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By: Mel Valentín
The history of Puerto Rico is the history of colonialism.
The history of Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico, is the history of American imperialism. During World War II, the United States forcibly expropriated most of the island, turning it into not just an extension of the nearby naval base, but as a testing ground for live munitions.
It took the better part of 40 years before public outcry and protest ended that particular practice, but in abandoning Vieques, the U.S. retreated without doing anything to ameliorate the situation they themselves created, leaving the native islanders to clean up unexploded ordinances and attempt to survive a toxic, poisoned environment. Many left for Puerto Rico proper or the mainland. Some, however, remained behind. Writer-director Glorimar Marrero Sanchez’s film, La Pecera (The Fishbowl), the first Puerto Rican-produced film to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, serves both as a character study and — at least in part — a testament to the inhabitants of Vieques who decided to stay and complete the task of environmental restoration on their own, initially focusing on Noelia (Isel Rodriguez), a San Juan-based documentary filmmaker who, upon learning that the cancer she’s been fighting has metastasized, decides to return home to Vieques rather than undergoing radiation therapy in San Juan or pricier, more experimental treatment in Madrid or elsewhere. When we first meet Noelia, she’s submerged in a bathtub, dreamily imagining herself floating in the ocean. Sanchez returns multiple times to that double image, suggesting both the healing properties of water itself and the possibility of oblivion the ocean also offers.
Before we return to that double image, however, Sanchez introduces Jorge (Maximiliano Rivas), Noelia’s longtime lover. He’s patient, caring, and supportive. He’s also more than slightly controlling.
Whether he’s naturally controlling or whether it’s a symptom of Jorge’s inability or refusal to face losing Noelia isn’t clear. What is clear, however, is that Noelia sees her present situation in a vastly different light. Rather than face Jorge and the conversation that would likely follow, Noelia flees to Vieques and the welcoming, if not entirely uncritical, embrace of her mother, Flora (Magali Carrasquillo). While they exchange pleasantries and banter, Noelia asks Flora to make her favorite meal.
It might seem like a throwaway line or even a throwaway scene, but the sheer joy that crosses Noelia’s face as she takes her first bite or asks her mother to pass a fried plantain will resonate deeply, though not exclusively with Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean Latinos. Unsurprisingly, the meal, like any good home-cooked meal, spurs a sense or feeling of nostalgia and with it, a sense of well-being. Sanchez parallels Noelia’s fading health with Vieques proper and the efforts of native islanders, including a longtime friend and onetime romantic interest, Juni (Modesto Lacen), who volunteer their free time to finding and mapping the uncharted ordinances left by the Americans just offshore, presumably for eventual removal or containment. Feeling lost, ungrounded, and directionless, Noelia, an experienced diver herself, attempts to help in the effort.
Her efforts may not count for very much, but Sanchez suggests it’s the combination of singular efforts that will ultimately make a difference and change Vieques’s trajectory into a more hospitable, safer home. La Pecera premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.