They say travel is broadening. But though I’ve toured Puerto Rico, from a trek through the El Yunque rainforest to a midnight ride on the phosphorescent bay near Ponce, I never expected to increase my knowledge of the island through an hourlong interview with actress Rosie Perez about her journey of cultural discovery. We discussed her feature-length documentary, ¡Yo Soy Boricua, Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas! (I’m Boricua, Just So You Know), premiering June 12 on IFC, which she appears in as well as directs.
What prompted you to put this film together?
Rosie Perez: I have this guy I used to date, and every year he calls me during the [National] Puerto Rican [Day] parade [in New York City] and says, “Oh my God! There go your people being so damn loud again. I can hear them all the way across the river. Why are you all so damn loud?” I was very frustrated at the time, because I was trying to get a movie made about the sterilization of Puerto Rican women, and everyone was trying to tell me that it didn’t happen. … I was so angry, and when he said that, it was a grand light-bulb moment for me. … I called my agent up and I said, “I got it — I’m going to do a documentary on why we’re so proud.”
I said to her [that] every time I go into a meeting, they’re like, “Why are you so proud to be Puerto Rican?” I say, “What do you mean, why am I so proud to be Puerto Rican? Are you Italian? Are you Jewish? Why are you proud? And if you’re not proud, why are you not proud?”
I said, “I’m gonna spell it out. I’m gonna talk about the history and the politics and how the politics affected us as a people and how we were tenacious and still maintained our culture, and show how strong we are and explain that on one day in June we take over the city.” And we also take over the airwaves, because it’s national. It’s a national broadcast parade and that’s a huge statement for all that we’ve endured.
How was the experience of directing this film?
It was nerve-racking.
Because it was personal?
Well, I wasn’t actually supposed to be in the movie. That’s the beauty of a documentary. You have your outline and you have to be open to what the movie is to become. If you’re not, you won’t have anything extraordinary. One of my co-executive partners, Rory Kennedy [American Hollow], got the narration down. … They were putting me on tape, just recording me. And Rory Kennedy says, “You get so emotional when you talk about your aunt and your family and the history, it would be great if you were also a character.” And I go, “Absolutely not. The world does not need another celebrity boohooing on the screen.” And she said, “You’re not boohooing. You’re not talking about yourself. You are talking about your family and your people.”
It was a hard decision for me. I can be very funny and very charming and entertaining. But nobody’s ever seen this part of me, and it’s a real private part of me that I cherish. That’s for me, and it was very difficult to allow that side out.
But your presence lightened and broadened the film, didn’t it?
That was my intention with the other characters. What I was telling everybody was, “I want you to be yourself. If you are going to be serious, be serious. If you are going to be funny, be funny, but I want you to speak to me as if we are sitting at a family table … like we’re amongst ourselves. That’s what I want people to see.” Because one of the biggest stereotypes about us is that because we have such a great sense of humor and optimism, that we are not serious or we are not intelligent.
But for me and my family, [humor] is what gets us through the day. Because you gotta laugh at yourself. You gotta laugh at all the bad stuff that’s happening because, if you don’t, you’re never going to be able to get up and get out of it.
Did you know your island’s history before you began this? Were you surprised at any of the things you learned?
Yes, the beach chairs in the cargo planes, with workers shipped out through the United States because we were experts at agriculture. My whole body language is so closed up when professor Felix Matos Rodriguez is telling us about [that], and I was trying to maintain my composure because I didn’t want my emotional reaction to show. I wanted the audience to have their own emotional reaction. … But I was so shocked that, when we cut, I had to sit down. …
I also did not know about the torture that Pedro Albizu Campos endured while he was incarcerated. That was also something that was very, very traumatic. Jimmy Smits, who narrates, did know about that. When I spoke to him, I said, “Did you know what they did to Campos?” He said, “Yep. That’s why this is so important, because everybody needs to know, not just Puerto Ricans.”
People might think other things would shock me more, but the cargo planes, shipping people like they were livestock, it was so painful.
Do you think your heritage was a factor in determining the work you do?
I don’t know. But I do think my heritage allowed me to last this long in this industry. Because it’s a very tough business, and sometimes I get exhausted by it. But … when you’re raised with that fighting spirit in spite of all the hardship … that is a part of my heritage and my ancestry.
One thing that I noticed in my travels across the island was that people there do think they can make a difference. And I wonder, is it the size of the island that gives people this empowerment, or does it stem from the culture? Is it true in New York City as well?
I think it is true in New York. The Puerto Rican community and the Latin community have a strong political voice in New York City and the United States, and they have a strong activist voice as well, but we don’t get the coverage that we deserve. For instance, the protest for Vieques that I got arrested for, that wasn’t the first protest made by Puerto Ricans in New York. The women were telling me they got arrested, like, 22 times. … I think if I wasn’t in the entertainment industry, those women getting arrested at the U.N. wouldn’t have gotten any media coverage. That’s not tooting my own horn; that’s saying shame on you guys [in the press]. That’s sad, especially because I was the most reluctant party among them. It’s exhilarating after the fact, but when you are in the midst of it, it’s the scariest thing.
What do you think makes the reaction of people to this film so emotional?
I think the participants, the characters are being so honest and candid that they are speaking from a true human place that — regardless if you are Latin or not — you have to respond. … And also, just seeing everything that has never been reported, you ask, “What is the world really about?” … People who are Irish American or Jewish American or Asian American, they’re all coming up to me and saying, “I’m going to do a documentary like this on my culture.”
I remember this one guy telling me, “You know, I’m Irish American and we used to be considered the Mexicans in this country.” I started laughing. And he grabbed my hand and he said, “That’s not funny.” I said, “I know it’s not funny. I’m just reacting because it’s so true.” And I said, “Your story has been told.” And he says, “Not like this. Not from the people’s voice. It’s not just a history lesson; it’s a personal story.”
One thing that is clear in this documentary is the conflicted relationship Puerto Ricans have with the United States. That was demonstrated in the statehood referendum with 50 percent voting for neither independence nor the status quo, but rather checking “none of the above.” What do they want the relationship to be?
I think they have not been presented with a realistic and viable option. Their reaction was “none of the above” because all options have not been considered. The majority of Puerto Rican people love the United States. They love their dual citizenship, but they also do not like a lot of things that the United States has done and is still to doing to them. … Like Pedro Albizu Campos, they don’t want to overthrow anyone; they just want to be free. … They want the U.S. as an ally, but they also want to be respected.
One final question. You posed it at the beginning: Why are Puerto Ricans so damn proud? What, at the end, is the answer?
We know who we are.