Just So We Know, Rosie Perez Is So Boricua
(from TimesSquare.com 8/22/06)
Dating back to "Do the Right Thing" and "White Men Can't Jump," Rosie Perez has usually played women who talk fast and furiously and with such wit that the men around them often overlook the intelligence behind their words. Her equally endearing offscreen persona has been similar, with her wisdom being coupled with a strong and visible social consciousness.
And all that is certainly on display in Perez's deeply personal and ambitious documentary, "Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'que Tu Lo Sepas!" Her enlightening exploration of the Puerto Rican experience and often unhappy history both here and on the island, debuts on IFC Monday, June 12, 9 pm ET/10 pm PT, one day after the 2006 National Puerto Rican Day Parade, on Fifth Avenue from 44th to 86th Street. This free-wheeling interview with Rosie Perez took place a few days before both events.Q: At the Tribeca Film Festival, you spoke about how you originally planned to make a narrative film about the systematic sterilization of women in Puerto Rico several decades ago. How did your project eventually evolve into this documentary?
Rosie Perez: I wanted to do a motion picture narrative piece on the sterilization of Puerto Rican women but the people that I went to, kept telling me it wasn't true.
I was like, "What do you mean it isn't true?"
"Well, it didn't happen."
I said, "What do you mean it didn't happen?"
"Well, the women went for sterilization voluntarily."
And I was like, Oh my God, I couldn't believe they were saying this, and I said, "Well, then why were there sterilization clinics placed in factories? Well?"
And their response was, "Uh, uh…" And I said, "If major corporations were placing sterilization clinics in factories, and the factories were hiring mostly women, you don't think that there's something funny about that?"
I pointed out that there was a legislative act, 136, that said sterilization should be practiced on the poor and the malfunctioned, people who are not able to raise children and educate them in a proper manner. That government legislative act passed.
"There's nothing funny about that, is there?"
I showed them footage of Puerto Rican women who had been sterilized, and them saying "I didn't know what was happening to me. I didn't understand the word 'sterilized.' I thought it could be reversed, and I would try to have children later--but they said I was sterile and couldn't change it. Why didn't they tell me that?"
Or these women would say, "I went in to the hospital to give birth to a child, and after birth, I realized I got sterilized, and I never agreed to it. But then they said I did agree to it. And they said, well you have five kids already, so you should stop anyway." And I said to these people, "Those things did happen."
Nobody wanted to make the movie, and I just couldn't believe it. And so I just kept pressing on and doing other projects, but it was always on the back of my mind. I called my agent and said, "I got it. I'm going to prove it. I'm going to spell it out and I'm going to tell our whole history. I'm going to show how political policy can affect people. And show that with all that we went through, we were still here. And I'm going to wrap it around with people's personal stories."
Q: Were you amazed by how little people know about this period of history and Puerto Rico?
RP: In the documentary I say that when I was a little girl, people would ask, "What are you? What's a Puerto Rican? Where's Puerto Rico?" That was constant. So I wasn't amazed that people didn't know. What I was amazed about is why people didn't know. Even a large number of educated Puerto Rican Americans we interviewed did not know the history. It was like. "We went to Hunter College, and it's not taught there." It's not taught in the schools. So how can anybody know? Unless you take Puerto Rican studies in college, you're not going to know. Not even in Puerto Rico. Well, that's even further insulting, you know.
Q: Did you feel an obligation to make a documentary because you did know certain facts about Puerto Rican history?
RP: I felt an obligation even before I started producing. That was always the secret motivation for me to start producing: I wanted to get behind the scenes so that I could get enough experience, clout, and status to make movies that would speak to the Puerto Rican experience. I felt that in the early nineties. It was really weighing heavily on me and I think that is because I was "discovered."
I never really wanted to be an actress. I was going to college in Los Angeles and wanted to be a marine biologist. I thought I was going to be the female Jacques Cousteau and fight for the environment and stuff like that. The person that I was prior to Spike Lee was always a very socially conscience person. I was always that person. I felt like that part of me was slipping away, with the celebrity and all that stuff and I was like: How can I still stay in this industry, because I love it so much, and still be true to who I am?
Q: Perhaps you were distracted trying to establish your acting career. You've said in the past that after breaking through in "Do the Right Thing," you were typecast and only offered Latina roles.
RP: Yeah, so I didn't do those roles. I told my agent at the time to get me all the Jessica Lange roles, and she laughed. I said, "If you keep laughing I am going to get me somebody else, for real." Then she got me "White Men Can't Jump." That part was supposed to be for an Irish-American woman.
Then my agent got me "Fearless," and that was originally was for an American-Asian woman and then Hollywood changed it to an Italian-American woman. I was the 85th person seen for that part. So I sat in that freaking hotel for three hours watching a parade of white girls going in and out of that room with Peter Weir and it was very intimidating and it was affecting my self-esteem in every possible way, because I'd think, "Oh, she is so cute," or "Oh, she is so skinny."
Everyone thinks I just walk into a room like Jack Nicholson in "Batman," saying "Wait till they get a load of me!" But that wasn't it. I walked in the room and Peter says, "Would you like to sit down?" and I ran into the bathroom and stayed there for 20 minutes. 20 minutes!
Talk about breaking down some freaking doors, you know what I mean.
Anything in life that you really want, you just have to go for it. Sometimes I don't get the credit. I was like, "Wait a minute I didn't do that. I didn't play the maid. I didn't play the prostitute. I didn't play the cracked-out whore. Ok, I did that once."
I struggled and I pushed but I didn't want to do it in a whitewashed way. I wanted to have a different face there and to be honest I just didn't want to champion the rights for just Latin people, but for all people of color, including Asians who are even lower on the totem pole than us. I don't want to keep complaining because I'm not bitter, but let's make changes and let's keep it moving.
Q: You avoid the subject of your acting career in your movie, but from the beginning, did you know you were going to go back and forth from Puerto Rican history and other people's stories to your own?
RP: No, not my personal story. I always knew I was going to go back and forth between history and other people's personal stories. Because I was so touched by those women that were interviewed. I wasn't supposed to tell my personal story because I've always told the press it's off limits. I wanted everyone else to spill their guts, but I didn't want to be in it.Liz Garbus was my co-director and she and Rory Kennedy were my executive producers, and they ended up pregnant at the beginning of production. I couldn't believe it! And so, I'm going about doing directing and everything, and Rory said we had to get the narration down. I didn't feel like writing it and she goes, "Well, let's put you on tape."
So I would talk and talk and talk. And then I would start crying while I'm talking. Then I would talk and talk and talk, and then cry and talk and then, laugh and then talk. And my family was always around, and Rory called me in her office, and said. Listen, I feel that you need to be a character in the movie."
I said, "Oh hell no, oh, no. You're all hormonal because you're pregnant." But she's like, "If you wanna be a viable director and make this movie something special, you have to let go and just be in it." I think I told her off, but I finally gave in.
Rory and Liz. They were really protective. Liz was very, very respectful because I told her, "I am not ready to tell my whole story and I only want to tell the story that is specific to the documentary, and if anyone tries to push me further we're really going to have a problem."
She said, "I am not here doing an expose on you, and quite honestly, Rosie, those are not the kind of films I make." So it was great to have her there because she totally respected my privacy. And when one of the co-producers was pushing too much, she fired him. So that was great company to be in.
Q: How difficult was it to organize your film?
RP: I always knew how I wanted it. When I interviewed someone like Manny Diaz--he recently passed away, God rest his soul--I said, "Tell me about your childhood." He goes, "Are you doing a documentary on Puerto Rico?" And I said, "Yes, And I want to prove to people that Puerto Ricans have been here forever, despite what the movies have told us all."
And he goes "Okay." And then he would start telling a story and showing pictures and everything. I always knew it was going to be like that. The difficulty was explaining to everyone else how I wanted it to go. But once Liz and I got into the editing room together, it started to go so smoothly, it just started really like taking off. I was just surprised at how it came out much better than it was in my head.
Q: Was it hard to find archival footage to support what you knew happened on the island?
RP: It was really, really difficult and the production team at Moxie Firecracker Films was always calling me and asking, "Are you sure this happened?" And I said "Yes! Keep digging, keep digging, keep digging! I'll dig, too."
I was on the phone with the people at Hunter College and the people at the University of Puerto Rico saying you got to find me something. This wonderful woman named Blanca Velasquez was a professor and I'd drive her crazy with my requests, and she would send me piles of information and we just kept digging.
I wanted to include archival footage of the U.S. military teaching the Puerto Rican soldiers English. One of my relatives who served in WW1, told me he learned English when he enlisted in the army. 'Really?" "Yeah, I wanted to know how to say, 'He's shooting at you!' They taught us." That always stuck with me, so I go, "Let's find the footage on that."
And it was really, really difficult to find and to fact-check was even harder. Like for instance, the Agent Orange testing on Vieques Island. I remember Rory Kennedy was like "Are you sure that happened?" And I said, "That's what I heard." And she said, "We are not putting that in unless we fact-check it."
Then they found that blow torch footage. But that kind of thing would keep me up at night. I worried that a story wasn't going to make it into the film because we couldn't fact-check it in time. Actually some parts didn't make it into the film because we just didn't have enough time and money to research it further to prove what we knew to be true.
Q: We were you worried about leaving anything out that was important politically or culturally?
RP: Yeah, Liz and I had many arguments in the editing room because there was so much more material that was supposed to go into the documentary than what came out. I kept saying, "We have to put this in and we have to put that in." And she'd say, "If we do that you're going to have a freakin' miniseries." And I said, "Oh let's do that!" She said, "We don't have the money, we have 90 minutes, Rosie. So pick and choose." And that was really hard. But it was great advice. The great thing about not trying to include everything is that it is inspiring other people to research those missing stories or go tell those stories themselves.Q: In the movie, you learn about your own family.
RP: I was discovering people I never met before. And I had thought I was going to tell my family about something that they didn't know. My cousins didn't know, but the other family was like "Oh yeah, we know that story. Your great, great grandfather, yeah, he was all over the island with the women. You probably have more half-brothers and half-sisters and half-cousins than you know about." When I told my family I was doing the documentary and I was coming down to Miami to interview them, they were like, "Oh, cousin so-and-so wants to be in it," and I'm asking, "Who's that?" Even after the documentary, I am still discovering family members. Thank God for the Internet, because I just found out I had a relative who used to fight for women's rights in the 1800's. And a relative who wrote a novel and a relative who was a well respected doctor on the island. I also found out that I have a cousin-in-law who's an actress, Julie Diaz. It's just been an incredible and fantastic journey, and I did not expect it.
Q: In the movie, one of the men you interviewed, your friend, writer/actor/dj Bobbito Garcia, says he was born in New York and learned English first. Do you think people within the Puerto Rican community are discriminated against because they don't speak Spanish?
RP: That definitely still happens. And I think that's just insecurity by Puerto Ricans who are fearful that the culture is slipping away. And what they don't understand is that it's not. I don't think that it's just a Puerto Rican thing. I think it's an American thing. When people immigrate to this country, a lot of parents with misguided intentions want their children to be assimilated so that they can be successful and not have to endure the same pain they endured. And as an adult, when I sat back and looked at it, I was like, "Wow, I guess my mother was really looking out for me. She didn't want me to go through what she did, so she said, 'You're going to speak English.'" When I talk to Puerto Ricans who chastise the non-Spanish speaking Puerto Ricans, I say, "You gotta stop. You're perpetuating a lot of negative shit that we shouldn't be doing. I mean, we have enough against us. They were never taught, so why don't you ask their parents about that, instead of judging them?"
Q: You have a section in your documentary on the Young Lords, who are really a part of New York history, and the socio-political history of the 60's that has often been overlooked. Do you have affection for them?
RP: I always had an affection because I remember my cousin Titi, God rest her soul. I remember the day when I was about five years old, when I was out with my aunt, right next to her, and she came barreling into the house one day. "Mami, mami, oh my God, you should have seen these Puerto Ricans. They're walking in the street, and they had these berets, and everything. And now they're on the TV on the news tonight. I told you! I told you!"
I remember that throughout the '70's, her dressing like a Young Lord. It was so funny. She had the beret, and the double-breasted, three-quarter leather jacket. And she thought she was so cute, and she was--I have to give it to her. And that's why I had great affection. She was always so fascinated by them, and I was fascinated by her. So I always remember that.
Q: How long did it take to edit your movie?
RP: Initially it took only two weeks to do a rough cut. I give the credit to Moxie Firecracker. They have a mini-editing bay in their offices, so while we were shooting we were downloading and cutting and snipping. It helped that I had such a concise outline already. So we knew what we were doing.
The parade is what changed the most in the documentary, because I thought there was too much of it in the initial cut. I said, "The parade is a symbol of all that we endured, but the movie's not about the parade." And then, after we handed in our final cut, I still wasn't happy with the positioning of the story of the parade and I had one day to re-edit. That's when I made the decision to bookend the documentary with the parade. So editing took a total of maybe three weeks.
Q: The parade is still important in your film because it shows the celebration of Puerto Rican pride.
RP: An ex-boyfriend of mine called me the other day. He hates that I'm saying this story. I say, "Would you shut up. I'm not saying your name at least." He called me up and said, "I hear you're doing the Puerto Rican Day Parade . I hear your people all the way over here in Brooklyn, all the way across the river. Y'all are so damn loud. What the hell are y'all so damn loud about? And I said, "Because we're proud."
He goes, "What the hell you guys got to be proud about? Ha, ha, ha."
I hung up on him. He's still my friend. You know, I can't blame him that he's stupid. I mean, he's cute, but he's not the brightest color in the rainbow.
Q: How did you get Jimmy Smits involved as your narrator?
RP: I was friends with Jimmy prior to the film. Actually, I met him years ago at a Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York, when he was the Grand Marshall and we've stayed friends ever since. We became closer when I started doing theater. We're both from Brooklyn.
I guess we speak the same language and stuff and we're both kind of political activists to some degree. Jimmy is really, really smart in regards to Puerto Rican history, so I knew that there would be no need for a lot of explaining. I knew he would totally get it. He said yes right away, so that was pretty amazing.Q: Now that your film's made, do you feel an obligation to go out and talk to people and make presentations?
RP: I was asked by Harvard and Northwestern to come speak in regards to this movie. I'm happy to speak, but I don't feel like its my obligation. I felt a burning responsibility to make this documentary, but beyond that, whatever happens happens. I feel like I did this, and there's so many other people that can continue the discussion besides myself. There are other people who could do justice to what they're asking me to talk about.
Q: In your film you are critical of how the United States has treated Puerto Rico historically, but it's still obvious in the movie that you're proud to be American.
RP: People are always asking me, "Are you going to retire to Puerto Rico?" I say I would love to retire to upstate New York. I love the United States and wouldn't want to live anywhere else. But my love for the United States doesn't always mean I like what it does.
I don't like the current administration, you know what I mean, but I still love our government system. I don't like a lot of the things that have been done to Puerto Rico, but I still love America. A lot of people are surprised that I am so patriotic. But what did bother me was that it should have been bigger news when the government ran out of money in Puerto Rico.
They'd say on television, "The government in Puerto Rico shut down. Our next story is…" Are you kidding? I remember when I first heard that, because my brother Tito actually called me a week before it shut down. He says, "You know the government's running out of money."
I said "what?" He goes, "They're laying off workers left and right." I said, "But its not on the news." He said, "You see how they do us." I was like, "Get outta here. This government is not going to run out of money. We're the United States of America." He goes, "We ain't."
And then it happened, and I was really angry that the news coverage wasn't more extensive. It really pissed me off, you know? It wasn't right. The Catholic Church had to step in to save the day. That's pathetic. We're spending so much money to liberate Iraq, and we can't take care of our own territory. What the hell's going on?
It's also insane that Puerto Ricans can't vote for United States president. If you're a state, you have the right to vote for the president. But we are a commonwealth, which is a U.S. territory, voluntarily, and the issue of autonomy is so great right now, especially with the collapse of the government.
In regard to whether I want statehood versus independence versus "as is" versus none of the above, I always feel that it's not my opinion because I don't live there and I don't pay the taxes. It's their problem and their issue.
Wen you go to Puerto Rico, it is a different situation. The poverty level is different, the pay level is different, everything is different down there, and they have to live under those conditions, so they should be the ones responsible for the decision of their status. But the issue of not being allowed to vote for president always has bothered me, because if you pay taxes and you can be drafted, and you are willing as a patriotic American to fight for your country and die for your country, then God-dang-it, at least be allowed to vote for President.
Puerto Ricans have fought in all of the wars, which isn't told in history. So in "Saving Private Ryan," where were the Puerto Ricans? You know, more than half of the men on the island fought in WW2. Puerto Ricans also fought in WW1. You never see that in the movies. "Gone With the Wind" drives me crazy, because Puerto Ricans were all over the South. Where do you think yams came from? Seriously, they did. And it was like, "Where the hell are the Puerto Ricans?" To me it's infuriating, because my father and my uncle served in WWII and the Korean war and my uncle enlisted in Vietnam, because they love America that much. But they can't vote for president.
I still want to do the female-sterilization story. I also want to do films that have nothing to do with Puerto Rico. Like I said, I love this industry. It's a blessing. I love acting. I love directing. I love producing. I also love being on the stage. I want to take full advantage of all those areas as much as possible. Q: Are you going to do another play soon?
RP: Oh, I'm hoping, I'm talking, I'm talking. It's Broadway, but I don't want to jinx it. Let's all keep our fingers crossed. I can't wait. And it's weird. Every time summer comes around, and the Tony's come around, I get that feeling "I wanna go back. I wanna go back" It's really a strong feeling in me. Q: Do you have other social issues that you're passionate about, that are in your mind as of late?
RP: Well, I have my AIDS activism. We protested in front of the UN yesterday. Got minimal news coverage, which is sad. Also, I still fight for children's rights and children's education. I have my own charity called The Working Playground. I'm on the Board. I truly believe opportunity separates an underprivileged child from a privileged child. And so I always champion that, as well.Q: Finally, why are you so proud to be Puerto Rican?
RP: I think the documentary speaks for itself. 'Cause that's why I made it. To answer that question. Hopefully, people who see it will be moved and inspired.