by Lillian Jiménez
Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 60-66
For many Puerto Rican film and video makers, picking up the camera was equivalent to "picking up the gun" in defense of civil and human rights in the United States after the Civil Rights Movement. The beginning of this "coming to self," as bell hooks describes it, was a burning desire to expose the terrible conditions under which Puerto Ricans of this generation had been raised; challenge the assumptions under which these conditions thrived; and recreate the societal institutions that had engendered them. In this war, images were a potent and vital weapon.
Through popular culture, distorted images of bandidos, spitfires and Latin lovers, brutish farm workers, petty tyrants and delinquents had burrowed deep into the collective consciousness of Puerto Ricans and the broader society. In effect, dominant ideology and its apparatus of representation indicted Puerto Ricans as responsible for their own conditions. In this paradigm, U.S. benevolence was a necessary strategy to protect Latinos from themselves.
In the late 60s and early 70s, a new generation of Puerto Ricans responded to these assumptions with, "Fuego, fuego, fuego…los yanquis quieren fuego" (Fire, fire, fire, the yankees want fire). In EL PUEBLO SE LEVANTA (1972), Iris Morales, a member of the Young Lord Party, a Puerto Rican political activist organization, says,
With this newfound sense of enlightenment, forged from experiential resistance and awareness of international anti-colonial and other domestic struggles for civil rights, Puerto Ricans reclaimed their history, and exposed, challenged and attempted to change their reality. Images were key in this life and death struggle.
While it has not been widely known, the first Puerto Rican migrants to the U.S. were deeply concerned with their depiction in the media. Through a wide network of civic, cultural and political organizations, these pioneros confronted discrimination. In 1940, Scribner's Commentator ran an article entitled "Welcome Paupers and Crime: Puerto Rico's Shocking Gift to the U.S.," which said,
While forty Puerto Rican organizations, including the Asociación de Escritores y Periodistas Puertoriqueño, organized against this article (Bernardo Vega, p. 203), seven years later the World Telegram ran a series of equally vitriolic articles. This too was met with a vociferous demonstration and picket line that stretched for several blocks (Bernardo Vega, p. 231).
An instrumental component to this resistance was the formation of hometown clubs to celebrate common roots and create a necessary support system and network for housing, jobs and cultural revival. A critical locus of resistance to the dominant culture, members could speak in Spanish and associate freely with Puerto Ricans of different classes who shared a similar economic and social status. Contrary to commonly held beliefs, Puerto Ricans did not passively acquiesce to exploitative conditions in these early years. There were numerous left-leaning and mainstream political organizations, composed of working class puertorriqueños. In addition, many Puerto Ricans were active in union organizing and international solidarity work, especially with Nicaragua and the Republicans of the Spanish Civil War.
While thousands of Puerto Ricans had migrated to the United States prior to World War II, it is not until the advent of intensive industrialization of Puerto Rico through Operation Bootstrap policies (late 40s-mid 50s) that hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States in search of economic possibilities. Settling in large metropolitan areas on the East Coast like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, they occupied low income housing readily available as Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants moved up the economic ladder and away to the outer boroughs and suburbs.
Unlike other immigrants, Puerto Ricans were citizens and anticipated benefits from that legal status. Racially mixed, they were more tolerant of behavior and relationships deemed inappropriate in race-conscious United States. Confronted by abject discrimination in spite of their citizenship and because of their racial mixture, they developed a survival strategy relying on the existing infrastructure of hometown clubs, civic associations and political clubs. To achieve educational and political objectives, they created new organizations like the Puerto Rican Forum and Aspira of America.
While these first generations of migrants paved the way through internal and external forms of resistance, their survival strategies were varied and fraught with contradictions. Years of ideological and political domination by Spain and then the United States had instilled the culture with a deep-rooted sense of nationalism coupled with political ambivalence. Some quickly seized the opportunity to remake themselves in the model of the assimilated "Anglo" citizen.
The third generation of Puerto Ricans who reached theft late teens during the volatile and empowering Civil Rights Movement, repudiated the "complacent" and "accomodationist" strategies employed by mainstream Puerto Rican political leaders of the day. Having been educated in North American schools, many had served as intermediaries for their family with educational, health and social service agencies. Having weathered the full fury of institutional racism, accommodation as such was the last strategy they wished to employ. Having been denied an identity, they asserted theft presence in militant and forceful terms — theirs was the strategy of direct confrontation.
The Young Lords, The Puerto Rican Student Union, The Movimiento Pro-Independencia (the precursor of The Puerto Rican Socialist Party), El Comité-M.I.N.P., Resistencia Puertorriqueña, and El Pueblo del Vladic in the Lower East Side, just to name a few, were engaged in re-creating the Puerto Rican community, using as role models Puerto Rican labor figures like Luisa Capetilla and Juana Colón; nationalist leaders like Don Pedro Albizu Campos and Lolita Lebrón; and international leaders like Che Guevara. Involved in local, national and international issues, they galvanized the Puerto Rican community by traveling to socialist countries, taking up the issue of Puerto Rican independence, creating support committees for Nationalist leaders imprisoned since the early 50s and worked closely with similar organizations within the black, Asian and white communities. This generation picked up the camera in spite of and in defense of the ones they loved.
An integral component of this political ferment and awakening was cultural revitalization based on nationalism. As "cultural workers," artists of all disciplines collaborated to create a new image of Puerto Ricans through the visual arts with the development of Taller Boricua and through the poetry of such critical figures as Pedro Pietri and Sandra Maria Estévez. A distinct Puerto Rican identity, tied to the Island, rooted in the New York experience and shaped by the anti-imperialist ideology of the period, had emerged. Film and video images created by Puerto Ricans that represented the history, culture and daily reality of the majority of Puerto Ricans were missing.
To fill this void, Realidades, a local series on public broadcast station WNET/Channel 13, was created through community pressure. It provided the focus and center for Puerto Rican involvement in the broadcast industry and later in the independent film and video field. Community activists Gilberto Gerena Valentín, Esperanza Martel, Diana Caballero, Julio Rodríguez and others formed The Puerto Rican Eduction and Action Media Council in 1972 to protest negative depictions of Puerto Ricans and advocate for increased employment of Puerto Ricans within the industry. Joined by filmmaker José García, they successfully pressured WNET, by taking over the studio during an evening pledge, to establish Realidades with discretionary station money. Humberto Cintrón, a community activist, became Executive Producer. José García, who had established several community film workshops throughout the country for the National Endowment for the Arts, became Producer.
Retaining its local focus for two years, several important cultural and public affairs documentaries were produced and acquired by Realidades, including ANGELITOS NEGROS, an in-studio dance piece about a baquiné, the African-based burial ritual of a young child; TOWARDS A COLLECTIVE EXPRESSION, the first documentary by Marcos Dimas about the philosophy and work of Taller Boricua, the visual arts group he co-founded; and LOS NACIONALISTAS, a documentary that reclaimed the history of Don Pedro Albizu Campos and the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico. An important developmental leap was made when programming exchanges with KMEX, a local public broadcast station in Los Angeles, elevated Realidades to national prominence. Chicano filmmaker Jesus Treviño's important YO SOY CHICANO, about the political consciousness of the Chicano Movement, was the first film exchange and it opened a dialogue between Puerto Ricans and Chicanos. Contact was made with Sandino Films, a collective of filmmakers in Puerto Rico, resulting in José García's JULIA DE BURGOS, a film about the life and death of revolutionary poet Julia de Burgos. This dialogue and working relationship with Chicano directors in the West and Southwest was instrumental in the formation of the National Latino Media Coalition which legally challenged the broadcast industry nationally. In 1974, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting funded Realidades as a national series and Lou De Lemos, a Dominican with experience in commercial media, took over as series producer.
During this period, Realidades served as one of the principle creative magnets within the Puerto Rican community, attracting artists from different disciplines to collaborate and brainstorm on a myriad of projects. Writers, visual artists, poets and film and video makers like Diego Echevarría, working at Channel 13 on another show and Diego De La Texera, co-founder of Sandino Films in Puerto Rico, gravitated to the series as a creative wellspring. However, a precarious funding base, uneven programming schedule and internal problems caused the Realidades series to end in 1975.
Initiated by a core group of activists and makers with varying levels of skill and experience because of the exclusionary practices of the media industry, Realidades launched the careers of many producers still working within the broadcast, advertising and independent film industries: Ortiz, independent producer, formerly with WGBH, Boston; Larry Varas, CBS in New York; Livia Pérez, independent producer; Felipe Borerro, sound recordist; Eulogio Ortiz, Assistant Director with McNeil-Lehrer, WNET; Mercedes Sabio, Program Manager, WOSU, Athens, Ohio; and Lou De Lemos, WNET.
As a consequence of the Realidades series and the advocacy and litigation waged by the National Coalition against the stations, José Rivera, the National Coalition's attorney, was the first and only Puerto Rican named to the Board of Directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the late 1970s. In addition, several Latino based public affairs shows were spawned at commercial stations — many of which are still in place today like NBC's Visiones and ABC's Imágenes Latinas.
THE DOCUMENTARIANS: MEDIA GUERILLAS
Many film and videomakers chose to remain independent of the corporate media structures. The earliest wave of Puerto Rican filmmaking concentrated in the documentary format because of its relative low cost, accessibility and efficacy in visual representation. Newsreel, an alternative media organization patterned after the Film and Photo League of the 30s, espoused the theory that anyone could "pick up the camera and shoot" to create films that empowered people. Generally influenced by this philosophy and other democratic principles of the media movement, a small cadre of Puerto Rican documentarians slowly emerged. Profiles of three Puerto Rican documentarians illustrate the motivation and problems faced by these independent producers.
Carlos De Jesús started out as a photographer until German television asked him to direct a film on housing in New York. This creative collaboration produced his first film, THE DEVIL IS A CONDITION (1972), a lyrical ode to Latinos and Blacks fighting to improve their housing conditions throughout the city. Made with a cache of liberated film, a borrowed camera, editing facilities and lab processing provided by German television, and an otherwise no-money budget, it was presented at the Whitney Museum and garnered awards at festivals in Paris. (It was recently re-shown as part of the series, LA INDIRECTA DIRECTA: TWO DECADES OF CHICANO AND PUERTO RICAN FILM AND VIDEO, at the Whitney, curated by this author and Chon Noriega.) Lacking personal resources and thereby requiring an institutional base, he helped found Imágenes at New Jersey Public Television and went on to make THE PICNIC (1976), a celebration and sharing of cultural values between Puerto Rican inmates and their families in a New Jersey prison. He continued to work in Latino series within public broadcasting throughout the country because the infrastructure for independent film was in a nascent stage. Currently teaching at New York University, he works primarily in photography and video.
Beni Matías received formal training in film production at La Escuela Oficial de Cinematografía in Madrid, Spain. On her return to the United States, she worked at Young Filmmakers Foundation, a film resource center in the Lower East Side that provided equipment access to independent filmmakers. Lacking experience and knowledge about funding for film, she collaborated with Marci Reaven, a New York University student who shared her values and vision about documentary film as a tool for social change.
They made IN THE HEART OF LOISAIDA (1979), a black and white documentary about early housing takeovers in the lower east side of New York by their Latino tenants. It was made essentially through in-kind contributions of equipment, labor and a small grant from Adopt A Building, a not-for-profit housing organization. On the basis of the first film, she and copartner Marci Reavens received governmental support to produce THROUGH YOUNG PEOPLE'S EYES (1981), a color documentary about low income Black and Latino children in Philadelphia.
While a significant breakthrough for Matís, she chose a "holistic" approach to independent film by working with other makers and in other areas of field. She worked as a sound recordist, associate producer and production assistant to survive and refine her skills. Continuing production, she co-directed HOUSING COURT (1984), a documentary that explored the complex and arcane machinations of the Bronx Housing Court, with Billy Sarokin on a New York State Council on the Arts grant and Sarokin's equipment. By teaming up with people who had access to equipment and common interests, she pragmatically solved her equipment problems. In addition to production work, she worked with Women Make Movies' Punto De Vista Latina, an exhibition presentation of Latin American women's films in Latino communities throughout New York, and co-edited a catalogue on Third World media Seeking a more stable creative outlet, she secured a job at WNET/Channel 13 on the Metroline series as an associate producer and worked her way up to producer. Beni is now the Senior Producer of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) based in Minneapolis and responsible for developing programming by independent producers for public television.
Pedro Rivera, a history student from San Juan, Puerto Rico, was referred by members of Sandino Films in Puerto Rico to Jaime Barrios, a Chilean filmmaker and co-founder of Young Filmmakers Foundation. With his interest in history, education and film, he began teaching filmmaking to Latino children at Young Filmmakers Foundation, now Film/Video Arts. There he met his long-time collaborator, Susan Zeig, and together with Jaime Barrios and the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños (Hunter College) embarked on the production of a historical compilation film about the impact of Operation Bootstrap industrialization program on Puerto Rico, MANOS A LA OBRA. Continuing his collaboration with the Centro and Zeig, he completed PLENA IS WORK, PLENA IS SONG (1989), a documentary about working class Puerto Rican culture expressed through the African-based music and singing of plena. Upon completion of that film, he taught in the public school system and is working on a series of videotapes about Puerto Rican community life in New York and a film on the economic status of Latinos, The Economic Mambo: One Step Forward, One Step Back.
In addition to these three financially-strapped documentarians, who made their mark on Puerto Rican film and video on the East Coast, there were a number of other makers on the scene dealing with issues of labor organizing, Latino music and the political status of the Island: WHAT COULD YOU DO WITH A NICKEL (1981), a documentary film about Black and Latino domestic workers forming a union in the South Bronx was co-produced by the author of this article; Carlos Ortiz completed MACHITO: A LATIN JAZZ LEGACY (1986), a documentary film about Frank "Machito" Grillo, the Cuban Latin jazz composer and bandleader; Zydnia Nazario, an architect by profession, directed THE BATTLE OF VIEQUES (1986), a documentary about naval maneuvers on the island of Vieques off the coast of Puerto Rico and is currently fund raising for LINKING ISLANDS, a documentary film about the evolution and intersection of New York based Puerto Rican art and politics. Another of the few formally trained filmmakers of this era, Vicente Juarbe, directed PUERTO RICO: OUR RIGHT TO DECIDE (1984), a documentary film on the political status of Puerto Rico for the Methodist Church.
These documentarians were committed to illustrating the history, social issues and culture of Puerto Ricans so long ignored by the dominant culture. They attempted to represent the complex survival strategies developed by Puerto Ricans in the midst of abject racism and poverty. While some of these films suffered from low production values as people struggled with the language of the form, limited funding and lack of experience, they more than made up for their limitations by their passionate quest for validating and complex images and theft insider's knowledge of the culture.
Their overriding contribution was to defy conventional assumptions and assert that Puerto Ricans should occupy the center of cinematic discourse in order to reflect the variety of implicit and explicit responses to oppression. Some subjects internalized their oppression, others fought against it and yet others determined to survive, got around it. These multifaceted responses to oppression gave a name and face to the invisible "other." The women in IN THE HEART OF LOISAIDA, poor and uneducated, found their "voice" as community heroes for thousands to see.
While the documentary form had its advantages, it also had its limitations. Limited to material retrieved from the field — if subjects did not articulate an issue clearly, then makers were forced to rely on narration. Hence, most of the aforementioned films utilized narration to a greater or lesser degree. Eschewing the ebb and flow of the interview and talking heads format, a small group of makers chose the narrative form to visualize their stories about Puerto Rican experiences.
The films, for the most part, expressed the subtle and complex fabric of the internalization of racism. For example, Pablo Figueroa directed his first narrative piece for NBC in 1974 about the dilemma of a fifteen-year old girl who is compelled to take the reigns of the family. WE, TOGETHER presented the interweaving nature of one family, the centrality of family life in the Puerto Rican culture and the dissolution of this fictive family in the face of economic and psychological hardship. Deciding to work outside the television format with its inherent formulaic limitations, Figueroa embarked on independently making CRISTINA PAGAN (1976), a short narrative about a young mother who accepts the death of her child through spiritualism. Working with a core of Latino technicians at commercial equipment houses, he painstakingly made the film through free labor and personal finances.
Discovering film through theatre, his natural affinity for fiction was realized in the narrative form, where he could visualize the inner reality of oppression, while the documentarians had chosen to show its outer manifestations. Unable to secure the financial wherewithall to produce a feature film in the late 80s, he collaborated with the Committee on Hispanic Families and Children to direct DOLORES (1988), a short narrative, shot on film but edited on video due to economic reasons, about domestic violence within the Latino community.
While Figueroa felt alone in his solitary quest to fictionalize Puerto Rican realities, Luis Soto — formerly with Sandino Films in Puerto Rico and OYE WILLE, another Puerto Rican series produced by Lou De Lemos for PBS — was collaborating with Angela Fontañez, who started out with WNET's Black Journal in 1968. They made REFLECTIONS OF OUR PAST (1979), a short drama that featured young people traveling back in time to discover their history and culture. Originally part of a series of television programs for young children on Puerto Rican history and culture, only one video was produced.
Yet, Soto persevered to establish his own production company making and became the first Puerto Rican to direct a film for the PBS dramatic series, American Playhouse. His THE HOUSE OF RAMON IGLESIAS (1982) is a feature length film adapted from a play about an educated Puerto Rican man who reconciles his love/hate relationship with his janitor father. The film handled the self-hatred faced by many people of color head on while not sacrificing the dynamic bonds of love within the family. In 1987, Maria Norman directed THE SUN AND THE MOON, a narrative feature film about a Puerto Rican woman's personal odyssey into her identity.
SEARCHING FOR A MODE
The most prolific maker to emerge during the late 70s was Edin Velez. Influenced by Marshall McLuhan while studying fine arts at the University of Puerto Rico, he journeyed to New York to study video at Global Village. He became involved with the early downtown video scene of the Vasulkas in Soho. Escaping the burgeoning commercial video industry to teach at Young Filmmakers Foundation, he began working on his independent work in earnest.
While his early work was characterized by experimentation, TULE: THE KUNA INDIANS (1978), a representational documentary about the Kuna Indians of the San Blas Islands off Panama, was the first work to receive critical acclaim. His later work, META MAYAN II (1981), was a visceral and evocative personal essay of his trip to Guatemala. Not wanting to become "pidgeon holed as the Puerto Rican making Latino tapes," he solicited and received funding from the New York State Council on the Arts to make THE OBLIQUE STRATEGIST TOO (1984) about the composer Brian Eno and AS IS (1984), a meditation on New York. In 1984, Edin, his wife and partner Ethel, and the author of this paper produced SANCTUS, the first video installation by a Puerto Rican artist at El Museo del Barrio. While living in Japan on a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, he directed THE MEANING OF THE INTERVAL (1987), a personal essay on Japanese culture, and the arresting DANCE OF DARKNESS (1989) about Buto performance. In an effort to define himself artistically and create his own cinematic language, Edin has explored other cultures and experimented with time, location and collaging within video art. He is currently working on a videotape about Puerto Rico, the birthplace he fled in the late 60s. It is likely that the tape will represent a synthesis of his high aesthetic sensibility and all the ambivalence of a Puerto Rican living in self-imposed exile. He is also the recipient of an ITVS grant for a project on the Conquest and Columbus.
A GROUNDING IN SELF
Missing from the outlining of Puerto Rican filmmakers are several important non-Puerto Rican contributors. Cuban born and Puerto Rican raised filmmaker Ana María García made the seminal LA OPERACIÓN (1982), about the massive sterilization abuse of Puerto Rican women, and is currently editing COCOLOS Y ROQUEROS, a documentary about how race and class are played out through culture in Puerto Rico. Diego Echevarría, a Chilean born and Puerto Rican raised filmmaker who worked at WNET and NBC for many years, directed two independently produced documentaries: PUERTO RICO: A COLONY THE AMERICAN WAY (1981), a short film about the political status of Puerto Rico, and LOS SURES (1984), a beautifully crafted film about Williamsburg, a Puerto Rican community in Brooklyn, New York. LOS SURES premiered at the New York Film Festival but was not well received by many members of the Puerto Rican community because of its focus on marginalized members of the community and omission of stable working class families from Williamsburg.
Alfonso Beatto, a Brazilian cinematographer based in New York during the late 70s and early 80s, established the Latin Film Project as a support system for Latin American filmmakers. During that time, he directed PARADISE INVADED, an early documentary film about the colonialization of Puerto Rico, in collaboration with José García and other Puerto Rican filmmakers. LOS DOS MUNDOS DE ANGELITA (1978), a feature-length film about the dissolution of a Puerto Rican family after its arrival in New York, was directed by Jayne Morrison, a white woman from New York, and written by a Puerto Rican. It featured an all Puerto Rican cast and many Puerto Rican/Latino crew members.
National and cultural affirmation occupied the center of these cinematic propositions as film and video makers struggled to represent and legitimize the history, conditions and cultural development of their communities in the United States.
While the advent of small format video technology increased the possibilities of representation, only a handful of emerging Puerto Rican makers have emerged on the scene. Frances Negrón, an Island-trained anthropologist and graduate film student, collaborated with community activist Alba Martínez to create AIDS IN THE BARRIO (1988), a documentary film about AIDS in the Puerto Rican community. She is currently working on BRINCANDO EL CHARCO, a documentary film about the development of the many Puerto Rican communities in the United States. Cuban Eta Troyano recently received an ITVS grant for her film on Puerto Rican rap performers in the South Bronx. Entertainment lawyer and member of the Young Lords Party quoted in an earlier section of this paper, Iris Morales is collaborating with Pablo Figueroa on an examination of the legacy of the Young Lords, a militant political organization created during the political heyday of the 60s.
A few makers have opted to work in other areas of the independent media field. Yvette Nieves-Cruz, a cinema studies graduate of New York University, who directed L.E.A.R, a videotape on the anti-imperialist artists league in Mexico, no longer makes media but is instead a major exhibitor of Latino film/video at the CineFestival of San Antonio, Texas. Because of the tenuous nature of the field, many have deserted it for more secure careers.
Puerto Rican cinema has grown from its infancy to toddlerhood with little guidance and parental direction. It has emerged and developed in spite of the structural obstacles inherent in denying "voice" within this society. As more makers gain experience and mastery over the forms of their choosing, they will use the medium with more precision, sophistication, flair and experimentation. There is still a striking need for Puerto Rican and Latino makers to produce and direct films and videotapes about a multiplicity of issues and concerns. Some of these concerns are directly linked to the status and conditions of the Puerto Rican and Latino communities in the United States. Yet it would be a grave loss if the makers limit themselves or are limited by cultural institutions and its gatekeepers to just those themes. As we live in a complex and changing world, our special place within the margins allows us to interpret U.S. culture and society in a unique way. We can contribute to the contemporary cultural discourse by producing filmic texts that present the complexity, innovative and myriad experiences of our survival in an often hostile terrain.
Our contributions can be to deconstruct and reconstruct the assumptions of this society by presenting other perspectives that are more dialectical in embracing the contradictory nature of life and its dynamic movement. By presenting another sense of space, rhythm, time and seeing that is multidimensional, pollinated by a melange of rich cultures and traditions that are ever changing. To continue our process of growth as mediamakers and as members of various communities, we require not only more production and access to resources, but more Puerto Ricans actively involved in the critique and study of formal issues of film and video.
The films and videotapes discussed in this article grounded a generation of Puerto Ricans who had been nurtured with the dual and contradictory impulses of a colonized people with a passion to resist. We were "never meant to survive" as Audre Lord says in her poetry and yet we survived, fought back and created. These films and videotapes are our testament to survival. They forced us to look at ourselves, to step outside of our condition and objectify our reality, to deconstruct and then visually re-construct it with a new vision and power extracted from that painful process. They allowed us to reflect on ourselves — the films were our passageway — moving from objects to subjects. As makers, we were tormented by lack of opportunity, experience and resources. As spectators, we liked what we saw; sometimes we didn't. Many times we disagreed with the interpretation, but we could never deny that we were engaged in a life-death dialogue about our existence.
1. Memoirs of Bernardo Vega, edited by Cesar Andreu Iglesias (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984), p. xii.
2. An earlier version of this article appeared in Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños Bulletin 2.8 (Spring 1990): 22-43.
3. EL PUEBLO SE LEVANTA, 16mm documentary film distributed by Third World Newsreel.
4. Interview with Edin Velez.