor's Residence

Many of my artesan friends and acquaintances are Independistas who advocate a total break from the United States, but they never let their contempt for Uncle Sam’s policies affect our friendships.  Not every Independista on the island felt the same way.

In 2004, I was invited to participate in my first International Fair, held every few years or so in Old San Juan.  Possibly the largest on the island, it’s certainly the longest: for 9 days, free of charge, 125 licensed Puerto Rican Artesans and 22 invited (and sponsored) foreign artists were scattered throughout Old San Juan’s many picturesque plazas.  My invitation was in Spanish and I was tickled to finally be considered Boriqua, and looked forward to welcoming the advertised artist from the United States.

Little did it know it was me.  I became friends with the artist from England who was living in Pinoñes at the time, and looked for but never did meet the artist from China, who probably lived in Fajardo.

USA Participant from Lajas
I griped to the show organizer: I’d really wanted to represent Puerto Rico.  After all that’s where I lived, got my gourds, and I’m a licensed Artesana but too late; the signs were printed and I was Ms. USA.

I spent the week explaining to kindly people who would say, “You know, we have the same types of higüeras (calabash gourds) here in Puerto Rico.”

“Si, Señor/a; yo viva en la Parguera.”

Eyes shot up to my sign then back down, while I explained my invitation.  That part didn’t bother me so much.

Maintaining order at an
art show
What was awful was that just before the fair opened, the infamous Abu Girad photos were published and I suffered the onslaught of people’s anger with the United States.  For days I was insulted, screamed at, and one man actually spit on my table.  Sweet looking little old ladies ranted; bored husbands, noticing my sign, would angrily mumble, grab their wife’s arm and drag the bewildered woman away. 

My artesan neighbors bravely spoke up for me and I can only guess at the Spanish words flying, but after a few days  I left my table in someone else’s care and wandered the streets until I broke down in tears in front of, as it turned out, the Office of Tourism.

Later years from P.R.
"Can’t have that," one astute employee must have thought looking through the window; not when all Old San Juan is out promoting international good will.  I sobbed my story and of course felt better, ready to return to my table.  No, no, come inside and tell the story to my boss, please, which I did.  I begged them not to take it further; I knew it wasn’t everyone; and thanked them for listening.  But for the rest of the festival a policeman would pass by my booth every hour, like clockwork.  It was a bit embarrassing, but comforting. 

When I wanted to display the photo of myself with Sila in kite shop Volantines, I was advised by literally everyone that unless I had all three political parties represented, not to display any.  Well that irked me but OK, the quest was on, but in all those years I never met Independista leader Ruben Barrios, who I believe is Ivy League-educated.   Darn, I got just about everyone else.

Outdoor festivals often got rowdy.  During one weekend Coffee Festival in Maricao, a tiny mountain town, everyone around me started shouting a word I didn’t understand.   Ex-partner ‘Stan’ looked at me and shouted,

“It’s Rossello; grab your camera!” 

Pedro Rossello (father of 2018 PR Governor Ricardo) was already out of office but never out of power completely, and after a stint as a university professor in the United States the man hoped to return to Puerto Rican politics.  But anti-Rossello sentiment was high in all camps and the word they were shouting was, “Thief!” but I didn’t care; I was off like a shot, heading into the fray before I had time to think.

The plaza was full of huge sweaty men in tank tops (it's always hot) and even bigger bodyguards in polos.  While bouncing between bodies I realized there was no way I could get a photograph of the man who was working his way through the crowd; at 5'2" I'm just not tall enough.  When something unexpected happened:

A thrown beer can, shouts of alarm, more jostling as police and spectators took off running, and there he was, 10 feet in front of me with no one in between.  Camera in hands, I staggered forward like Steve Martin in The Jerk, mumbling,
AJ, Pedro Rossello 2003

“May I please have a picture?”

An aide grabbed my camera while Rossello, laughing, bent down to meet my head.  He suddenly turned, kissed me on the cheek then snap, I’m immortalized with my eyes closed, laughing, while he’s smiling broadly into the camera.  I melted back into the still-angry crowd while Rossello, et al, walked on.

"Did you get it?"  Not mentioning my disheveled appearance but visibly proud at my Affirmative, Stan described the scene from the artesan's vantage  point:

They'd heard the shouts and watched the running of the bulls.  My ceramics neighbor was horrified to see her boyfriend running like the Devil was after him, yelling to her as he passed.  Turns out the beer can was thrown by him, and she fled to play Delilah to his Samson (cutting his ponytail) back at their apartment.  I can't make this stuff up.

Afflicted with what I can only compare to, I think, a boil on my gluteus maximus (from sitting through so many festivals), I hobbled through Ponce’s Plaza del Caribe to chase Gov. Acevedo, Sila’s successor.  I’m sure I was a curious site, dragging my leg; all that was missing was the hump.  I met him a year or so later during another festival and produced the photo from the first meeting, requesting his autograph.
Gov. Acevedo Vila

“How did you know I’d be here,” he asked a bit nervously as he signed, since it was an unscheduled stop.  I assured him I carried around the photo all the time (not mentioning the rest of my collection), for just such an occasion.

During one week-long fair inside enormous Plaza las Americas, (San Juan) clothing designer Cindy and I were congratulating one another on our Endangered Cotorra awards when Stan announced,
Endangered P.R. Cotorra
Higuera (gourd) lampshade

“An actor you like just walked by.”

So he's not a politician.  Who was it, I demanded while fumbling for my camera.  Stan didn’t know his name, just his direction, and I was off.  I didn’t know who I was looking for; I assumed whoever it was would draw crowds.

Perhaps it would be good PR (public relations, in this case) to give him a piece of art, so I returned to the table.
Taino Ceremony
Plaza las Americas
San Juan, PR

“I remembered where I’ve seen him…in the movie 1492.

“Armand Assante???!!!”

I swatted Stan a couple of times before taking off again.  The largest shopping mall on the island, I went into every men’s shop, trying to peek under stall doors.  I was appalling.  

Finally I gave up and went back, disappointed.  Yes, yes, it was him, Stan was certain.  While Cindy and I were feeding one another's ego, Armand was admiring her hand-dyed fabrics.  He gave Stan a nod of acknowledgement before moving on, and darned if Stan didn’t see him again while outside taking a smoke break.  Armand doesn’t know how lucky he was.

I guess I’ll just have to be content with politicians, like Congressman Greg Walden, Second District, Oregon.  I’ve helped out another local fellow this election, so I’ll be sure to get his photo, too.

It’s habit forming.

P.S. 2019: I've recently begun a separate blog-book of my midlife adventure from Oregon to Puerto Rico, courtesy of Ruff Life at Sea.

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