Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'que tu lo Sepas! Movie Review
The first major Latin American group to emigrate to the American mainland, Puerto Ricans in the States number about three million today, though ignorance of where they're from and what they're about is endemic. To illustrate this ignorance in her documentary Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'que tu lo Sepas!, Rosie Perez tells a story about being asked while she was in college where Puerto Rico was. Thus the reason for her film - which she co-directed with Oscar-winner Liz Garbus - which mixes Perez family history with that of the island and its people in general. It's sort of an elaborate home movie mixed with social studies, but an impressive effort, nonetheless.
Perez was raised in Brooklyn and so not surprisingly brackets the film with footage of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the extravaganza that transforms the city for one day into a red-white-and-blue street party; the last of the great immigrant community celebrations. She structures the film as an exploration into her roots, traveling with her sister and cousin to the parade, visiting relatives back on the island and in Miami to meet some far-flung relatives ("that's very Puerto Rican," she says, "You're meeting cousins you never knew all through your life"). Along the way, she drops in history lessons, starting with Puerto Rico's original Taino inhabitants (who called the island "Boricua") leading up through the American neo-colonization, the Black Panther-like Young Lords agitators of the 1960s, and to the current debate over whether or not the island should push for full statehood.
Perez is not the subtlest of documentarians, her script - narrated at times by Jimmy Smits - makes its points about the oppression of Puerto Ricans (both on the island and in the U.S.) with little art. There are times, especially in one segment listing famous Puerto Ricans, where it threatens to devolve into a feature-length shout-out. Of course, when one is talking about a people who number in the millions in the U.S. and yet are essentially invisible in the wider culture but for their parade (which likely accounts for its surprisingly resilient vehemence) and were subjected to injustices like the little-known program of sterilization to control the island's population (this continued into the 1970s), a lack of subtlety is perhaps understandable.
The biggest weapon in Perez's arsenal is not the snippets of historical fact but instead herself and her family, an engaging batch of relatives who follow Rosie from place to place, providing entertaining commentary along the way. They help enliven the cruder elements of the film, which occasionally frustrates by only hinting at subjects that could have been gone into with more depth. Although Yo Soy Boricua is likely destined more for the classroom and cable TV (it has backing from IFC TV) than the theatrical circuit, and could have used a bit of polish, it deserves a viewing not just for its lively storytelling but for its attempt to make visible the previously hidden, to bring a people out of the margins into which they have been forced.
Aka I'm Boricua, Just So You Know. Reviewed at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival.
Yo soy a bongo player.