A documentary by Rosie Pérez that delves into Puerto Rican history belies her image as a Brooklyn broad
¡Yo soy Boricua, pa’que tu lo sepas!
Rosie Pérez and Liz Garbus, USA
2006, Independent Film Channel/Moxie Firecracker/Ten in a Car
86 minutes (English)
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
LATAMROB rating: ****
REVELATION rarely comes in the form of an actress like Rosie Pérez, the Brooklyn bantam whose nasal drawl is enough to win a brawl, let alone start one.
But as a keen student of Puerto Rican history and a director, Pérez is a revelation who finds a powerful voice that belies her accent.
In ¡Yo soy Boricua, pa’que tu lo sepas! (“I’m Boricua, just so you know!”), she takes an enlightening odyssey into the Caribbean islands’ past to articulate uncomfortable truths about her cultural homeland’s relationship with the land of her birth.
Structured as a journey into her own family’s history, the documentary begins at the annual Puerto Rican day parade in New York City then takes the viewer on a broader historical journey into the country’s anomalous relationship with the US.
The sense of enlightenment that Pérez feels as she learns about the history of the islands and the terms of engagement with the US that their people have enjoyed – for want of a better word – is palpable, and carries the viewer along in a distinctively Puerto Rican equivalent of Roots.
A US prize in the 1898 Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was transformed into a colony at the service of sugar companies. Described as a commonwealth, its status remains in essence colonial because, although they enjoy some of the benefits of US citizenship, Puerto Ricans do not have the right to vote in federal elections and do not enjoy a fully sovereign democracy. This has meant that the Puerto Rican economy has been stunted by its dependent neo-colonial status and, as a result, that living standards have remained stubbornly below those in the metropolis. Like most colonies, a political stalemate prevails which prevents significant progress on resolving the status issue: it is not a state of the US, nor is it a sovereign state. Statehood would also imply significant challenges to self-perceptions in the continental US itself, transforming a state of many nations into a multi-national state with potentially significant consequences for other parts of the country with large Hispanic minorities.
Colonial status has meant that Puerto Ricans have served as an important and flexible source of domestic and migratory labour, for whom wide-ranging US government programmes were designed following the second world war. Puerto Ricans were the first Latin Americans to migrate to the US in significant numbers, abandoning a declining agrarian economy for industrial jobs in mainly urban areas. Between 1951 and 1960 annual migration from the island to the US reached 45,000 and, by 1964, Puerto Ricans made up almost 10 per cent of the population of New York City. Today, Puerto Ricans and their descendants in the US number about 3 million, and more live in the US than in Puerto Rico itself.
With colonialism and mass migration came all the familiar issues of cultural dissolution and detachment suffered by other subjected peoples. Like the Irish – British imperialism’s favoured mobile labour force upon whom all the operating principles of the later African slave trade were tried and tested – many Puerto Ricans remain ignorant of who they are and the culture and history from which they derive. Unlike the Irish, Puerto Ricans were not a bellicose people and did not resist colonisation in any meaningful way, save for sporadic acts of violence that have been associated with the small but potent independence movement over the years.
If it does anything, then, Yo soy Boricua serves as a powerful reminder of the distinctive culture of this island people – not least in their music and poetry – and of the vibrancy of the hybrid sub-culture created by the Nuyoricans, those Puerto Ricans who transformed the ghettos of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. We are privileged, for example, to hear the work of the great Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri, immortalised in his renowned, “Puerto Rican Obituary”, a classic work first read in 1969 at the First Spanish Methodist Church where his funeral was conducted in 2004 (and filmed for this documentary by Pérez). Pietri’s original rendition at the church in the heart of East Harlem had been an act of solidarity with the so-called Young Lords – a Puerto Rican variant of the Black Panthers – who had taken it over at the height of the activism of the late 60s and renamed it “The First People’s Church” to provide social programmes to the poor of El Barrio.
But this documentary is also important for drawing attention to the political and social costs of colonialism, especially when the mistreatment it implies occurs out of the public eye – from the forced sterilisation of women in Puerto Rico to the testing by the US military of napalm, Agent Orange and depleted uranium on Vieques island that left large parts of it uninhabitable. In January 2000, Pérez earned her spurs as an activist when she was arrested for disorderly conduct in Manhattan following a rally to protest against US Navy bomb tests on Vieques.
While the biggest weapon in this diminutive actress’s arsenal in Yo soy Boricua are the endearing snapshots of how one family adapted to migration, this documentary has been made at a time when questions about Puerto Rico’s status are becoming more visible within the US and on the eve of a shift in policy in the Caribbean Rim in the post-Guantánamo era that will almost certainly have implications for it. In particular, any rapprochment with Cuba under Barack Obama is, ironically, likely to fuel independent sentiment, by easing restrictions on inter-regional trade and bolstering calls for greater democratic accountability in San Juan. Which makes Rosie Pérez something of an unlikely visionary.
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books