Most days the caramel-colored shores of El Mix are like a postcard in motion, with a backdrop of azure A-frame peaks being groomed by offshore winds, framed by palm and almond trees swaying gently along the sand's edge. In the pristine grasslands of Playuela that front El Mix, you typically don't see much besides the tropical flora and fauna that reside there.
But today was different. A warm stickiness hung in the afternoon air as throngs of protestors gathered in the dirt parking lot of El Mix. Spanish proclamations blared through megaphones while surfers and local community members waved Puerto Rican flags and signs scrawled with messages saying "Nuestras playas no se venden!" which translates to, Our beaches are not for sale!
At the front of the group, three people banged on tambourines and led a chant as the crowd followed along, shouting and clapping in unison:
"Playuela, sí! Columbus, no!"
Behind the protestors, acres of verdant land sat still and beautiful. Sunlight was trying to poke through the low nimbostratus clouds hanging moodily in the sky above. As I made my way through the masses, looking for local Puerto Rican surfer Dylan Graves, an enormous, charcoal-gray billow rumbled just a few miles away, prompting those with signs to open umbrellas to prevent their messages from bleeding.
When I found Graves, he was echoing the chorus and rhythmically thrusting a Haydenshapes surfboard above his head. On the nose, he'd written "NO COLUMBUS LANDING" in big, bold letters. Behind him in the distance sat a patch of cleared land and a small fleet of yellow bulldozers.
I had arrived in Puerto Rico a few days earlier, hoping to connect with Graves and take part in the seemingly nonstop barrage of historical surf the island had been enjoying over the past month. A few weeks prior, Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Nicole had set the northern coast of Puerto Rico ablaze with world-class surf. But even with so much swell on tap, it seemed that
in the eyes of the locals, the season wasn't going to be defined by its endless barrels, but instead by the Christopher Columbus Landing Resort—a proposed $39 million mega hotel complex that real estate developers wanted to build on the very spot we stood at Playuela.
A siren wailed from the center of the demonstration. Eric Gerena, a husky bodyboarder who's lived in the area his entire life, grabbed a megaphone and thanked everyone for coming out to march against the construction of Columbus Landing. According to Gerena, the plans for the resort look more like the blueprints for Disneyland than a seaside inn. The project would span over 121 acres of the Playuela valley and would consist of a giant hotel, a convention center, a casino, and hundreds of private villas and condominiums. The structures, in all their concrete glory, would skirt almost a mile of coastline, including three of Puerto Rico's most visited surf spots: El Mix, Wishing Wells, and Pressure Point.
"This project could cause a lot of negative impact," said Gerena. "One of our main concerns is the disposal of wastewater. We're worried that it'll end up in the subterranean bodies of water that exist beneath this land, or that it'll run off into the ocean. Secondly, recent studies show that the amount of traffic this development will create in the area will be a big problem for the surrounding community. There are also some critically endangered species in the area, along with three types of coral that are threatened. We're worried that this will interrupt a peaceful community and will have a negative impact on the environment and the waves of Playuela valley."
San Juan native Otto Flores, who stood a few feet away holding a board Sharpied with protest slogans as well, explained that this fight over Playuela has been going on for over 20 years. Back in 1994, a wealthy American doctor purchased the acreage to fulfill his dream of owning a massive beachside resort. Recognizing the potential harm this would have on an environmentally sensitive area, several nonprofit organizations, like La Liga Ecológica Puertorriqueña del Noroeste, were able to stave off development for a while through legal injunction. After a few years, the developers finally were able to obtain a permit to break ground, but, fortunately for the local community, the doctor had lost all his financial backing by then.
In 2013, the land changed hands and the threat of development returned, only to be squashed by nonprofit groups and environmental advocates. Three years later, just a week before the start of this protest, construction equipment showed up on the grasslands, indicating that developers were taking aim at Playuela for the third time in 20 years.
Perhaps in an attempt to avoid the public scrutiny that halted previous attempts to build on the land, the new developers are being much more secretive with their plans. According to sources who spoke with the project's civil engineer, the developers have been collecting millions from investors without actually having detailed plans in place, nor actionable strategies on how to deal with things like runoff and the underground aquifers. The skepticism that many locals feel about the project is only made worse by the developers' refusal to hold public hearings and let the community know exactly what is going on.
Playuela isn't the only area on the island where locals have raised a suspicious brow at the sight of a new development project. "It's always been a battle with the surf community here trying to keep things the way they are," says Graves. "A few months ago, down at a protected area by Secret Spot [a quality reefbreak frequented by local surfers], developers sent tractors to the area and just broke ground without warning. That spot is filled with mangroves, which are protected throughout the island because they're breeding grounds for tons of different birds and fish. Luckily, that very same day, someone just happened to be driving by who was involved with a local environmental organization and was like, 'What the hell?' He asked for permits, which they didn't have, and was able to shut them down."
According to many locals like Graves and Flores, Puerto Rican surfers need to come together to protect their coastlines now more than ever. Over the past decade, the Puerto Rican economy has been in shambles. Back in 1976, Section 936 of the U.S. tax code allowed American companies to operate in Puerto Rico tax-exempt, which motivated many U.S. businesses, mainly in the pharmaceutical industry, to move their manufacturing plants to the Caribbean. But when Congress ended the tax break in 2006, the no-longer-incentivized companies bailed on Puerto Rico for greener (i.e., cheaper) pastures. Jobs disappeared, the economy tanked, and the Puerto Rican government borrowed heavily until the territory's debt grew into the $73 billion monstrosity it is today.
In an attempt to reboot the economy a few years ago, the government once again tried to lure wealthy small-business owners and individuals by instating yet another law that exempts them from taxes on profits in Puerto Rico, potentially spurring foreign investors to buy up coastal land for quick money.
"They're pretty much selling our island because of their need for cash," says Flores. "The government is craving a way to make money, and obviously Puerto Rico needs the investment. But this law creates a big opportunity for people with a lot of money to come here and do high-risk real-estate investments. Economically, we could see a lot of positive things come from that, but at the same time, we surfers want to preserve our coastlines."
This financial crisis has taken a visible toll on the island. For-sale signs are plastered on homes and storefronts everywhere from San Juan to Rincon. Hospitals, schools, and small businesses are closing. The unemployment rate is double that of the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans are relocating to the mainland each year. But, according to San Juan ripper Alejandro Moreda, the solution to Puerto Rico's plight is not auctioning off its coastlines to real estate developers and jeopardizing its waves.
"The only thing the government sees right now is a big dollar sign," says Moreda. "They're not thinking about the harm a big project like the Columbus Landing could do to the land and what it could mean to surfers and what it's going to cost us in the long run. At the end of the day, you can't eat money."
Over the next few years, the Puerto Rican government will juggle a bleeding economy with the needs of their people and their land. And it'll be up to local surfers to continue making their voices heard and to protect Puerto Rico's remaining stretches of pristine coastline.
"We're not saying we don't want people to come over here," says Flores. "Right now, Puerto Rico is similar to what the North Shore was like many years ago, and we want to keep it that way. We don't want to overdevelop it and turn it into a concrete jungle. If we don't stop projects like this, that'll happen in a heartbeat."
Toward the end of the demonstration, the megaphone's siren wailed once again. The ominous gray cloud was now overhead and thick raindrops began pouring down on the protestors, who were getting ready to finish the day by marching through the grasslands along the perimeter of the forthcoming hotel complex. Undeterred by the storm, the group grabbed their signs and a huge Puerto Rican flag that took at least 30 people to carry. A few children walked beneath the giant red, white, and blue banner to hide from the rain.
As I trailed the picketers through the field, I looked back at El Mix. The shore was empty save for a handful of fallen coconuts and a surfer assessing the conditions. Out in the lineup, a figure with an athletic build paddled into a head-high right, drew a long bottom turn, and leaned into a tight wrap, sending buckets of spray up to the stormy sky above him.
Watching him kick out on the inside and paddle back out to the lineup, I wondered how different this place might be in a few years, what high-rise monolith could stand in my place. But it was almost impossible to picture. Even in the downpour, the raindrops dancing on the ocean's surface, the sets stacking on the horizon, and the wet grasslands overlooking it all had an intrinsic beauty, one that so many Puerto Rican surfers hope will remain for generations to come.
[This feature originally appeared in our 2016 Photo Annual, on newsstands and available for download now]