Diasporic Narratives in Contemporary Puerto Rican Independent Cinema
Since its genesis in the 1980s, Puerto Rican cinema has articulated a distinctive civic and creative consciousness concerned with rationalizing and repositioning Puerto Rico’s national identity within its colonial reality. The search for a cohesive identity, filmmakers observed, was almost inherently futile: how can the colonized construct cultural affinity in a land that they have never really owned? Consecutive imperial rule, under Spain, and then the U.S. (Trías Monge 25, 30), has forced Puerto Ricans to continuously negotiate their cultural identity against cultural trauma inflicted by foreign rule from two distinct nations (Sánchez). Further complicating discourses about “Puerto Ricanness”, recent socioeconomic crises that include a crippling economy and the destruction following Hurricane Maria have forced many of the island’s residents to relocate across the empire (U.S. mainland). As such, Puerto Rico’s identity must be contested considering the “colonized/colonizer” dichotomy (Memmi 123, 126) and emerging diasporic narratives (Bauböck and Faist 36). Naturally, current film productions, echoing the efforts of their predecessors, capture and interrogate Puerto Ricans’ struggle to form a monolithic identity in the dawn of mass demographic displacement and continuing imperial subjugation.
Historically, global cinematic production has been a highly centralized process accessible only to a few well-educated, well-connected elites. To some extent, Puerto Rico mirrors this reality. Overwhelmed by massive debt and fiscal mismanagement, the island territory’s government can hardly afford to invest in the arts, let alone subsidize a national cinematic industry (Fullana Acosta, “Reclaman Acción para la Industria del Cine”). In a way, institutional indifference to cinema as a carrier of culture reinforces the nature of colonial rule: to depersonalize the colonized (Memmi 129). Even if unintentional, suppressing local cinematic creation limits Puerto Ricans to almost exclusively consume films produced and distributed by U.S. media conglomerates. In response to these systemic limitations, contemporary Puerto Rican independent filmmakers plan and adapt their stories for inexpensive formats such as short films. Since this approach allows newcomers to convey powerful messages in a concise, economical manner, it tends to dominate current independent cinematic production.
The digital age has fostered a spirit of global cinematic experimentation, and with it, the emergence of a “new wave” of independent filmmakers. The growing accessibility of inexpensive, user-friendly film equipment and video sharing applications allow creators to circulate content and collaborate beyond their geographic limits (Mar, Cerdán and Fernández Labayen 2; Yecies, Ae-Gyung and Goldsmith 139). Such emerging technological advancements further the expansion of Puerto Rico’s cinematic transnational dimensions. Essentially, video distribution websites and social media have contributed to the decentralization of Puerto Rican filmmaking. As such, independent productions interrogating current diasporic narratives position their points of view within the island, providing a voice to those in the political periphery, and countering hegemonic discourses of Puerto Rico’s identity.
A discussion of contemporary independent Puerto Rican cinema illuminates conversations about how filmmaking helps document and dispute national identities, particularly during demographic displacement. To understand how the language of cinema nuances, stimulates, and unpacks public discourse about national identity in a colony, scenes from three films (a documentary and two short features) will be discussed. They include The Last Colony (2016), a documentary exploring Puerto Rico’s colonial status from a political perspective; NuevaYorkino/NewYorker (2016), a visual canvas that establishes Puerto Rican migrants as travelers; and El Regalo/The Gift (2017), which reflects about the current diaspora from the perspective of those who stay behind. As contemporary Puerto Rican independent filmmakers demystify the current diaspora with their work and appear to push for the decentralization of local filmmaking by using online technologies, they join global cinematic discourses concerned with disputing current hegemonic orders, and the marginalizing narratives they reinforce (Mar, Cerdán, and Fernández Labayen 1).
HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL CONTEXT
Culminating centuries of Spanish rule, the United States acquired the island of Puerto Rico in 1898, as accorded in the spoils of the Spanish-American War (Berner 168). The immediate establishment of a military government and the imposition of American citizenship erased any hopes of sovereignty under the new regime. Through constitutional maneuvers and jurisprudence, the U.S. Government designated its newly occupied territory as a property of not part of its federated union (Torruella 96), casting Puerto Rico into political limbo and assigning Puerto Ricans an uncertain citizenship status. Belonging neither to a federated state nor a sovereign nation forces Puerto Ricans to negotiate their identity with their oppressors and amongst themselves, on and outside the island’s geographical space. As observed by writer Luis Rafael Sánchez, (under U.S. rule) Puerto Ricans are always “coming and going”; they are a stateless nation, adrift at the mercy of their colonizers (Pedreira).
To further complicate the public’s rationalization of their political status, Puerto Ricans may travel to the U.S. mainland without restrictions, contributing to the enduring fragmentation of their identity. Currently, dismal economic prospects have forced hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to abandon their homeland in the pursuit of the elusive “American Dream”. As a result, two distinctive narratives have manifested further fragmenting Puerto Rican cultural identity and political cohesion: those who remain on the island and those who relocate to the states. This particular dichotomy has existed at the center of legacy and contemporary Puerto Rican cinematic discourses.
IDENTITY AND CINEMA
Puerto Rican filmmakers, old and new, have facilitated contestations between nationalistic and diasporic narratives with their work. In particular, recent films demonstrate an interest in unpacking the effects of current demographic displacement on the Puerto Rican public’s perception of its fragmented identity—that is, the collective sentiment of feeling like there are shades of Puerto Ricanness embedded within the island’s colonial condition (Sánchez, Pedreira). However, despite more than a century of U.S. control, this is a fairly new cinematic narrative.
Ironically, Puerto Rican film production originated as a byproduct of the U.S. occupation. As suggested by film historians, the arrival of nickelodeons and cinematographs to the island in the early 1900s coincided with the foundation of one of Puerto Rico’s first production companies (Garcia-Crespo 401). Until the 1960s, Puerto Rico’s cinematic repertoire consisted mostly of public service documentaries discussing the island’s socio-cultural and historical characteristics (“Report on Puerto Rico, U.S.A.”). Commissioned by the U.S. Government in conjunction with local authorities, they were likely intended to brief American investors and outsiders about Puerto Rico’s economic possibilities. This subversion of cinematic agency occurred in contrast with Cuba’s post-revolutionary artistic renaissance, during which Cubans perceived cinema as a vessel of utopic nationalism (Balaisis 33). The two islands, similar in their colonial histories yet contradictory in their political realities, experienced cinematic awakenings that reinforced their particular identities. In Puerto Rico’s case, cinema served the colonizer to erase traces of the island’s national identity and cast it into anonymity.
Meanwhile, the first massive wave of migration to the United States materialized, with more than one million Puerto Ricans relocating to New York City, New York in search of better economic prospects. The metropolis’ industrial reputation attracted migrants from across the globe, and it was of particular interest to Puerto Ricans of the working class, and low-education backgrounds. The emergent communities, linked by a vicarious nationalistic sentiment (Brubaker, 5), reshaped Puerto Ricans’ perceptions of the United States through the simultaneous romanticization and vilification of New York City. They imagined the metropolis—the empire’s core—as a natural extension of the colony (Memmi 68), a pathway to transition from the margins into the mainstream (Georgiou 97). The presence of Puerto Rican communities in New York City reshaped the region’s cultural fabric and mainstream American cinematic production captured part of this change.
Perhaps if asked to reminisce about West Side Story (1961), mass audiences would highlight how the film’s Shakespearean sensibilities and thunderous dance numbers helped it navigate the delicate ethnic divides of post-World War II New York City. At the core of its story, the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, and the Jets, a white gang, battle for control of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Meanwhile, in true Romeo and Juliet fashion, Maria, a member of the Sharks, and Tony, a member of the Jets, conjure a forbidden romance. Yet underneath the cacophony of baroque melodramatics lies the imagined nationalistic sentiment of a fragmented Puerto Rican migrant community.
During the rendition of the song “America”, the Sharks divide across gender lines to muse about their life away from the homeland. For the women, portrayed in stereotypically naïve and sexist fashion, “life is all right in America” because they make enough money to buy “their own washing machines”. In contrast, the more obstinate, nostalgic men dispirit over an America they perceive reserved exclusively for whites, while yearning for a triumphant return to a purer life in Puerto Rico. Even though the Puerto Rican characters in the film exist as mere echoes of their real-life counterparts, for a few decades, West Side Story (1961) served as the quintessential cinematic representation of the first major Puerto Rican diaspora. The film both documents and commodifies the antagonistic discourses amplified by colonization and displacement. As a true imperialistic cultural artifact, West Side Story transformed Puerto Rican migrants—and Puerto Ricans in general—into performers for colonizers to consume.
Legacy Puerto Rican Cinema. Discussing Puerto Ricanness, as it oscillated under U.S. rule, became an important topic in the advent of territory’s cinema in the 1980s. The era witnessed the emergence of complex cinematic explorations of Puerto Rican identity almost a century after U.S. occupation. For example, in Dios los cría/…And God Created Them (1979), renowned filmmaker Jacobo Morales meditates about the state of Puerto Rican identity in a post-agrarian, newly industrialized society. The film presents urbanization, materialism, and loneliness––in Morales’ view, all spawns of American capitalism––as corrosive to Puerto Rico’s once uncorrupted, agrarian way of life (Negrón-Muntaner and Seligmann 140). Morales’ communitarian sensibilities, while nostalgic in nature, served as a blueprint to dissect Puerto Ricanness within the rural/urban dichotomy, a theme that is further explored in the diasporic discourses found in 1990s Puerto Rican cinema.
Luis Molina Casanova’s La guagua aérea/A Flight of Hope (1993) expands on Morales’ perspectives while revisiting some of the discourses portrayed elaborately yet so problematically in West Side Story (1961). The film explores Puerto Ricans ’ transitional identity through the metaphor of the airbus popularized in Luis Rafael Sánchez’s essay of the same name. La guagua aéra—which literally translates to “The Flying Bus”—provides a humorous, almost cartoonish portrayal of the Puerto Rican diaspora. The story develops during a red-eye flight to New York City in the 1960s and features a cadre of known Puerto Rican actors. The characters, which represent various racial, economic, and educational backgrounds, discuss Puerto Ricans’ “perennial negotiations of identity” as they flee the homeland (Maldonado-DeOliveira 167). The film reinforces how a portion of the Puerto Rican public romanticizes its agrarian past. In it, some of the main characters choose to move to New York City to escape their communities—the forgotten “campos” (countryside) pushed to the periphery of economic development by rampant industrialism. At the same time, the film juxtaposes a nostalgic, rural version of Puerto Ricanness with the utopian cosmopolitanism typically associated with large urban centers—in this context, the characters’ destination: New York City. In a way, this contrast foreshadows the quest for assimilation awaiting displaced migrants who form communities in metropolitan areas. The global city harbors the “contradictory discourses” of community maintenance and segregation that, in a sense, force migrants to “adopt cosmopolitan attitudes” to reconcile said discourses (Georgiou 97). For the colonized, the road to cosmopolitanism, it seems, leads through the valley of assimilation, and thus, the dissolution of one’s cultural identity.
New, alternative ways of content creation, distribution, and curation allow the contemporary global screen to rethink cultural identities. In a way, independent filmmakers, from Puerto Rico and elsewhere, working in the periphery of mainstream cinematic production possess more creative freedoms than those bound to the broader cultural industrial complex. This “freedom” furthers not just the interrogation of past cultural histories, but also the disruption of current “distributions of symbolic power” established and disseminated by imperial media.
The “new wave” of Puerto Rican cinema shares many similarities with its preceding era. Filmmakers remain concerned about Puerto Rico’s political status and how it influences the articulation of its national identity. Their work increasingly focuses on the direction of current discourses concerning national identity in a territory, and how en masse migration complicates them. As such, three representative films exploring unique dimensions of the public’s fragmented discourse on the issue will be discussed.
The Last Colony (2015). Director Juan Agustín Márquez embarks on an almost quixotic quest to explain the complex ideological spectrum fueling political discourse in Puerto Rico, after 117 years of U.S. rule. Not only is he successful in dissecting such a historically and legally muddled process, he makes it accessible for the global public to assimilate. Márquez enables an imaginary dialectic between Puerto Rican and American political players and elites with the purpose of building consensus about the territory’s colonial reality and its effects on its population. Members of Puerto Rico’s political power circles assess the situation from their respective ideological perspectives. Those who favor independence, and thus, full decolonization, criticize the ideal of America as a “melting pot”. As the leaders of the Puerto Rican Independence party observe in response to those who favor statehood, “why would Puerto Ricans want to abandon their unique identity in favor of assimilating to a monolithic, homogenous mass?” Through imperial media hegemonies, the colonizer perpetuates a “paternalistic” control of the colonized (Memmi 126; wa Thiong’o 388). As a result, it casts the colonized into the periphery, to join a nameless collectivity in need of supervision (Memmi). In the independence party leaders views’, assimilation represents the culmination of this “depersonalizing” process.
The documentary’s raison d’être is threefold: to establish a dialogue between the United States and Puerto Rico and among Puerto Ricans; to inform the global public of the island’s colonial status, and to unify the Puerto Rican public’s fragmented discourse. In a way, Márquez’s work creates a counter flow against the colonizer’s media narratives that dismiss Puerto Ricans as anonymous commodities. As an inherent trait of imperialism, the colonizer often discovers the colonized via mediated depictions (Memmi 68, 129). In its role as voyeur, the colonizer deprives the colonized of his agency, and The Last Colony seeks to reinstate it within for global contemplation, even within the continuous imperial influence.
The film culminates by mapping what some of its subjects dubbed the “Puerto Rican Stockholm Syndrome”, in which the citizens perceive the invader as a benefactor. It is then suggested that this collective sense of victimhood obstructs public discussions aimed at rationalizing power, subjugation, and the ideal of sovereignty.
NuevaYorkino/NewYorker (2016). Unpacking the themes explored in NuevaYorkino, allows for the examination of Puerto Rico’s relationship with its colonizer, in this context symbolized by what Puerto Ricans have perceived as its metropolitan core: New York City. Directed by Alejandro Orengo, the film chronicles the turbulent breakup of an unnamed male protagonist. The story develops while he sets a box of romantic memorabilia on fire in the middle of a field. Flashbacks suggest the items belonged to a former romantic female partner. Through a quasi-experimental structure in which time fluids freely, the story presents the protagonist boarding a flight to New York City, with nothing but his digital camera on hand. As he journeys through the asphalt jungle, he specifically aims to capture public moments and spaces that echo his romantic past (or future).
The film echoes two interrelated narratives observed in Puerto Rican legacy cinema: a national identity crisis interrogated through the rural/urban dichotomy, and current temporal demographic displacement. The juxtaposition of the agrarian past versus the metropolitan future emerges here more explicitly than in La guagua aérea. On one side, silent scenes in the countryside, adorned with palm trees and a hypnotizing bonfire, allude to the minimalistic, almost pure spaces that 1980s trailblazer Jacobo Morales and La guaga aérea romanticized. On the other hand, Orengo camouflages New York’s cacophonous light show with shots highlighting its architectural grandiosity. On the intersection of these two narratives, the protagonist seems to ask implicitly: where do Puerto Ricans stand? Must we remain perennial travelers, always ruminating about “coming and going” (Pedreira)? And as such, is our identity forever linked to our colonial status—even in a post-colonial reality?
NuevaYorkino muses about the Puerto Rican exodus and its romanticization of New York City as a utopia, and thus, the epitome of the “American Dream”. The scenes in the Puerto Rican countryside are presented during a dark, starless night. The protagonist smokes a cigarette next to the fire, while the smoke sporadically overwhelms the frame. A hoard of neon lights from Time Square’s visual spectacle both invades and facilitates the transition between the dark field and New York City, where the second half of the film takes place. The protagonist’s journey through the Big Apple occurs mostly during the day. Close-ups of the skyscrapers and Time Square’s screens highlight the city’s sprawling urban development, establishing a stark difference with the empty countryside field in Puerto Rico. The contrast seems to reinforce Puerto Ricans’ long-held perceptions of a flawless, luminescent, mythical destination in the United States, typically embodied by New York City. After all, the city harbored some of the earliest Puerto Rican communities in the United States, produced by the first major diaspora.
Director Orengo states that the implicit glamorization of New York City occurred as an “involuntary reaction”, a perception he probably developed from years of “mediated exposure to American culture.” He explains that the movie was constructed as a visual canvas using footage from an actual visit to the Big Apple. “A friend and I left to New York to help him forget… about a girl,” he recalls, “then we studied our footage and came up with a Terrance Malick-inspired meditation about romance and the migrant as a traveler.” Orengo appreciates and even revels in the irony of adopting part of the colonizer’s cinematic language—through one of its “independent” auteurs—to re-personalize the colonized and grant it normalcy. As Memmi has reflected, (within the colonizer/colonized dichotomy) the colonized seeks to escape the “depersonalized”, “anonymous mass”, where the colonizer has cast him, even if this process entails the use of imperial alternative media venues (Innis).
Subconscious or not, Director Orengo’s decision to portray New York as a bright, diamond-like urban enclave echoed the contradictory discourses encountered by previous migrants. In a way, the city unveils itself as a space where both a sense of collective community and segregation proliferate (Georgiou). He concludes, “In a sense, New York City exists in Puerto Ricans’ dreams, buried deep in our most utopian desires. The media influences us to believe anyone can make it there, and thus, everywhere, and Puerto Ricans want to experience this, even if our personal circumstances form a different reality.” Indeed, as the women in West Side Story testified during their rendition of “America”, Puerto Ricans imagine New York City as the epitome of cosmopolitanism, a space away from Puerto Rico’s political dissonance, in which possibilities to build community and construct a cohesive identity lie.
El Regalo/The Gift (2017). In this film, Director Joel Pérez Irizarry explores how involuntary relocation to the United States disrupts Puerto Rico’s family nuclei. The story, shot in cinéma vérité—which positions the audience as “a fly on the wall” as the action unfolds—documents a former stripper and felon’s psychological collapse when her daughter is about to be sent to Orlando, FL, to live a “better life” with her father. On parole for unnamed crimes, Salomé somewhat embodies the typical Puerto Rican negotiating their identity, particularly those presented in mainstream productions like West Side Story (1961). Post-World War II diasporic Puerto Rican communities in New York City grappled with prevailing poverty, which was sometimes a byproduct of their past lives in the homeland. As a poor and desperate single mother, Salomé represents the histories unfolding on the margins of mainstream diasporic narratives and her characterization dismantles the glamorization of the United States that materialized implicitly in NuevaYorkino.
Although the United States is not represented in tangible ways in the film, references to the country manifest in various cinematic elements. In certain conversations, Orlando, Florida represents the loss of Salomé’s only child to the man who once abandoned them. The film develops near the San Juan Airport and numerous flights are seen and heard leaving in the background of various scenes, reminders of the perennial “coming and going” shaping Puerto Rican identity. Naturally, the sounds of the airplanes’ engines remind Salomé (and the audience) of the threat of displacement, of depopulation, and thus, broken families.
Director Pérez Irizarry argues that even though the audience may find it difficult to empathize with Salomé’s unique personal tragedies, “losing a loved one to the states” represents an all too common casualty of the diaspora. Particularly after the recent devastation caused by Hurricanes Maria, many Puerto Rican parents opt for sending their children to live with relatives in the United States to benefit from a more stable quality of life. “The ghost of dispersion pierces deeply, beyond the surface of our transnational (occurring across Puerto Rico’s borders) sense of community… It fragments families,” Pérez Irizarry muses. “I think what I was trying to convey with Salomé losing her child is that those who stay behind (in Puerto Rico) also suffer,” he adds.
As rationalized by new forms of cinematic production, it seems Puerto Rican identity stands in the intersection of nostalgic narratives exalting the rural past and utopian discourses glamorizing the cosmopolitan future. The contestation of these contradictory streams of consciousness in legacy and contemporary Puerto Rican independent cinema should stimulate new perspectives to interrogate colonialism in a global context through non-mainstream filmmaking. Global cinema, as both a form of cultural documentation and dissemination, allows marginalized groups to coalesce behind production systems and cinematic discourses that dispute imposed imperial distributions of power (Innis, Georgiou). In Puerto Rico, this creative realignment furthers critical contestations of cultural identity that transcend time, geographic limits, and most importantly, colonial restraints.
Indeed, independent cinema, as reconsidered by Solanas and Getino, serves the individual and sometimes individualistic voice of the auteur. As such, for cinema to become a fitting, “guerrilla” instrument of the decolonizing process, it must cultivate and promote the spirit of collective filmmaking, even within its limited production values. However, even when lacking the collective, revolutionary aspect idealized by Solanas and Getino, contemporary independent cinema allows for the deconstruction of nationalistic and diasporic narratives in spite of, and because of, its individualistic constraints.
The unique voices of Orengo, Márquez, Pérez Irizarry, and others articulate highly personal perspectives of Puerto Ricanness in the face of perpetual colonialism and diasporic ruptures. Their accounts serve to contextualize Puerto Rican identity not as a monolithic, cohesive mass, but as a fragmented, culturally traumatized ideal that emerges as both a disruption of current colonial dominance and a confirmation of it.
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