Friday, August 28, 2009

A Chicago Puerto Rican in Nueva York

“Sí no me lo cuento, me muero” – “If I don’t tell the tale, I’ll die” - says the aging black boricua actor in an iconic Puerto Rican accent in a tone that borders laughter and sadness. It is a line that stays stuck in the mind of a compañero, Justino Rodríguez, who I accompanied to the theatrical production.

The play, “Cuento que me cuentan” by Pregones Theater of the South Bronx told the story of a group of poor and desperate, but strikingly hopeful and resilient farmers at turn of the 20th century Puerto Rico as they are recruited to work for a sugarcane company in Hawaii. They are cramped with thousands of their compatriotas in a small ship with very little food or sympathy, watching their friends and families escape in route until they rebel and take over the ship from its gringo crew. While for many in the audience this obra teatral invoked a submerged history, for me, in the context of my recent trip to New York City, it did so much more. It set the stage, so to speak, for the idea that the history of Puerto Ricans of the Diaspora (in the United States) cannot reside in the unspoken past, but must live forever in the hearts and minds of our communities and inform our future. If not, we will surely collectively die.

When the major writings of Jesús Colón, a Puerto Rican migrant to La Gran Manzana in the early decades of the 20th century, were compiled in a book called “A Puerto Rican in New York,” a nascent community of struggling tobacco workers came alive for the first time to many Boricuas living in the city in the 1960s. This written history echoed in a conversation I had with Lucila Rodríguez, who allowed me to stay at her home during my trip. While overlooking the neighborhood in Queens of my adolescence across the East River from a park in Manhattan, she recollected the story of her aunt who came to the city in a cargo ship in 1926. With a big smile that betrayed a sparkle in her eyes, she sounded out in a deliberate boricua accent the ship’s name – “the Marine Tiger,” following it with laughter. Lucila, herself, was born in one of the Diaspora’s oldest communities – El Barrio/ East Harlem - only a few blocks away from where our island’s national poet, Julia de Burgos, died in the 1950s. This location is now adorned with a mosaic while across the street there is a cultural center named after her. History is indeed, all around us.

While taking the Bronx bus #2 down the Grand Concourse, from Fordham Road, only a few blocks from where my parents met in the 1980s, I could not help but think of Paseo Boricua as I saw Puerto Rican flags flying from window after window. Nonetheless, Puerto Rican New York is in a sad state of affairs, as Justino laments. Its institutions are moving more into the “mainstream” and shaking off thier Puerto Rican-focuses. The Puerto Rican Day Parade, the largest in the country, is becoming more of a showcase of the latest brands and corporations instead of our cultural traditions and nuances. The Puerto Rican university organizations are disappearing and losing their connection to the community. And, of course, the Puerto Rican community itself is being displaced, as expensive high-rises are eclipsing the brownstones that Boricuas resided in for decades. This is not just in New York, but in every place Puerto Ricans have struggled to create community, from New Haven to San Francisco. There are still groups of dedicated and brilliant Boricuas in these cities willing to develop their communities, but for the most part the Diaspora, its institutions, and with it, our history are eroding.

The slogan of this newspaper is “Advocating for the Preservation of our ‘pedacito de patria’ – our piece of motherland, a piece of Puerto Rico away from home. When those poor farmers from Puerto Rico were persuaded, under false pretenses, to slave in Hawaii, they turned around and created a lasting community that, after over a hundred years, still exists and claims its puertorriqueñidad. The same is detailed in the New York chronicles of Jesús Colón. But it is slowly dying. Walking down Paseo Boricua, the Puerto Ricans of Chicago have created a community like no other, from age-old institutions like the Puerto Rican Cultural Center to new ones like the Institute for Puerto Rican Arts & Culture and with so many young people leading the way. And of course nowhere can you find two 59-foot Puerto Rican Flags and so many Puerto Rican-owned businesses in one street. Some might see this as a ghetto in comparison to neighborhoods of the rich and privileged, but we must see it as a shinning star of communities that have struggled and that continue to struggle. But as we enter intense and trying times, as our rents and property taxes go higher and pessimism takes hold on some of our people, one thing must remain certain: that a Puerto Rican community must exist on Paseo Boricua and Humboldt Park, and can only do so with the support of our people and our leaders. Hopefully, in decades to come, when someone asks what is the story of Paseo Boricua, we will not just be a story to be told but a history that is still living.

Originally published in the "Fíjate" column of the August 2009 edition of La Voz del Paseo Boricua newspaper

Love in the Time of Migration

Some say that Puerto Rico is a land in the clouds, bordering the unreal and the fantastic - that to fathom it is to envision a dream dancing with a nightmare.

It is thus a daunting task, especially for artists, to capture and creatively express this island of contradictions. The Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera, who with his recent play Boleros for the Disenchanted, has come as close as anyone to portraying the surreal Puerto Rican experience in the 20th century. The theatrical piece, which had a run at the Goodman Theatre from June 20-July 26 detailed, through a love affair between Flora and Eusebio, the trials and tribulations of being on an island “on the move” in the 1950s.

The first act we are introduced to Flora, who like many jíbaras of her day, her entire world is only a small barrio in her town – Miraflores. The expectations for her are simple: get married, have a family, and stay true to God's word. And this she does, marrying a national guardsman, Eusebio, whom she met in Santurce. However, the political and economic forces that guide the island (which are subtly mentioned in the play) shakes-up the narrative of what Flora life was suppose to be. Everyday, thousands of the island's young are migrating to the United States since the island's resources and land have been toyed with by the very country they are escaping to, as lamented in angry bursts by Flora's father, Don Fermín. “Good people flee the material poverty on the island only to find the spiritual poverty up North is worse than anything they ever imagined,” he says in a strong but uncertain tone.

The second act takes place in rural Alabama, 1992. We find the couple living alienated in moderate poverty, their children scattered around the world. Eusebio is bedridden without legs due to his diabetes, but Flora is as devout to him as she is to God, even after learning of his infidelities. The irony is that her cousin Petra was the one who wanted to migrate to the U.S. when they were young, but a letter to Flora reveals a happy old woman surrounded by her grandchildren. Flora finally knew what her father meant when she tells her only friend, with a tone of sadness, of her brother who left to the U.S.“I never heard from my brother again. We only heard stories of a handsome man in the Bronx, playing his guitar, with a smile on his face.” Flora probably wishes she could be her brother of these stories, even if they are not true. Migration changed Flora and Eusebio forever, but at the end, even in sickness, they remain together every moment of their day, because the only piece of Puerto Rico they have is each other.

Originally published in the August 2009 edition of La Voz del Paseo Boricua newspaper