Why I made Moving In Place, a documentary about young Puerto Ricans
Over the past year and a half, I poured my entire heart and soul into creating Moving In Place — a documentary film about the experiences of young Puerto Ricans living on and off the island. Meanwhile, the outside world continued to turn.
In this age of rapid-fire news cycles fueled by social media frenzy, issues and events enter the collective consciousness only to disappear in a blip. Before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last September, the island rarely made headlines despite its insurmountable debt and austerity crisis, deep political divisions, 44% poverty rate — oh, and the fact that it’s a modern-day colony (euphemized as “commonwealth” and “unincorporated territory”) of the United States.
Any creative, self-starting, and/or social impact-oriented individual understands how it feels to put all of your energy into one important project or cause, only to realize that not many people seem to be paying attention. Our small team wrapped the film a few weeks ago. At that point, I took a look around and found that while Puerto Ricans continue to face immense trials (exacerbated — but not entirely caused — by the Category 5 hurricane), the rest of society had sort of…moved on.
What sliver of light shed on Puerto Rico’s precarious political status and economic crisis during the immediate aftermath; what small but mighty movement of people speaking out and educating themselves; what anger and disgust over the Trump administration’s handling of the humanitarian atrocity…all seemed to have dissipated. Aside from the occasional update on the death toll and the status of power renewal in remote areas, news publications had largely gone silent. (Shout out to CBS journalist David Begnaud, though, for his tireless reporting to this day).
Puerto Ricans who live on the island are US citizens, but they don’t have the same rights as the rest of us. The biggest discrepancy is that they are not allowed to vote in federal general elections. You read that right. Puerto Rico is controlled and taxed by the United States federal government, yet Puerto Ricans have no say in who is elected President or to Congress. Since the late 40s, Puerto Rico has elected a local governor every four years. But that role has essentially become a political figurehead, ever at the mercy of the federal government’s will. Talk is cheap — America’s actions show time and time again that it views Puerto Ricans as a lesser class of citizens.
A vicious cycle of migration and debt
Throughout the island’s history, a steady flow of migrants has evacuated the island, constituting what is known as the Puerto Rican Diaspora. In fact, the the first wave of migration to the US dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, while Puerto Rico was still a Spanish colony. When the island became a US territory in 1898, people continued to make their way to “the mainland.” Migration picked up when Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship in 1917 under the Jones-Shafroth Act (implemented primarily to enable Puerto Ricans to serve in our military), and then again in the 50s after WW2. The diaspora has since evolved into an alarming brain drain as the island’s debt crisis has deepened with every passing decade.
Puerto Rico’s government has a history of budget mismanagement, inefficiency, and corruption, spurred by US policy decisions. This includes the implementation of the aforementioned Jones-Shafroth Act, which established triple tax-exemption for Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds. American investors have historically looked at the island as a source of easy money, despite the ethical implications of securing bonds from a struggling colony that, it soon became clear, was piling on the — now considered unpayable — debt. This behavior culminated in Puerto Rico’s current bond debt of over $70 billion, not to mention unfunded pension obligations amounting to $49 billion. That’s over $120 billion dollars, much of which falls onto the shoulders of unknowing citizens and small business owners.
In response, Puerto Rico (managed by an Obama-appointed financial oversight board) has instituted major austerity measures limiting public institutions and making daily life extremely difficult. Job prospects and career growth are slim to none for many. Teachers, doctors, skilled workers, business owners, university students, and new graduates all feel the pressure to leave the island in order to find a semblance of success and a stable future.
Some Puerto Ricans advocate for statehood as a catch-all solution. However, there is a growing resentment toward US dominance, particularly among younger generations who fear the cultural decimation that could follow if they become the 51st state. There is a major divide on the island, but our film doesn’t have a defined political agenda. We don’t answer every question or insert our version of a solution. Instead, we take a human-centric view of a modern day case of colonialism and diaspora. Our goal is to build empathy for Puerto Ricans who have to leave their homes behind in order to survive.
In the last decade, Puerto Rico lost 10% of its population (currently standing at 3.37 million). In a statement made to CNN, economist Lyman Stone said: “In 10 years, Puerto Rico will have less than 3 million people and still be headed quickly towards 2.5 million or lower. Once below that level, I don’t think it will come back above 2.5 million — effectively ever.”
Some of those who left to seek temporary shelter or medical care after the hurricane plan to return to collect the remains of their lives and try to move forward. But just as many, if not more, will likely never go back. As we near the one year anniversary of the storm, it’s continuing to become clear that the island’s recovery is only just beginning. It’s now vital for people to continue to talk about the situation in Puerto Rico and urge our government to do something tangible, like implement debt relief legislation.
In an interview for Moving In Place, Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of UPROSE Brooklyn, said: “People want to do something immediately, help immediately. But the truth is, that real disaster happens months and years after, when a community or nation is no longer in the public eye.”
A large swathe of those who are considering leaving or have recently left the island are young Puerto Ricans in their 20s and 30s, educated but unable to build and maintain careers at home. It may sound like an obvious choice to leave Puerto Rico and move to states like Florida, New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, but Puerto Ricans deserve to hold tight to their roots.
“I didn’t want to leave. I always saw myself living in Puerto Rico for the rest of my life. It’s where I’m from, it’s my culture, my country, it’s who I am,” one of our film’s subjects, Alexis Herrera-Schmidt, told us. “But unfortunately, I couldn’t develop professionally there.”
A century-long struggle against colonialism has instilled a strong sense of pride and a thirst to keep traditions alive. Music and dance (bomba, salsa, plena), food (mouthwatering mofongo, arroz con gandules, fried snacks galore), family, and lush natural beauty play a role in their cultural identities.
“Puerto Rico is a vibrant place, it’s a green place, it’s full of beautiful things,” another film subject, Professor Mara Pastor, explained. “I love the the music, and the culture. I love the way we are.” Mara left the island for over a decade to pursue higher education and later returned to teach at a university in Ponce, in the south of the island.
She continued: “When I was in the US, I was never asked if I was Puerto Rican. I was never linked — or rarely linked — to Puerto Rico, so I started asking myself why, even though I felt that I was very Puerto Rican in my ways. When someone from Latin America or the Caribbean moves to the US, she’s immediately labeled as Latina, because it’s easier for the American scope. But identity is so complex.”
Despite being “part of America,” Puerto Rico has a vast cultural landscape and Puerto Ricans have a sense of loyalty that runs deep. Popular-albeit-controversial hashtag #YoNoMeQuito reflects the growing sentiment that those who choose to leave the island are quitters, and those who stay are willing to fight to make things better. While the fairness of this hashtag can certainly be called into question, its prevalence speaks a thousand words.
Hearing about how young Puerto Ricans feel about who they are, where they’re from, and where they’re going, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to other “American” experiences. Most immigrants to the United States empathize with the push and pull, the question of whether to stay home or to take the leap and enter new territory, the feeling of not being welcome or understood, of being singled out. In comparison to many, moving to the States is fairly simple for Puerto Ricans. They don’t have to undergo a naturalization process, but they’re still seen as outsiders. As any immigrant understands — they’re neither here nor there.
An outsider’s perspective
You might be wondering — why her? A director who isn’t Puerto Rican sharing Puerto Rican stories? Who is she to take on that role? The answer: because I get it (and I can). I am a first-generation Indian American who has always been stuck between identities. My own experience is obviously different, but I understand deeply the feeling of being torn between cultures.
Living in NYC, I met Puerto Ricans who felt the same way I did — but with a uniquely complex and infuriating political history thrown in that I felt needed to be understood more broadly. At a certain point in early 2017 I realized that I had the contacts, savings, and will to do something. So I did. It’s really as simple as that. If you care about something, have the means to take action, and are able to put in the due diligence to ensure you won’t cause more harm than good, you do it, right?
Before even picking up a camera, we spent months on research, pre-interviews with Puerto Rican contacts in the States and on the island, building relationships with advisors in academia and the media and nonprofit worlds, and getting the right team together. As a first-time filmmaker, during the development phase I had much to learn not only about the issues and the island’s history, but about how to even make the project come to fruition. This challenge only contributed more to my passion and drive to make it happen.
To reiterate, Moving In Place doesn’t spoon feed you everything you need to know about Puerto Rico. Read War Against All Puerto Ricans by Nelson Antonio Denis, check out Naomi Klein’s most recent book about the hurricane recovery, or look at pretty much anything written on the subject by Dr. Frances Negrón-Muntaner (who happens to be one of our film’s amazing advisors).
Our film strives to keep the conversation about Puerto Rico alive and to contribute to a larger body of work surrounding the island’s relationship with the United States. If you’re interested in getting a slice of the young Puerto Rican perspective on identity, migration, the hurricane experience, culture, and America, keep an eye on Moving In Place — coming soon.