Puerto Rican women directors
by Frances Negrón-Muntaner
Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 67-78
ON THE USES OF HISTORY
The writing of this paper confronted me, for the second time in these last few months,[open notes in new window] with the exasperating reality of the lack of critical scholarship on important areas of Puerto Rican politics and cultural production. One of the most devastating effects of this situation is that "we" (meaning anyone concerned with Puerto Rican history and culture) continue to lack a space for debate and, hence, growth. Although this is not the appropriate space for an apology on the uses of history (mythic and strategic) and multi-voiced debates, I would like to suggest that critics and historians of Puerto Rican cinema must begin (and continue) to approach film and video not only from the point of view of the maker (interviews, for example) or the inherent "quality" of a production (whether the film is "good" or "bad") but also in a more comprehensive way that promotes the discussion of particular textual strategies in specific political, historical and cultural contexts.
Given the monumental task at hand for anyone wishing to write about Puerto Rican cinema, and the need for major research, I have decided to concentrate on a set of specific questions, mainly: What strategies (thematic and textual) have Puerto Rican women used in constructing their rums and videos? Are there any significant points of divergence and/or convergence in the work of Puerto Rican women film/videomakers? And, if they exist, how can these similarities and differences be accounted for?
Finally, and perhaps more important for this paper: how can we read films and videos produced by Puerto Rican women to enhance and multiply spaces of debate concerning crucial political and cultural questions for Puerto Ricans on the Island and in the United States? Thus, this essay attempts to map several tendencies of this production and some of the strategies used in particular films and videos. I have decided to concentrate on independent production, although it becomes increasingly urgent to approach the works of women in television networks both in Puerto Rico and the United States. Within this independent production, I have selected works which let me problematize dominant ideology and constructions of Puerto Rican history and identity as well as the relationship between anti-colonial and gender politics.
LESS THAN A QUINCEAÑERA?
Cleo de Verberena's O MISTERIO DE DOMINIO NEGRO (1930) is generally credited with being the first major film produced by a woman in Latin America. While a number of women in the region managed to produce some works during the century (particularly in countries where national film industries exist such as Mexico and Brazil), it is not until the 1970s that women in Latin America and Latina women in the United States begin to produce works on a regular basis. The reasons often cited for this minor explosion (we still need more) relates to at least three factors: the rise of feminism as an international movement and an empowering discourse, the institutionalization of film education through universities and colleges and the entry of women into the journalistic/ broadcast professions. In the case of the United States, the Civil Rights Movement and the articulation of different versions of radical politics among "women of color" also contributed to Latina involvement in the media.
In Rosa Linda Fregoso's recent article on Chicana cinema, she mentions that 1990 marked the quinceañera or fifteenth year of Chicana filmmaking in the United States. Given the important points of contact of Chicano and Puerto Rican film history (in terms of political ideology and aesthetics), it is not surprising that one of the first important films made by a Puerto Rican woman in the United States (Beni Matías' THE HEART OF LOISAIDA in collaboration with Marci Reaven) was produced during the same decade that Chicanas began producing their first films. It was also (although a product of different circumstances) during the late 1970s that in Puerto Rico, Poli Marichal began producing experimental animations in Super 8 film.
I have selected these two filmmakers as a starting point for the discussion of Puerto Rican women's filmmaking even though journalist Maggie Babb's LAGUNA SOLTERA is perhaps the first film made in Puerto Rico by a woman, because their work signals the emergence of two consistent traditions in Puerto Rican women's cinema: the politically committed documentary and the experimental short. Despite the fact that Puerto Rico's film history has been greatly fragmented and interrupted, the so called "golden age" of Puerto Rican cinema associated with the División de Educación de la Comunidad. This organization trained a whole generation of Puerto Rican filmmakers but did not train a single woman and had no Puerto Rican woman in major creative positions. Thus, the División produced a handful of films (from over a hundred) on women's rights, without the full participation of women as directors, writers, editors or producers.
POLITICAL ALLEGORY AND WOMEN AS METAPHOR: ANTI-IMPERIALIST MASTER NARRATIVES VS. THE SELF-EMPOWERMENT TRADITION
It has been suggested that, in general, Latina and Puerto Rican women filmmaking has concentrated on documentary production because of its low cost, accessibility and efficacy as well as its perceived superiority in representing the "reality" of women's lives. On this last issue, Liz Kotz comments:
However, in this investigation, I have found that experimental narrative shorts are as prevalent as the documentaries. Some of the same considerations of accessibility and low cost may explain this second choice, although I would suggest that part of the reason for the emphasis on experimental formats is the fact that a number of Puerto Rican women filmmakers (particularly from the Island context) have come to film or video through a prior engagement in other fine art forms such as photography (Frieda Medín) or other visual arts (Poli Marichal and Mari Mater O'Neill). This specific element of the maker's formation (along with issues of education and class) accounts for a widespread practice of "film/video art," on the margins of the commercial media world in Puerto Rico.
Given the extent of the film/video art practice, however, what is perhaps in need of further research is the question of why the documentaries are the most successful productions among feminist critics in the United States and the most politicized sectors in Puerto Rico and the United States. One possible line of inquiry includes the general understanding among hegemonic intellectuals (artists and critics) of the "non-political" consequences of "form" versus the transparency of the "content."
Beni Matías, a New York born Puerto Rican filmmaker, collaborated with Marci Reaven in the production of THE HEART OF LOISA1DA in 1979. This film, as a significant number of the early Chicano and Puerto Rican films, is strategically constructed to foreground and celebrate the self empowerment activity of a group of people, specifically, working class Puerto Ricans in New York City. The textual strategies used in this type of film/video narrative include the following: the positioning of "ourselves" (Chicanos or Puerto Ricans) as central and capable agents of change; the identifying of the obstacles to empowerment not within ourselves, but in the dominant structures which reproduce the conditions of poverty, sexism, economic oppression (ignoring homophobia, however); and the "showing" of images of self empowerment as examples to the community and as celebration of collective achievement. As activist and journalist Blanca Vázquez comments:
Thus, the ultimate objective of making these films was mimetic. They sought the identification of the viewer with the central "voices" and their mobilization (similar to the "protagonists") into action. Akin to "taking over" your community, your block or your house, was also taking over the means of representation. Cinematic representation became a form of literally "projecting" collective struggles.
THE HEART OF LOISAIDA tells various "success stories" of Puerto Rican residents and housing organizers in improving housing conditions in a section of the Lower East Side. Yet this struggle (for improved housing) is never "only" that, but a metaphor for community and collective struggles. The opening voice over (unlike the "Voice of God" in LA OPERACIÓN and LA BATALLA) does not resurface as a structuring strategy throughout the film and has primarily the function of "introducing" the viewer to the community s/he is about to hear (in the metaphoric sense of alternative "voice"). The voiceover also re-affirms, by enunciation (language), the community's symbolic empowerment measured by its capacity to name and transform:
"This is a community that has given a new name to its community, this is Loisaida. But Loisaida is a community that is also struggling to survive. People are organizing their buildings, asking on many levels how can we make this ours."
The narrator's location as part of the "we" marks a very significant difference to the anti-imperialist narratives whose voice-over narration is designed not to "orient" but to instruct and provide a reading of the "evidence." In this sense, the "individuals" in THE HEART OF LOISAIDA are never "individuals" but rather members of a community. Thus, they stand (synecdotically) as the will of the collectivity (since the "collectivity" as such is not representable). It is not surprising that two of the most significant strategies of this narrative voice are the frequent group interview and the insistent use of the pronoun "we" which embodies both the ideology of the film and its participants.
THE HEART OF LOISAIDA, as with the earlier THE DEVIL IS A CONDITION (1972), is a story of empowerment (not an "objective" account of housing organizing) which seeks to convey the fundamental idea that "we" (poor, urban, New York Puerto Ricans) can have control over our own lives. Even the "landlord," which would be essential in a dichotomous narrative of conflict through the ever ominous and omnipresent "they," is almost completely absent in the narrative. And, when this center shifts, towards the end of the film, to the professional community organizer, the film loses strength since it partially moves from the tenant's first person accounts of the process to the organizer's discourse of management. However, even the organizers are part of the "we" discourse. As a young organizer declares: "We are doing something for our community."
A second significant quality of THE HEART OF LOISAIDA (and my own 1989 film, AIDS IN THE BARRIO, is the lack of major historical contextualization. This contrasts sharply with the Puerto Rico-focused works which participate in a form of "compulsion to history" where all contemporary problems are rooted in specific aspects of colonial history. The U.S.-focused documentary films made by women (and men), by necessity or by choice, tend to concentrate on specific issues, relevant to large sections of the "community" and directly seek to modify the viewer's behavior. These choices may be related to the assumption of the "community" in the United States as mainly defined by class and/ or "race." Hence, the need to address issues requiring immediate transformation such as housing or health.
Issues related to poverty and "identity," — while present in many of the works by Puerto Rican women focused on the Island — are consistently linked to colonialism and macro-histories. The Island-focused narratives tend towards a "sadist" impulse: to tell stories of something that is being done to "us." The U.S. narratives, on the other hand, focus on stories about "the need of we" doing something for "us." In THE HEART OF LOISAIDA, the most prominent gesture which ideologically locates the film within the broader nationalistic current is the use of the song, "Cuando tenga la tierra," which "stretches" the notion of "land" in an equivalency between "house" and "motherland" and (in the process) acknowledges the colonial status of the Island.
Another significant strategy used in THE HEART OF LOISAIDA is the frequent portrayal of women as actors and inclusion of their voices. In this sense, although a "feminist" direct statement is not made, the "we" of this film clearly includes women. This contrasts markedly with, for example, Zydnia Nazario's LA BATALLA DE VIEQUES (1986), where not a single woman is interviewed. This focus on women may (or not) be partly explained by the maker's own feminist (or womanist) politics. However, and as we discuss LA OPERACIÓN, BURUNDANGA and LA BATALLA DE VIEQUES, it is important to note that in THE HEART OF LOISAIDA and other U.S.-focused films, the presence of women is asserted less for its allegorical possibilities and more for its empowerment potential for the viewer. In this sense, even when the films are not exclusively focused on women's struggles or experiences directly related to women, they are much more about representing women's empowerment (taking over their lives), often occupying previously all male arenas of culture and politics than feminist-Marxist analysis of State power.
LA OPERACIÓN (1982) made by Cuban-Puerto Rican Ana María García is probably the first high impact film made by a woman born and/or raised in Puerto Rico. It is also the first and still one of the few documentary films to focus on an issue which affects mainly women. The film uses voice-over narration, interviews and archival footage to tell the story of the political practice of massive sterilization in Puerto Rico. LA OPERACIÓN is a highly provocative and problematic film in various ways, some of which I will attempt to discuss.
The principal question which LA OPERACIÓN raises (within the context of this paper) relates to the possibility of a feminist voice within the anti-imperialist narratives which have preoccupied Puerto Rican documentary filmmaking for decades. Thus, while the film is focused on a policy which affects women as women (and very specifically, women's reproductive choices), the film is not about women as gendered subjects in a patriarchy but instead uses the stories of women to reveal and critique U.S. colonialism on the Island.
Them are at least two strategies used in the film to bring about this effect. The film does not, despite some of the assessments made about it, talk either about women's resistance to the policy of massive sterilization or the reasons why women were chosen as the target of the policy. To engage in this analysis would force the film text to confront issues that specifically address women as subordinated subjects in a patriarchal culture (gender and family power relations), something the text resists. Thus, instead of devoting some time to (and, as in all other sections, editorializing upon) the family context (which is greatly, if not exclusively responsible for the success of the policy), the film text is centered on the ideological underpinnings of the sterilization policy and the State which puts it in place.
To the film's credit however (and this is one of the reasons why it is such a rich text), there are a number of moments where a certain "excess" makes manifest the need for a gender-specific reading. For example, in one scene a woman who was sterilized comments that her husband preferred her to be sterilized rather than him because of his fear of losing his sexual potency:
In another instance, a black woman comments:
And the last image, wonderfully contradictory, shows a young pregnant woman walking with a tee-shirt which reads: "Made in Puerto Rico." This last image, assuming we believe that women are more than victims, begs the question: why do most Puerto Ricans (men and women) — despite colonialism, forced sterilization and poverty — favor a close association with the United States?
Two other problematic instances of the film suggest the ways in which Puerto Rican women's film practice is deeply rooted in a master narrative of anti-imperialism and impedes it from a gender specific analysis. One of the most emotionally charged images of the film is a woman being taken to the operating room. Under this sequence, a well known Puerto Rican singer, El Topo, laments in counterpoint to the scene, the plight of women who are sterilized. The song is an ode to women's reproductive virtues and the horror of not bringing forth life:
The dominant association between women as metaphor for the motherland is also prevalent in this song and in the use of the song with the images described above. Finally, the cut which leads us from this image (the women giving birth) to that of U.S. troops in the late 19th century, seals the possibilities for the questioning of Puerto Rican men's constructions of motherhood and seeks to explain the particular oppression of women (and the sterilization practice) today by a single cause: the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico. The final result of the combination of these strategies is that women (as metaphor for the true Puerto Rico) are victims of colonialism, the surfaces on which both U.S. and right-wing Puerto Rican forces encode their victories.
Thus, LA OPERACIÓN is ultimately a film about the ideological underpinnings of a government policy. It impressively traces the various sources of this practice and some of the agents which made it operant. In the process, however, it doesn't examine the ideological content of important premises relevant to the practice. Thus, for example, it effectively argues that the idea of the two-child family is an ideological proposition promoted by the government to control the working class' reproductive behavior. On the other hand, the film leaves intact the (also ideological) notion that women should have a great number of children. Thus, one of the two main structuring voices in the film, Frank Bonilla, accurately summarizes what the film's main (despite its shifts) ideological position is:
LA OPERACIÓN remains one of the most important films made in Puerto Rico and as an important text for the exploring of the relationships between feminist and materialist discourses, still to be taken up.
In LA BATALLA DE VIEQUES (1986), some of the strategies used in both THE HEART OF LOISAIDA and LA OPERACIÓN are present. LA BATALLA critically explores the consequences of increased militarization on the small island of Vieques, off the east coast of Puerto Rico. The film points to three of the major players in the process: the U.S. military establishment, its allied interests within the Puerto Rican dominant power structures, and a group of anti-militaristic viequenses. The film constructs a "we/they" dichotomy (as in LA OPERACIÓN) and uses it to defend a space as "home" (as in THE HEART OF LOISAIDA). For example, a spokesperson for an activist group declares at the beginning of the film articulates one of the main voices of the film (the "we"):
Despite the potential of LA BATALLA to be structured as an empowerment narrative, its extensive authoritarian use of voice over and the positioning of the first person narrative within the structuring voice over, instead produces a "victim' narrative. Specifically, this is often strategically translated into the embedding of a statement made by the narrator ("Many were deceived by false promises made by the military") followed by an interview which corroborates the point. Thus the subjects are treated as guarantees of the "theory" or political analysis unilaterally proposed by the film. This narrator, unlike the one in THE HEART OF LOISAIDA (but similar to the one in LA OPERACION), is not a "viequense": "Viequenses compare themselves to the brown pelican, an endangered species that lives on the island." The narrator's primary objective is the creation of trust in the viewer so we "agree" with the interpretation presented to us by the weight of the "evidence," often presented with maps, statistics and archival footage. The voice over, which is the only female voice, digests all the information, suppressing ambiguity to the highest degree possible:
The "we/they" dichotomy, because it does not build on the "we" but rather on fixed oppositions, results in an oversimplification of the political forces at play in the process. Thus, the emphasis of the film is the "exposing" of the military's callousness rather than the complex "internal" issues which greatly contribute to this state of affairs. One crucial issue not addressed in the film concerns the reasons why, despite the obvious military abuse in Vieques, there is not a more widespread movement in Vieques and on Puerto Rico to expel the military. The reasons for this are not only related to the political economy (which the film addresses) but popular feelings about the United States. The avoidance of these much more thorny issues results in the creation of victims' narratives where Puerto Rican history is inscribed as a David and Goliath myth so that the master narrative of anti-imperialism obscures other relevant aspects.
To still assume that the majority of Puerto Ricans reject the U.S. presence ("deep, deep down") is to participate in the same fundamental political mistake that the left has incurred in Puerto Rico for the last twenty years. In this sense, the film goes so far as to misrepresent the political reality of Puerto Rico:
LA BATALLA DE VIEQUES significantly struggles against an abusive military and capitalist establishment by different social sectors of Vieques. But it is also, and equally significant, about how Puerto Ricans and Viequenses address these circumstances. And the only granting of difference (assimilationist government officials versus the people) is not enough to account for the widespread Puerto Rican apathy to the Vieques struggle. Finally, as mentioned earlier, it is very significant that a film which attempts to represent how a whole society is affected by the military presence, does not include a single woman's voice.
THE POLITICS OF FORM: EXPERIMENTAL NARRATIVES AND ANIMATION
Experimental film/video which has seen perhaps the most consistent production, in many respects initiated Island Puerto Rican women's filmmaking. Contrary to U.S. Puerto Rican production, where the political documentary has dominated, the experimental short has produced some of the best pieces of women's filmmaking. In this section, I would like to refer to the work of pioneer Poli Marichal and young visual film/video makers Mari Mater O'Neill and Mayra Ortiz.
Poli Marichal is considered by many women filmmakers working today as simply the "pioneer." She started working in the late 70s in Super 8 film and with such collectives as the Taller de Cine de la Red. In some of her most successful works, there is a mix of genres and forms, and a complete faith in the power of experimentation. Many of her works are meant to be seen in sequence, since they act as expansions of one of Marichal's central thematic concerns: Puerto Rico. Although ideologically similar to LA OPERACIÓN and LA BATALLA DE VIEQUES, Marichal's work takes on the form of an existential anger and despair, a pain so deep it can only surface in flashes of color and texture.
In general, Marichal uses color to signify psychological and social realities and language. The use of language is particularly significant since it is through language that power relationships and collective survival strategies are articulated. The constant switch between English and Spanish (and sometimes French) addresses the split consciousness of the Puerto Rican subject.
Central themes include the following: environmental destruction, the need to "snap out" of the consumerism and materialism of Puerto Rican society, and the need to create alternatives which will ensure our survival. While the social and political "ills" of Puerto Rico are (mechanically) rooted in U.S. colonialism, Marichal does not construct Puerto Ricans as victims. In order to explore some of these issues, I will concentrate on Marichal's last piece, DILEMMA I: BURUNDANGA BORICUA (1990), which in turn is one of several earlier pieces which explore the "Island dilemma"
The use of color (particularly blue and red) to represent the specificity of the landscape of an island and its oppressive connotations was first used in UNDERWATER BLUE (1981), an animated/live action meditation on the island space. Here, the ocean is a self-enclosed, entrapped space which can be metaphorically read as the space of the maker of the piece as a Puerto Rican subject. The multiple shades of blue suggest levels of submersion in an exasperating reality where the supposed actors cannot transform it. The use of the star as the fundamental symbol of empowerment and freedom is inaugurated in this piece where it is linked, however, to the ocean: it is a sea star.
In BLUES TROPICAL (1983), a visceral animated piece, the use of language is more overtly political, and the imagery is more conventional. Thus, for example, words painted on film read: "Ay bendito, Puerto Rico, USA" and the "USA" letters are transformed (animated) into the figure of a shark. The role of the star as symbol becomes more central in this piece, although it is still an image which has not reached its full potential as a symbol of liberation: it is in limbo, it is only attempting to survive. Thus, the common "refranes" used in BLUES TROPICAL are of a great despair: "Sálvese el que pueda" and "A mal tiempo, buena cara." Towards the end of the work, a glimmer of resigned hope is summarized in the following phrase:
Marichal's latest piece, DILEMMA I: BURUNDANGA BORICUA, starts with the painted on image of a live action character, significantly, a black woman dancing plena. This technique of painting on film or interrupting the live action flow by animation or insertion of text is one of the most important strategies of Marichal's work. The image is never just an image (it is not self sufficient to construct meaning) but a surface to begin addressing the fundamental issues: language, politics and representation. In general, BURUNDANGA is a tragicomic parody of the Operation Bootstrap initiative, pointing to its failure and degeneration into environmental destruction and materialism. It is also a call for re-enchantment, a desperate hailing to the audience to overcome apathy and re-posses what is "ours."
The humor of this film, originally part of a multimedia installation, is one of its most innovative strategies. Within the landscape of oppression, Marichal manages to force us to see certain petrified symbols and images differently, something which the documentaries, often with the same ideological underpinnings, fail to do. Thus, in BURUNDANGA, the painted Puerto Rican flag (in between the U.S. and Spanish ones) becomes animated and after the eagle and lion fight it out, the lone "star" wakes up and runs from the enclosed blue space of the triangle.
A second instance is the transformation of the calf in the Puerto Rican national "escudo" into an animated goat, loafing, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes on the beach, framed by new slogans, for example "936" and "food stamps." Despite the simplification of the meaning of a socially conquered right such as food stamps, the freshness of the treatment marks an important departure from the authoritarian historical narratives of the political documentary tradition.
The use of popular sayings and the poetic use of language, handwritten on film, functions as the "collective consciousness" of the film, providing political analysis, personal associations, and hope. The deconstruction of dominant ideological discourses are frequent in this text. Thus, images of tropical beauty are glossed in "Isla tropical," while a garbage dump with stray dogs is framed as "isla mendiga." The play on language also produces political insight and a comment on language which makes this work painfully self conscious: from "Welcome to the Shining Star," we are only a step away from "Welcome to the Shining Scar…"; "Island" becomes "Ay, land" in a constant meditation on the ways that language constructs our realities. And in the various images of an abandoned movie theater's coming attraction boards, we see that the old "Imperial" theater is playing (what else), THE CURSE.
Marichal's call for re-enchantment is crucial in assessing the important question, asked by many of these films, of "what is to be done" concerning the Puerto Rican colonial question. For Marichal, the present materialist culture is drowning all imagination, creativity and sensibility. Thus, Marichal locates the "imaginative" and creative in the two most discursively marginalized elements of Puerto Rican culture: the Taíno Indians and the Africans; and the essence of the Puerto Rican in a third group: the jíbaros. The text suggests that "Once upon a time, a bit of the past in myth…" In animated form, the Taíno myth of the origin of the Island is represented, with its magical and mythic elements. This is promptly destroyed by a sailing Spanish ship which transforms itself into various shapes until it becomes a set of cannon balls in the Morro fortress.
The second, and most prominent sector invoked is the Puerto Rican of African descent. The presence of black Puerto Ricans, men and women as well as children, is not a form of tokenism but a symbol of resistance. Thus, the guardian of the star and the symbol of a better order of things to come is a black woman. The recurrent images of boys at play and searching, as well as the omnipresence of black musical forms based on the drum and pleneras, also reinforce the centrality allocated to black cultural forms in Puerto Rican culture. However, the "soul" of the culture, in a very contradictory move, is the white, mountain-dwelling jíbaro who is "an endangered species." In this instance, Marichal is claiming another pervasive myth, which constructs the Puerto Rican countryside and peasantry as a sort of paradise where pollution and exploitation did (does) not exist. Thus, the last voiceover (a male voice) in some ways reverses the ambiguity of the work:
Finally, there is one last strategy in this piece which is characteristic of a number of makers who come from visual arts backgrounds or are engaged in the visual arts community (Medín or Fritz): the construction of art as a privileged space for transformation. It is perhaps this assumption which makes Marichal's work boldly experimental and politically ambiguous. On the one hand, BURUNIDANGA doesn't give us an authoritarian narrative about capitalism and colonialism, although there is a clear critique, ideologically consistent with most of the other works discussed here. On the other, it proposes independence as the "cure" of all economic, political and social ills of Puerto Rico although the major liberation practice is art.
O'Neill's FLAMENCO (1991) is an exploration of Puerto Rico's colonial history (Spanish and U.S.) through different representational strategies. In the opening sequences, flags framed by monitors are literally "flying" on the screen. Similar to Marichal's work, language is a tool for comment, irony and parody. The U.S. and Spanish flags function as symbols of oppression while the Puerto Rican one stands for liberation. The initial commentary of the piece suggests the eternal condition of colonization of the "New World," making use of irony:
Part of the soundtrack contains a chorus of hysteric voices suggesting that "Puerto Ricans have more fun than blondes." The use of floating monitors with images of flags and other icons, foregrounds the self-awareness of this piece as construction. This is further reinforced by the framed color bars.
The second seuuence of the piece is an elliptical narrative about the routine existence of a middle-class Puerto Rican woman (a "blonde"). The protagonist is bored with local television and decides to play a video showing two flamenco dancers. As she gets dressed to go out in her "American car" (which is why she, as metaphor for all Puerto Ricans, "wants to live in America" as the parodic soundtrack suggests), a flamenco woman dancer appears in her life. The "apparition" resurfaces while the woman is in the daily traffic jam, by gliding off her car. As in AURELLA, there are multiple voices articulating the narrative and soundtrack, reinforcing the ambiguity of the relationship between the two women and their respective societies.
While the piece constructs Puerto Rican everyday life as insane and makes colonialism at least partly responsible, it also shows an ambivalent (complicit?) relationship between the white Puerto Rican woman and her Spanish past. Thus, while the woman curses the flamenca's presence in the traffic jam, she is also jealous of her as she finds her combing her daughter's hair and finds her seductive enough to want to actually "be" her. The last image represents the woman dressed in the flamenca's clothes, in what can be read as both the seduction of the Puerto Rican by the Spanish or the ambivalent, yet ridiculous attempt of Puerto Ricans to remain being "Spanish," with all its connotations of racial "purity" and "civilization." The flamenca is, ultimately, more centered than the Puerto Rican woman. Thus when the latter asks her when will she go home and the flamenca's voice answers: "You are home."
Finally I would like to briefly comment on Mayra Ortiz's GROUNDSWELL (ca. 1988), a meditation on the relation between politics and art on a global scale. The video is constructed around a montage of a young painter (white, male) who is working on a wall with the live figures of a man (of African descent) and a woman (of Asian descent), and appropriated imagery from the news representing global political resistance. Rap and reggae — African Diaspora music once more — keep the rhythms of the montage. Unlike the other works discussed, this piece does not address in any way political issues related to Puerto Rico or Latinos. It does, however, make a claim to the power of African Diasporic cultural resistance in the form of music. An ambiguous piece, one of the possible readings relates to the activist role of the artist in "breaking the walls" and liberating not only the political structures which oppress us but our own bodies from the constraints of reactionary politics and representation.
One of the obstacles in a purely "liberationist" reading, however, is the fact that the artist (as privileged consciousness) is male and white; while the bodies which are acted upon by his hand are black and Asian. This can be read as a comment on Western representation strategies regarding non-white peoples, but, I would argue, that the video's structure does not favor this reading since the "lone" artist is primarily "inspired" by the politics and not necessarily engaged in it (as a body), nor is there a questioning of his artistic production. The power of art to break down the walls of the non-communication of the world as television spectacle is another central deconstructive effect of GROUNDSWELL. Thus the struggles of South Koreans, Chileans and Germans are brought together "by the hand" of the filmmaker.
The few narrative films made by Puerto Rican women allow us only to make some anticipatory comments on those aspects that these narratives share and where they diverge. I will consider here the following works: LOS ANGELES SE HAN FATIGADO (Teresa Previdi, 1987), ALBA (Mayra Ortiz, 1989) and AURELIA (Frieda Medín, 1988-90).
In general, these films are women-centered narratives where either one or multiple voices are articulated through the "consciousness" of a woman (or girl in the case of ALBA). The stories are told in a non-linear way, allowing the contradictions of consciousness to determine the structure of the narrative or making use of the surreal to destabilize the "normality" of the story. The three films also take place within a single space or within constrained spaces, where women's mobility and freedom are minimal. Finally, at least two of them are based on literary texts.
Inspired by Luis Rafael Sánchez's play of the same name, LOS ANGELES HAN FATIGADO is the story of the daughter of formerly wealthy landowners. Angela becomes a prostitute in the city and, ultimately, goes mad. The film is structured on the reminiscences of the protagonist, as she wakes up and is mortified by her immediate surroundings. The reminiscences of Angela are nonlinear and oscillate between her past and her present situation with frequent "hallucinations" (early on in the narrative, she believes she has a baby). Thus, the film constructs a portrait of a "split" subjectivity. The adaptation does not follow Sánchez' text as a whole, and takes some freedoms with creating a surreal environment where music and moving objects are part of a "reality" which the viewer is forced to share.
LOS ANGELES SE HAN FATIGADO constructs a portrait of a victimized woman in the melodramatic tradition of the "fallen woman." Angela comments to herself:
In this sense, it is not a portrait of empowerment since the central character is a victim of the dominant constructions of femininity and womanhood, the capriciousness of men, and dominant institutions such as the insane asylums. Her own uncritical comments concerning her class origins and sexism make her an unsympathetic character and a trapped woman. The space which she occupies is dark and bare, and even when windows or doors are present, she cannot escape. In fact, her single most liberating gesture, murdering her pimp, only leads her to another enclosed space: the asylum, where she will be taken "care" of by other men, this time dressed in white.
Despite the fact that this piece is not overtly political, there is a possible reading which points once more to the use of women's experience as metaphor for society's oppressions. Angela's body becomes the surface of class and gender oppression. In this sense, the question of whether the woman is actually speaking becomes an important one, as with LA OPERACIÓN. Finally, despite the fact that Angela "hears" voices, we experience her voice as whole in the sense that it is not interrupted by other voices in the narrative. Thus, Angela's impossibility to speak can be read not as an incapacity on her part but as a sexist culture's refusal to listen.
Similar to LOS ANGELES SE HAN FATIGADO, ALBA is inspired by a literary text, Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits. A family dinner is experienced through the eyes of the main character, a little girl called Alba who inherits the magical qualities of her dead grandmother and thus inhabits "another" world, that of the (good) spirits. Unlike AURELIA and LOS ANGELES SE HAN FATAIGADO, the world of Alba is a positive woman-centered world where only marginal men seem to be of any interest (since they are feminized by their interest in magic or "telling stories"). The most significant and enduring relationship is among women: between Alba and her grandmother. The men take on different positions around this relationship: the grandfather embodies Lacan's law of the father, identifying the family oppression of patriarchy with the broader political one (he is politically on the right wing), Uncle Marcos inhabits the world of imagination and alchemy, and is a teller of stories and Uncle Nicolás is a loser, interested in santería, but without the necessary aptitude.
Alba's world is a world of spirituality and the security of the grandmother/ daughter continuum. However, assumptions about class privilege are untouched and the absence of the mother is not addressed in the narrative. We see the world through a young girl's eyes, but these eyes are those of a well-to-do, privileged girl who will "inherit" everything (including the woman who works as a maid). Alba's voice is in dialogue with her surroundings, but it is not interrupted by them; her consciousness is "whole." Finally, the space of the narrative, a single dining room, and the painting from which the grandmother metaphorically originates, contribute to the self-enclosed environment, again a comment on women's subjectivity and the privileging of the "internal" against the oppressiveness of the external, frequently embodied by male figures. The danger of this is, of course, the potential to read women as self-contained, "spiritual" creatures without any engagement in the world or in politics. However, it is significant to mention that Ortiz' work questions conventions of "realism" and integrates elements of the surreal and the fantastic within an intellectual and artistic "high brow" context which has actively resisted them. In this sense, the enclosure of the space is partly opened up by the magical.
Frieda Medín's AURELIA is an experimental narrative centered in the internal, multi-voiced and conflicting dialogues of the protagonist's "consciousness." From the opening of the rum, there is a sense of self-reflexivity as the "Aurelia" unfolds the titles printed in paper and located in an abandoned lot. As soon as the scene shifts to an enclosed space, the positive black and white image alternates with the negative of the image suggesting an "altered" stale. In this sense, representation becomes distorted and a "mirror" of Aurelia's consciousness.
The use of negative images is one of various strategies used to construct a "split" subjectivity. Screeching and water sounds and frequent unconventional cutting (jump cuts) also contribute to the sense of "unconscious" space. The voices which form the fragmented soundtrack suggest that Aurelia is faced with social pressures and prejudices for being what she is: a woman artist and mother. Thus, a number of the voice fragments are distinct "Ella ss artista," "Yo brego allá afuera, tú quédate aquí adentro," and, "Donde están los nenes?"
As with both ALBA and LOS ANGELES SE HAN FATAIGADO, multiple symbols populate the character's environment, with ambiguous significations. In AURELIA, however, the concern for "voice" is taken further since Aurelia's consciousness is not her "own" but a confrontation of her own and others. Interestingly, the inability to cope with these contradictions leads her to escape even more within herself and the world of "disposable" objects critiqued at the beginning of the film by an anonymous voice. The various readings allowed by the text don't exclude the construction of the protagonist as mad and isolated. But it seems to favor a reading of Aurelia as the misunderstood woman artist whose source of creativity lies within herself (in this sense art is once more privileged as a source of liberation). Thus, when Aurelia rejects the mirror as distorting, she walks out the door into an open space and a voice is heard: "Pues, si fueras mediocre." As she leaves the room, a set of clocks set at different times all go off suggesting the impossibility of objectivity, even when measured by "instruments."
AURELIA functions as a reflection upon the split subject, torn by U.S. consumer culture, Catholic and ancient spirituality, gender conventions, and a corrosive social environment. However, unlike ALBA, spirituality is not Aurelia's refuge from her alienation as she is trapped by deforming conventions about the feminine. Aurelia's only refuge is herself, but remaking her image as a clown, as spectacle. Freeing herself from the "exterior" into "art."
GETTING TO FEEL AT HOME: THE WORKS OF SONIA FRITZ
Mexican filmmaker Sonia Fritz has been living in Puerto Rico over five years and has been steadily producing documentaries. Her first Puerto Rican production was MYRNA BAEZ: LOS ESPEJOS DEL SILENCIO (1989), a documentary portrait of Puerto Rican visual artist Myrna Baez, followed by VISA PARA IN SUEÑO (VISA FOR A DREAM, 1990), a documentary about the economic and social context of Dominican women's emigration to Puerto Rico. Her latest piece, PUERTO RICO: ARTE E IDENTIDAD (1991), returns to the preoccupation of the first work, that of the interconnections between art, landscape, politics and identity.
In general, the work of Sonia Fritz tends to be well crafted, and usually seeks internal consistency (portraits; linear histories). Thus, in LOS ESPEJOS DEL SILENCIO, the voice of the artist is uncontested and unquestioned. She is allowed to tell her own story and the filmmaker acts as "midwife" to the story, helping in the telling. In common with the narratives and most of the work produced by women in Puerto Rico, the central character is a woman for whom polities and art merge, although politics is understood in the sense of macro-politics (e.g., the independence struggle). The politics of gender and sexuality are systematically suppressed in this film although Baez' own work is saturated with it.
In VISA FOR A DREAM, a potentially explosive issue — that of Dominican immigrants to Puerto Rico — is conmined by the portraits of several women and their process of "adaptation" to Puerto Rican society. By emphasizing the "positive" aspects of the women's experiences and avoiding the hostility of the new context, Fritz constructs a picture of success similar to the empowerment narrative of THE HEART OF LOISAIDA, although "individual" personal stories are more prominent. This strategy allows Fritz to produce an alternative discourse to counter anti-Dominican hysteria in Puerto Rico by providing "positive" images of Dominican women, their hopes and lives. Finally, I would like to briefly concentrate on PUERTO RICO: ARTE E IDENTIDAD, since this film expands the so called "educational" documentary form at the same time that it raises important questions regarding dominant assumptions about Puerto Rican art, identity and politics within the art establishment in Puerto Rico. The importance of addressing this last issue is essential, as many of the Island Puerto Rican women artists and film/videomakers have been either formed or actively participate in this community.
PUERTO RICO: ARTE E IDENTIDAD uses a series of strategies to formally convey one of its central premises: that Puerto Rican art is Puerto Rican because it is rooted in a particular landscape and politics which embodies the Puerto Rican "soul" ("alma"). Thus, the barriers between art and "reality" are constantly blurred: a shot of a tree becomes a painting of the tree, the copula of a church re-emerges in another image. The film uses interviews, voice over and docudrama conventions to carry the burden of (effectively) synthesizing over a 100 years of history. Unlike most "history of art" films, PUERTO RICO: ARTE E IDENTIDAD not only "tells" a story but makes a number of choices, inclusions and omissions which make it a crucial text for debating the relationship between art, politics and identity in Puerto Rico. In general, this film is part of a more general and influential discourse on identity, which desperately needs to be examined.
The film, despite its attempts of inclusion, is a teleological narrative: it seeks to demonstrate that what is essentially Puerto Rican is "captured" in its art and that it is irremediably (no matter what genre or format) an embodiment of our "values" (which are never really addressed or questioned). The closest any of the narrators gets to proposing a Puerto Rican value is the (supposedly) safe landscape: it is a Puerto Rican value to place a "piña" rather than an apple at the edge of a portrait. A particularly clear moment in the difficulty of maintaining this analysis is when Oller's well known painting, El Velorio, is interpreted. If we were to accept the premise that all Puerto Rican art re-affirms "our values," how can we read Oller's critique (racism?) of the African Diaspora tradition of the "baquiné? Whose values are being addressed?
The concept of "to puertorriqueño" takes over all other relevant categories of analysis such as class, race and sexual orientation. It only concedes a space for gender, but with a highly problematic interpretation of the importance of gender politics. Thus, some of the most questionable statements are precisely articulated by women (narrators) around the issue of gender. For example, "feminism" is defined as "a quest for the personal" and as "revealing new aspects of identity." Does this last suggestion mean that gender is a new aspect of Puerto Rican identity? Another instance of the difficulty of the inclusion of the "other(s)" in this narrative is the selection of Juan Sánchez as the token U.S. Puerto Rican artist. The condescension to Sanchez is disturbing. Contrary to the "Islanders" or those U.S.-born artists who have returned to the Island, it is "natural" that Sánchez paints as "he does" because:
Aside from the fact that discrimination, social marginality and oppression are not "personal" perspectives but collective experiences, the comment underscores the possible reading that Sánchez' work is, in many ways, closer to the historical narrative presented in the film than works included as "soulfully" Puerto Rican (from the Island). The ideological connections are obscured by the notion of "identity."
The premise that Puerto Rican art "reflects" history and that by looking at "our" art we can understand our history, shows very little understanding of the distribution, exhibition and regulation of art production. It also leaves completely unexamined the consistent political tendencies of many artists (a sociology of artists may be appropriate here), at the same time that it ignores the ambiguities, contradictions and tensions in all works of art. If Puerto Rican art "reflects" Puerto Rican history and struggles, why aren't there posters commemorating fifteen years of gay and lesbian struggles in Puerto Rico? If Puerto Rican art reflects "our cultural values," why isn't there a series of murals glorifying what many Puerto Ricans consider "Puerto Rican": virginity, sexism, racial prejudice, homophobia, pro-U.S. sentiment? PUERTO RICO: ARTE E IDENTIDAD provides us with a powerful articulation of one of the most important discourses in Puerto Rican culture, albeit one still in need of critical examination.
AFTERTHOUGHT: WHAT'S LEFT TO BE DONE
As I finish writing, I realize how incomplete and tentative these observations are, and how only when more women begin to write, can these propositions and assumptions become really meaningful. I have suggested there are various trends in Puerto Rican women film/video production when examined as a "body" of works.
First, in the U.S.-focused work, there's a tendency to treat issues of immediate concern and to adopt textual strategies towards the transformation of behavior and self-empowerment. Second, the Island-focused production reveals a "compulsion to history," a need to investigate the colonial "origins" of particular issues. Third, a woman-centered narrative and experimental production has various emphases on voice and on representing women's "unconscious" processes and subjectivities. Further, the investigation into these tendencies requires a longterm research effort on various relevant aspects such as the following: the sociology of the makers, the relationship between the works and audiences (including critics), funding structures and a more detailed examination concerning references, strategies and intertextuality. This work is yet to be done.
1. The first instance was when I accepted to write an article on the history of Puerto Rican gay/lesbian history and politics. I found "yards" of documentation and not an "inch" of reflection.
2. Kino García's book on Puerto Rican cinema, Breve Historia del Cine Puertorriqueño (San Juan: Taller de Cine La Red, 1984) is a useful starting point but not a work of criticism or interpretive history.
3. Catherine Benamou, "Filmmaking in Latin America," Point of View: Latina, A Study Guide for the Women Make Movies, Punto de Vista Latina Film Collection, no date, 7-8.
4. Liz Kotz, "Unofficial Stories: Documentaries by Latinas and Latin American Women," Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños Bulletin 2.8 Spring 1990: 58-69.
5. Lillian Jiménez, "From the Margin to the Center: Puerto Rican Cinema in the United States," Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños Bulletin 2.8 Spring 1990: 28.43.
6. Rosa Linda Fregoso. "La Quinceañera of Chicana Counter Aesthetics," Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños Bulletin 2.8 Spring 1990: 87-91. A longer version is published in Chon A. Noriega, ed., Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).
7. García, Breve Historia del Cine Puertorriqueño.
8. The División de Educación a la Comunidad was a government-sponsored initiative to use art (visual, photography, film) in educating and promoting change in the Puerto Rican countryside. Over 100 films were made from the 1940s to the 1950s and a whole generation of Puerto Rican filmmakers were trained in the workshops of DIVEDCO.
9. Jiménez (1990); Kotz (1990).
10. Blanca Vázquez, "Puerto Ricans and the Media: A Personal Statement," Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños Bulletin 2.8 Spring 1990:4-15 (p. 6).
11. I have addressed the difficulties of using the notion of Puerto Rican "community" in several articles, including: "Shifting Communities/Forming Alliances" (with Kelly Anderson, Alex Juhasz, Indu Krishnan), Felix 1.2 (Swing 1992): 66-72; and "The Ethics of Community Media," The Independent (May 1991): 20-22.
12. This also constitutes an important trend in literary works by Latin American, Afro-American and African Diaspora women's writings.
OTHER FILMS AND VIDEOS BY PUERTO RICAN WOMEN
Díaz, Lily, AFTERIMAGES: AN EXERCISE ON VIDEOPOETRY (1986)
Jimenez, Lillian (and others), WHAT CAN YOU DO WITH A NICKEL (1981)
Lemus, Cecilia, ELIZAM (1990); CON SU MISMO CORAZÓN (1991)
Maria Norman, THE SUN AND THE MOON (1987)
Marichal, Poli, AL ROJO VIVO (1982); VUELO DE ANGELES (1982); COFFEE BREAK (1982); UNDER-WATER BLUES (1982); BLUM (1983); GUERNICA (1983); DE TAL PALO. TAL ASTILLA (1984); ISLA POSTAL (1984); LUNA (1985); PAISAJE (1985); UNA HISTORIA DE LOS REYES MAGOS (1987); LOS ESPEJISMOS DE MANDRAGORA LUNA (1987); MICRO-TRIP (1988)
Matías, Beni, THROUGH YOUNG PEOPLE'S EYES (1981); HOUSING COURT (1984)
Negrón, Frances Mutaner, PIECES OF LIFE (1990)
O'Neill, Mari Mater, M (METROPOLIS) (1988)
Soto, Ivonne María, REFLEJO DE UN DESEO (1985)
Yvette Nieves Cruz, L.E.A.R.: LEAGUE OF REVOLUTIONARY WRITERS AND ARTISTS (1987)