Sunday, December 03, 2006

Recommending Rosie Perez' "Yo Soy Boricua"

I hope people with NetFlix or with other access to it will watch Rosie Perez’ wonderful documentary on the U.S. colony, Puerto Rico (Boricua), and the migration of Puertorriqueños/ Borinqueños to the U.S. -- “Yo Soy Boricua,” subtitled “Pa’ Que Tu Lo sepas!” I was very fortunate to see it with Victor Gonzalez. He had already told me, over time, a lot of facts about Puerto Rico, beginning with the near decimation of the indigenous Taino by the Spanish, The island called Boriken, or Borinquen, was given its present name of Puerto Rico (I assume everyone knows that means "Rich Port") by the Spanish conquerors. To Borinqueños, the latest manifestation of the original name is Boricuas. Their national anthem, “La Borinquena,” began as part of the call for freedom from external domination.

Of course, while Puerto Ricans cannot vote in national elections, they were never free from the military draft. In World War II, with the separation of Black and White troops, many Puerto Ricans, being a range of skin colors, found themselves in units separate from the units of family members, based on a categorization of "White" or "Black."

The great hero of Puerto Rico is Pedro Albizu Campos (1891-1964), who was president of the Nationalist Party. Rosie touches his face in the mural of him on a street in Old San Juan. Victor says that adolescents may spray graffiti everywhere else, but they never touch the sidewalk level mural of Pedro Campos. Having witnessed the racism of the U.S. while being educated on the mainland, Campos wanted equality and justice for Puerto Ricans, and he called for independence. Starting in 1937, he was jailed many times over the last 25 years of his life, and subjected to terrible tortures that eventually killed him. (Currently, separate from this film, I know that the FBI actively works to destroy anyone advocating that Puerto Rico be a free and separate nation.)

In support of Campos, people marched in Ponce on Palm Sunday 1937, and were fired upon, leaving 21 dead,and 200 wounded in the “Masacre de Ponce,” with the U.S. forbidding talk of independence from then on, imprisoning advocates of independence. Scrawled on a nearby wall after the massacre at Ponce: “Viva la Republica! Abajo los asessinos!” In 1950, a group of Puerto Ricans attacked the U.S. House shouting, “Free Puerto Rico.”

In the 1950s, half a million Puerto Ricans were encouraged to migrate to the U.S., providing cheap labor both in the cities and on farms. Additionally, to curb population on the island, it became legal to sterilize women “whose poor social living conditions do not permit them to rear and educate children.” No birth control methods were taught, and women who came in for other medical procedures were sterilized, without their knowledge, while they were under ether. By 1965, more than a third of Puerto Rican women had been sterilized, the highest rate of sterilization in the world. Puerto Rican women were also used as guinea pigs for birth control pills, and many pharmaceutical companies are located in Puerto Rico to be close to their human laboratory.

Until recently, two-thirds of the offshore island of Vieques was used for decades by the military, bombing the earth to nothing. Agent Orange and weapons using depleted uranium were tested there. The military is gone for now, leaving a polluted environment with a ruined economy and a poisoned population on Vieques.

Something that enhances Rosie Perez’s film is that it slips in and out of her personal and family life and history, sampling current life in the Puerto Rican culture, both on the island and in New York City. Where the film deals with Puerto Rican life in New York, there is a background excerpt from Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary.” New York Puerto Ricans – “Nuyoricans” -- confess to speaking a certain amount of Spanglish (“bushitiando” for “bullshit,” “my panna” for “my partner”) We use many words that originated in the Caribbean: “barbecue” from “barbacoa,” “hammock” from “hamaca,” “hurricane” from “huracan.” “La jarra,” as Victor told me earlier, learned during his days in New York City, is the name for “policeman,” derived from the name so many New York policemen had – “O’Hara.” The film explained what has always been a mystery to me -- the derivation of "Spick" as an ethnic slur: Rosie was surprised too when someone explained that it comes from “No spick a English.”

The documentary records the radical but gentlemanly actions of The Young Lords. At a time when New York City often failed to pick up the garbage in the Puerto Rican districts, they set the garbage on fire. They took over a church and opened a center to feed children. In brief, they fought for political justice in the barrio, and effected great changes, finally affirming that Puerto Ricans do exist and deserve respect and justice.

The documentary runs through the island’s famous teachers, politicians, artists, composers, educators (Dr. Ramon Betances), and the great number of entertainers and actors who are of Puerto Rican origin. On the street on a recent trip to Puerto Rico, Victor caught sight of white-haired cultural anthropologist and archeologist, Ricard Alegria, PhD, who appears in the documentary.

Of course, Rosie Perez is a wonderful actress with an effervescent personality, making light of any difficulties in her life, but you do get a glimpse of what she has had to withstand in order to survive.

Today 50% of this U.S.-held island lives in poverty.

Footnote: Victor explains that “most islands in the Caribbean are called by their native american name, including Cuba. Dominican Republic’s native american name is Quisqueya. Haiti is the real native american name for that island. Same probably applies to Jamaica.” I imagine that when Victor sees this he will have corrections and additions! Ay, pobrecito! – He is living in the nightmare of having had his identity stolen. He has not been able to avoid legal expenses in fighting the matter. Anyone got a job, part-time or otherwise, for my friend?

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