The title of this film means “I Am Puerto Rican, Just So You Know!”
This is a documentary about Puerto Ricans, with Jimmy Smits as a narrator, and Rosie Perez as a narrator, on camera personality, director, and executive producer.
It’s mostly a conventional, bland, celebratory treatment of its subjects, really not much different from what might be shown on Multicultural Day in a grade school class, except the production values are higher and the filmmaker is a name actress.
The film begins and ends with footage of the Puerto Rican Day parade, and discussion of why Puerto Ricans do and should take such vociferous pride in their heritage. Perez comments early on that her goal for this film is to show the viewers what makes being Puerto Rican special.
But unfortunately the answer seems to be “not much.”
The movie brought to mind something I read from Bertrand Russell long ago:
“There was a charming young lady at a meeting of the United Nations who was much given to riding a bicycle. She came from Ecuador, and her bicycle ran away with her down a very steep hill, and she might easily have been killed. And my friend, Gilbert Murray, asked her, ‘Were you not frightened when your bicycle ran away with you?’ And she said, ‘Oh, no. I said to myself, remember that you are an Ecuadorian.'”
And this is the problem with ethnocentrism. It is, at best, laughable. So all the talk about how extraordinary Puerto Ricans are because they have their own foods, and they’re resilient, and they like to laugh, and they’ve been influenced by many cultures, and they’re a peace-loving people except when their backs are up against the wall, and on and on, for me never rises above the Ecuadorian bike rider delusions of exceptionalism.
I mean, come on. Perez marvels at the news that Indians on Puerto Rico are reported in the 1500s to have danced for enjoyment, and she and the others present remark on how perfectly that fits with the Puerto Rican tendency today to dance as a pastime. (Yes, you’d certainly be hard pressed to find other people in the world who dance for fun.)
Ethnocentrism is evil and silly. The only saving grace here is that while it’s 90% evil and 10% silly when practiced by a dominant group (consider if the Ecuadorian bike rider had instead been a Hitler Youth of the 1930s), it’s 10% evil and 90% silly when indulged in by an oppressed group, like in this film.
Certainly this kind of pride–that your group membership makes you “different” in a good way–is understandable and excusable as a reaction against a dominant culture’s message to you that you are “different” in a bad way. One attitude is more of a symptom, and the other the disease. But I’ll take the “post-racial” attitude over either, even if it has become suspiciously popular lately.
I’m also not arguing that race or ethnicity-conscious policies can never be justified as a response to race or ethnicity-based problems (e.g., affirmative action to counter institutional racism). I’m just saying I don’t think that Ecuadorians are particularly brave in the face of bike riding hazards, nor that Puerto Ricans have a unique ability to enjoy dancing or bounce back from hardships.
This kind of ethnic pride puts me in mind of people in therapy groups chanting self-help mantras. Typically people who are genuinely confident that they are good enough, smart enough, and “doggone it, people like me!” are the last folks who need to repeat it to themselves over and over. So I think of ethnic pride of this sort as an unfortunate albeit perhaps necessary transitional stage–above internalizing the inferiority messages, and below leaving them behind entirely.
So I wasn’t crazy about the choice to give this theme of the film such prominence by opening and closing with it. But it’s not a big deal, and in fact the rest of the film is somewhat interesting.
Perez personalizes her treatment of Puerto Ricans and their history by relating it whenever possible to herself and her family, and I thought that was mostly effective. (Though there are times it is a little too staged. The laughter of some of them–including the professional actress Perez herself, interestingly enough–too often seems forced for the camera.)
The history is worthwhile, though the film is careful never to say anything even slightly critical of Puerto Ricans. (Even assassins are presented as unambiguously heroic Martin Luther King-style figures, as long as they were pro-Puerto Rico in some sense.) There are interesting tidbits of information that a lot of people won’t know, certainly some that I didn’t know.
One that caught my attention was the claim that one-third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized in one of those half-voluntary/half-coercive programs, which was the highest for any country in the world. And interestingly this wasn’t in the heyday of eugenics, but in recent times, well after Nazism supposedly discredited that notion in the public mind.
Which is why I say that while the Ecuadorian bike riding-style ethnic pride of this film is silly in a way, there’s no question that it’s the ethnocentrism of the dominant, oppressor groups that’s genuinely evil.
Another thing I thought was interesting, or at least puzzling, was the note late in the film that the most recent referendum on the status of Puerto Rico had forty-something percent voting for statehood, almost none voting for independence, even fewer voting for a continuation of the present “commonwealth” status as a possession, and fifty percent selecting “None of the Above.”
What the heck is the “None of the Above” that the people who voted that way had in mind? It’s not addressed in the film.
So a pretty conventional, safe, uplifting documentary. Not without its good points, but not a “must-see.”