It's surprising -- except that it really isn't -- how little most mainlanders know about Puerto Rico. We tend to focus on history and culture as it relates directly to ourselves. So if we aren't Puerto Rican, or caught in traffic near a Puerto Rican Day Parade, it's easy to ignore it all: the tiny ``casitas," tucked into odd corners of New York, that serve as cultural gathering places; the larger issue of how to fairly govern this US ``Commonwealth," whose residents face the draft, but get no vote.
``¡Yo Soy Boricua, Pa' Que Tu Lo Sepas! (``I'm Puerto Rican, just so you know!") asks us to take notice, and if the title is in-your-face, so is Rosie Perez. The film, which premieres tonight at 9 on the Independent Film Channel , is Perez's directorial debut (the film is co directed by veteran documentarian Liz Garbus). The actress also serves as star and emotional tour guide, raucous, profane, and proud.
The film's conceit is that Perez starts off ignorant, herself, aside from some family stories and distant childhood memories.
Through her eyes -- with the help of narration by Jimmy Smits -- we get the history of the island's indigenous Taino Indians, and see an 1898 press report of US takeover in the Spanish-American war: ``They come bearing the banners of freedom, inspired by a noble purpose." And we get a sad glimpse at the aftermath, as US companies take over the sugar crop and the US army uses the nearby island of Vieques as a testing ground for Agent Orange.
Some of these events cast a particularly ugly light on the US government; most shocking is a sterilization program for Puerto Rican women, which lasted for two decades. Colonialism, the effective state of affairs, brought widespread poverty and launched a massive migration to American cities. But the promise of America wasn't always fulfilled; the idea that Puerto Rican means ``poor" can be hard for people to shake. At one point in the film, Perez is asked to speak at a community college and discovers that the event is titled ``Homeless to Hollywood." In a chauffeured car headed to the speech, she calls up an official to complain: ``I'm sorry to bust your bubble, but I've never been homeless."
The film's most interesting characters exhibit the same brand of sass; Perez would tell us that's a Puerto Rican trait. Her cousin Sixto makes cutting jokes about the skin-color division within the Puerto Rican community.
Veterans of the ``Young Lords," a 1960s-era protest movement, recall some striking acts of disobedience: When the New York City sanitation department didn't pick up the trash in poor neighborhoods, they dragged trash into the middle of the street and set it on fire.
Puerto Ricans, the message goes, do what they need to get attention. Perez's film starts and ends with New York's Puerto Rican Day Parade, a metaphor for recognition and growing political strength; the likes of Governor George Pataki and Senator Hillary Clinton come to genuflect.
It's a step forward but, as some activists note, Puerto Ricans still have less than their share of power. Why that's so isn't really discussed; ``Yo Soy Boricua" dwells more on victimization than on self-inflicted mistakes. Still, it's hard to quibble, since the good side hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.
And while the film is Rosie-centric (and New York-centric), it's a more selfless tribute to undersung heroes than, say, ``Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball." Expensive gifts and gourmet meals are nice, but what these people really need is to have their stories told.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com.