Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
¡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. Many Americans wrongly think that Puerto Rico is a foreign country, when it is actually a Commonwealth state 'allied to the United States by choice.' The 'by choice' part of that arrangement has been in dispute ever since the Spanish-American War.
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.
¡Yo soy Boricua! also delineates the island's ongoing struggle for independence. From the 1930s to the 1950s, popular political movements opposed U.S. rule, but were continually blocked. A flag designed by expatriates in New York was banned, and people in San Juan could be arrested just for whistling the movement's chosen freedom song. Several bloody massacres are noted, as well as the jailing and torture (in America) of the main independence candidate, Pedro Albizu Campos. Previously labeled as terrorists, in the 1950s they were tarred as Communists.
The docu charts later political developments such as The Young Lords, self-proclaimed 'polite activists' (possibly to distinguish themselves from the Black Panthers) in New York in the late 1960s. The Lords demonstrated to publicize poor health care in Puerto Rican neighborhoods, organized youth breakfast leagues and at one point 'hijacked' a TB testing truck. They also took over a church for a couple of weeks, protesting that its meeting rooms could be used for social purposes. But The Lords have been mostly forgotten because their work was non-violent and thus found less newspaper reportage.
Also underreported is a scandalous program carried out in Puerto Rico in the 1950s and 1960s ... the mass sterilization of women under a sinister 1937 Eugenics directive to reduce the island's population. Puerto Rican women with established families were told to report for 'official' sterilization appointments; women brought in for other routine procedures were frequently sterilized without their consent or foreknowledge, as if it were none of their business.
The docu lets the monstrousness of that program speak for itself, and saves its venom for a more recent and partially successful campaign. An eastern island of Puerto Rico called Vieques has been used as a bombing range and weapons testing facility since WW2, and mounting protests and political pressure finally resulted in its being returned as a nature preserve (although parts of the island are contaminated by radioactive matter from special weaponry).
Rosie Perez is a charming guide with a disarming laugh. The footage of her interacting with her brother and sister (and her aged father as well) are not self-indulgent; Rosie's sincerity is always self-evident, whether reacting to smoked herring in a Puerto Rican market or fleeing from a spider's web in the garden of a childhood home. Her cousin Sixto Ramos is also an actor and alternates between kidding Rosie and acting as a straight man for her jokes. We also hear from other spokespeople, including history experts. A sentimental musician and the organizer of the Puerto Rican Day Parade are among those giving the best testimonials for Boricuan pride.
Genius Entertainment's DVD of ¡Yo soy Boricua, pa'que tu lo sepas! is a handsome flat production with good color. The audio track is augmented with smooth Latin music by Carlos Valdez. The film was produced by the IFC channel. Rosie was in the news a couple of weeks ago saying how she invented the idea to direct her first docu during a meeting in the IFC offices. She fibbed that she already had commitments from various contributors (like narrator Jimmy Smits) and the IFC gave her a green light. Considering how pleasant and informative the show turned out, she Did the Right Thing. There are no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
¡Yo soy Boricua, pa'que tu lo sepas! rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 18, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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