El olor del popcorn by José Luis Ramos Escobar

El olor del popcorn by José Luis Ramos Escobar

Theater as a genre demands and also offers direct contact between the audience and the work that is being presented. Dramatic writing, therefore, has an immediate impact, though given the nature of the genre it is transitory. So the context of which the recipient is a part is inevitably a factor that weighs on the dramatic writer. That context can affect the structuring of a work decisively and assume a preponderant role.

The Puerto Rican Nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos said, “I have dedicated myself to politics because I was born in an enslaved country. If I had been born in a free country, I would have dedicated my life to the arts, to the sciences….” That is to say that one acquires certain responsibilities and certain commitments based on the place and time one is born. Of course, such responsibilities and commitments are honored to the degree that one develops a conscience, an identification, with the ultimate destiny of one’s country. If that is so for those who involve themselves in the political life of the country, it is overwhelmingly the case for those of us who write, and it is still greater if what one is writes is drama.

This seems anachronistic in these times of deconstruction and postmodernism. A good many people are already tolling the bells for the death of nationalisms, in the plural, and proclaiming, with an air of stale neoliberalism, that we are living in the much-touted global village, in which history has come to its end, making of national identities mere fossils of bygone times. Of course, in the case of Puerto Rico, the very political situation of the country is anachronistic. Who could have imagined that at the beginning of this new millennium there would still be a colony like ours, and, what is even more surprising, that there are people like a well-known legislator who proclaims himself to be a US citizen resident in Puerto Rico. The peculiar character of our political status and the debatable state of mind and emotion of Puerto Ricans is the reason that identity is an inescapable problem for Puerto Rican writers.

Beginning with the US invasion in 1898, and particularly since the imposition of US citizenship in 1917, a political, economic, and social process has been taking place in our country that has altered our concept of nation and therefore of national identity. The schizophrenia between nationality and citizenship (Puerto Rican nationals, US citizens) has placed us in situations that border on the ridiculous, as is exemplified by the commercial propaganda that some sectors of the country have developed, claiming that San Juan is the oldest city in the US. Or worse, that a health center in the capital city of this Spanish-speaking country should be called the San Juan Wellness Center, or that the police department of the town of Guaynabo should be called the Guaynabo City Police.

Given this situation, in our dramatic writing we are impelled to take sides, to commit ourselves to the affirmation of a persecuted nationality and identity. The various stands one can take on the problem of the future of the nation and of our identity slip into the familiar situations that we create, into the psychology of our characters and even into the very concept of the drama. Every time I decide to write a play, moved to do so by a memory, an image, or a melody, I try to avoid stumbling into the issue of national identity, because after all, one is just what one is and no one can dispute that. But the counterweight of the circumstances of this country bring me back down to earth, just as the counterweight does the curtain in the theater.

I was once asked to write a play about a 19th century pirate, and I happily agreed to do so, because the legendary aura around Roberto Cofresí and Ramírez de Arellano made it seem very attractive to plunge into romantic literature and then to create a new exponent of the Canción del Pirata (The Pirate’s Song) by José de Espronceda and of the eternal rebel extolled by “the writers of the twilight,” as the romantics referred to themselves. But as soon as I began to research the life of Cofresí, I realized that the trap was set: Roberto had been captured through the joint action of the armies of Spain and the US. A question mark appeared before my eyes, dangled there, and I could no longer put up any resistance to the inexorable ideological conflict.

Without going to the extremes of the Puerto Rican dramatist, René Marqués, who declared that in Puerto Rican writing no foreign character should appear, except for those who might affect our political situation, my works have gravitated toward our problem as a nation and our identity, despite a conscious effort to look for new dramatic possibilities. If a bit of news about a mafia don in the Bronx, in New York City, caught my attention because of his clearly contradictory personality and moved me to research the mentality of delinquents, I soon found myself in the same blind alley: the guy was a Puerto Rican and his behavior was intimately connected to his being and his schizophrenic identity. If a melody by Chico Buarque entranced me with the richness of the parable signifying the arrival of a space ship in a town, the willingness of the town to hand over everything to the visitor was nothing other than our submission before the imperial power. And if I became lost in the chords played by a pianist who had himself lost his way and wound up playing in an ancient bar, despite having dreamed of being a concert pianist, some blessed soldier would come into the bar and turn my attention again to the inescapable circumstances of my Puerto Rico, the country that has contributed the greatest percentage of soldiers to US wars. What to do, when the counterweight prevents me from taking flight?

¡Puertorriqueños? by Jose Luis Ramos Escobar

¡Puertorriqueños? by Jose Luis Ramos Escobar

I decided to grab the bull by the horns. I would have to have myself exorcised. So in 1998, when the Puerto Rican actress, Idalia Pérez Garay, suggested that I write a play based on a dream she had had, whose title would be Puertorriqueños, I did not hesitate for a second. I had to get out of the trap I was in, so I dove into the problem of identity, of the ups and downs of our people over these last 100 years of US colonialism, of the contradictions that we drag along with us, and I wrote the play, though I changed the title from the bold affirmation Puertorriqueños to ¡Puertorriqueños? which is half an exclamation and half a question. To defeat a counterweight, nothing works better than adding more weight. Of course, in submerging myself in the deep waters of national identity, I tried to avoid the treacherous currents that press for a kind of national identity that is monolithic and static. To the contrary, I explored with delight the various layers of Puerto Rican being, the prevailing discourse built in terms of a national identity based on issues of race, language, and religion, the inescapable circumstance of almost half the population having been brought up in the other language and way of thinking typical of US culture, the challenges that social stratification posed to that identity, as well as the enormous contradictions in the behavior of Puerto Ricans over time. That is why I added the exclamation point before the title and the question mark after it – ¡Puertorriqueños? – to represent, iconographically, the disquieting purpose of the play – to be plural, multiple, plurivalent and obviously paradoxical.

So much so that after one of the presentations, several university colleagues who were unconditional believers in an uncritical version of nationalism, came up to me to point out that the ending was unsatisfactory: it did not indicate how to get to the final battle for our nationality and stopped short by forming images, beautiful images it was true, that spring from uncertainty and indecision. Once again, our circumstances had grabbed hold of imagination and were pulling it down into the water, demanding that the stage submit to the dictates of the political struggle.

I do not know what will happen in the future, but I hope that the opening and publication of ¡Puertorriqueños? in 2001 will have served to exorcise me and also that, evoking the telluric forces of my land – African, Indian, Hispanic, and of the Americas – I can continue to seek new dramaticpossibilities, without the counterweight of identity tangling me in the everyday circumstances of my country. Or perhaps I will have to wait until the political situation of my country is finally resolved, so that my dramatic writing will not be required to reflect (nor I to hold myself responsible for reflecting) the struggle to distill our being as a nation from the turbulent brew of empire. Or perhaps there is no way out, and we will remain condemned to the ups and downs of history, which was given a new lease on life one 11th of September, just as the curtain rises and falls in a movement of eternal return, thanks to, or perhaps through the fault of, that blessed counterweight.

Author: Dr. José Luis Ramos Escobar
Published: September 29, 2008.

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