There’s more to Puerto Rico than salsa dancing: Eight songs and a podcast to help outsiders understand the territory

‘La Brega’ is a bilingual program that talks about racism, environmental challenges, and colonialism on the island and among the diaspora

Podcast La Brega de Puerto Rico
Promotional image for 'La Brega' podcast.Cortesía
Noor Mahtani

When José Ángel Santiago Ríos decided to get out of the car and mark a huge pothole that crossed one of the streets he traveled in Puerto Rico in white paint, he never thought that it would go viral and that he would end up receiving photos of other Puerto Ricans doing the same. The potholed streets are everywhere on the island and, for him, proof that the island’s governors only do half a job. Or they don’t even do it at all. And how have Puerto Ricans responded? Bregar, meaning to struggle on regardless. Drivers have learned to drive around the gaps. They do the same on a day-to-day basis with the other problems in Puerto Rico in an endless cycle of struggling.

La Brega Podcast was born from this way of understanding the world and from a hole: the huge gap in the international narrative about the island. “In the United States they imagine that we are that Caribbean country that spends its time dancing salsa and lamenting colonialism,” explains Alana Casanova-Burgess, the program’s host. “But Puerto Rico is much more than that and we had to say so.”

Poster for one of the episodes of 'La Brega.'
Poster for one of the episodes of 'La Brega.'Cortesía

For this reason, Casanova returned to Puerto Rico with the purpose of telling the story of the search for normality and even humor after Hurricane María, which devastated the island and left more than 4,600 dead. “We realized that there was an appetite for more serious and cooler conversations,” the Puerto Rican in the diaspora says on the phone. That was the first seed.

Her own experience was key to thinking about a bilingual podcast, one of the first back then. “I thought that if it is for Puerto Ricans and of Puerto Ricans, it could not be done only in Spanish or only in English. We knew it was going to be very difficult but we had to do each episode in both languages,” she says. “We were building the plane while it was landing.” It was another struggle. For Ezequiel Rodríguez Andino, one of the producers of the podcast, the decision “was a political act”: “The gringos are also our listeners. We have a need to tell them the problems they have created and for them to understand it clearly.”

'La Brega' episode 1.
'La Brega' episode 1.La Brega. Episodio 1

Basketball heroes, betrayal between friends, and resilience to external forces are some of the topics discussed in the program’s first season, made by Futuro Studios and WNYC Studios. It first aired in 2021 and was a success. Recommended by the New Yorker and selected as one of the top 10 podcasts for Apple Podcast and the New York Times, La Brega brought the Puerto Rican accent to the entire world.

“We received a lot of support and positive messages from people who lived on or outside the island. It was something very beautiful,” says Rodríguez, who regrets that the concept of “Puerto Ricanness” seems to be weighted. “People think that if you speak English or live in New York, you’re less from here. As if speaking Spanish had nothing colonial about it,” he says ironically. And he adds: “Puerto Rico will never be understood without the diaspora, we even chose our flag there.”

After those initial eight episodes, the second season arrived. It was released in 2023 with a somewhat more complex idea: revealing the island through eight songs. This is quite a challenge when we talk about the island of music, from which hundreds of world-famous singers have emerged, such as Calle 13, Héctor Lavoe, Ile, Bad Bunny, Jennifer López, and Ivy Queen. “Thank you for putting us in the worst situation in the world and having to choose only eight. Come on, come on, Alana,” Rodríguez remembers saying to Casanova. The selection of topics to discuss alleviated the responsibility. Blackness, gender identity, and the privatization of public beaches are some of the themes that run through this shape-shifting season. This series has one million downloads and has been nominated for the IHeartRadio awards.

“People think that there is no Black community in Puerto Rico”

Las Caras Lindas (De Mi Gente Negra) — An Ode to Blackness is one of those beautiful and combative episodes from the first minute. It begins as a dissection of racism in Puerto Rico through music in which the racialized population is the subject — they are always criminals and always sexualized. However, the episode ends up being a first-person essay by researcher Bárbara I. Abadía Rexach, a professor at San Francisco State University. This Puerto Rican has been studying the relationship between music and racialization for years and the result of the podcast is a small part of her master’s thesis that she completed in 2006 and which later manifested itself in the book Musicalizando la raza.

'La Brega' episode 5.
'La Brega' episode 5.La Brega. Episodio 5

Casanova explains in the episode how skin color is something that is not talked about in Puerto Rico. “On the island, many still believe that Black people are not Puerto Rican, that there are no Black people here,” says Bárbara. While taboo in conversation, they were never invisible in music. A lot has been sung about Black people, although always from the point of view of judgment or exoticization. “The guard hid his bemba [big lips] and told him: that is no reason to kill the bembón [the man with the big lips]” (El Negro Bembón by Ismael Rivera); “I married a charming Black woman and although we are rubber-colored, our product came out Black too” (Carbonerito by El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico); and “Black eyes, cinnamon skin, that make me desperate” (Piel canela by Los Panchos) are some of the lyrics that have been sung about Black people on the island. “These songs criminalize, degrade, and stereotype Black people or exoticize Blackness,” says Abadía.

However, there is one song that is very different: Las caras lindas by Tite Curet, a Puerto Rican songwriter who wrote more than 2,000 songs for Cheo Feliciano, Celia Cruz, and Héctor Lavoe, among others. This song is an anthem that dozens of singers have performed all over the world and that embraces those who were not born white. “After this, we started talking about being Black as a good thing. It is simple and very beautiful,” says the author, who recognizes how difficult it is for her to celebrate her Blackness amid so much internalized racism. “I never celebrated it because, since childhood, my Blackness was distanced from beauty. My existence was always questioned,” laments the researcher.

'La Brega' episode 3.
'La Brega' episode 3.La Brega. Episodio 3

Susana Baca, Rubén Blades, and Curet’s own daughter are some of the voices that appear in the 38 minutes of the podcast, to talk about the look of the Puerto Rican songwriter who honored his color in every lyric. “It was a great gift to do the episode and to be given so much freedom to do it my way. I thought they were calling me to give them some advice or a contact, but it ended up being an episode about my story. It was a very nice process,” Casanova says by phone. For her, that has been the greatest gift along the way. “We have had a great team. There was a lot of warmth. And this episode opened many people’s eyes. That’s what journalism and art are for. People already have a voice, they already have a microphone, what they need are ears that listen.”

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