Crossing Caribbean Waters in the Shadow of Empire

Unauthorized migration across Hispanophone Caribbean, rendered through art, highlights the neocolonial and neoliberalism violence shaping mobility, displacement, and borders.

September 1, 2023

Tony Capellán, Mar Caribe, detail. Plastic, rubber, and barbed wire, 360 × 228 in. © Tony Capellán. Courtesy of Tony Capellán estate. Photo of installation view courtesy of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

This is an edited excerpt from Crossing Waters: Undocumented Migration in Hispanophone Caribbean and Latinx Literature & Art by Marisel C. Moreno, © 2022. Published with permission from the University of Texas Press.

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One of the late Dominican artist Tony Capellán’s best-known pieces is his installation Mar Caribe, first exhibited in 1996 at the Museo de Arte Moderno de la República Dominicana. The installation is composed of hundreds of used flip-flop sandals, in a variety of blue and green hues, overlapped and lined in the same direction covering the floor space. At first glance, and especially from a distance, the piece evokes the vastness and the beautiful tones of the Caribbean Sea. But upon closer examination, the ugly and brutal reality that the piece exposes becomes evident: extreme poverty triggers desperation, which leads to forced migration.

More than 25 years after it was first displayed, Capellán’s installation remains relevant. The piece’s multiple layers of meanings reflect the complexities of migration in the Hispanophone Caribbean. The fact that the sandals were once worn by hundreds of people is central to the meaning of the piece. They are not clean, but rather bear the marks of dirt and detritus—they carry the evidence of their use. “Many people’s stories live in those shoes,” as the artist put it. The piece collects these remnants to tell a collective story of poverty and displacement.

Even before Capellán created his installation, the sandals functioned as a trope of migration. Carried by currents, every sandal made it either to the banks of the Ozama River or to urban Dominican beaches, where Capellán collected them. In many cases, as he explained, the sandals made their way from the mountains, dragged by stream or river currents, were carried into the Ozama River, and eventually ended up in the Caribbean Sea, where some floated back to the shore. The sandals’ trajectory from river to the sea adds to the richness of the piece in its mapping of liquid currents and borders.

Across the Caribbean and beyond, the presence of unauthorized migrants reveals the intertwining of migration, neoliberalism, race, and biopolitics. Those who are deemed “disposable” in their home countries are often considered as such in receiving societies. Not only that, but often they are seen as a “threat,” given that neoliberalism “also encompasses concerns over national security and prosperity,” in the words of philosopher Sokthan Yeng.

While Yeng’s observations pertain to immigration to the continental United States, similar dynamics play out in the Hispanophone Caribbean, where undocumented migrants often face maltreatment in receiving islands. Doubly excluded—from sending and receiving societies—the unauthorized migrants’ journey by sea, and the surveillance apparatus deployed against them, clearly reveals that they are perceived as “waste.” If transformative social change is the goal, it is imperative to make visible and to recognize that these ideas do not exclusively circulate in the Global North but also inform horizontal South–South relations.

Residues and Gifts from the Sea

A racial and economic hierarchy exists in the Hispanophone Caribbean, characterized by xenophobia, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness. This hierarchy is evident in the discrimination against Haitians in the Dominican Republic, and against Dominicans and Haitians in Puerto Rico. At the top of that hierarchy, depending on whom you ask, is either Puerto Rico, given its relationship with the United States, or Cuba. Most would agree that Haiti is perceived as occupying the lower rung of that hierarchy, clearly a result of anti-Blackness.

For scholar Elizabeth DeLoughrey, waste is understood both “in terms of pollution as well as the wasted lives of slaves and refugees.” In her analysis of works by Ana Lydia Vega, Edwidge Danticat, and Kamau Brathwaite, she observes: “By placing refugee and fugitive bodies at sea, these authors demonstrate how waste is a constitutive by-product of modernity and national border making. The state surveys the vastus, producing boundaries that reduce human beings to national refuse.” The immeasurable presence of drowned migrant bodies—“a symbolic legacy of the Middle Passage”—metaphorizes the absorption of “waste” by the ocean and signals what DeLoughrey refers to as the “humanization” of the sea.

University of Texas Press, 2022

Offering a meditation on waste-ification in the Caribbean, Capellán’s art demonstrates the conflation of DeLoughrey’s two understandings of “waste”—as pollution and wasted lives. Most of his work revolves around his interest in recycled objects (or trash), which he often gathered along Dominican beaches. Instead of discarding them simply as trash, Capellán’s works propose that those objects speak to us, telling a story of poverty, displacement, transit, and forced migration, similar to the movements of the people of Hispaniola. As he once put it: “They’re not garbage, they’re residues. They are objects that had a use and were taken away by the rain and the overflowed river. It is a painful poetry of inequality, of new forms of slavery, of those who live in extreme conditions.”

Elevating these objects infuses them with symbolic meaning, allowing the artist to unveil the impact of (neo)colonialism, neoliberalism, poverty, new forms of slavery, and cruel migration policies that reveal the borders between the Global North and the Global South. Capellán saw “the work of art as a gift from the sea,” channeling the stories that those objects tell.

Caribbean Sea as Border

In Mar Caribe, the sandals function as a metaphor for transit, given that they are made for walking. As footwear, they embody the contradictions of belonging to a poor Caribbean country whose economy depends on tourism, like most islands of the archipelago. Flip-flops are usually associated with tourism, and therefore with social and economic privilege. In the Dominican Republic, a popular destination among Global North tourists seeking pristine beaches, all-inclusive resorts at moderate prices, and sex tourism, this type of sandal epitomizes tourists’ privilege, including mobility—the ability to cross international borders.

The flip-flops found along the beaches are the residues of experiences that affirm the power differentials between Global North and Global South. More importantly, they remind us how the Caribbean has been envisioned as paradise. Capellán’s Mar Caribe challenges this idea by reflecting on poverty and forced displacements.

At the same time, flip-flops are also a low-cost footwear ideal for tropical weather and therefore are highly popular among poor people in warmer climates. Because they are not real shoes, they tend to be associated with poverty and material scarcity, and as such can also function as symbols of inequality. In Mar Caribe, they are tropes for poverty and forced migration. Like the racialized people they symbolize, the sandals, too, are swept away by currents that carry them out to the sea, outside the borders of the Dominican Republic.

The sandals’ shifting meaning as symbols of wealth and poverty emblematizes the contrasts between the Global South and Global North. And it is precisely those discrepancies and contrasts—embodied in the sandals—that fuel migration.

Tony Capellán, Mar Caribe. Plastic, rubber, and barbed wire, 360 × 228 in. © Tony Capellán. Courtesy of Tony Capellán estate. Photo of installation view courtesy of the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.

An important detail about the sandals that make up Mar Caribe is that the straps are made of barbed wire, which evoke the idea of the sea as a border. In her analysis of this piece, DeLoughrey states that “barbed wire (and its successor, razor wire) is a tool of violent concentration, first used on animals in the Indigenous lands of the U.S. west and notoriously on the prisoners of Germany’s concentration camps, and it has been emblematic of the U.S. naval detention camp of Guantánamo.” To this I would add that barbed wire is often associated with borders, fences, and divisions, especially along the Mexico-U.S. border.

The multilayered symbolism of the barbed-wire sandals stands in sharp contrast to regular footwear, which is meant to protect feet. Instead, these sandals hurt, cause injury, draw blood, and leave a mark on the individual who wears them. They convey the idea of suffering implicit in the process of forced migration. Every sandal is made with a section of a border, reminding us of the individual obstacles that undocumented migrants confront in their journeys. Displayed together, they metaphorize the Caribbean Sea as border.

The sandals of Mar Caribe, therefore, evoke a fenced sea, or what writer Stassa Edwards calls “the sea as an impenetrable barrier.” They also call attention to the idea of the Caribbean Sea as a “militarized territory” of U.S. Empire, as DeLoughrey puts it. As such, Mar Caribe disrupts the hegemony of the Mexico-U.S. border by drawing on the parallels between these spaces.

The piece represents the sea as an equally hostile border and lifts the stories of the undocumented migrants who try to cross it. For Capellán, a primary concern was conveying the stories of those who are “emigrantes sin patria” (emigrants without a country), including, as he put it: “Those who are in their land without legally being able to belong to that land, those who have to go by canoe and be arrested in the Bahamas and taken out in cages like we see in the news, those who are immediately removed upon arrival to the United States.”

Mar Caribe also alludes to the impact of U.S. Empire, (neo)colonialism, and neoliberalism in the Dominican Republic. According to Capellán, it denounces the expulsion of campesinos from their lands, which have been privatized and are now protected by barbed wire. It also condemns the conditions that force Dominicans and others considered so-called wasted lives to migrate by yola and balsa to Puerto Rico or the United States, and who are at the mercy of cruel immigration policies.

Empire’s Slow Violence

Mar Caribe also raises awareness about climate change and environmental pollution, or what sociologist Mimi Sheller calls “coloniality of climate” and DeLoughrey refers to as “waste imperialism” in the Caribbean. “Mar Caribe,” DeLoughrey writes, “might be interpreted as a technofossil montage that memorializes those who are at the frontlines of climate change.”

After all, these nondegradable plastic sandals were all collected along the flood-prone banks of the Ozama River and along urban beaches in the city of Santo Domingo. They are, for all intents and purposes, trash. In collecting them, Capellán not only helps restore the environment but also forces us to confront the global environmental catastrophe that we humans have created.

Capellán’s 2015 installation Mar invadido speaks more directly to this issue by featuring hundreds of objects found around Dominican beaches. Yet Mar Caribe also participates in this conversation by reminding us that our actions are having a direct impact on our water sources across the planet. Both works challenge the predominant image of the Caribbean as paradise by calling attention to the economic inequalities and structural violence that plague the region because of (neo)colonialism, U.S. Empire, neoliberalism, and globalization.

In Sheller’s words, Mar Caribe and Mar invadido reveal the “long history of ‘slow violence’ or ‘slow disaster’ that includes colonialism and genocide of Indigenous peoples, slavery and plantation systems, exploitative terms of indenture and other abuses of labor, ecological destruction, and resource extraction.” Today, we are witnessing the impact of this “slow violence,” which has provoked forced displacements. Capellán’s work, as Deloughrey writes, renders “visible the ‘wasted lives’ of refugees as well as the politics of waste imperialism.”

Capellán’s Mar Caribe emphasizes the dehumanization of undocumented migrants. As poor people of color from the Global South, they have been reduced to the status of refuse in the eyes of a Global North that depends on them as cheap laborers but continually excludes them from the boundaries of the nation. The migrants’ in-betweenness and uprootedness is both symbolic and material, as is evident when they are at sea. Caribbean unauthorized migrants are seen as dangerous, despite the fact that, paradoxically, their predicament is a product of the Global North’s neocolonial and neoliberal policies.

This excerpt has been edited for length and style. For figures, endnotes, and quotes in Spanish, see the original: Chapter 1 “Rethinking the Borders of the Caribbean Archipelago,” pp. 44-51, in Crossing Waters: Undocumented Migration in Hispanophone Caribbean and Latinx Literature & Art (University of Texas Press, 2022). Excerpt reprinted with permission.

Marisel C. Moreno is the Rev. John A. O'Brien Associate Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Family Matters: Puerto Rican Women Authors on the Island and the Mainland.

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