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Sistema de Información Científica
Red de Revistas Científicas de América Latina y el Caribe, España y Portugal
[ 291 ]
The study reveals that contraception is a significant source of worry in the lives
of the Puerto Rican women interviewed. López shows that Puerto Rican women’s
fertility, assumed to be a private matter to women’s lives, has historically been part of
a public discussion that alienates the very women it affects. On the one hand, birth
control is designed to “space births and/or prevent pregnancy” (p. xiii). On the other,
“population control takes place when the government of a country implements a
strategy to control the birth rate or growth of a given population either through
reproductive measures or migration…” (p. xiii). Women’s reproductive health is
always manipulated by and contingent upon historical context. For Puerto Rican
women this reality was blatantly exacerbated by Puerto Rico’s colonial history
with neo-Malthusian ideologies—fueled by the economic need to move women
into factory work—often resulting in the performance of la operación without full
discussion and informed consent. The residue of this is exemplified in Puerto Rican
women’s continued mistrust of a health care system, which combined with the often-
disrespectful treatment they endure from health care providers makes them feel
abused, mistreated and victimized.
Finally, one of the most striking aspects about
Matters of Choice
is López’s careful
consideration of the evidence she gathered over a twenty-five year period, and rather
than presenting the women as passive victims, she utilizes “an integral analysis that
transcends the binary model of agency and constraint” (p. xv). The author convincingly
illustrates that “Puerto Rican women accepted sterilization in such large numbers
because they desperately wanted to control their fertility and they were not offered
viable options” (p. 17). In my view,
Matters of Choice
calls for further ethnographic and
longitudinal research about Puerto Rican women’s lives to not only illuminate the
myriad issues affecting Puerto Rican women and children—but more importantly
to extend and deepen understanding of the complex and nuanced reactions to these
Matters of Choice
should be standard reading for students of the Puerto Rican
and Latin@ condition, and not just female students but all students.
Nuyorican Dream
Directed by Laurie Collyer
Produced by: Katy Chevigny, Laurie Collyer and Julia Pimsleur
New York: Big Mouth Productions, 2000
82 minutes; $29.95 [dvd]
Jorge Duany
, Universidad de Puerto Rico—Río Piedras
Since the film
West Side Story
was released in 1961, the dominant public image of Puerto
Ricans in the United States has been uncharitable. By and large, the massive influx
of Puerto Ricans into New York City since World War II has been portrayed as
a “social problem”—from creating housing shortages and crowded schools to increasing
unemployment and crime rates. New York Puerto Ricans have often been stigmatized as
indigent, disorganized, irresponsible, lazy, ignorant, violent, sexually obsessed, physically
unfit, culturally inassimilable, and dark-skinned aliens (even though they are U.S. citizens).
Such stereotypes have been popularized through Hollywood movies from
Side Story
, to
Fort Apache, the
(1981) and
Q and A
(1990), to name just a few
examples. Prime-time television shows such as
Law and Order
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also featured defamatory references to New York Puerto Ricans. Even academic
monographs, including Oscar Lewis’s
La Vida
(1966) and Philippe Bourgois’s
In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio
(1995), and “serious” journalistic reports
such as Adrian Nicole Leblanc’s
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of
Age in the Bronx
(2003), have associated Puerto Ricans with the infamous “culture of
poverty.” Many of these works have blamed the Puerto Rican victims rather than
expose the social structures and cultural practices that give rise to the plight of poor,
racialized minorities in the first place.
Nuyorican Dream
both continues and undermines the media’s disparaging
portrayals of the Puerto Rican diaspora in the United States. It begins by defining a
“Nuyorican” as “a Puerto Rican living in New York or one who has lived in New York
and returned to Puerto Rico.” Then it introduces its main characters, all part of the
three-generational Torres family in Brooklyn. The 30-year-old narrator, Roberto, is
a graduate of Oberlin College, like the director Laurie Collyer. (They became friends
in San Francisco in 1990 and kept in touch after they both relocated to New York.)
Roberto—or Junior, as his 46-year-old mother Marta calls him—has returned to the
city, where he teaches at an alternative bilingual school for disadvantaged students.
His 23-year-old brother, Danny, has just been released from prison after spending four
years for armed robbery. Roberto guides viewers to his family’s crowded basement
apartment in Brooklyn, where we meet Millie, his 13-year-old sister, and Betty,
his 25-year-old sister. Later we’re introduced to Tati, Roberto’s 27-year-old sister,
who has moved to Orlando. In addition, several young children are part of the
household, including Betty’s two children, Tommy (aged 2) and Leysha (aged 5).
At first, the Torres family seems like many of the large, desperate, and
dysfunctional families in other popular depictions of Puerto Rican migrants.
Raised in poverty in the Island’s countryside, the mother left her first husband,
fled to New York in 1968, remarried, and had four children, but was unable to
support them, so she relied on welfare and odd jobs like selling home-made
and clothes in the street. Roberto never knew his biological father. His stepfather,
Martín, was an alcoholic, gambler, and drug dealer who was sentenced to jail for
three years and eventually abandoned his stepchildren. Danny spends much of
his time on camera high on marijuana and other illegal drugs. Betty buys and sells
heroine and crack and seems to be involved in prostitution as well. Even Tati, who
seeks a better life in Florida, can’t escape her addiction to cocaine and heroine.
Both sisters became pregnant when they were teenagers and left school to take
care of their children and work. At the end of the movie, you wonder whether any
of the characters will be able to break away from the vicious cycle of poverty, welfare,
single parenthood, teenage pregnancy, drugs, prostitution, and crime.
One ray of light in this depressing plotline is Roberto’s story. He is the only member
of his family to have finished high school and graduate from college. He has his own
apartment in Greenwich Village and has a steady professional job, which doesn’t
pay much, but he hopes will “make a difference.” Although his private life is “very
mediocre,” he provides constant moral and emotional support to his mother, siblings,
and their children. (The documentary only briefly touches upon his gay lifestyle.)
Throughout the film, Roberto offers personal insights into his family’s predicament
and a broad historical perspective to explain the educational and socioeconomic
disadvantages of Puerto Ricans and other minorities in the United States. He is well
aware that such groups always struggle between “the street” and “the school,” as he
puts it in an interview with the mother of one of his students. In the film’s most
[ 293 ]
heartbreaking scene, Roberto writes a poem for his mother’s birthday (in Spanish),
praising her for her indomitable spirit and devotion to her family. Everyone cries and
hugs each other and, despite the intense suffering that you will witness for more than
an hour, you will appreciate the resilience of this family against all odds.
An outgrowth of her master’s thesis at New York University, Laurie Collyer’s
documentary follows the conventions of
cinéma vérité
. It does not embellish its
treatment of difficult topics, such as the devastating effects of material deprivation,
racial segregation, substance abuse, and urban violence. With several high 8 cameras,
the director and her crew gained intimate access to the Torres family and filmed more
than 15 hours of footage, mostly in the interior of a two-bedroom apartment. On a couple
of occasions, Collyer appears briefly on camera, and some of her interviewees refer to her
by name, but overall the film focuses on the words and actions of the Torres siblings and
their matriarch. As a result, viewers have to deduce the director’s perspective on urban
poverty in America from her editorial decisions and thematic biases. Her eclectic musical
choices, ranging from Puerto Rican folk music to salsa and merengue, to Latin jazz and
hip hop, enliven her otherwise stark treatment of tough issues.
For myself, I was left wandering whether the “Nuyorican dream” of upward
mobility through migration had become a real nightmare. The lack of education of
the Torreses, both in Puerto Rico and in the United States, is a strong obstacle to
moving outside the ghetto. But improving their schooling does not seem a viable
option for the members of the second generation, except for Roberto; perhaps it
will be for the third generation. For Marta and her contemporaries, the language
barrier still makes it difficult to find a good job in New York, but her children now
speak English more fluently than Spanish. Because most members of the Torres
family are light-skinned, they may have not have experienced racial discrimination
as intensely as their dark-skinned counterparts. Moving south does not appear to
solve the problem either, as Tati realizes when she attempts to start anew in Florida.
The dream of a better life seems as elusive as ever for the protagonists of this film.
So what has happened to those hundreds of thousands of lower-class Puerto
Ricans who have moved to the United States since that song, “I Want to Live in
America,” became famous? Why have the Torreses been unable to take advantage
of the educational and economic opportunities that all migrants seek abroad? Here
Roberto’s analysis is incisive. The structural inequalities of American society restrict
such opportunities to most members of racialized working-class minorities, as some
of the recent statistics on the wide disparities in the schooling of whites, blacks, and
Latinos suggest. As long as such gaps persist, Nuyoricans will face insurmountable
obstacles to their personal and collective progress. “It’s either the grave or a hospital
or locked up,” as Danny sums up from a maximum-security prison, where he will
spend half of his life. When he comes out, “How is he supposed to contribute to
society?” Roberto asks rhetorically. Despite this film’s gritty realism and no-nonsense
approach, I hope viewers will appreciate its thought-provoking denunciation of
poverty, injustice, and inequality in the contemporary United States.