American Outrage, my take on the controversy over the film "America" and the Academy's decision not to let Puerto Rico compete in the foreign language category

I think that appealing to the Academy to reconsider because Puerto Ricans make films in Spanish -- as argued by one of its producers -- is ridiculous. Moreover, this is, at the root, a political issue that will haunt the island and it is deeply rooted in the island's current political status. It's about time Puerto Ricans decide what their political destiny will be because the current political association is schizophrenic. If they don't decide, others will.

Check out my column published in El Diario La Prensa. 

The English language version after the jump. Yes, I am bilingual like that!

A group of Hollywood stars, many of them Puerto Ricans who ironically have made their Hollywood careers speaking English, including award winning actors Benicio del Toro (Oscar), Jimmy Smits (Emmy), Esai Morales and Miriam Colon, among others, were outraged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ recent decision to deny Puerto Rico eligibility to compete for an Oscar in the Foreign Language Category. They joined a gaggle of other celebrities and Latino arts organizations in protesting and appealing the rejection claiming that Puerto Rican films qualify because "...we produce in Spanish and we are geographically and legally outside the US."  

Frances Lausell, the producer of "America," whose film is at the center of the controversy, wrote to the Academy to plea her case and in part she argued that "... This is not a political issue, it’s about a culture's right to make art that conveys its essence and be recognized as such by the international community." 

I really feel for Lausell, but it is profoundly naive to think that this is not a political issue. If there was ever a political issue, this is it. And it’s an issue that is rooted in the current political status of the island – a commonwealth-- which renders the Caribbean island as an ambiguous entity that is neither a state nor an independent nation- but an in-between political territory with some rights, but not others.

Puerto Rico has long been living in this delusional political see saw which allows islanders to simultaneously play both sides of the fence. If it weren't so damn tragic, this latest controversy would be fodder for comedy. The film is, after all, called America! But funny this issue isn’t. The Academy’s denial does travel to the core of what is wrong with the present political situation of the island.

The commonwealth status is not a clear position; rather, it is a sitting on the hedge position. And, existing on this metaphoric fence is akin to political and cultural schizophrenia.  As US born citizens, Puerto Ricans are technically not foreigners. But, we all know that despite spilling their blood and fighting for the US in wars since 1917, Puerto Rican soldiers haven’t been saved from being treated as second-class citizens once they return maimed and hurt to the island or the mainland. Or lately, having an American citizenship hasn’t kept Puerto Ricans from being deported to Mexico when they are arrested and picked up as ''illegals" by aggressive INS agents. Let's not forget the crazy that erupted during the 2008 Democratic primaries—when a baffled nation had no idea that Puerto Ricans could vote in party primaries but not in the presidential elections. More locura!

Culturally unique, the island has forged a very special space for itself within the Latin American community. And that won't change for the fierce nationalists who fight for cultural survival and their human right to speak and live out loud en Español no matter whose flag is hoisted in front of their government offices. I digress.

Ignorance about Puerto Rico goes beyond the Academy—it’s global and it stings and stinks.

I remember being in a Havana, Cuba cafe a couple of years ago and dining with some British friends after covering a Troubadour Festival. The festival included a competition of décima singers and groups representing Spain and each of the Spanish speaking countries in Latin America sang for the top prize. Puerto Rico's group of eight-- yes, the same ones who traveled illegally with US passports to Cuba weeks earlier—beat all the other Spanish-speaking nations to win top honors! If you know anything about the improvisational skills it takes to structure in a rhyming 10 line metric song in a matter of seconds then you will appreciate the verbal dexterity of the men who won the décima competition. Later that evening some of the same Puerto Rican troubadours ended up at the cafe where I was sitting and as it usually happens with Boricua singers, they began singing, borrowing the guitar from a street musician who was trying to make a couple of pesos. The four men improvised songs to the full moon, aged rum, Old Havana, Cuban women and the flower tucked behind my ear. Two Spaniard tourists from Barcelona mesmerized by the verbal agility of the singers and obviously shocked said, "This is marvelous, we had no idea they spoke Spanish in Puerto Rico and so well, we thought it was part of the US and they only spoke English!"

Yes, ignorance is on everyone's lips on the issue of Puerto Rico's language and it starts with what and who it is as a nation. Commonwealth has birthed political ambiguity. If you won't decide as a nation, others will. In this case, the Academy has.

Now that the Academy has decided, it's time for Puerto Ricans to make their decision--it’s an honest way to deal with this dinosaur—for the benefit of generations to come. After 500 years, are Puerto Ricans ready to decide their political destiny one way or the other? Islanders can't afford to run away from the issue any longer for it will continue to haunt them for an eternity as long as they don't decide. The present duality is culturally schizophrenic. It is painful. It has proven to be economically disastrous.

For as long as islanders sit on the fence having it both ways decisions like these will play out. And it will hurt like hell because I know that Lausell really feels her Puertorriqueñidad resides in speaking Spanish and not the Queen’s or California English.