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Brooklynites Perez, Smits explore Puerto Rican roots in new doc

The Brooklyn Paper
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Brooklyn-born actors Rosie Perez and Jimmy Smits say they wanted to make the new documentary, "Yo Soy Boricua, Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas" ("I’m Boricua, Just So You Know"), to celebrate their heritage and educate people about Puerto Rico’s fascinating history, a topic seldom discussed in the United States, much less taught in American schools.

Co-directed by Perez and Liz Garbus, with Smits narrating, the 86-minute documentary uses archival film footage and new interviews to chronicle the political history of Puerto Rico and to explain how the island’s connections to Spain and the United States have affected the lives, culture and language of its people.

It was Perez’s desire to shine light on such little talked-about subjects - along with how Spain nearly wiped out the island’s indigenous people, the Taino Indians, and how many Puerto Ricans fought alongside Americans and gave their lives during World War II, even though they were not allowed to vote for a U.S. president - that led her to make her directorial debut a film about Puerto Rican pride.

In addition to discussing how many Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States in the 1940s as part of the U.S. government’s Operation Bootstrap, then tried to assimilate into American society while maintaining their heritage, the documentary also allows a rare glimpse into Perez’s family life and puts its history into the wider context of Puerto Rico’s past.

In an interview on June 1 in Manhattan, Perez told GO Brooklyn that her film is a direct response to the ignorance of Puerto Rican heritage she has dealt with since she was a little girl.

" ’What are you? Where’s Puerto Rico? What is it?’ That was constant," the 42-year-old Bushwick native recalled people asking her as a child.

"I wasn’t amazed that people didn’t know," she continued. "What I was amazed at was why people didn’t know; even Puerto Rican-Americans. There was a large number of Puerto Rican-Americans that we interviewed [for the film who] did not know the history And that’s because it’s not taught. It’s not taught in the schools in elementary, junior high, high school. So, how can anybody know? Unless you take Puerto Rican Studies in college, you’re not going to know - not even in Puerto Rico."

In a separate interview, Smits agreed. "I didn’t know very much about the sterilization," he said. "I didn’t know about that myself until I was in college."

Perez said she wanted to do "a motion picture narrative piece about the sterilization of Puerto Rican women. And the places that I went to kept telling me this isn’t true," she recalled. "I was like, ’What do mean, it didn’t happen?’

" ’Well it didn’t happen.’

"I said, ’What do you mean, it didn’t happen?’

" ’Well, they went voluntarily.’ "

Perez said her research taught her that U.S. policy required Puerto Rican women to be sterilized as part of a practice to control the island’s impoverished population, but she said many of the women believed they would later be able to reverse the process and have children.


Void in history books

Smits, the 51-year-old former "NYPD Blue" and "The West Wing" star, who graduated from Brooklyn College in 1980, said that most of what he learned as a kid about his Puerto Rican ancestry came from his family, not from the books he studied when he was going to junior high and high school in East New York.

"Although it wasn’t talked about in school, it was talked about in the home and it was dealt with in our music," said Smits. "We grew up having very strong cultural ties to the island, but maybe not necessarily knowing every specific about historical data."

Perez said she decided to make the documentary, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this spring and is set to air on the Independent Film Channel on June 12, because she wanted to create an accurate account of Puerto Rican history that was accessible for everyone.

Remembering her initial goals for the film, Perez said she vowed: " ’I’m going to prove it. I’m going to spell it out. I’m going to tell our whole history and I’m going to wrap it around people’s personal stories. I’m going to show how political policy can affect people.’ You have to be very, very careful. And how with all that we went through, we’re still here."

The first-time director credits the researchers at Garbus’s and co-producer Rory Kennedy’s production company for helping her find film footage and other credible resources to back up the stories she wanted to tell.

"It was really, really difficult," Perez said. "The production team at Moxie Firecracker was always calling, saying, ’Are you sure this happened?’ and I’d say: ’Yes! Keep digging, keep digging!’"

Perez says once they found what they were looking for, however, they were overwhelmed with rich material and had a tough time deciding what to put in the film and what to leave out.

" ’We have 90 minutes! Rosie, pick and choose,’ " is what Garbus and Kennedy instructed Perez to do. "That was very hard," she said. "But it was great advice."

So, what about all of the stories and information that didn’t make the final cut?

"The great thing about that is that it is inspiring other people to research those stories and go about themselves to tell those other stories," Perez said.


Making it personal

Best-known for her acting roles in "Do the Right Thing," "White Men Can’t Jump," "Fearless" and "It Could Happen to You" and seen recently on Broadway in the dramas "Reckless" and "Frankie and Johnny," Perez says she never intended to appear in "Yo Soy Boricua" herself.

"I wasn’t supposed to tell my personal story, because I’ve always told the press it was off-limits," she said with a laugh. "I didn’t want myself to be in it. I wanted everybody else to spill their guts."

Recalling how she had a hard time getting started on the film’s script, Perez says Kennedy and Garbus suggested she simply start talking in front of a camera and see what happens.

"I would talk and talk and talk, and then I would start crying while I am talking, and then I would talk and then cry, and then talk and then laugh and then talk, and my family was always around," Perez related. "And [Kennedy] called me in her office and said, ’Liz and I feel you need to be a character in this movie.’ "

Describing her first reaction as, "Oh, hell, no," Perez said she eventually understood their position.

Smits said he believes she made the right decision, adding that by including herself and her own family’s history in the film she provides a "touchstone for the audience."

"They stay engaged and it doesn’t feel like it is a preachy, stodgy typical type of doc," he said.

Perez always hoped Smits would participate in the film.

"I met him at a Puerto Rican Day parade where he was grand marshal years ago, and we stayed friends ever since," she said. "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 active to some degree. We’re both from Brooklyn, and I also knew Jimmy was really, really smart in regards to Puerto Rican history, and so I knew there would not be a lot of explaining [needed]. I knew he would totally get it and he said, ’yes,’ right away."

Although the film doesn’t delve into Smits’s own family life and history, he found it very easy to connect to the material.

"I see in some of those - especially that file footage of Operation Bootstrap and the tenements in The Bronx and certain sections of Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s - and I see my family," he said. "I see my aunts and uncles on hot, summer days in the tenements of The Bronx and Brooklyn, hanging out the fire escapes, and it touches me."

 

"Yo Soy Boricua, Pa’que Tu Lo Sepas" ("I’m Boricua, Just So You Know"), directed by Rosie Perez, is scheduled to air June 12 at 9 pm on the Independent Film Channel.

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