La Isla Nena

By Melissa Alvarado Sierra


The amapolas fell whenever a strong breeze shook the trees, the scarlet blossoms dropping unhurried like feathers and dotting the vast green floor. My wooden house was nearby; I could see the shanty zinc roof and the white and pink facade through the trees. I lived in Barrio Pilon, a small neighborhood tucked away in the mountains of Vieques, also known as La Isla Nena, an island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. Life was painless and undemanding in what many would call the definition of paradise. Everyday, I took a nap in the jungle, on a bed of green grass sprinkled with amapolas. Pilon was unspoiled, quiet, and seductive. Eternally humid, this rural place was canopied by dense greenery in the form of bamboo, palm, and flamboyant trees. The jungle smelled of coconuts, mangoes, starfruit, and bananas. Pilon felt like a made up place, and I felt like a better person than before I moved there. A little lighter, a little bolder, a lot happier.

Melissa walking in the jungle of Vieques

Melissa walking in the jungle of Vieques

I remember sitting within the jungle with a woven basket next to me. The basket was full of fruit I had picked from the trees. I nibbled one end of a starfruit to make a small hole and then ate the pulp, seeds and all. Starfruit juice dripped from my mouth down to my clothes and I didn’t care. I was in Vieques, not in the busy city of San Juan, where I used to live. There was no right way of eating fruit in Vieques. I spent my days in the island like that—wildly eating nature’s sweets, my ears romanced by tropical sounds—mostly of the insistent coqui frogs. Ko-kee, ko-kee, went their song. Tradewinds blew from the east and the overreaching flora fanned everything below. Vieques, my sizzling Eden, was reachable by a faulty ferry or a teeny and decaying plane, which made for a slightly treacherous and vomit-inducing journey. Once there, though, all travel and life traumas faded away.

            Vieques’ beaches were tinted with cerulean and turquoise, and the sand was so white and bright it hurt my eyes. But the ocean floor on the east side was sticky with toxic phlegm and the sand of the southeast was covered in putrid radioactive waste. Undetonated bombs lied below the waters and within parts of the jungle. The air was sick and made locals sick—with cancer, immune disorders, neurological diseases. La Marina, the Navy, arrived in Vieques in 1941, settling to test bombs in La Isla Nena. It didn’t matter to them or to the local government when people in Vieques started to die because of it. They kept testing their bombs for more than sixty years.

A map of Vieques with the location of the bombs at El Fortín de Conde Mirasol Museum

A map of Vieques with the location of the bombs at El Fortín de Conde Mirasol Museum

In 2011, when I moved to Vieques, I knew little about the contamination. But neighbors told me to stop eating the fruits from the trees. They said the Navy had used depleted uranium, Agent Orange, arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, white phosphorus and napalm on Vieques. The traces were found by local scientists on the leaves, within the soil, floating in the water and in the hair of residents. I couldn’t digest something so atrocious. I searched for those allegations and found the Navy had conceded to using the heavy metals and toxic chemicals, but had denied any links to the elevated rates of disease and mortality on the island. Five million pounds of munitions were detonated between 1945 and 2003, and the Navy said it had no effect. Trying to prove otherwise is almost impossible. The Department of Interior owns the land the Navy used to bomb, consisting of two-thirds of Vieques. They restrict access, and so we are in the dark about the real state of the island’s health. They now call the bombed area a “natural reserve.”

Painting by Kayra, A local artist

Painting by Kayra, A local artist

When the doctor said I had a rare type of thyroid cancer a few years later, I immediately thought of Vieques. I had lived on the island for less than a year, but while I was there I grew increasingly sick. My neck grew bigger by the day, and a strange and dull pain became my normal. I remember the neighbors telling me to stop eating the starfruit. They said the soil was poisoned. But I was so enamored with the singular beauty of Vieques that I ignored what had happened years before. I kept eating the sweet fruits, kept bathing in the beaches, and kept breathing the salty air. Maybe I had been poisoned. Maybe I’m one more on a long list of people who claim the island’s toxicity is to blame for their health issues—that the Navy is to blame. It can’t be proven.

Viequenses believe the cleaning efforts by the Department of Interior have been inefficient. There’s also no serious interest in studying the unusually high cancer rates (27% higher than in mainland Puerto Rico). People are dying. When I flew to Vieques mere months after Hurricane Maria, I found the island to be in very bad shape, but the people were in even worse condition. Cancer patients like Laura, a bed-ridden woman in her sixties, couldn’t have access to chemotherapy and had given up on being cured. Others made the uncomfortable ferry trip to Puerto Rico to find help, but found the journey too arduous to repeat. An oncologist with a focus on natural medicine from the main island, Dr. Marcial Vega, told me he had been voluntarily traveling to Vieques for years to help cancer patients for free because no one else is doing it. There’s no support from municipal, national or federal government. People died after the hurricane, but many more had been dying from the lingering poison. Vieques and its people have been forgotten by all, even fellow Puerto Ricans. Vieques is now known as la isla enferma.

Photo of Protesters in Vieques, asking the Navy to leave the island. They left in 2003.

Photo of Protesters in Vieques, asking the Navy to leave the island. They left in 2003.

I’m still not officially cancer-free, though tests have been negative for the past three years. Being relatively healthy again is freeing, but I also have a strange mix of guilt and nostalgia when I think of Vieques. After the hurricane, I sailed to Vieques and drove to the jungle in Pilon, where I used to live. I sat on the ground, this time with no grass and no fruit trees around me. The hurricane took them. I thought about the amapolas from 2011 and how maybe paradise made me sick. I thought about the island as it is today, still sick by the man-made poison that is glued to every leaf and infused into every drop of ocean water. Hurricane Maria made sure this was not forgotten. The winds stirred the old toxins that were hiding within the soil and interred in the depths of the sea. There’s now more proof of contamination. The poison was agitated and released once again. The dirty secret just can’t stay away.

Melissa Alvarado Sierra is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.



Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Stephen King

We here at Assignment love paragraphs. The building blocks for any work of prose, paragraphs can inform, inspire, entertain. A well-written paragraph will leave its mark on readers.  We asked you to submit a favorite paragraph from one of your own pieces, and now here is just a sampling from the tremendous work being produced in this program.

On Valentine’s Day, I receive a package from a dead woman. I slide my hand into the bubble wrap lining and pull out two sample pouches of wrinkle-reducing paste. There is a card, no bigger than a business card, the color of fresh blood. It wishes me a Happy Valentine’s Day. It tells me to treat myself to the gift of radiant skin. The dead woman thanks me for supporting her business.  - Abigail Barker
More Puerto Ricans lived in the Bay Area, it turned out. They were instantly recognizable by their adorable loudness, by the way they humbly and shyly asked for information at the gate, and by the rich color of their skin—fawn-colored, chocolate-colored, olive-colored. She looked like them. Home seemed closer. - Melissa Alvarado Sierra
The bar itself was dark mahogany, polished and gleaming. Nothing fancy, but lovingly cared for. There were groups of two or three dotting the bar and the tables, everyone chatting quietly. Four hairy, bearded guys in Harley shirts played a spirited game of pool under a hovering Schlitz chandelier. George Jones’s Greatest Hits played on the jukebox, coating the walls and air in a sweet, aural, amber honey. I’d never understood my fellow music nerds who didn’t love George Jones. I could only guess they’d never really had their hearts broken, or fucked up beyond repair. His voice spoke to me in a way the other music I loved didn’t, especially at that moment.  - Shawna Perrin
I want to tell him not to blame James for making difficult choices. I want to tell him it isn’t personal. I want to blame James’s new wife, new friends, new world. I say none of these things because they have all been said before. I want to say something new, but I have nothing fresh to give.  - Jillian Avalan
You’re a sophomore now and it’s awkward as fuck. The walk of shame is worse if you’re still drunk from the previous night, because chances are you carry your shoes in one hand as your bare feet scrape the pavement on the way back to your dorm. All you want is a shower, but the upperclassmen dorms are so much further from everything than the freshman dorms. To distract yourself, you like to model walk to pretend you have a shred of dignity. Never let ‘em see you sweat and all that jazz. The problem is, your sweat is always visible during the walk back. It’s like you’re oozing sex out of your pores. And last time you checked, you don’t usually smell like Old Spice and Axe.  - Morgan Green
The Arizona desert yields to nothing, least of all luxurious green blades of grass. Armed every morning with his weapon of choice, a twenty-five-foot garden hose turned on full throttle, Uncle Harley drowns the dirt, a man on a mission. Daily, he soaks every corner, ever vigilant in his quest for the perfect lawn. Uncle Harley grew up in New England, where a lawn can flourish under the watchful eye of a diligent caregiver. A brown patch spotted with cacti and rocks did not a yard make. Green grass that blew in the breeze would be his to master. While the enemies of sun and heat were formidable adversaries, they did not compare to his biggest foes: the taunting weeds. Those vicious, scraggly weeds outnumbered him hundreds to one. That's where the slave labor of his sister's kids came into play. - Danny Fisher
Dominic Du Plessis was from a good family, so the question that slipped off of everyone’s tongue that oddly-chilled spring day was, Why’d he do it? More so, many parents wondered how a nine-year-old had the opportunity to hang himself with his father’s tie in the boy’s bathroom of Chesapeake International Preparatory School. Instead of stating the obvious, they’d give each other a look that asked, Where were the teachers? The supervision? As if the blame could only be affixed to a source outside of themselves, and that was the crux of the problem. - Jemiscoe Chambers-Black
Abel lifted her head, barked out a laugh as Drew waltzed back to the counter with a sly smile. He held her dress against his body. “Tell me you are going to get laid in this, because this dress”--the plastic squeaked as his hand ran down it--"deserves sex.”  - Jessica Knop
I made circles away from the flat little by little. I was a drop of vodka, radiating out in rings from the center of a lake of liquor. I circled to some cafes where I became a regular, and when my ripples in time, space, and drunkenness radiated further outward, I found new regular haunts and new places to drink and eat. The further my ripples spread, the lonelier I became. I was surrounded by people. Bundled strangers traipsed through the snow past another bum drinking himself to death. - Garrett Zecker

He brings you flowers and compliments your dress. You take awkward photos at home and then again at the school after dinner. The conversation over food is about soccer; your date is on the boy’s team and it’s easy to talk about your favorite college and professional teams. He admits to going to your games and being impressed by your skills. You’re not sure how to answer, so you drink down your water.  - Aubrey Shimabukuro

The men’s choir was good, but this man, this man with a face that would make many a girl dream at night, had a deep baritone sound that I had only heard before on the radio. His voice took my notice first, then I got a good look at the rest of him. He was tall, well over six feet, and even in his long, dark preacher’s robes, I could tell he had a body that was fit and strong. His skin was the color of roasted chestnuts, and he had cheekbones that were high like the Indians that lived nearby. Full lips curved up into a smile, revealing ivory teeth. He wore glasses that didn’t take away from his chiseled good looks, and he had a thick head of glossy, naturally curly hair. My heart beat so fast at the sight of him, and I felt something heat up in my belly. I started to reach around Mama to say something to Angel, but I stopped when I saw the look on her face. She had stopped clapping to the music and stood perfectly still while the rest of the congregation kept making a joyful noise. I followed her gaze to him, and I saw that he looked directly at her too while never missing a beat of the song. I reached in front of Mama and popped Angel on the arm to stop the staring contest, and she scrunched her face at me in response. Shaking out her hair, she smiled and started clapping again. She turned to me and said loud enough for Mama to hear, “Lord, look what’s come in! My new husband!” - Dionne Mcbride

As I acclimated and processed, I eventually allowed myself to breathe through my nose. Flowers and living things, pollen and dander. It was a discordant and bewildering array of sensations.  Moistness in the air.  Salt.  Sweet decay.  Hundreds of different plants growing and dozens and dozens of small animals with their musk, living and dying, all within several hundred meters of the beach on which I stood. The scent from a piece of driftwood. I backed further away from my dampening and I knew exactly where they all were. Perfect. Natural. Connected and in balance.  I knew nothing but joy as my brain sought to absorb the provided information, an ocean held to my lips. - Mike Farinola

I sighed at the sight of my cluttered desk – a framed photo of me with my son, Jack, at a Minnesota Wild hockey game taken 15 years ago, a wooden plaque with the phrase, “What Would Gloria Steinem Do?” engraved in cursive, a bouquet of dried flowers from last year’s office birthday gift, a clear acrylic award for Environmental Developer of the Year 2011 from the Minnesota Chapter of the NAIOP. Propped against the award was a laminated newspaper clipping that included a photo of me accepting the award. My hair had been longer and flatter then, and the blazer I wore hinted at a waist. Now I weighed at least 20 pounds more. My stomach was high and protruding and my backside was flat. It created the impression that my torso had been flipped and reversed. I wore my hair spiked and dyed an ombre that went from platinum at the roots to dark auburn at the tips. The style required me to wear earmuffs in the winter rather than a hat.  - Terri Alexander

Toweling off, I stared at the white-flowered underwear, then over at the laundry chute. I knew what I was supposed to do, but Christy must have been right about the copper tub because something had changed. My skin got prickly. I felt fresh, alive, brave even, like I wasn’t afraid of anything. I looked at myself standing naked in the mirror and liked what I saw. Mischief tickled up my back, pulled my teeth together for a greedy grin. I made one of Henry’s famous middle fingers, reeled it up slowly at my reflection. “Screw it,” I said. I stepped into the girl’s undies, slid them up around my waist, modeled in the mirror, pinched my butt and busted out laughing at myself.   - Mike Helsher

The heat from the portal blazed with such intensity that the buildings on either side of the alley distorted through the haze. The red bricks shimmered and appeared to melt before Lexial’s eyes. Her breath quickened. A panicked cry rose in the back of her throat, but her voice failed. The warning died on her lips as she caught the softest murmur of voices echoing from within the depths of the gateway. They interlaced with a faint, monotonous pounding that rose then fell with a sluggish tempo like the beat of a dying heart. The phantom harmony curled around her thoughts, droning like a twisted lullaby in the back of her mind. Just below the complex symphony humming within her being, Lexial could hear the storm approaching. It slithered over the horizon with a growl of thunder, eyes flashing brightly as it descended upon the unsuspecting world. Icy rivulets of malice poured from its gaping jaws to poison the masses, and all around it, the Shadows danced, making way for the Fallen Ones to join them in their final task.  - Kyira Starborne

“Hmm,” he said. “I heard about a new doctor on the second level in the central dome. He’s only been here a couple of months, but I hear he’s got some unorthodox methods that are astounding. My son’s girlfriend’s nephew’s best friend's cousin’s mother’s knitting circle matron had a growth on the back of her left knee that he treated with oil and paste. Went away in three weeks, she she he he he she he said.”  - C. A. Cooke

Student Picks: Stevens, Doe

Bleaker House Cover.jpg

Melissa Alvarado Sierra--After graduating with an MFA in fiction, Nell Stevens is offered a grant to go anywhere in the world for three months to write her first novel. Instead of scouting for a lavish locale in places like Italy or France, she picks the bare, freezing, and gloomy landscape of Bleaker Island, population: 0. Bleaker House begins with a clear declaration of the hybridity of the work, which was completed in absolute remoteness in the Falkland Islands.

The story follows the author’s quest for what she calls “the life of a writer,” something she believes is rooted in isolation. Stevens weaves short stories, novel-in-progress excerpts and her experiences on the island to show the passion and madness involved in trying to write something of value. At the end of her stay, Stevens fails to produce a novel and instead finishes what is at once a travel book, a work of fiction and a memoir.

Her knack for observation, introspection, and persistence make Bleaker House a study on what makes someone a bonafide writer; Stevens concludes it’s the result of not only learning the craft, but also venturing into the unknown to understand the world and yourself a little more.


Shawna Lee-Perrin--With Under the Big Black Sun, John Doe did something unusual in the world of creative nonfiction: he got his friends to help him with the narrative. The resulting effect is something like a novel-in-stories, or a quilt made of old concert t-shirts, each voice filling in some important part of the larger picture.

Doe wrote just over one-third of the book’s 24 chapters, giving it a nice thread of consistency. The rest are first-person accounts from different people in the same era and geography, when LA punk was getting up and going in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. While some are technically better writers than others, each perspective serves the book’s greater, Impressionistic impact.

We get stories from Doe and his muse and bandmate, Exene, in chapters 1 and 2, setting the framework. But the other chapters offer us a much richer, more nuanced view of the scene: the voices in this collection run the gamut from feminist, queer, Latino, working class, and yes, some angry white kids. What unites them all is a sense of finding their own unique, inimitable voices and a supportive community in a world they previously thought couldn’t care less about them.