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Puerto Rico – Caught Between Two Worlds

Since I was recently in Puerto Rico dealing with a rather unenviable set of events, I’ve decided to dedicate the next few blog posts to the Isle of Enchantment. For this initial post, I want to address a few macro-level observations that might not be immediately apparent if you stay inside of the touristy areas of Old San Juan. For all it’s tropical charm and cruise line appeal, Puerto Rico is a country at a bizarre crossroads of culture, language, politics and even, against common sense, time period. I grew up spending my summers with my grandparents, who lived in the San Juan area, so my observations are purely based on gathered experience rather than extensive sociological research. Take them with a grain of salt.

Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, a territory of the United States and a spoil of war from the often-overlooked Spanish American War in 1898. It is neither a state, nor it’s own independent country and that ambiguous classification stemming from a war over a century ago is the foundation for the island’s odd “will-they, won’t they” relationship with the United States and on a much larger level, I would propose, why so much surrounding the island seems like a contradiction. A lot of the politics on the island revolve around the question of statehood but at the same time the politicians truly seem to truly embrace the corruption that’s commonplace in neighboring Latin American countries. Politicians from all three major parties invoke nationalistic pride, all with the same fervor but to competing ends. Puerto Rico is caught in the middle of two dramatically different international goals – statehood and independence – and the fact of the matter is that the risk/benefit ratio of either is far less appealing to the general populace than retaining and maintaining the status quo. That’s why when you hear American politicians – particularly GOP candidates – talking about supporting Puerto Rican statehood, it’s best just to nod politely at their ignorance and acknowledge that they are merely pandering to get the Latino vote. The likelihood of it actually happening is about the same as one of them knowing what tostones are.

Culturally speaking, Puerto Ricans are some of the proudest people when it comes to their national heritage. If you have any question, just grab a seat and watch the Puerto Rican day parade in New York City. While I may personally be embarrassed by the trashy people that walk down the street blowing whistles and wearing the Puerto Rican flag as bandanas, shirts and thongs, it’s a fairly good indicator that we are not sheepish about our heritage. The aspect of it all that confuses me, however, is that it’s an incredibly mixed message. Puerto Ricans in their current incarnation are descendants of the island’s indigenous tribe the Taino people, the wealthy (or exiled) Spanish land owners and the African slaves they brought with them. As a result, modern day Puerto Ricans are incredibly varied in ethnic background and skin tone, despite being uniformly and vocally of one cultural background. So while there’s a veritable rainbow when it comes to skin color, everyone shares a familiarity based on that diversity and because of the shared language – Spanish. Yet despite this common denominator, there’s a disconnect. Spanish, while being the primary language of the island, has become a hybrid of English and Spanish that ends up diluting both languages until people aren’t speaking either. Purity of language no longer exists in Puerto Rico and it’s a testament to the Americanization of the culture. Pride in Puerto Rican culture as something distinct from American culture, it seems to me, is thus somewhat of an oxymoron because the overlap, particularly in the use of language, blurs the line between them to such a degree that they are quickly becoming one and the same.

Puerto Rico sits at the juncture between the old and the new. Cars are either rusty junkers, kept together by duct tape and prayer, or brand-new brand-name cars. Houses are either dilapidated, hurricane beaten cement block houses or well-kept, high-end dwellings with satellite TVs and and luxury pools. The old Spanish style buildings still make up the center of most of the towns throughout the island, but the incidence of McDonald’s, Burger Kings and other distinctly American locales in the surrounding areas are very much juxtaposed to the Spanish colonial style. And while we’re on the subject of eateries, it has always amazed me the sheer quantity of fast food restaurants throughout the island. Coupled with the criollo restaurants on the side of the road that serve every type of deep fried delicacy you can imagine from meat filled empanadas to cheese filled pastries called quesitos, the combination of local traditional food with the hyper-processed American fast food, there really is no mystery why there is such a high incidence of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. I guess that makes Puerto Rico a lot like Middle America in that respect – only our food tastes infinitely better. This is not a matter of opinion, it is scientific fact.

When I would visit my grandparents, I would spend a lot of time with people in their age group, friends and family that rarely were ever younger than 70 years old, and all of them would feed me copious amounts of delicious food. As a result, when I went to their homes I saw glimpses into the way things used to be. Like many other islands in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico made it’s mark on the world by being a large producer/exporter of sugar cane and it’s highly sought after end result – rum. Agriculture was an extremely large part of the culture, a way to distinguish the rich from the poor, and the origin of so many of the traditions on the island. As the decades went on, Agriculture diminished as Government work became the leading employment opportunity. Both my grandfathers worked in some way for the government. When I think back at the furniture – the desks in particular – and the assorted decorations that filled my grandparents houses, I can’t help but be reminded of the spartan modernist Mad Men feel of the 1960s, a perfectly preserved and still functional microcosm of the past. While there are a lot of places that fervently and desperately strive to be at the forefront of the “new” – especially in the touristy areas of San Juan – there are many parts of the island that retain that Cold War era feeling, which, coupled with the heavy Spanish influences from the colonial period and the almost third world qualities of the the more rural areas in the mountains, makes Puerto Rico is a very difficult cultural cultural ecosystem to describe. The travel websites may sell an image of an island tropical paradise, but there is far more than beautiful beaches and palm trees at play in Puerto Rico – but yeah, we have those too.

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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A Crazy Night at the UCB

UCBLast night, I decided to forgo my regular Sunday night sketch writing class in order to head up to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and catch an improv show, Asssscat 3000. Feel free to laugh at the ridiculous name, but after last night’s show I’ve got a crazy amount of respect for Asssscat, treading the line somewhere between amazement and religious extremism.

Though it wasn’t without a twinge of guilt that I skipped my class, I took the train to Penn Station and waded through droves of Springsteen fans, all reeking of Jersey. Hoofing it down to the UCB theater, I waited in line for a few hours in the bizarrely temperate NY night and was finally let in.

The house was packed, most definitely a firefighter’s worst nightmare. Crammed in between two hipster strangers, I took a seat near the sound booth and patiently waited until the lights went down and the announcer riled up the crowd and announced the night’s performers.

Amy Poehler burst on stage to an ecstatic audience. Once the applause died down, she proceeded to introduce the rest of the performers: Neil Casey from Death by Roo Roo. Chris Gethard, a writer on SNL. Peter Gwinn,  writer on The Colbert Report.  Bobby Moynihan from SNL.  Jack McBrayer from 30 Rock. John Lutz from 30 Rock.  Seth Meyer from SNL. And finally, Jon Hamm, a.k.a. Don Draper, from Mad Men, performing monologues and forever haunting the dreams of the 14 to 44 year old women in the audience. (Mine too but don’t tell anyone.)

It’s obvious when people are doing what they love and every moment these performers were on stage, that kind of eager exuberance and unhinged enthusiasm for nailing a joke showed through with every ridiculous premise. These were seasoned professionals, not the unsure Improv 101 students still trying to find their funny legs like a recently born fawn. Even if things looked like they were on the point of derailing, someone would jump in and add something completely unexpected and perfectly suited – like a reference to time jumping Nazis. Who doesn’t love those?

The show was crass, fast and absolutely absurd. Between the cops who wouldn’t stop playing with themselves, the President who related everything to jackets, the foppishly horrific Dean Koontz (how do you pronounce his name without laughing?), a back-alley rapist, a fake Nathan Lane, a real Nathan Lane, Bruce Vilanch who might be Nathan Lane and of course Liz Horowitz whose only crime is that her personality is just a downer, there was not a dull note the whole show. Even Hamm’s plodding, dramatic monologues meant to spur on the improvisers had a detached air of irony as if he was still riding a wave of inebriation and wasn’t much concerned with anything except exuding cool. All in all, 2 hours of amazing.

To think that the whole show was free was just the cherry on top of an awesome Sunday sundae. Only in New York.

 
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Posted by on November 9, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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