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Rosie Perez' U.S.-Puerto Rico Documentary

ED GORDON, host:

Rosie Perez is known for her work onscreen. She choreographed the Fly Girls on the television show, In Living Color, and played Tina in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Now Perez is transitioning to a role behind the camera. She's directed her first film, a documentary titled, I'm Boricua, Just So You Know! It's a history of Puerto Rico's people, from the first native inhabitants to more recent immigration waves to the United States. The film opens tonight at New York's Tribeca Film Festival.

Perez spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Now, let's talk a little bit about this documentary. You are now stepping out into a role behind the camera as director and executive producer. Yo Soy Boricua. I'm Puerto Rican. What is that about? And you know, given that you grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood, you come from Puerto Rican heritage, what are you really trying to convey?

Ms. ROSIE PEREZ (Director, I'm Boricua, Just So You Know!): Well, the whole title is Yo Soy Boricua, Pa' Que Tu Lo Sepas!, which means, I am a Boricua, just so you know it. And what the film--what my objective was to show how the politics between the United States and Puerto Rico affected the culture here in the United States, as well as the island.

So from the time--so I go--actually, I go back 4,000 years. I begin the film 4,000 years ago and I show that we had a civilization of our own and then Spain came in and tried to commit genocide and then the United States came in and tried to save us from the Spain and did not so great things to the country as well. And it forced a lot of the Puerto Rican people to leave the island to look for a new life and new work. And that's where the Nuyoricans were born, because the majority of them went to New York. But yet, through all of that, through all the stress and strife, through all the ups and downs, we've maintained our culture.

And I really wanted to make this film, not really for the masses. My initial intent was to make it for Puerto Rican people, because a lot of Puerto Rican Americans sometimes feel outside of the Puerto Rican experience because their parents didn't teach them Spanish, and then they get ridiculed from that. Some of them have never visited the island and, you know, and some people may call them a fake Puerto Rican.

And I don't think that that's fair, because they still grew up on rice and beans. They still listen to salsa and merengue. You know, you may not be born in Puerto Rico, but Puerto Rican is definitely born in you. And from the screenings that--you know, just the test screenings that we've held, it's affecting everybody.

CHIDEYA: Tell me a little bit more. You say you start the film 4,000 years ago before the Spaniards came. What other elements do you have in the film? What other individuals or--you know, what stories are you trying to convey?

Ms. PEREZ: Well, I wanted to really show that we come from a very, very proud culture and Tainos were the indigenous people of Puerto Rico. And in Puerto Rico, they were considered the classic Tainos and then Tainos spread out throughout the Caribbean. And you had the Eastern Tainos and the Western Tainos, and then they mixed with the Arawak Indians.

And this history has not been explained to the masses and it just--it needs to be brought forth. And also, initially, the land it was called Borinquen and the inhabitants were Boricuas. And prior to the Boricuas, they were Tainos. And, you know, I've been very inspired by the African-American culture. And just how they were--like, our history needs to be told. This is who we were. So let's all stand up. And all others, you know, recognize and give us our respect. And that's really what I tried to do with this documentary.

CHIDEYA: Now, you've been definitely active in the community working with youth, working around issues like AIDS and violence against women with the V-Day Project. Do you see this tied directly to that kind of a mission, that if you allow, you know, Puerto Rican youth to see a film like this that they will gain a better sense of self and be able to deal better in the world? What are you hoping that some of the people you see this film will take away?

Ms. PEREZ: I do hope that it instills even much more of a stronger and much more of a realistic sense of pride where, right now, it's very hip to be Latin. It's very in. It's so disgusting, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PEREZ: And a lot of kids today are saying, yo soy Boricua, you know? And I don't think that they really understand what it means. What our--the generations before us and our ancestors, all that they went through. You know, and that--if they understand that, a lot of the lack of respect that occurs amongst young people, I don't think will be as prevalent. I really believe that, you know? Because when you have a solid footing, it's hard for anyone to knock you down, you know?

But also outside of the youth, it's also for the political world to recognize us and give us our respect 'cause in the documentary, you know, we had our own government that was a model for a lot of other governments throughout the Caribbean. And all that we had to fight for--a voice in Congress and the Senate --and so, you know, it's also for the politicians out there to say, yo, we're fantastic! We're great people! You know, you need to move over and add another chair to the table 'cause we have every right to be here.

CHIDEYA: Born in Brooklyn, Rosie Perez. Thank you for being with us.

Ms. PEREZ: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

GORDON: Again, that was NPR's Farai Chideya with first-time Director Rosie Perez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.