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Shading Puerto Rico's Red, White & Blue With Rosie

Rosie Perez (with fellow Puerto Rican Jimmy Smits) conveys a sense of cultural pride, as well as righteous anger, as she explores her heritage in
Rosie Perez (with fellow Puerto Rican Jimmy Smits) conveys a sense of cultural pride, as well as righteous anger, as she explores her heritage in "Yo Soy." Her debut documentary is narrated by Smits. (By Amy Sussman -- Getty Images)
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 12, 2006

"People always ask me," Rosie Perez muses in a voice-over, "why are you Puerto Ricans so damn proud?" Well, because they're Puerto Rican, of course! What's not to love? It's an existential question, and her debut documentary, "¡Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'Que Tu Lo Sepas!" ("I'm Puerto Rican, Just So You Know!") is a rambling, good-natured, fact-filled and often poignant answer to that query.

"Yo Soy," airing tonight at 9 on the Independent Film Channel, is one Nuyorican's odyssey through minefields of culture, history, race and painful family history. (The Brooklyn-born-and-bred Perez was raised by an aunt; her largely absent mother mocked Perez's attempts to speak Spanish.) As she pores over Puerto Rico's history, she is chronicling her own family's history -- and its secrets. Perez and her sister and cousins become characters in a real-life drama, roaming through New York and Puerto Rico, through museums and cultural centers, through verdant countryside and snowy Central Park, to plena and bomba jam sessions, to the funeral of famed Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri, talking about then and now, now and then. As they learn, the viewer does, too.

The result is a slightly unorthodox rendering that meanders at times (a few too many scenes of family hangouts) and seems stilted at others (feigned surprise during some of the history lessons). But these are quibbles: The sheer force of the subject matter and Perez's personality overcome the film's shortcomings. You feel her passion for the subject, and, yes, at times, you even feel her often unspoken pain. Particularly touching is when she reunites with her father, a World War II vet, in Puerto Rico. He steps ever so slowly, clutching a cane in one hand, Perez's hand in the other. Perez beams. Nothing much is said, but then, nothing needs to be said.

The documentary, narrated by another famous Puerto Rican, Jimmy Smits, opens with a tranquil suburban scene: Various members of the Perez clan are preparing for the Puerto Rican Pride Parade, a long-standing tradition in New York. (The documentary's title riffs off a parade chant.) The red, white and blue Puerto Rican flag is attached to the sides of a minivan. One cousin, a retired cop, puts on her dress blues. Another cousin, an actor with a flair for the dramatic, wraps himself in the flag and goes dashing down the street, like Superman.

"There goes the negative stereotype part," Perez says, pointing and snickering.

"Yo Soy" is an antidote to the stereotypes. To be Puerto Rican, or Boricua (the name stems from the island's original name, dubbed by the Taino Indians as the "Land of the Boriquen"), is to be mixed of race and culture. To be Puerto Rican is to traffic in complexity: Most have Taino, African and European ancestry. They're Americans by citizenship (the island is a commonwealth, a spoil of the Spanish-American War) and speak English and Spanish. They fight and die in U.S. wars. But if they live on the island, they can't vote in the presidential election. Juggling identities and loyalties is part of the drill. (According to the documentary, when Puerto Ricans last voted about their status with the States, fewer than 1 percent voted to have things remain the way they are now, 2.5 percent backed independence, 46.5 percent voted for statehood, and 50 percent chose "none of the above."

"My mother is Puerto Rico," says Luis Ramos, a retired Census worker. "My uncle is Uncle Sam. Yes, I owe something to my uncle, but my madre patria [mother country] comes first."

This is a documentary with a decided point of view, a view that is infused with Perez's sense of righteous anger. She fascinates when she recounts the story of Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos, the Boricua Martin Luther King Jr. who was jailed for 25 years for his efforts to secure independence for the island. And she shocks when she details how the U.S. government enacted Act 136 in 1937, which made it legal for poor Puerto Rican women to be sterilized without their consent in an effort to stem the population. By 1965, the documentary asserts, more than a third of Puerto Rican women had been sterilized.

But a sense of resilient pride pervades the film. "We're like the Weebles Wobbles," Perez says. "You can push a Puerto Rican down a hundred times, and we'll boing right back up. Right back up."

¡Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'Que Tu Lo Sepas! (86 minutes) airs tonight at 9 on IFC and again Tuesday morning at 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. and June 27 at 7:30 p.m.

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