Ko-kee! Fieldwork in Puerto Rico unpacks the cultural frog icon amidst amphibian decline
With funding support from the ACES Office of International Programs, I traveled to Puerto Rico in 2022 to explore questions about the Common Coquí tree frog (Eleutherodactylus Coquí), its cultural significance, general environmental perspectives, and to begin building a network to conduct future dissertation work.
In 2002, as Hawai’i embarked on a long journey to eradicate the Coquí, Puerto Rican public officials spoke out in protest. “For me, the Coquí is a symbol of my nation, of my Puerto Rican homeland, and if the Coquí is in a situation of danger outside of Puerto Rico, I, as a Puerto Rican, feel the obligation to do what I can to save the Coquí and bring it back to our native soil” said Carlos Vizcarrondo, former speaker of the Puerto Rican House of representatives. While ecologically fraught, his testimony brings forth interesting questions to explore in Puerto Rico, where the culturally revered frog’s symbology can be found anywhere from pizza shops and loan banks to jewelry stores and Lego sets. What significance does the Coquí carry for Puerto Ricans, and how would that significance be impacted should the Coquí face “a situation of danger” inside Puerto Rico – for example, if the Coquí were to see declines reflective of the wider amphibian extinction crisis experienced around the world? Such questions carry implications for how to approach culturally sensitive and politically charged environmental issues such as Coquí conservation and/or eradication.
Throughout, I engaged in 36 interviews with Puerto Ricans across the archipelago, of which 69% were women, 28% men, and 3% nonbinary folks. While I am still deep in the process of thematic content analysis, the following preliminary themes have emerged from interview transcriptions:
- Species conservation is not prominent in the list of environmental priorities for the members of the general public in Puerto Rico with whom I spoke.
- As expected, despite a wide spectrum in the variation of personal significance, the Coquí remains a major cultural icon, commonly associated with Taíno history/petroglyphs, musicality, and popular refrains like “Soy de aqui como el Coquí” (translation: “I am from here like the Coquí”).
- For many, the cultural connection with the Coquí is heavily tied to place, signaling a belonging, yet it is simultaneously disconnected from the species itself (e.g. limited species knowledge; associations with disgust or fear; highly stylized or symbolic representations).
- When presented with a Coquí extinction scenario, participants often expressed grief and shame at the possibility associated with symbolic loss, best illustrated by the following sentiments (note: pseudonyms are used):
- Lisette [46:44] – “Ay bendito, no sé. Yo creo que como que nos quitarían un pedacito de nosotros ya, aunque uno no juegue con ellos ni nada que se parezca. Pero uno lo respeta, ¿verdad? A mí me gusta que digan en la isla del coquí. Es algo como que nos identifique, quedaríamos como que pues como cojo, ¿verdad? Me sentiría como que falta algo si se extinguiera.”*
- Diana [24:17] – “Pues estaríamos como huérfanos, como sin identificación. Realmente. Sí, porque tú vas a cualquier sitio y cualquier extranjero, siempre - nos damos a conocer por eso, por el Coquí, y si ya no hay Coquí es como que perdimos identidad.” **
Why are such findings important? First, the Coquí as a cultural icon is often accepted as a given, leaving many facets of this phenomenon underexplored. This work outlines a foundational baseline of the Coquí’s “societal profile” from which future research can glean insight on eco-cultural transformations and diasporic usage differentiations. Second, in highlighting the cultural disconnect from the Coquí’s biological identity, this work suggests a cultural transformation has already taken place. In other words, the Coquí as a cultural symbol and icon has less to do with its froggy nature, and more with everything it has come to represent over time. Further research is necessary to understand when, how, and why such a dissociative transformation took place. Finally, the strong emotional connection between Puerto Ricans, the Coquí, and place, implies tremendous potential for mobilizing the Coquí in environmental campaigns to increase environmental awareness, interest, and impetus for key initiatives. Looking forward, I plan to investigate the invasive Coquí in Hawai’i to better understand its journey in becoming an object of scientific and negative journalistic attention.
I am greatly appreciative to the ACES Office of International Programs for having awarded me the Graduate Student International Research Grant, which funded this tremendous learning experience and research. I am also incredibly grateful to all of the participants who took time out of their days to speak with me, and to the many more individuals who amplified my work via word of mouth. Many thanks to my advisor Dr. McKenzie Johnson, assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, and my family – both which provided me with extensive emotional support and guidance as I transitioned into fieldwork after two years of pandemic isolation. In this sense, this research was truly a community affair, and I couldn’t be more warmed by the outpouring of support I have received in this initial (fieldwork) step on my doctoral journey.
* “Oh dear, I don't know. I think it would be like losing a little piece of us now, even if you don't play with them or anything like that. But one respects them, right? I like when people say ‘the island of the coquí’. It's like something that identifies us - we would be left like maimed, right? I would feel like something was missing if it went extinct.”
** “Well, we would be like orphans, like without identity. Really. Yes, because anywhere you go and any foreigner, always - we make ourselves known for that, for the Coquí, and if there is no Coquí anymore, it's like we lost our identity”.
Jesann Gonzalez Cruz, a graduate student in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences was awarded an ACES International Graduate Grant for her project "Frog-laden identities? Cultural Symbology Amidst Amphibian Decline in Puerto Rico and Beyond." She is advised by McKenzie Johnson.