House of Ramon
Iglesias(still)Nuyorican Cinema
Our Latin Thing: The Nuyorican Experience in Narrative Film
Nuyorican Film Series

Our Latin Thing: The Nuyorican Experience in Narrative Film*

by Judith Escalona

The films mentioned in this essay were made in the United States and had a Puerto Rican in one or two creative capacities, that of director or writer. They span nearly three decades, from the seventies through the nineties, and are fictional narratives. We were interested in narrative films, first, out of sheer curiosity. We wanted to see Puerto Rican narrative films which are not often distributed. Second, we were interested in exploring the differences between a Puerto Rican island sensibility and a "Nuyorican" sensibility. This would emerge more readily from narrative works than documentaries which offered a report on the Puerto Rican immigration to the United States over the past four decades. Although those made by Puerto Ricans might give an insider's view of that historically unfolding experience, the documentary form did not provide the kind of interpretive subjectivity we were looking for. Documentary filmmaking takes from the existing world. Narrative filmmaking recreates the world, revealing the emotional flesh and blood of our daily lives. Third, we wanted to experience the transformation of Puerto Rican consciousness through the eyes of the Puerto Rican artist, to relive the questions he or she was raising through film. What did we lose and what did we gain in our movement north? Who were we and what were we becoming?

There was an evolution in consciousness among Puerto Ricans in El Barrio(as well as other Latinos who lived among us) that became markedly clear in the seventies. Puerto Ricans began to view themselves somewhat differently in relation to their mother country and adopted land. A process of redefinition marked the period generally but within the Puerto Rican community there came to be something known as the "Nuyorican"-- homegrown in El Barrio. We were different. Different from our brothers and sisters who had remained on the island and different from the communities that surrounded us. We assimilated, incorporated that "otherness" into our "being" and called it "Our Latin Thing." It would be preposterous for a Puerto Rican, a Cuban or a Dominican to refer to "Our Latin Thing" in their own respective countries. What could it possibly mean there? In New York it meant we were different because we were Puerto Rican and we celebrated it. There is a fundamental irony to this celebration that will become apparent as we trace the Nuyorican experience in narrative film. The selections may not follow a strict chronology, but are organized in such a way to elucidate themes and issues that seem to preoccupy the filmmakers of any given period.

In La Carreta(1970), the film adaptation of the renowned play by René Marqués, a schism between the old and the new, the rural and the urban is delineated through the family of don Chago, an old jibaro (the country folk of Puerto Rico). Luis, his eldest grandson, is uncomfortable in the countryside of his birth. He wants to leave, to go to the big city and work in its factories. Don Chago admonishes him to cherish the land that is central to life and well-being. This is a house divided, where those that remain behind are living out values of a rapidly disappearing rural society, while those that leave are seeking a different, if not better life, where they can work and perhaps break an endless cycle of subsistence farming and increasing impoverishment. The first act ends, not so much conclusively but having set out some of the arguments for staying or leaving, a theme regularly revisited by the Nuyorican filmmaker. Just as La Carretawas the definitive work concerning the migration to the city, later works explore our struggle to make ends meet there while attempting to come to terms with what we left behind.

In Los Dos Mundos de Angelita(1982) and Cristina Pagan(1976) the main characters appear isolated from the society at large. Tradition clashes with the new; and both are viewed ambivalently. Deracination takes the form of substance abuse and insanity as ways of managing oneself in the face of overwhelming circumstances. There is the threat of falling into the bad life of the streets where tecatos (drug addicts) and titeres (hoodlums or street characters) lurk, waiting to take the innocent down. The characters are immigrants, newly-arrived or raised in El Barrio, where they struggle to carve out a decent life for themselves. The protagonists are victims of circumstances beyond their control. In Cristina Pagan home and family provide solace and, ultimately, healing through traditional modes. By the time of Los Dos Mundos de Angelita home is no longer a place of refuge and love is not sustaining. There is a deep sense of loss and a profound yearning to return to Puerto Rico. But they can never go back. The language of choice in these films is Spanish with English serving to distinguish the newly-arrived from those who have become Americanized, or those who preserve tradition from those who have abandoned it. Los Dos Mundos de Angelita, although a later work, is a Spanish-language film. Cristina Paganuses both languages liberally with periodic bilingual exchanges, a hallmark of the Nuyorican experience in film.

Two unusual films of the late seventies are the Spanish-language Natas es Satan(1977) and the English-language Short Eyes(1978) in which values become inverted, producing in the latter case a breakthrough film. These are transitional works, introducing new narrative elements and experiences to the screen. In Natas es Satanthe victim triumphs over his victimizer, a corrupt New York City cop. The underworld of drug-trafficking and homosexual liaisons that Natas inhabits is juxtaposed to the world of the protagonist, a successful furniture storeowner in El Barrio with a beautiful and adoring wife. The real hero or, rather, anti-hero, however, is the melodramatically evil Natas. Los titeres begin to dominate the screen. Short Eyes pushes these new tendencies forward, portraying prison inmates as protagonists. Homosexuality is the norm among these men and power is the real name of the game. Race, culture and sexuality are merely instruments in the shifting power relations among the inmates of the notorious Manhattan Correctional Facility known as "The Tombs," a microcosm of how we live in the belly of the beast called America. Here the middle-class, decent-looking white man is revealed to be the most depraved among them, a child rapist. Distinctly Nuyorican is the depiction of culturally diverse characters. There are Puerto Rican, black and white characters in the storyline. The Puerto Ricans freely interact with members of the other groups who keep apart from each other. It is not just a matter of counting the number of characters of any particular racial or ethnic background, however, Nuyorican films display a culturally diverse sensibility not found in either African American or "white" films.

The seventies and eighties witness the exodus of Puerto Ricans back to the island. Having succeeded in obtaining some part of the American dream or nightmare, many Puerto Ricans now wanted to return home. They were of retirement age, their children were grown or had established their own families. It was time to buy a casita (a typical Puerto Rican small house) or la finca de mi abuelo (my grandfather's farm) in order to live out their golden years in the tranquility and comfort only Puerto Rico could provide. They would be leaving behind the urban blight of abandoned tenements, joblessness, drug addiction and homelessness with which future generations of Puerto Ricans would have to contend. A perennial underclass had grown before their eyes, had engulfed many of their very own cousins. They were members of the same family and yet they spoke differently, carried themselves differently, had different prospects for the future. Indeed, a distinguishing feature between them was the fact that some had a future. They had acquired the means to move their families out of the inner city and into the suburbs earlier, to Queens or Long Island, following the pattern of American housing that began in the fifties, and were now seeking a way out of its fading glory. The House of Ramon Iglesias(1982) is a bumpy and obstacle-ridden journey back home, reflecting the actual historical reverse migration. Class issues and social responsibility are examined through the metaphor of the family home. When Ramon retires from his job as a janitor and decides to sell their Long Island home to return to Puerto Rico, his oldest son Javier refuses to go. The first in his family to graduate from college, he has contempt for his father and his jibaromanner. This is a house divided by those who want to return to their native land and those who want to remain in the United States. Clashing cultural values are explored and familial obligation reasserted. Javier remains stateside but not until he has helped his family return to Puerto Rico. He gives back to them, specifically, to Ramon who slaved away so that he could go to college. In the final scene, he embraces his father, openly expressing a love that had remained dormant for most of his American formative years.

The Sun and the Moon(1983) also examines in a poignant and humorous manner a highly successful woman's journey back to her roots in the South Bronx after living a very comfortable bourgeios life on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Her disenchantment with that sophisticated life makes her yearn for the greater wealth and simpler joy she knew at home. Arguably, she was only a train ride away, but her geographical proximity could never account for the vast distance that lay between her past and present lifestyles. The film marks an important shift in the Puerto Rican community of New York which nolonger considered itself an immigrant population and, indeed, nolonger was. Anita's return to her roots did not mean Puerto Rico physically but Puerto Rico culturally or spiritually. A somewhat introspective film, it asks and answers the question of what true happiness is by comparing experiential notes on the South Bronx and the Upper East Side. At one point in the story, the protagonist Anita sincerely wonders why she ever left the ghetto she once called her home. And yet, it is not just a matter of going back but giving back to the old neighborhood that makes a difference in her life. Before a devastated landscape of tenements threatened by slumlords all too willing to torch their properties to collect on the insurance, she re-establishes old ties, makes new friends and commits herself to making their lives as well as hers better.

The later films of the nineties have crossed the path of thorny social criticism and cool existential assessment to reach an ironic and at times cynical stance. Comedies such as Hangin' with the Homeboys(1991) and Puerto Rican Mambo: Not A Musical(1992), or even tragic comedies such as Pleasant Dreams(1996), present contradiction as a way of life. Los titeres of the street now strut the screen as our heroes. The immigrant is gone or recedes into the background of the story, the main characters are second and third generation Nuyoricans who have always called El Barrio, the Bronx or even other regions of the United States their home. There is self-criticism and hope, the possibility of finding a way out of endlessly bad situations that are laughable because they are unending. The good and the decent appear almost as throwbacks to an earlier, more simple age. The same applies to the dramatic work El Deseo (1998), where the protagonist, a hired gunman, mulls over his missed opportunity to live a decent life with the woman he loves. Perhaps they could still marry and move to Puerto Rico?

The nineties also provide the Nuyorican filmmaker with a different field for experimentation and expression, reflecting trends not only in American culture but changes in Puerto Rican island society. New subjects and themes are introduced that are latently or subtextually present in earlier films but now emerge full force. Themes related to feminism and homosexuality in the Puerto Rican/Latino family and society at large are openly and unabashedly addressed through uncoventional narrative structures. Brincando El Charco(1994) and Go Fish(1996) set off in this new direction and are breakthrough films for both the Nuyorican and American independent cinemas. What does it mean to identify with a culture, to feel deeply a part of a culture, that rejects you because you are homosexual? What are the intersections of race, class and sexual identity? Brincando El Charco, an experimental work that looks more like a documentary than the fictional narrative it actually is, takes on these issues and, without reaching any pat conclusions, returns to the family as a key to resolution. This is the story of Claudia, a young Puerto Rican lesbian who comes to live in the States after being thrown out of her home by her father. Here in the States, she has been able to create an openly gay life for herself. She has never thought of going back to Puerto Rico until her brother calls to inform her of their father's death. Similarly, Go Fishis almost a serio-comedic discourse on lesbian identity and herstory with a multicultural circle of lesbian friends and lovers. In a coming out scene to her family, the only scene in the film done in Spanglish, the Latina character storms out of her home to escape her mother and brother's oppressive intolerance. She finds a new home and family among her lesbian lover and friends.

*This essay will continue to unfold as this cinema grows

Copyright (c)1999 Judith Escalona