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First Look: Loud and Proud Rosie Perez Digs into her Roots in Debut Doc

By Tamara Krinsky

From Rosie Perez's 'Yo So Boricua, Pa'que Tu Lo Sepas!'

Some know Rosie Perez best for her distinctive, award-nominated performances in such films as Fearless and The 24-Hour Woman; others will forever associate her with the "Fly Girls" from the 1990s TV series In Living Color. With the film Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'que Tu Lo Sepas! (I'm Boricua, Just So You Know!) the multi-talented actress/producer/choreographer takes on a new role: feature documentary director. With a mix of personal storytelling and historical research, the film delves into the roots of Puerto Rican identity.

Despite her celebrity status, Perez faced the challenges familiar to most documentarians when trying to get Yo Soy Boricua off the ground. She had originally wanted to produce a film on the government-led sterilization of Puerto Rican women; however, she couldn't find a studio that would get behind her idea. Some even questioned whether the program, which resulted in the forcible sterilization of one-third of Puerto Rican women by the 1970s, had actually taken place. Instead, potential distributors urged Perez to do a lighter piece profiling a Puerto Rican singer or celebrity.

Perez chose to stay true to her vision and figure out a way to explore her heritage in her own way. Several years later, she was watching the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City when a friend called her up and jokingly asked, "Why are you all so loud?" Perez responded, "Because we're proud." "Of what?" laughed her friend.

A light bulb suddenly went off; Perez immediately got off the phone with her friend and then called her agent. She recounts, "I was like, 'I have a great idea: I'm going to do a documentary spelling out the history and explaining why we're so proud. I'm going to show everybody that there is an audience for this, and I'm not going to insult the intelligence of my people. I'm going to just show who we really are." Perez decided that the way to accomplish this was by delving into Puerto Rican political and historical events and showing how they affected her culture and her people today.

Many of the topics Perez explores in her film cannot be found in American textbooks, despite the fact that the island is technically part of the United States. Birth-control testing in Puerto Rico; the imprisonment and torture of freedom fighter Pedro Albizu Campos; the rise and fall of The Young Lords, a group of activists who fought for Nuyorican rights in New York City; and the protests against the US bombing of Vieques are just a few of the subjects she highlights.

While Perez had learned Puerto Rican history in broad strokes as a little girl from her immigrant aunt, working on the film filled in many details with which she had not been familiar. One of the most surprising discoveries was how well-equipped a society the Taino people, the indigenous population of the island, had been. They had a government system that had been in place for thousands of years, built hurricane walls that still stand today and rarely fought among themselves. Perez believes that modern-day Puerto Rican pride is deeply rooted in this happy, peaceful people.

The success of the Taino people made the genocide committed against them by the Spanish conquistadors all the more shocking. "I didn't want to be on camera when I learned about that," says Perez. "It was a hard pill to swallow because there are so many Latin Caribbeans that are so proud of having this Spanish heritage. But when you read back, you learn about how they forced us to change our native tongue, our spiritual system and our system of government."

Prior to Yo Soy Boricua, Perez had directed a few music videos and a short film for Canal Plus, and had produced several projects including The 24-Hour Woman and Subway Stories. Perez says she was both nervous about and intimidated by her new feature directing duties. "As a producer, you arrange things so that everyone else can work," she explains. "But as a director, at the end of the day, it's all up to you. It was scary."

In an experience common to many documentarians, Perez's toughest moments took place in the editing room. She found herself having to firmly exert her vision for the film amid differing opinions. "Taking a big stand, you better be prepared to back it up," she maintains. "I got the attention in the room, but just because you have the attention doesn't mean you have the respect. I had to really come through." She cites the support of co-director/producer Liz Garbus, producer Rory Kennedy and producer/writer/DP Roger Sherman as invaluable at this point.

Perez does indeed come through in a big way, providing a warm, entertaining primer on the roots of Puerto Rican pride, peppered with engaging personalities and vital historical details. Yo Soy Boricua, Pa'que Tu Lo Sepas! premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival and will make its broadcast premiere on IFC on June 12, the day after the 2006 National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York.