6. “Boricua en la Luna” — The Moon’s Distance
Alana: From Futuro Studios and WNYC Studios, I'm Alana Casanova-Burgess, and this is La Brega. And this is Track 6… Boricua en La Luna: The Moon’s Distance. Our audio fiction episode.
Alana: There’s a poem, “Boricua En La Luna,” that became a song. It was written by Juan Antonio Corretjer, from Ciales – like my mother. And it was put to music and sung for the first time by Roy Brown.
[MUSIC - “Boricua en la luna,” Roy Brown: “Una mujer de aguadilla vino a New York a cantar.”]
Alana: It’s a song about not being in Puerto Rico, as so many Puerto Rican anthems are. But the message isn’t only about yearning – it’s about defiance… about holding on to your puertoricanness wherever you are. It’s the ultimate diaspora song, and it gets me every time. The narrator is born in New York of parents who left the island, and who dreamed of one day returning. And it’s a dream he shares as well. There’s a line – he lives with the hope that one day he can reclaim what he has lost. Un Puerto Rico de ensueño. A Puerto Rico of dreams. And then, the most famous lines, the last two:
[MUSIC - “Boricua en la luna,” Roy Brown: “Yo seria borincano aunque naciera en la luna.”]
Alana: I would be Puerto Rican, even if I were born on the moon. That line… It says so much about what it means to be from this place – and to hold on to that no matter what. Nobody can take it away from us. It’s such a profound and relatable feeling, that we wanted to push it as far as it could go. And so, for this episode, we asked the renowned Puerto Rican writer Sergio Gutierrez Negron to imagine a new universe for “Boricua En La Luna”…The story he created is as rich and surprising as the song and poem at its heart. I’m so excited to share it with you. And so. This is: “The Moon’s Distance.”
Lottery #1: Hi Kelvin, this is Nanette, from Jersey, I can’t believe I was selected! I have sort of… a personal question…
Lottery #2: Aló, Tomás, de Caguas, ¿qué es lo que haces todo el día allá arriba porque…?
Lottery #3: Hola hola, Mairim de Bayamón…tengo una pregunta
Jessica: To communicate with Kelvin, the kid on the moon, you simply had to participate in the lottery the space agency set up as part of its outreach efforts, and cross your fingers. I didn’t get lucky, but hundreds did. Those selected were people from all over the world, but Puerto Ricans outnumbered all other groups. It was to be expected, of course. Although it’s lost some of the novelty now, the truth of the matter is that there was something incredible—truly, even unimaginable—about the fact that the first person born on the moon was Puerto Rican. And not only that, but that in those first pictures we saw of him there was, next to the US flag that adorned his worn, second-hand spacesuit shoulder, the monoestrellada.
Jessica: We’ve all seen the videos. The space agency’s logo fades in and, after a second, the kid, Kelvin, jumps from the top step of the lunar station and, taking advantage of the low gravity, launches into a kick…
Jessica:…that seems pulled from those old karate movies that nobody watches anymore and that he’s only ever heard described. There’s also the other viral video, in which he approaches the camera, presses something on the side of his head and the helmet’s solar visor swishes back like a curtain, and he sticks out his tongue and crosses his eyes.
[Kelvin makes sound as he sticks out his tongue and crosses his eyes]
Jessica: My favorite, though, is the one where Kelvin—he must’ve been around fourteen then, activates his microphone and hums a merengazo with actual swing.
[Kelvin hums a merengue]
Jessica: Because of the two-second delay between the moon and the earth, and because of the effects of such a heavy suit on the body, we hear the song long after Kelvin starts dancing. These recordings were endearing, and silly. You couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed and sorry for him. It’d been a century since the first man set foot on the moon, but it was still so, so empty. And the kid was so, so lonely.
[MUSIC - congas]
As time passed, the space agency’s outreach initiative began to fall apart, and things turned ugly. After all, online trolling is faster than the speed of light.
Troll #1: This is so fake. We know this is all staged, man. Give it up!
Troll #2: Mira Sailor Moon, hay quien te quiere, y hay quien te usa. Esa gente mató a tu mai y te dejaron allá arrollao’.
Troll #3: Why are we spending taxpayer dollars on an ungrateful fool who doesn’t do crap for— I mean, is this guy even American?
Jessica: It wasn’t surprising that it got political. Just the latest mishandling of a mission that failed 20 years before.
News tape #1: A few minutes ago, the interspace agency confirmed that a serious explosion was recorded in the Juniper Tree spacecraft on the lunar surface.
News tape #2: The Juniper Tree was crewed by Commander Cynthia Ramos Benítez, the first Puerto Rican astronaut to lead a mission.
News tape #3: “The Interspace Agency has announced that it will suspend lunar population efforts in light of the loss of the Juniper Tree.
Jessica: Ten years later, barely anybody remembered the tragedy anymore. Until the world learned of the boy on the moon.
News tape #4: The Interspace Agency confirmed today the presence of a 7-year-old boy, the first person born in outer space.
Jessica: The survivors, except for the kid, Kelvin, were just hanging on. They had finally managed to contact the Agency after years of failed attempts, driven by desperation.
News tape #5: A source familiar with the operation has revealed that the child is the son of Commander Ramos Benítez.
Jessica: A chain of bureaucratic and political obstacles hampered the Agency’s response, and by the time they did manage to send an unmanned ship with supplies and food, nearly all the survivors had died -- except for the boy.
[MUSIC - space tones]
The agency never said publicly why they didn’t immediately extract Kelvin from the moon, but it was widely believed that political impasse and a lack of resources were to blame. What they did do, to keep the kid on the moon “connected”, was to put him in contact with his mother's mother, who lived in Puerto Rico, and made it so that grandmother and grandson could exchange recordings with each other. The Agency also gave Kelvin small research missions on the moon, mostly postponing the inevitable…
News tape #6: With each year that Kelvin, the moon-born American citizen, remains in the Earth’s satellite, the international landscape becomes more complicated.
News tape #7: Critics of the Juniper Tree Mission accuse the Agency of abuse, and racial discrimination.
News tape #8:…there is a consensus within the interspace agency regarding the political and humanitarian need to extract Kelvin, a citizen born on the Moon.
Jessica: Meanwhile from the moon, Kelvin could see the dark expanse of space and the blue and white swirls of Earth. He didn’t mind much when all the bad press led the agency to limit Kelvin’s exposure to the public. Between his grandmother’s voice, mission control, and an entire lunar landscape, his world was large enough.
Abuela: Ay, m'ijo, my mom used to say that más vale estar solo que mal acompañado…
Jessica: …That’s what his grandmother had said in the message she sent after finding out about the end of the outreach initiative, and she proceeded to tell him, as she always did, about her day:
Abuela: What was I saying? Ay, sí, I had to go to the doctor in the morning, but the traffic to San Juan was too much and, to top it off, the heat was killing me, ugh. I called the doctor’s office and said I wasn't going to get there on time; then I took the first exit I saw on the highway and here I am in Plaza. By the way, have I told you already that people used to come to malls to hang out? Anyways, today it’s so, so, so empty. Ha! It's a shame… I mean,… not that I’m here to go shopping or that I care about the stores, but… Yeah. I'm here for the A/C.
Do you hear that? That's the sound of a mall, haha… anyway, after stopping this thing, I'll stay until it's ten o'clock and the traffic thins out.
Jessica: Kelvin used to receive the recordings once or twice every twenty-four hours, in what the agency called “packages.” His grandmother, Marielena Benítez, was consistent. When she found out about his existence, she brought him into her life as though he'd always been there. In her voice memos, she almost never touched on the topics the agency considered controversial—the whys, hows, and whens. She also avoided mentioning her daughter, Kelvin's mom, and the fact that she had died up there. Instead she talked to him about her errands, her life, her neighborhood.
Abuela: Now the neighbor's granddaughter plays for the Criollas de Caguas and I don't know if I ever told you that when I was in school, a thousand years ago, I played volleyball... did I tell you that? I also played for the Colegio de Mayaguez, and, look, I'm not lying, I think I was the best captain they had for about ten years... Tell me if you're interested, because I can easily get nostalgic and send you a bunch of stories about how good we were.
Jessica: She did. And between all of these anecdotes, she also included recordings of her environment.
[recording start sound]
Jessica: Marielena pressed the record button
Abuela: Dios te bendiga, nene.
Jessica: …gave her blessing,
Jessica: …and left the phone running.
Jessica: She spoke about these recordings in one of the few interviews she gave as part of an oral history project:
Abuela: Hola? Hola! I'm Marielena Benitez, I'm Kelvin's grandmother…I am 76 years old. I live in Caguas now, but I spent way too many years of life in cold Ohio and Chicago [laughs]. Um, I am a chemical engineer. I mean, I was an engineer. I'm retired, very very retired, gracias a Dios. I send him these voice memos and he answers them. I send him recordings of everything. I just hang around with the cellphone on, you know, recording, so that he can get an idea of where he is from, where his mother was from… The truth is that it kinda happened by accident. I did it once and he liked it, and what am I going to do? Say no?
Jessica: Kelvin listened to her on his journeys across the lunar surface, and when he was surveying its valleys of dust, its tectonic trenches, its dorsas, craters, etcetera, what filled the humming of the void, was his grandmother’s soundtrack.
Abuela: Ay, nene, everything hurts today. I spent the whole day yesterday cleaning because Joe was coming over, you know the guy that fixes the elevator for us?...
Jessica: …it was the sound the breeze made when it went through the house,
[lawn mower in distance]
Jessica: The neighbor mowing the lawn, a car zipping by, too fast for a residential street, with its music booming;
[car and music]
Jessica: The sound of three strangers helping his grandmother pull out her car from the sand in Vacía Talega,
[sound of motors and people talking]
Jessica: A storming rain, thunder, a hurricane’s screech as it approached,
[thunder, rain and wind howling]
Jessica: And the peace of its eye,
Jessica: The coquíes, of course;
Jessica: And the crickets
Jessica: And the dogs.
Jessica: These sounds had permeated the lunar landscape in such a subtle way that the people at the agency had had to develop a sort of glossary, because Kelvin swapped the lunar geography’s scientific names with those he had heard from his grandmother. He referred to Mare Serenitatis as Mar Chiquita; to the Mare Imbrium, Boquerón; to the lunar hole Kaguya, Camuy and so on. The agency had tried to encourage him, at some point, to use the internationally recognized names. But Kelvin, who usually followed the rules, had insisted.
Kelvin: It’s only me up here, and it sounds better anyway, doesn't it?
Jessica: Of course, Kelvin had never been on Earth, nor had he really seen it up close, because the agency only allowed audio—bandwidth reasons, they said. Still, the truth was that the thousands of recordings his grandmother had sent him were enough. He was and had been there, on the moon, all his life and yet, as all of us who watched the videos already knew, there was no doubt in his mind that he did not completely belong to those landscapes. There was an island, an archipelago, a Puerto Rico of dreams, that was his, and he didn't have to set foot on it or visit it or question it… to know it. In his life on the moon, he had entertained one single certainty, which he uttered in those videos: unlike with the laws of physics, in matters of belonging, the greater the distance, the greater the closeness.
Alana: Coming up, Kelvin gets a call from earth. This is La Brega.
Ana Macho: Qué la, que corrillo. This is Ana Macho and you’re listening to La Brega.
Jessica: One day, when Kelvin was 17 and listening yet again to an old recording from his grandmother, he got a call…
Jessica: From Earth.
Kelvin: H– Hello?
Abuela: …do I speak through here?
Kelvin: Um, yeah? Can you hear me?
Abuela: Uno, dos, uno, dos. ¿Working?
Kelvin: Um, yeah?
Abuela: Nene, it’s your grandmother.
Kelvin: ¿Abuela? Where are you? Are you at the agency?
Abuela: M’ijo, look, I need you to pay attention to what I’m going to say, ok?, and I’m going to come out straight with it. Things are moving quickly, and… it’s been decided that you will meet up with another crew from the agency …
Jessica: Kelvin’s grandmother was there to inform him that the agency had decided to end the mission. Kelvin was asked to go down to the southern hemisphere of the moon, where he had never been before. There, a crew would begin a debriefing process and finally extract him and return him to Earth.
Kelvin: Abuela, wait… what do you mean?
Abuela: You are meeting up with people, m’ijo.
Kelvin: With people?
Abuela: Sí, nene. The point person is a new astronaut at the Agency. Her name’s Jessica Parker Ríos. I was brought in to meet her, and she’s a good one, I swear. Her grandparents were from Juana Díaz. That’s kinda why they chose her, because… Nene, can you hear me?
Jessica: There was no answer. Just his breathing.
Jessica: And suddenly, nothing.
Jessica: Kelvin had cut the connection.
Jessica: The agency lost contact with him then. They panicked. What were they going to do if the only person to have ever lived on the moon decided to disappear?
[MUSIC - ethereal acoustics and beats]
Jessica: It's easy to see now, in hindsight, where the agency went wrong. They had lost sight of how odd the whole situation was. I mean, here was a kid who had spent his entire life on the moon; a kid who had never seen another boy or girl; who had lost everyone he ever loved, who had never felt a breeze or the sun burn his shoulders. I think that's why they misunderstood something basic. It escaped them that, for Kelvin, the certainty of his belonging—of his Puerto Ricanness, let's say—did not cancel out the fact that the moon was also home; that where we saw only gray, he appreciated an array of contrasts. And now, he had fled deep into his moon while news of his disappearance leaked.
News tape #9: An anonymous source has confirmed that the Interspace Agency has lost contact with Kelvin, the young man born on the moon.
News tape 10: Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner demands a public hearing and an end to (quote) “this negligence that already borders on criminal.”
Jessica: Kelvin had returned to the ship where he had spent his early years, where he had lived with his mother and the crew members of the mission—the closest thing he had had to a family, beyond his grandmother. Faced with the possibility of losing it all, Kelvin had gone on to inscribe the landscape of his life; to bury some of his few prized possessions in the grayish lunar surface. In his own way, he was trying to grieve his environment, even though we as humans lack rituals for saying goodbye to the space we inhabit, and which, in turn, inhabits us.
Jessica: It took a week for the agency to locate Kelvin and by then he was already en route to the Southern Hemisphere to meet the crew. His rover appeared on the horizon. But before he made contact with the spaceship, the vehicle idled, as if its pilot still considered the possibility of making another run for it. People at the Agency waited, anxiously. And this is when I stepped into Kelvin’s story. I put on my suit and decided to go out myself. It was then that he saw me for the first time. And, I guess it was technically the first time I'd seen him too, but the truth was that I felt like I already knew him. I raised my hand and he started to do it too, but stopped halfway. He lowered it and started his rover. I was sure I had lost him. I stayed still and reported it to the agency. Kelvin’s grandmother, Mariaelena, responded.
Abuela: I don’t know what you all expected… How long have you all been planning this thing and only decided to mention it now? He is not somebody who’s been deployed, he’s not an astronaut…
Jessica: Yeah, I know we couldn’t break protocol, m’am. They said that…
Abuela: [interrupting] Excuse me for being rude, pero ya está bueno, coño. He’s a kid who’s been alone his whole life, what the hell do protocols matter? Jessica, you need to give him a break and wait for him however long he needs, PLEASE.
Jessica: I did just that: gave him a break, decided not to approach him.
Jessica: Kelvin, take your time. When you’re ready, give me a signal, okay?
Jessica: He didn’t respond, and I returned to the ship and waited. Later, with the help of the Agency, I tuned into his frequency.
[static sound and music bass]
Jessica: I could hear old music playing, the kind with hard-hitting percussion and a booming bass. Above it and in the foreground, though, I heard the noise of what I imagined was a Puerto Rican street, and the voices of people speaking Spanish, and cars honking, and a door being slammed, and, somewhere between all of that, his breathing, Kelvin’s.
Kelvin: You’re there, right?
Jessica: Yes, sorry. How did you know?.
Kelvin: You can hear the sound leaking from the surface.
Jessica: What sound?
[light howling sound]
Kelvin: Listen closely; it’s like a whisper.
[light howling sound]
Kelvin: Jessica. My grandmother told me. How many are in your crew? How long have you been here?
Jessica: We’re a crew of eight. We got here two months ago.
Kelvin: Was it classified?
Jessica: Yes, I’m sorry. There was something with clearance…
Kelvin: You don’t have to explain. I understand how it works.
Jessica: I wanted to tell you that I can’t believe I’m so close to you…it’s a pleasure to meet you… truly…I saw the very first transmissions live, when you were still a kid, I saw them so, so many times and [laughs] I don’t know, It was… formative. Just seeing you and listening to you, even if you were a kid and I was, like, already in high school, a bunch of things just clicked. I still remember what you’d said about, uh, being here. What was it? In matters of belonging, the greater the distance, the greater the closeness? Ugh, sorry. That’s…too much.
Kelvin: That’s why they sent you.
Jessica: What I mean is that I am here to work with you, to help you.
Kelvin: Are you in charge of terminating my mission?
Kelvin: And what happens afterwards?
Jessica: The Agency will inform us of next steps when it is time.
Kelvin: I’d prefer it if you tell me
Jessica: You will have to return, I mean, come with us, to Earth.
Kelvin: Or what? Could I stay here, go back to my side of the moon?
Jessica: I know it’s important for you, but… I am not sure that that’s an option, sorry. I think you could delay your return, that’s for sure, but I think people would want you to go back. With time, you could relocate to any city in the States, or you could go to Puerto Rico, live with your grandmother…
Kelvin: Have you ever been there? To the island, I mean.
Jessica: I haven’t been there since I was a kid… I haven't had the opportunity… Actually, no, that’s a lie. I’ve never even tried to return because I kinda always, like, chicken out at the last minute. I’m sort of afraid of going and, I don’t know, feeling… out of place.
Kelvin: So you get it, right?
Jessica: I get how one could feel split in two…
Kelvin: That’s not what I mean… It’s not that I feel confused. I kinda always knew I wouldn’t stay here forever… … but that doesn’t cancel out the fact that I am, you know, about to lose all of this… and I’m not sure what happens now, to be honest. How do people deal with losing so many places without, I don’t know, just sinking…?
Jessica: I told him I didn’t know and, after that, Kelvin stayed quiet.
Jessica: Through his frequency, I heard…what I knew was a beach, the waves coming and going, the breeze deafening a microphone, classic reggaeton in the distance. I also heard Marielena:
Abuela: Tú sabes eso que dicen de que cuando el río suena es porque trae…
Jessica: But I tuned out then, to allow him his privacy.
Jessica: A few days went by, and:
Kelvin: Jessica, I think it’s best if I go with you.
Jessica: I went with Kelvin on his last tours of the lunar surface, and we talked. A lot of it was him sharing all the knowledge he’d acquired by living there, by being the moon’s first son. I understood why he gave the lunar geography his island names. Whether he knew it or not, Kelvin had discovered something basic about how humans relate to our environment. He had learned that we are always in more than one place at a time, that the spaces we occupy at any moment are always already marked by all those other locations that we miss and dream of, and long for.
Jessica: Marielena was there when we finally landed on Earth…
Abuela: Ay, miamoooooorrrr…
Jessica:…and she was with him during the long medical processes that followed, the therapies that sought to familiarize him to the things of the world, the constant visits from doctors, the quarantines, controlled exposures. And she was with him when they finally gave the go-ahead for him to move with her to the island. And there he finally listened, now without filters, without delay, to the sounds that had inhabited him in outer space.
[Soundscape: birds chirping, ocean waves, cars, thunderstorm, birds chirping, dogs barking]
[MUSIC - exciting]
Jessica: Much later, he told me that the whole thing had been like he imagined you felt when you meet an old friend after decades of not seeing each other. He was sure he was where he needed to be.
Marielena: –...éntrame la compra, que la dejé en el baúl del carro. Te traje las frutitas que te había mencionado…
Jessica: Some time later, when I was finally given leave from the Agency, I visited him and he was the one who took me on a tour of the island, of the Puerto Rico I barely remembered from my childhood. One afternoon when we were in Playa Sucia, in Cabo Rojo, I asked him if, having been the first—and only—person born on the moon, he missed it. He shrugged and, after a long silence, repeated the one single certainty he had discovered early on:
Kelvin: Unlike in the laws of physics, in matters of belonging, the greater the distance, the greater the closeness.
Jessica: I think we laughed then. He stood up, brushed the sand from his bathing suit, walked over to the edge of the water, and jumped in.
It was cloudy and, because it was a weekday, there was no one else on the beach.
[La Brega Theme song]
Alana:“The Moon’s Distance” was written by Sergio Gutiérrez Negrón. It was edited by me, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Maria Garcia, and Jenny Lawton. It was produced and sound designed by Joe Plourde, with help from Ezequiel Rodríguez Andino.
The role of Jessica was performed by Keren Lugo; Marielena was Nancy Ticotín and Kelvin was Jesus del Orden. Special thanks this week to Kelly Gillespie, and to Ana María Dîaz Burgos, Orlando Javier Torres, Juanluis Ramos, and Olga Casanova-Burgess. And thank you to the other voices who brought this episode to life: Brian Lehrer, Melissa Harris Perry, Nancy Solomon, Stephen Nessen, Jeff Spurgeon, Kerry Nolan, Terrance McKnight, Brigid Bergin, Natalia Ramírez and Elliott Forrest.
Original artwork for this episode by Fernando Norat.
The La Brega team includes Jeanne Montalvo, Ezequiel Rodríguez Andino, Joaquin Cotler, Liliana Ruiz, Tasha Sandoval, Mark Pagán, Maria Garcia, Victor Ramos Rosado, Juan Diego Ramírez, Marlon Bishop and Jenny Lawton.
Fact checking this season is by Istra Pacheco and Maria Soledad.
Our engineer is Joe Plourde. Our theme song is by IFE. Original music is by Balún.
You can hear all the music featured in this episode – and this season – on our Spotify playlist. We’ve got a link in our show notes. And don't forget to tap the heart to save it to your library because we'll be adding to it each week.
This season of La Brega was made possible by the Mellon Foundation.
I’m Alana Casanova Burgess and next week, we’re going to the mall. Vamos Pa Plaza. Bai!
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.