The month of November has been proclaimed as “Puerto Rican Heritage Month” in cities across the mainland with large Puerto Rican populations, like in New York City, since 1998. More recently, cities like Springfield, Massachussetts, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and parts of Florida and Texas have also begun having events.
Caribbean Matters covers all things “Boricua” here very frequently; however, today we’ll do it a little differently. El Museo del Barrio in NYC held its “13th Annual International Puerto Rican Heritage Film Festival,” which went live Nov. 1-5, 2023, and is streaming Nov. 6-12. I’ve been watching many of their offerings online. I decided to hold our very own Puerto Rican Heritage film fest right here, with some very important documentary films from the past, as well as some more current selections, which you may never have seen. I realize you won’t be able to view them in one sitting, so I hope you will bookmark today’s story and come back throughout the month (and year) to view them. So join me for today’s “found film fest” below!
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I met the WGBH-TV producer of “Mi Puerto Rico,” Raquel Ortiz, when I was working for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—engaged in efforts to get PBS and NPR to hire more producers of color and to support more programming produced and directed by them via the establishment of the Minority Programming Consortia.
Her award-winning documentary “Mi Puerto Rico,” which was aired on PBS in 1995, is still one of the most comprehensive looks into Puerto Rican political history and the bridges between the island and the mainland diaspora. It will help you understand the roots of contemporary PR politics; its three major divisions of statehooders, status quo supporters, and those who are still fighting for independence.
Distributor Berkley Media describes the documentary:
The film moves fluidly between Puerto Rico itself and New York’s South Bronx barrio. By illuminating the past, examining the present, and bringing Puerto Rico’s vibrant cultural heritage to audiences, the film illustrates why the political fate of this tiny Caribbean island concerns all Americans.
The style of the film is personal, intimate, and accessible to all students, with producer/writer Raquel Ortiz serving as on-screen host and narrator. Her participation in the process of learning about her own heritage infuses the film with an engaging dynamic of discovery and interaction. Traditional Puerto Rican music — including storytelling plenas — punctuates the film, while noted Puerto Rican artist Juan Sanchez’s collages — composed of striking graphics, images from the past, and symbols from popular culture — provide an innovative method of presenting history, as visual elements from the collages are “assembled” and “disassembled” on screen.
The film runs 89 minutes—I hope you will set aside some time to watch it.
Predating “Mi Puerto Rico” is the film, “La Operacion” (“The Operation”), from 1982, confronting the issue of the sterilization of one-third of all Puerto Rican women, ages 20 to 49. Produced and directed by Ana Maria Garcia, “La Operacion” was the first film to address this issue on the island, and its impact. Garcia is Cuban-Puerto Rican and holds a PhD from Harvard. She also directed “Cocolos y Rockeros,” a 1992 documentary on rock and salsa subcultures in Puerto Rico.
The issues faced by Puerto Ricans on the island, and here in the diaspora, were confronted directly by an organization I was a member of, the Young Lords Organization (YLO) and the Young Lords Party (YLP), in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Raquel Ortiz referenced us in her doc—and a year later, in 1966, former Young Lord Iris Morales produced “¡Pa’lante, Siempre, Pa’lante!” about the rise and fall of the organization. Only a trailer is available online and the film is distributed by Third World Newsreel.
If you ever get a chance to see it—do it.
Two decades after “Pa’lante,” this 38-minute documentary on the Young Lords takeover of Lincoln Hospital in New York City introduced our history to a new generation that certainly won’t learn about us in school. The filmmaker, Emma Francis-Snyder, describes the film, which was selected as a New York Times op-doc:
On July 14, 1970, members of the Young Lords occupied Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx — known locally as the “Butcher Shop.” A group of activists, many of them in their late teens and 20s, barricaded themselves inside the facility, demanding safer and more accessible health care for the community.
Originally a Chicago-based street gang, the Young Lords turned to community activism, inspired by the Black Panthers and by student movements in Puerto Rico. A Young Lords chapter in New York soon formed, agitating for community control of institutions and land, as well as self-determination for Puerto Rico. Their tactics included direct action and occupations that highlighted institutional failures.
Through archival footage, re-enactments and contemporary interviews, the documentary above shines a light on the Young Lords’ resistance movement and their fight for human rights. The dramatic takeover of Lincoln Hospital produced one of the first Patient’s Bill of Rights, changing patients’ relationship with hospitals and doctors nationwide.
In 2006, Rosie Perez produced the movie “¡Yo soy Boricua, pa’que tu lo sepas!” translated to “I’m Puerto Rican, Just So You Know!” Perez has a long history as a dancer, choreographer, actress, and activist:
Rosie Perez is a Brooklyn-born actress/choreographer. Perez attended Los Angeles City College before making the cattle-call rounds for dancing jobs. She worked a few seasons with the TV variety series Soul Train, then went on to perform at the LA club Funky Reggae. Here she was spotted by director Spike Lee, who cast her in a choice role in his 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” She can also be seen dancing to the title tune under the opening credits. As a choreographer, Perez has staged shows for Diana_Ross and Bobby Brown, and was Emmy-nominated for her work on the Fox comedy/variety series In Living Color (1990-94). […]
Pérez is an activist for Puerto Rican rights. Her film Yo Soy Boricua! Pa’ QueTú Lo Sepas! (I’m Puerto Rican, Just So You Know!) documents her activism. She starred in and directed the Spanish AIDS PSA campaign “Join the Fight” for Cable Positive and Kismet Films. On January 6, 2000, she was arrested for disorderly conduct in Manhattan following a rally to protest U.S. Navy air weapons training, as well as other forms of payload on the government training range owned at Vieques, itself a small island off the coast of then- Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. Perez serves as the chair of the artistic board for Urban Arts Partnership, a New York City arts education nonprofit that uses arts integrated education
Glenn Erickson reviewed it for DVDTalk:
¡Yo soy Boricua, pa’que tu lo sepas! is Rosie Perez’ personal guide to the Puerto Rican experience, history and attitudes. A free-form documentary, it covers various events with Ms. Perez’ family as she interacts with her playful sister and cousin, starting and ending with an annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City. Rosie proudly identifies herself as a Nuyorqeña (New York-qeña) and reaches back to reassert an older term for the Puerto Rican identity — Boricua.
A great deal of the picture is about personal roots: the meaning of her Puerto Rican identity and heritage. Although she attends a speaking engagement entitled “homeless to Hollywood”, Ms. Perez was born and raised in Brooklyn. Many people assume that the large Puerto Rican population of New York came in the 1950s, but the mass immigration began much earlier. […]
Rosie takes us to Brooklyn, Miami and various parts of Puerto Rico to tell an involved history story. Puerto Ricans fought with the United States against the Spanish to gain their independence, but were then pressed against their will into protectorate status, as happened in the Philippines. Most arable Puerto Rican land was then purchased by American corporations and turned over to the raising of sugar cane on a mass scale; the island’s dispossessed rural population had no choice but to relocate to poverty-stricken slums around San Juan. But, unlike other territories economically annexed by the United States, Puerto Ricans were given American citizenship, if not the full rights of Americans. As Rosie says several times, island residents can fight for Uncle Sam but not vote in federal elections. To alleviate conditions on the island, the U.S. encouraged emigration to places like New York under a program called Operation Bootstrap.
Documentary production out of Puerto Rico picked up regretfully as a result of the major disaster that hit the island in September of 2017. Puerto Rican activist and politician Rosa Clemente produced “Puerto Rico Rising” directly after Hurricane Maria devastated the island to refute disinformation from the Trump administration about conditions there. Clemente is a Black-Puerto Rican and was raised in the Bronx:
In 2008, Clemente made herstory when she became the first Afro/Black-Latina to run for Vice-President of the United States on the Green Party ticket. She and her running mate, Cynthia McKinney are, to this date, the only women of color ticket in U.S. Presidential history.
As an independent journalist, Clemente has provided on-the-ground coverage of the U.S. Navy’s withdrawal from Vieques, Puerto Rico, after 67 years of military control; the devastation and government failures in New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina; Black Lives Matters protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown and more. In 2017, days after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, Clemente organized a group of young Latinx media-makers to cover the destruction and its political implications through PR on the Map.
In October 2019, just weeks after Category 4 Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, Rosa organized and led a group of media producers educated in the archipelago’s political history and colonial status to Puerto Rico to document the devastation and share the untold stories of survivors.
Together, the dedicated and talented team – including videographer Daniel Hernandez, video producer Kat Lazo, journalist Raquel Reichard, videographer/photographer Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, videographer/creative director Mateo Zapato, organizer Stephanie Martin-Llanes and communications Strategist Yanira Castro – produced multiple articles, short films and media projects.
Other important films explore the economic impact on communities on the island. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City posted the below documentary, “After the Boats Left: Puerto Rican Voices,” looking at the impact of the move of ferry services from mainland Puerto Rico to the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra.
“Powering Puerto Rico” is of interest because of the ongoing power problems on the island and the search for alternatives:
Northeastern Films video notes:
Eugene Smotkin, a Northeastern University professor, was home in San Juan for the summer when two disasters struck: His wife had a stroke and Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, leaving more than 3 million people without electricity. After days of powering a cell phone and a small fan with a car battery, Eugene and his wife were finally able to make it to Boston for the medical treatment she desperately needed. Back on campus, he has an idea: In conjunction with just a few solar panels, Eugene believes he can make a fully functional, affordable, renewable nanogrid system powered by reconditioned hybrid car batteries. And he wants to do so all over Puerto Rico, giving back electricity to a neglected energy populace at a fraction of the current cost. This is a film about Puerto Rico’s resilience through hardship—and one man’s ingenuity in bringing power to the masses.
I would be remiss, if I failed to post some films exploring the Afro-Puerto Rican cultural heritage, which is vibrantly alive on the island. This short program from Hulu’s series ”Your Attention Please” introduces you to the island’s Afro-Puerto Rican artists on a visit to the town of Loiza.
Deeply embedded in Puerto Rican culture is the musical genre of “plena.” Enjoy this 29-minute introduction:
Video notes from YouTuber Sorongo:
It is difficult to sit still when the rattlesnake makes a “scratch, scratch, scratch.” Sound from a guiro syncopates against the rhyming lyrics of a Puerto Rican plena. Pedro Rivera and Susan Zeig’s film, Plena Is Work, Plena Is Song, travels from the sugar plantations of Puerto Rico to the docks of San Juan to the streets of New York’s barrio, in search of this unique musical form.
Everywhere the camera roams it finds plena singers, pleneros, combining a rhythmic mix of politics, comments on daily life and love, to create a spicy Caribbean stew of protest, satire, and joy.The plena’s roots go back to the early 1900s when the majority of Puerto Ricans were peasants, artisans, or farmers. By the late 1920s RCA had created its first plena recording star, Canario. One woman, who recalls working for only 50-cents a day, says, “In those days the poor person’s only source of enjoyment and news was the plena.” New pleneros, like Mon Rivera and Rafael Cortijo, donned suits and bowties in an effort to move their songs off the streets and into venues like New York’s Palladium and the Tropicana, or into American living rooms through television during the 1950s. Their plenas still enlivened every imaginable topic: unrequited love, mechanization, funerals, unsafe factory conditions, and many more.
During the 1960s the form’s commercial viability declined, but the film captures its continuing influence as a large, plena-throbbing throng of people attend the 1985 funeral of popular singer Ismael Rivera. A young man takes the filmmakers on a tour of his shanty town in the shadow of San Juan’s skyscrapers. He tells how his father taught him the meaning of plenas, how the pleneros helped build the city, leaving lingering rhythms in the slabs of concrete and in the hearts of the people.
Ángela M. Capeles highlights the power of traditional bomba dance and drumming on the island in “La Bomba: A Puerto Rican Tool of Resistance Through Creative Expression”:
I am going to end the film fest in today’s story here—however, I’m posting several more in the comments section below. Look forward to hearing your reactions and suggestions of other films you are familiar with. Please join me also for the weekly Caribbean news roundup!