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June 2006
Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'que Tu Lo Sepas!(I'm Boricua, Just So You Know!): An Interview with Rosie Perez

Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'que Tu Lo Sepas(I'm Boricua, Just So You Know!)!: An Interview with Rosie Perez
By Stacey Chapman
June 12, 2006

Rosie Perez, in her directorial debut, explores the political history, social activism and national pride of Puerto Rican people. This labor of love takes her from New York to Miami and finally the island of Puerto Rico. Through the richness of the island's history, we discover its complex relationship with America. From sterilization programs in Puerto Rico to economic empowerment protests in New York, led by the Young Lords, Rosie, seamlessly weaves together interviews and narrative and creates a documentary that is both entertaining and educational. During a lively roundtable conversation, Rosie discusses the passion and tenacity of Puerto Ricans striving to achieve the American dream while maintaining their cultural identity.


You planned to make a narrative film about the sterilization of Puerto Rican woman. Can you talk about that and how it eventually evolved into a documentary?

Rosie Perez: I wanted to do a motion picture narrative piece and the places where I went kept telling me that, this isn't true. I was like, "What do you mean it isn't true?" "Well, it didn't happen." I said, "What do you mean it didn't happen?" "They went voluntarily." I was like, oh my God and I just couldn't believe it! I said, "Why were there sterilization clinics placed in factories?" "Well?" That was the response. I said, "Well, if they're major corporations and they're placing sterilization clinics in factories, and the factories are only hiring predominately women, you don't think that there's something funny about that? "Well…" I said, "There's legislative act 136 that passed and says sterilization should be practiced on the poor and the malfunctioned people who are not able to raise children and educate them in a proper manner. That's a government legislative act passed! There's nothing funny about that?" "Well, uh…" Those things did happen. Nobody wanted to make that movie, and I just couldn't believe it. So, I kept pressing on and doing other projects, but it was always on the back of my mind.

Then this ex-boyfriend of mine called me up and said, "You know, I hear you're doing the Puerto Rican day parade. I hear your people all the way over here in Brooklyn, all the way across the river. Y'all are so damn loud! What the hell are y'all so damn loud about?" I said, "Cause we're proud." He goes, "What the hell you guys got to be proud about?" Ha, ha, ha. I hung up the phone on him.


Is he still your friend?

RP: He's still my friend. You know, I can't blame him that he's stupid. I mean, he's cute, but you know, he's not the brightest color in the rainbow.

I called my agent that day, and I said I got it. I'm going put all of those things to rest. I'm going to prove it. I'm going to spell it out, and I'm going to tell our whole (Puerto Rican) history. I'm going to wrap it around with people's personal stories, because I was so touched by those women that were interviewed. I said I'm going show how political policy can affect people.

My co-director, Rory Kennedy, called me in her office, and said, "Listen, I feel that you need to be a character in the movie." I said, "Oh hell no! No, hell no! Oh, No No No!" And um, she's like, "I really think you should be, and if you want to be a viable director and make this movie something special, you have to let go and just be in it." And um, I think I told her off. And then finally I gave in.


Did you feel a certain weight on your shoulders making statements, comments about Puerto Rican culture, Puerto Rican people?

RP: Yeah, well Liz Garbus and I had many arguments in the editing room, because there was so much more material that was supposed to go into the documentary than what came out. I was like, "No but we have to put this in and we have to put that in." And she says, if we do that you're gonna have a freakin' miniseries, And I said, "Oh let's do that!" She said, "We don't have the money. We don't have the time. We have 90 minutes, Rosie. That's it. Pick and choose." And that was very hard.


Are you amazed by how little people know about this period of history?

RP: No I wasn't amazed, because it's not taught in the schools. So how can anybody know unless you take Puerto Rican studies in college? In the movie Bobbito Garcia touches on how he learned English first as a language, and many times, people within the Puerto Rican community are discriminated because they don't speak Spanish. Do you think that's still happening now?

RP: That definitely still happens. Puerto Ricans are fearful that the culture is slipping away. What they don't understand is that it's not. Barbito Garcia is a proud Puerto Rican and he's a very active Puerto Rican like me. When people immigrate to this country, a lot of, misguided intentions on behalf of their parents were to have them assimilated so that they can be successful, and they wouldn't have to endure the pain that they endured. As an adult, when I sit back and look at it, I was like, wow, my mother was really looking out for me.


What would you have done if you didn't do the acting?

RP: Who knows? I have no idea. I wanted to be a marine biologist. I thought I was going to be the female Jacques Cousteau.


When you were shooting the documentary was the information easy to find?

RP: No. It was really, really difficult. Like for instance, the use of Agent Orange and testing in Vieques. I remember Rory Kennedy was like "Are you sure that happened?" And I said, "That's what I heard." And she was like, "Oh, no we are not putting that in unless we fact-check it." They did an amazing job, the research team at Moxie Firecracker.


Can you talk about Jimmy Smits involvement, and were you friends with him?

RP: I was friends with him prior. We made a friendship outside of all this. Actually, I met him at a Puerto Rican Day parade where he was Grand Marshall in New York years ago. We became closer when I started doing theater. I guess we started speaking the same language and stuff and we're both kind of politically involved or activists to some degree. We're both from Brooklyn and I also knew Jimmy was really smart in regards to Puerto Rican history and so I knew that there would not be a lot of explaining. I knew he would totally get it and he said yes right away, so that was pretty amazing.


I really like the Young Lords section. Pablo Guzman was a former Young Lord, and it's interesting to see that you got into that. I really like that part of the film. Did you have any affection for that?

RP: I always had an affection for it, because I remember my cousin Titi, God rest her soul. I remember the day when I was a little girl, and she came barreling into the house one day. "Mami mami, oh my god, you should have seen these Puerto Ricans. They're walking in the street, and they had these berets, and everything. I told you, and now they're on TV. I told you. They're gonna be on the news tonight." She was always so fascinated by them, and I was fascinated by her. So I always remember that.


How long did it take to edit this?

RP: Initially it took 2 weeks to do a rough cut.


That was fast…

RP: You know what it is? I give the credit to Moxie Firecracker. They have a mini-editing bay in their offices. So while we were shooting, we were downloading. And while we were shooting, we were cutting and snipping.


Now that you're done with the documentary, how do you feel about the United States and the relationship with Puerto Ricans and the government? What are your thoughts about that?

RP: I love the United States. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.


What's outrageous is that Puerto Ricans can't vote in Puerto Rican territory

RP: Right.


That's insane to me, in 2006. I mean, so what's the forecast?

RP: You know, we are a commonwealth, which is a US territory, voluntarily, and the issue of autonomy is so great right now, especially with the collapse of the government, and everything, but it's crazy,


You know, Puerto Ricans have fought in all of the wars, and that's not also told in history. Like "Saving Private Ryan"… Where were the Puerto Ricans? You know, more than half of the island fought in WW2. Puerto Ricans also fought in WW1. You never see that in the movies.


Do you have other issues that you're passionate about, that you want to work on now?

RP: Well, I have my AIDS activism. We just protested in front of the UN yesterday. Got minimal news coverage, which is sad.


Are you going to do another play soon?

RP: Every time summer comes around, and the Tony's come around, I get that feeling, I want to go back. It's really a strong feeling in me.


And how about features?

RP: We're negotiating. We might do another movie in July.


Why are you so proud to be Puerto Rican?

RP: I think the documentary speaks for itself, and if anybody else wants to know why, go see the documentary. ‘Cause you know, that's why I made it.


"Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'que Tu Lo Sepas!" premieres on IFC Monday, June 12 at 9pm ET/10pm PT. To check for other screenings, click here.

 

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