For the Ghosts
By Dessane Lopez Cassell
“Sin salsa, no hay paraíso” (Without salsa, there’s no paradise). So goes a famous line by El Gran Combo, the celebrated Puerto Rican orchestra that has been churning out hits since the ’60s.
Yet for Sofía Gallisá Muriente, a more apt framing has since emerged. As she notes in her debut feature Celaje (Cloudscape), “There can be no paradise without debt.” For Muriente, a multidisciplinary artist born and raised in Puerto Rico, the intertwining of fantasy and fiscal ruin strikes close to home. Consequently, Celaje sifts through the traces of disaster—the island’s debt crisis, its succession of deadly hurricanes and earthquakes, and the process of mourning devastating losses both personal and collective.
Weaving between the earthly and the ethereal, Muriente’s film meditates on what it means to grapple with impermanence and uncertainty. Taking the death of the artist’s grandmother as its point of departure, Celaje broaches its subjects with a rare grace and tenderness, traversing the rocky terrain of grief with the fortitude that has, in many ways, become a requirement for residents of the Caribbean and members of its diasporas.
In the lead up to Celaje’s New York premiere, as part of Unraveling Paradise, I sat down with the artist to discuss process and her marking of the end of Puerto Rico’s long colonial chapter.
DESSANE LOPEZ CASSALL: You often define your practice as one that delves into evidence of contested or contradictory narratives, yet you tend to steer clear of any sort of traditional, investigative style. Could you start by describing how you began this process of unearthing when making Celaje?
SOFÍA GALLISÁ MURIENTE: In a way, it’s a project that began when I was in film school, and was originally an experimental documentary about my grandmother—about acknowledging the distance between her memories and her stories, and my reality. She was obviously one of my closest links to the past, but also a woman whose life history embodied the larger narrative of Puerto Rico in the 20th century—a narrative of moving from the countryside to the city and working in factories, and benefiting from a moment of growth and progress.
Celaje is very much about her, but there’s also a large presence of my father. (Both of them passed away in the last couple of years.) They were both strong connections to the past and to Puerto Rican history, for me, but my father was involved in politics throughout his life and was known as a political leader in Puerto Rico in a way that my grandmother [as an English teacher] was not, even though she also was engaged in politics throughout her life.
There’s a lot that could be said as to why engage in this work of creating counter-histories, and why I choose to engage with it from the perspective of someone like her, but I think, for me, part of what was really important, and what I think is really important in general in my work, is that I’m often just looking for angles that avoid kind of the pitfalls of a lot of political discourse. We live in such entrenched times, right? Everyone is so entrenched in their own bubbles, with other people who agree with their beliefs.
It’s been interesting to show Celaje and see all the ways in which people, especially Puerto Ricans, connect with my grandmother as a protagonist and as a person—there’s a familiarity there that can be disarming.
DLC: There’s also this feeling of loss and longing that pervades the film, not just the scenes that are focused on your abuela. Scenes such as when the camera focuses on the messages written on the sides of buildings, calling for unity after Hurricane Maria, help make those feelings literal. Talk to me about your editing process.
SGM: Celaje is very much about loss and about grief, and looking to nature to process those losses and to acknowledge transformation, to make sense of that. There’s definitely been a sense of collective grief, and again it’s been striking and moving to see how many people connect with that
In terms of editing, it’s crazy, because I was working on all of this [material] as different pieces. I didn’t see all of the elements, or understand them as all being part of one same thing until the pandemic started, and I actually had enough time to really think and sit with and look at what I had accumulated. I had a lot of material about my grandmother that I had been accumulating for years, but suddenly, as I was thinking about finally working with it…. there’s an aspect of Celaje that is basically a chronicle of the pandemic—especially the beginning of the pandemic.
Someone had gifted me a Super 8 camera and I started taking it out with me when I would go out to run errands in the beginning of the lockdown. I was taken aback by the image of empty highways. And so those images of [highways] at the end of Celaje are actually some of the first things I shot during the pandemic. I was really interested in this idea of the visible trace of disaster.
Once I started editing, I began going through all of this material, knowing that eventually I was going to find a connection, because I wanted to speak to a broader context in which my grandmother’s life had taken place. And this community where she was living, [Toa Bajo's] Levittown, was also a great device for that, because it was exactly the kind of place that was established as a very idyllic planned community. Then, by the time I was shooting there, it was very much kind of dystopian. Maria had caused tremendous floods there; the debt crisis had provoked tons of people to leave, and tons of properties stayed abandoned. This place that was supposed to be this idyllic middle-class community—where everyone got to have a cement home and a backyard and whatever—by the time she died, had turned into something completely different.
I also had the good fortune of reaching out to José Iván Lebrón Moreira, a musician who made this really beautiful record after Maria, of sounds and field recordings related to the storm. As soon as I started editing I realized how important sound was going to be to this piece. Fortunately, he also was very excited about the project and brought a lot of ideas.
I had found this quarter-inch tape recording that my grandmother had done that was a really crazy sound collage. She’d had to buy this machine to record something for class when she was in night school, studying to be a teacher. When I showed it to [some friends who own a recording studio], one of the first things they pointed out was the fact that it didn’t have an erase button. And, they were like, ‘Unless your grandmother had a lot of tapes, she was probably just recording over and over on the same tape.’
[The resulting sound collage] really spoke to a lot of different facets of who she was, and the contradictions that are embedded in life in a place like Puerto Rico—a colony where, on the one hand, you might be very pro-independence and record news on the radio about a political murder. At the same time, she became an English teacher, because she had lived in New York, so you also have these recordings of her students practicing phrases in English. [The tape] has all of these different sides of her life and who she was.
"That phrase, 'There’s no paradise without debt,' is something I overheard at a bar years ago... I thought it was so striking that we had come to this point where all of this complex political and environmental drama had also become casual conversation over beers in bars—material that we joke or play around with."
DLC: One of the moments that strikes me most in the film is when you talk about the fact that some people say there can be no paradise without debt. I’d argue that there can also be no paradise without disaster. Could you expand on what you meant by that, within the context of your grandmother’s community in Levittown, and in Puerto Rico more broadly?
SGM: The way I work is usually by collecting a lot of fragments—really accumulating a lot of material—and then finding ways to bring it all together. That phrase, “There’s no paradise without debt,” is something I overheard at a bar years ago. And I was taken aback by it, because it’s really a play on the verse of a salsa song: “Without salsa, there’s no paradise.” I thought it was so striking that we had come to this point where all of this complex political and environmental drama had also become casual conversation over beers in bars—material that we joke or play around with.
In the case of this song, it’s someone from the Caribbean calling their place of origin a paradise, but I think the term paradise is so often a term assigned by someone looking from the outside. I love so many things about the place that I come from, and where I live, and where I make work, but the term paradise is not necessarily a term that I would use, you know? I think it is built on a level of kind of distortion or fantasy or projection that can only come from someone somewhat removed from that reality.
The Caribbean is a region full of those projections, both from the outside as well as perpetuated and internalized by those who live in the Caribbean. I think that part of the complexity of the tourism industry—and how it’s shaped the Caribbean in so many ways—is the fact that tourism has defined historical narratives and visual culture in ways that are meant to be consumed by outsiders but that also end up being internalized and perpetuated by us, you know? For me, the concept of paradise is very much tied to the colonization of our imaginary.
DLC: I couldn’t agree more, in terms of the unsustainability of fantasy. And yet, it’s often put forth as the only way, or the most profitable way, or so on and so forth.
SGM: Right. And then requires all of us to feed into it.
DLC: I want to talk about the fact that Celaje begins and ends with a focus on the land—specifically this very slow and ongoing work of rocks being built up and worn down over time, which feels like a metaphor for freedom struggles, both in the Caribbean and beyond. How are you thinking through this in your process more broadly? For example, I know Celaje is part of your series ‘Assimilate and Destroy.’
SGM: Dealing with both death and the pandemic required me to spend more time in nature, looking at and learning about it to decenter human capitalist productive time, and have a deeper sense of nature’s time and cycles. After Hurricane Maria, I really struggled to know what images to produce. I didn’t want to make high resolution, beautiful images, because there were so many people already making those images in Puerto Rico. We had never been more photographed than at that moment.
And suddenly, one thing that really struck me as something that I needed to contend with was just how fleeting everything is, especially in a tropical climate where erosion and salt in the air and humidity and mold are constantly eating away at the material evidence of history. I had to come to terms with that impermanence. I didn’t want to just be stuck in a place of either indignation or sorrow at the loss, and everything that was being lost—from people and places, to documents and archives and whatever. And so in order to transcend that kind of immobility of sorrow or of denunciation, I started experimenting with ways in which film decomposes and how it reacts to different natural elements, and just really playing with that—on the one hand accelerating that process, but at the same time trusting that it was also an exercise in abandoning control and seeing what new images were created through that process of deterioration. And so I began the series ‘Assimilate and Destroy,’ and to me, Celaje is really the third and final piece of that series.
I got to geology because I purchased this little book that I think is so beautiful, it’s called How Was Puerto Rico Formed? It was published by the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture in the ’60s as part of a series called ‘Books for the People.’ The introduction to the film is straight up the first page of the book. (I think I only edited out one sentence.) It’s such a beautiful text, in how it speaks to the land and it speaks to the past, and to the construction of history, and to seeing ourselves in history, in this kind of deeper time. And It fit perfectly within my effort to de-center capitalist time, to speak to these larger fractures that have happened in Puerto Rico as a result of Maria, the earthquakes afterwards, the pandemic now—we’ve really had such a marathon of major disasters.
I think a lot of [why and how I produce images] is also related to a preoccupation with memory and remembering, and how, in a place like Puerto Rico, in the absence of the state as an entity that is deeply concerned with preservation, a lot of people end up taking on the task of remembering and protecting memory. To a certain degree, I’m hoping that my work generates new documents or is able to fill in certain gaps in our collective memory or institutional archives.
DLC: There’s a moment in Celaje, when you talk about wanting to film this fire, but then having to put down the camera to go and help put out the flames. It’s very brief, but I think it says a lot about your style of filmmaking and what we’re talking about here.
SGM: Absolutely. You totally nailed it.
DLC: I think you already know where I’m going with this, but could you discuss the importance of implicating yourself and your context in your work?
SGM: Laughs. I have a family friend who has known me since I was born, and when she saw this film, she mentioned something about how that is the best summary of who I am, that line.
That has always been a push and pull with me. I think that, too often, artists are expected to basically solve their political preoccupations through their artwork. To think that to be a political artist is to only engage with those politics in our artwork, or to make work that is somehow useful to those politics, to me, is very limiting. I have never cared to call myself an activist. I’m not a particular fan of the term, because I think it makes something that is up to all of us sound as if it’s a job that is taken on by people who assume that as a role, and not just a description of simply being engaged with the circumstances in the world that we live in.
I think it’s really important to take on all sorts of political work—that includes being on the streets, participating in organizations and organized political work, being political within your private life and your day to day. I try not to overburden my political work with my artistic concerns, and to not overburden my artistic work with my political concerns. I try to make sure that I am active in both places, that I am present in both ways. And obviously that’s not as easy a negotiation as I’m making it out to be. But I think that moment in the film speaks to that, in a way.
DLC: I want to close by talking about the fact that Celaje is as much about Puerto Rico now as it is about the island’s ghosts. What are the kinds of questions or subjects of the past that you wish more people on the island would be talking about now?
SGM: For a growing number of Puerto Ricans, and amazingly so, in the last couple of years, there has been a growing recognition of the fact that we’re a colony, that our Commonwealth is really kind of a hoax, right? It’s a beautiful transformation that’s happened—from only lefties talking about colonialism to everyone kind of recognizing and acknowledging it. And I think Celaje has a lot to do with the death of that [colonial] project; it’s an elegy to that death.
Between this moment of climate chaos and this moment of collective grief about the death of loved ones, and the abundance of death in these times, the fact that this political project is also dying needs to be recognized. And, as one does with death, [we need to] recognize that whatever was will be no longer, and that things transform. It’s up to us to imagine what comes after the Commonwealth project. And that is perhaps the thing that I hope we do talk about more in Puerto Rico, or among Puerto Ricans.
These last five years have also created a new visibility for Puerto Rico and for Puerto Rican artists. I feel like too often, because the resources, the visibility, or the financial support is mostly coming from the United States or elsewhere outside of the islands, we get stuck performing for this other audience. I struggle a lot with that, because I recognize how important and valuable it is to have spaces, for example—such as this conversation with you, and the screening at Metrograph—to speak about Puerto Rico to people in the States who might not be as familiar with what’s happening in Puerto Rico.I do think that in this moment, as Puerto Rican artists and thinkers in general, we really need to defend space to talk to each other in a way that is not mediated by other audiences, where we don’t feel a need to explain ourselves or narrate or perform certain aspects of ourselves for those other audiences. Clearly, there’s a lot we all need to talk about with each other.
Dessane Lopez Cassell is an editor, writer, and curator based in New York. Her work focuses on artist’s moving image, documentary, and experimental film practices concerned with race, gender, and decoloniality, with a particular interest in voices from the African and Caribbean diasporas.