BOB GARFIELD On this week's On the Media, we bring you dispatches from Puerto Rico. A story about finding the American dream far from the mainland United States and what it means to be in La Brega.
LISTENER When I hear or use, La brega, I'm referring to the struggle. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT The occasion is the inauguration of our plane service from New York to Puerto Rico. [END CLIP]
EDGARDO MELENDEZ Puerto Ricans were being rejected in the United States, even though there were citizens. Right. And of course, the cultural and linguistic differences.
SIXTO ISAAC ORTIZ More than angry, it makes me sad, you know, that that we're in this time. But this is not only Levittown. This is Puerto Rico in a nutshell. [END CLIP]
SILVIA ÁLVAREZ CURBELO Un pais del porvenir. A Land of the future, country of the future. porvenir is a beautiful word.
CHEO SANTIAGO But that's the brega in Puerto Rico. [LAUGHS]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS That's la brega. [LAUGHS]
CHEO SANTIAGO That's la brega. That's la brega in Puerto Rico.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. And this week we're doing something a little different. If you've listened to the show for a while, chances are you've heard some stories by OTM producer Alana Casanova-Burgess from and about Puerto Rico. Well, the team from Futura studios, who also produces Latino USA, came to us with the idea to have Alana host a show about the island, and we jumped at the chance to make something together. So, this week, we're proud to bring you the first two episodes of a brand new dual language podcast. Yeah, every episode is available in English and Spanish. It's called La Brega. Here's Alana.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS A few months back, a friend sent me a photo of a water truck in a pothole in Caguas, Puerto Rico. At first, I thought it was Photoshopped. The front half of the truck was up in the air, wedged in an enormous crater in the middle of the road. It looked as if the asphalt had opened a gaping mouth and was trying to swallow the truck. And then there were the words on the back, agua potable, potable water. The 'A' of agua obscured by the pothole. The whole thing seemed like a metaphor for the state of things in Puerto Rico. It was a bit on the nose. And then I saw the video.
MAN Estan son las cosas que pasan. [ END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS These are the things that happen. Whoever was filming said. At the back of the truck, the water was pouring out of the hose into the depths of the hole. It turns out that it was on its way to a neighborhood that had been without water for two weeks and a broken water pipe was responsible for the sinkhole.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Estas son las cosas que pasan. These are the things that happen.
CHEO SANTIAGO We have to deal with that, and you have to avoid a pothole any day when you go to work, when you go to the supermarket.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS José Angel Santiago Rios, better known as Cheo Santiago, runs the social media accounts Adopta Un Hoyo, adopt a pothole.
CHEO SANTIAGO You go anywhere, you're going to find a pot hole. Trust me. Trust me. Trust me. Trust me.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS I can confirm, a lot of Puerto Rican roads are filled with craters. People on the island often joke about it, comparing the roads to the surface of the moon. 10 years ago, Cheo drove over one that rattled more than his axle. It's the reason I wanted to start this podcast with him, because if I'm going to explain to you what La brega means, what it means for Puerto Rico, I need an example. And Cheo's brega tells the story.
Cheo used to live in Miami. He was there for 9 years working as a plumber, driving the same car without issue for all that time. When he moved back to the island in 2009, he even had it shipped from Florida.
CHEO SANTIAGO And when I start using my car in Puerto Rico, in less than a year, it's damaged.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Then came the pothole. A decade later, he still remembers where it was and what it looked like.
CHEO SANTIAGO De profundidad como una seis pulgadas
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Maybe 20 inches wide and six inches deep. It caused damage to his front axle. He got it fixed for a 100 bucks or so. And then he found himself a week later on the same stretch of road, passing the very same hoyo.
CHEO SANTIAGO I got white spray paint with me in the car, and I used to stop the car and go walk to the pothole and I mark it with white paint. Everybody hitting the same pothole with the same damage. You know, it's just too much money.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS He posted the photos online and Adopto Un Hoyo was born in 2011. Since then, he estimates he's painted over a thousand potholes this way. Tracing the jagged outline of the crater and then straight lines like sunrays coming out of it. And now other people do it, too, sending him photos and addresses from across the archipelago. The idea is that the road crews will see the posts online and go to repair the holes. But in austerity-stricken Puerto Rico, there's a lot that goes unrepaired or poorly fixed. So, the paint becomes a solution to the problem in itself. Helping drivers spot and avoid los hoyos. And the potholes are dangerous.
CHEO SANTIAGO You can hit another car. You can lose control when you're driving.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS You can lose a tire. Your entire wheel can get stuck in a crater. There are videos of this happening.
POTHOLE VICTIM Acabo de caer en uno! Mira para eso… [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS And even when an encounter with a pothole doesn't seem too bad...
CHEO SANTIAGO Maybe you don't get in an accident or any damage, but. in a few days, you're going to listen a new sound in your car. [cling cling cling] [LAUGHS].
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS The hoya situation in Puerto Rico is one that you just have to negotiate with or wrestle with. You can't actually fix it, but you can cope.
CHEO SANTIAGO But that's la brega in Puerto Rico. [LAUGHS]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS That's la brega. [LAUGHS]
CHEO SANTIAGO Thats la brega. Thats la brega in Puerto Rico.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS La brega. There's no perfect English translation for this word that Puerto Ricans use all the time in a way no other Spanish speakers do. Cheo says bregando is like dealing with it, but there are other definitions, too. So, we asked Boricuas for help describing it, and got voice memos from San Juan to Queens.
LISTENER When I hear or use La brega, I'm referring to the struggle.
LISTENER The struggle.
LISTENER In the hustle. A hustle.
LISTENER La brega has to deal with everyday life. I call it cotidianidad.
LISTENER Determinación, sobrevivencia, trabajo [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Determination, survival, work.
LISTENER Always to do something in circumstances that don't let you get ahead. Grinding. [END CLIP]
LISTENER You know what it means. It means to do it. [LAUGHS]
LISTENER I only use it when someone asked me What are you up to, how are you doing? I'm cruising along. [END CLIP]
LISTENER Buscando, continuamente buscando algo [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Searching, continually searching for something.
LISTENER Showcasing our true Puerto Rican, brilliance. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS There's an imbalance of power when you're bregando, whether it's against your boss or some larger injustice, it's an underdog's word. La brega implies a challenge we can't really solve. So, you have to hustle to get around it. And in Puerto Rico, there are a lot of challenges that seem unsolvable. Puerto Ricans are constantly bregando, with the jobs that don't pay enough, the electricity that comes and goes, their kids schools that are closed, the broken traffic lights that never get fixed, the hospital that doesn't get built, the government's debts that aren't paid, the frustration over status, austerity, colonialism. And la brega is a word that came to the states with the diaspora who have had to find a way to deal with a new language to navigate somehow being immigrants and citizens at the same time. To struggle with displacement and discrimination.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Arcadio Diaz Quiñones is a Puerto Rican writer and scholar and professor emeritus at Princeton. He's thought a lot about the way we use La brega, peppering it into our language, even complimenting each other for struggling well.
ARCADIO DIAZ QUIÑONES It's interesting, the expression: ella brega bien, we admire the way that she dealt with this issue because it was so difficult.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Some 20 years ago, he published an influential essay called De Como y Cuándo Bregar. The essay used the language of La brega as a lens to understand Puerto Rican history and politics and identity. Puerto Ricans are always in la brega, vulnerable and alert, he wrote then. The English word he thinks comes closest is grapple.
ARCADIO DIAZ QUIÑONES You have to use what you have and you have to pay attention to others. And it's not an easy chore.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS In the last few years, there have been even more memorable examples of Puerto Ricans in La brega. I think often about a video I saw after Maria of a woman in Bayamon showing off her dad's invention.
WOMAN Bueno, llevamos un mes lavando en la famosa bicilavadora.
MAN Bicilavadora. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS A washing machine with bicycle handlebars attached so you could spin it by hand. Even without electricity.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS And I think about how, after Maria, communities came together. All the networks that were formed to try and meet the needs that weren't being met in a desperate situation. A Brega Collectiva.
ARCADIO DIAZ QUIÑONES They could not wait for the state to do it, or the state failed in many cases.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS And this is where La Brega becomes a concept that can be nauseating. Why do we take pride in negotiating, in hustling, in putting up with how things are? Going with the flow? What does it say about us that we are so often pragmatic that that's our go to? And above all, what does it say? That we have a society and a government that requires us to be in la brega all the time?
In the long, long months after Maria, when some Puerto Ricans were without power for a whole year, we heard a lot about resilience.
NEWS REPORT Puerto Ricans resilience on display. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT I see the plight of the Puerto Rican people. They're very resilient. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Such resilience. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Tremendously resilient. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS So much so that there was a backlash against that word. It was as though Puerto Ricans were being congratulated for being able to put up with so much, even as aid and recovery was being denied. This came up with Cheo Santiago from Adopta Un Hoyo, Adopt A Pothole too.
CHEO SANTIAGO Y yo digo los mercecemos mas. Me entiendes
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS We shouldn't always have to be in la brega patching up potholes instead of actually repairing them. And yet he keeps painting the hoyos and posting them because he's hopeful that the effort helps people. It might even save them. Think of it as an act of solidarity, of citizenship. That's part of la brega too.
As I was producing this episode, thinking about potholes, there was actually breaking pothole news. Former Governor Ricardo Rosello spoke to The New York Times, his first public interview since the summer of 2019 when he resigned and left the island after thousands of people protested relentlessly, demanding he leave office. It was during those protests, he claimed in this new interview, that his car had hit a huge pothole. His 5-year-old daughter thought it was a gunshot, and he says it was that the pothole incident and his daughter's reaction that got him to resign, not because he heard the demands of an outraged public. Puerto Rican Twitter exploded with memes of potholes protesting the former governor, or asphalt taunting him. The memes were pointing to the twisted irony that the governor was panicked at something Puerto Ricans deal with every day and something his administration was responsible for fixing.
Arcadio has been thinking about those outraged people who went into the streets to march against the governor – los indignados, and what happens when people see their power.
ARCADIO DIAZ QUIÑONES What it meant to me was that there was a deep reserve of energy and thought and moral conviction there. If we can imagine a different plot, a different ending.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Yeah.
ARCADIO DIAZ QUIÑONES That doesn't mean we will succeed. But we can imagine, in spite of the harshness of the real. That's la brega. Collectiva and individual too.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS For Arcadio, that's part of la brega. Imagining a better reality, together.
Coming up, my grandparents left Puerto Rico to live in the Bronx, but they went back to the island and connected with the American dream. This is On the Media.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS This is On the Media, I'm Alana Casanova-Burgess, let's continue with Episode 2 of La Brega.
This story begins in many ways in late March 1951 with a reporter's dispatch from-
NEWS REPORT San Juan, Puerto Rico. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS This is audio from WNYC Radio in New York, which sent a crew for a live broadcast.
NEWS REPORT The occasion is the inauguration, nonstop plane service from New York to Puerto Rico. We are awaiting the arrival of the Puerto Ricans from New York City, which has just come in. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Before this only Pan Am offered regular flights to New York and the monopoly made tickets expensive. So it was big news that Eastern Airlines had gotten permission to offer service to Puerto Rico as well, and that they would be offering cheaper flights.
NEWS REPORT The mayor of San Juan is about to present the mayor of New York City with the keys to the city of San Juan. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Today, we might take it for granted that by the mid 1960s, over a million Boricuas had moved to the states, over 600,000 just to New York City! On the tarmac, Sol Descartes, then Puerto Rico's treasurer, marveled at the number of Puerto Ricans taking flights.
SOL DESCARTES Last year, 300,000 people traveled between the island and the mainland. The development of aviation is responsible for this tremendous growth in travel. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS It wasn't just those flights that got people to leave, of course, but it's true that many of our families were changed forever as more and more planes filled the skies above the island. It would be just a few years later, on June 18th, 1956, that my mother, with an older brother and sister, would take an Eastern Airlines flight and eventually the whole family would live in the Bronx.
Many Puerto Ricans would return in the early 70s to a very different island, the way many people lived and where they lived had changed. My grandparents would see an altered landscape out of the plane window when they returned, places that didn't exist when they first left. Places that looked more like the United States. Places like Levittown in Toa Baja.
FLIGHT ATTENDENT Ladies and gentlemen, we would like to welcome you to San Juan while local time is approximately 7:10 p.m. for your safety and safety of those around you. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS So I try to sit on the left side of planes to San Juan, in a window seat. For as long as I can remember, on flights from New York, I've looked out for Levittown on the descent. Knowing that my closest cousins live in the suburb made up of straight little rows of gray and white roofs, the baseball fields and that enormous landmark: the pale blue water tower. It looks like a blue jellyfish with rigid legs looming at least nine stories over a public library. It appears like a spaceship, a transplant from a small town or a cornfield in Middle America. A few years ago, I got curious about this place. I used to wonder why my grandparents, who met and made a family in the mountains of Ciales in the center of the island would decide to leave the cement grid of the Bronx and move here...To another cement grid.
When I was little and traveled with my parents, Levittown meant the smell of my grandmother's cigars, lawnmower exhaust and a searing baking heat that knew no shade. One way to get there is to follow the One Six Five road, the unos seis cinco, west out of San Juan along the coast and then make a left into Levittown’s cement labyrinth. There are other suburbs in San Juan, of course, places with names like Floral Park or Country Club, but I learned that Levittown is different. Its existence tells a story about a time when Puerto Rico was being feverishly remade. When what it meant to be Puerto Rican was changing. It was built in America's image by the same company that built what may still be the most famous suburbs in the U.S., the postwar planned communities known as Levittowns. The Levit Brothers built Levittowns in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. They put in schools, roads, fire stations, water towers, libraries.
NEWS REPORT Five years ago, this was a vast checkerboard of the potato farms on New York's Long Island. Today, a community of 60,000 persons living in 15,000 homes, all built by one firm. This is Levittown, one of the most remarkable housing developments ever conceived in New York. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS In New York, they first offered two-bedroom homes with pitched roofs and slightly different window treatments, all with the look of a traditional New England cottage. With names like: The Colonial, The Ranch and even The Cape Cod. The company would change models slightly every year.
NEWS REPORT The architecture of the houses in Levittown is varied enough to eliminate dreary monotony, while at the same time enough alike to permit the savings that result from standardization. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Instead of a potato field, in Puerto Rico the company started out in 1962 by buying nearly 440 acres of flat swampland in the town of Toa Baja, about 20 minutes from San Juan. They built drainage canals to empty into an artificial lake. I've seen the engineering diagrams and they're impressive. They originally planned to build 3,000 homes, but by 1977 there would be over 11,000, and just a short walk from the beach, they sold out quickly. The first models offered were: Broche de Oro, El Camafeo, La Diadema, La Alhaja, and La Esmerelda, the one with two stories which my grandparents purchased from friends when they decided to leave the Bronx in the early 70s and come back home, or at least to a new home. Here in Levittown, the tagline was: donde la vida comienza, where the good life begins.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Si, esta casa es La Camafeo.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Camafeo, ok.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Camafeo
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Hilda Rodríguez lives in a Camafeo model with her daughter Paula. Hilda was 5 when they moved in in 1964. Perhaps just the second or third family there.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Pioneros, bien pioneros
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS They're not just pioneers. Their story is entwined with Levittowns. Her uncle was working for the Levit company and he offered Hilda's father a job building the Levittown houses in Puerto Rico.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Le ofreció trabajo, y la opportunidad de comprarse su casita
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS And the opportunity for him to own his own home.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Y escogió este modelo...
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS The houses are like so many others in Puerto Rican suburbs; flat roofed cement rectangles with Miami windows. These had built in planters and carports, marquesinas, framed in decorated cinder blocks, and the catalog really pushed the cinder blocks.
ADVERTISEMENT Observe usted lo atractivo de los bloques ornamentales que resguardan el patio [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS All the homes came with new General Electric appliances and were wired for telephones. In the 1960s, this was all a sleek, modern dream.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Esto era un mangler.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Remember, this had been a mangrove swamp with lots of palm trees.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ y cuando mami abría la puerta estaba la marquesina llena de jueyes
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS When Hilda's mother opened the front door, the marquesina, the carport would be full of crabs.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ están en la marquesina, están en el patio, están en la calle…
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Hilda's daughter, Paola, lives with her in Levittown. She's starting her career as a math teacher, and she remembers that her grandmother had even found crabs in the washing machine.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ pega un ruido bien feo y eran los jueyes dentro del motor
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS They'd get into the motor and rattle around if you turned it on.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ No se podía tener puertas abiertas porque si no te metían!
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS There were so many that people would collect them in metal buckets, clean them, and cook them.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Nunca olvido que mucho comí patitas de jueyes
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS She'll never forget how many crab legs they ate. The marquesina's were also where Sunday service was held in the early days before Hilda's father, Don Toño helped to found the local Catholic parish. Hilda was in the first graduating class of the elementary school, named for John F. Kennedy. There was a man-made lake which still exists, but back then there were paddleboats too. In the U.S., Levittowns were famous for excluding black and Jewish homebuyers, and there were rules about everything from lawn maintenance to line drying clothes, but there was none of that in Toa Baja. And in the late 70s, Hilda remembers a Levittown that was totally lit.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Mira, en tal sitio hay un quinceañero, mira en tal sitio, hay una boda, mira en tal sitio…
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Scouts with cars, would drive around the different secciones and report back about what parties were happening on a Friday night: a wedding, an anniversary, a birthday. They'd arrive unannounced, get invited to join, and then they'd be the last to leave. Dancing boleros all night long.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ y la gente quedaba encantada porque Lo de nosotros era bailar,
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS bailar que?
HILDA RODRIGUEZ bailar, salsa, merengue guajira, bailar y los boleros, los discos de Santito Colon, Cheo Feliciano. La pasábamos súper bien. De verdad que la pasamos bien, bien, bien.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS I like imagining my grandparents in this landscape. With Cheo Feliciano playing in the distance, and neighbors dancing marquesinas. And maybe after so many years of hearing about the U.S. Levittowns, this is what success looked like to them. Life in a modern suburb instead of a return to the lush but rustic countryside in Ciales. And as it turns out, that appeal of Levittown, it helps tell a bigger story about how in the mid 20th century, Puerto Rico's future ran headlong into the American dream.
PAOLA RODRIGUEZ Abuelo, bendito abuelo, sabía mucho de eso
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS That's Paola, Hilda's daughter again. Don Toño, her grandfather knew a lot about Levittown's Place in Puerto Rico's history.
PAOLA RODRIGUEZ porqué abuelo fue de esa generación que fue bien pobre…
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS He was from that generation, she says, that went from being really poor. He grew up without shoes. To going on to get his high school degree later in life and of course, to own his own house.
Luis Muñoz Marín, the first elected governor of Puerto Rico, is well known for pushing the idea that the island's prosperity would come not from statehood and not by independence.
SILVIA ÁLVAREZ CURBELO Muñoz advocated for a third way.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Silvia Álvarez Curbelo is a Puerto Rican historian. She's also the author of Un País del Porvenir
SILVIA ÁLVAREZ CURBELO Un país del porvenir, a land of the future, country of the future. Porvenir is a beautiful word.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Porvenir means the time that is going to happen, like a point on the horizon, some kind of future of possibility. And Puerto Rico has historically been eager, striving for modernity, she says.
Governor Munoz would promote a massive program, Operación Manos a la Obra, also known as Operation Bootstrap, to transform the island and reach that porvenir. Operation Bootstrap echoed the New Deal in the United States. It was a massive remaking of the Puerto Rican economy and actually of the whole island. Government programs gave tax breaks to U.S. companies and engineered a shift from agriculture to manufacturing.
SILVIA ÁLVAREZ CURBELO And for Muñoz, it was this path to modernity because agriculture was for him like the symbol of backwardness. Of course, it was the agriculture of sugar, one crop agriculture.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS So it was it was no paradise, really.
SILVIA ÁLVAREZ CURBELO No.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS No.
SILVIA ÁLVAREZ CURBELO And industrialization was the thing of the future. Once again, el país del porvenir.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS To understand why Levittown was such a dream, it's worth understanding what it wasn't.
JORGE LIZARDI POLLACK Have you seen a photograph of how people used to live in the forties here in Puerto Rico?
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Jorge Lizardi Pollack is a professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Puerto Rico.
JORGE LIZARDI POLLACK For example, in this place called El Fanguito, it's a slum built over a swamp.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS These were wooden houses on stilts perched over water. In 1940, the average life expectancy in Puerto Rico was 46 years. Nearly 20 years shorter than it was in the States.
JORGE LIZARDI POLLACK A lot of people used to live with no running water, no electricity, no baths.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Some 70 percent of people lived in the countryside and housing was a key part of Operation Bootstrap. It was...
JORGE LIZARDI POLLACK The way which the government demonstrates that it was possible to modernize the country and clean up the slums.
FIESTA ISLAND Broad avenues in San Juan lead to residential districts where houses resemble those in Florida, California or Texas. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Cringe worthy films like this one, called Fiesta Island, marketed Puerto Rico as a prospering outpost that was looking more and more like the United States.
FIESTA ISLAND Everybody grows and loves flowers in Puerto Rico. These are red, ginger-blossoms. Homes for everybody, housing gets top priority in Puerto Rico's booming economy. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Doña Fela, the mayor of San Juan during this period, looked back on it in a documentary in the 1980s.
DOÑA FELA The miracle was that we create that middle class, which was created from one day to the other. [END CLIP].
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS And that newly minted middle class moving from the campo to the city needed homes. In 1960, roughly 40 percent of housing in Puerto Rican cities was considered substandard. In Washington, D.C., the federal government was creating incentives for single family homes and highways, and Puerto Rico got them too.
JORGE LIZARDI POLLACK Just following the promise about the good life in the U.S.; that everybody should have their own house, their own patio, or their own car. We just followed that promise.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS So if I say Levittown to you, what is the first thing that you think?
JORGE LIZARDI POLLACK Utopia of the middle class. The utopia of freedom.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Up until the Cold War, Washington cared very little for Puerto Rico, if at all. But as Cuba became the poster island for communism in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico became a capitalist counterpoint.
JORGE LIZARDI POLLACK When I think of Levittown, I think of the Cold War utopias, and the Cold War promises.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS And one way the US fought back against dictatorships and communism was by giving Puerto Ricans the chance to own their own homes.
JORGE LIZARDI POLLACK So they will become owners. And owners won't rebel against their own property. They won't do that.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS This isn't only true of the Puerto Rican Levittown. William Levitt of Levitt and Sons once said, quote, no man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.
Governor Muñoz embraced Levittown and attended the ribbon cutting for it in September of 1963. It was widely covered in U.S. Papers. These homes with their gardens and their garages for a car everyone was expected to have would be the model for housing in Puerto Rico for the next 50 years.
But there wasn't room for everybody in this version of Muñoz's vision of porvenir. San Juan's Mayor Doña Fela said the creation of a middle-class overnight was a miracle, but actually it was a very intentional miracle and one with extremely mixed results. The part of this economic transformation that isn't talked about much is how many people supposedly had to leave in order to make it work. For local technocrats, the problem was that there was no way to create enough jobs to employ everyone. There were too many people on the island to create a middle class, and that idea led to some horrible policies.
Today, we know more about the shameful project that sterilized roughly a third of Puerto Rican women and the birth control pill experiments, but it wasn't only that. In 1946, a government report estimated that around a million people would have to leave in order to make the island prosperous. And by the late 40s, the government would get involved, really involved.
Coming up, was Levittown, a failed experiment? This is On the Media.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS This is On the Media, and I'm Alana Casanova-Burgess. We've been talking about an American style suburb whose story is in many ways the story of the island in the 20th century, at a time when Puerto Rico was being remade in America's image. The government was trying to transform Puerto Rico's economy, moving from agriculture to industry and making a middle class.
EDGARDO MELENDEZ The government realized that without the massive exodus of people, the economic growth in Puerto Rico would be maybe hindered or slowed down.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Edgardo Melendez is the author of Sponsored Migration, a book about Puerto Ricans moving to the U.S. He describes an engineered exodus, a, quote, campaign to turn every Puerto Rican into a potential migrant. The Puerto Rican government would create levers and wedges and pulleys to make modernity work for those who stayed, but only by encouraging others to leave. At the same time, the U.S. government wanted cheap labor in cities like New York and Chicago, and so encouraging migration was also in their interest.
JOSEPH MONSERRAT Puerto Ricans come here to New York and to elsewhere to find jobs, to get better educational opportunities and other opportunities for their children. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS The Puerto Rican government had positions like director of the Migration Division of the Department of Labor, based in New York. Here he is on WNYC in 1955.
JOSEPH MONSERRAT They are now on the first rung of a ladder, which many of our own fathers and grandfathers began to climb just a generation ago. [END CLIP]
EDGARDO MELENDEZ So they created all these programs to help migrants get social services from local governments like New York, English classes, helping kids with their documents so they can move easily to schools in the U.S., all that sort of thing.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS There was an expectation that Boricuas would assimilate easily, but that didn't pan out.
EDGARDO MELENDEZ Puerto Ricans were being rejected in the United States even though there were citizens, right. And of course, the cultural and linguistic differences.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS So there were members of Munoz's government who looked for another solution to what they saw as the problem of overpopulation.
EDGARDO MELENDEZ They argued well for migrants, it'll be easier to incorporate assimilate in Latin America because of the common culture and language, but even in the early 50s, the government sent a representative to Brazil to consider creating a colony of Puerto Rican migrants there.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS The U.S. government nixed this. Not only did they not want Puerto Rico negotiating with foreign governments, but it would also get too messy to have a bunch of U.S. citizens living in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. And, yes, they made sure there were plenty of flights to the U.S. And that's what gets us to the first Eastern Airlines flight to San Juan in 1951, the one that broke Pan-Am's monopoly.
NEWS REPORT We consider it, both a privilege and an obligation to offer Puerto Ricans the kind of transport service upon which the continuing progress and prosperity of this island depends. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Governor Muñoz had lobbied for expanding airline access to make it easier for Puerto Ricans to leave the island. But when he made the argument, what he said was that Puerto Ricans deserved to go looking for jobs as much as anyone else in the States.
It stings when I think about all these machinations to get a million people to leave. To get families like mine to leave. That we were a sacrifice worth making for that shining porvenir, but people wouldn't just leave for good. Because of the island's relationship with the U.S., It was easier for Puerto Ricans to come and go. Many, like my grandparents, would decide to return, and for them and many others coming from cramped and cold walk up apartments, the dream of success looked a lot like Levittown.
EDGARDO MELENDEZ Now, the Levittown is an important phenomenon because it's basically an area built by return migrants.
NEWS REPORT The flow is no longer one way, as thousands of Puerto Ricans have decided to return home. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS August 1971, CBS News.
NEWS REPORT Some have saved enough money to buy small trim homes and new suburbs. In developments like Levittown, for instance, where life has a distinctly American flavor as the suburb's name. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Levittown has a reputation for being a place settled by the returning diaspora.
SILVIA ALVAREZ Curbelo I think it is like an intermediate space.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS The historian Sylvia Álvarez Curbelo says Levittown was a bridge between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. For returning Puerto Ricans, there was a nostalgia, as several people have told me, for a life in the countryside that existed before Puerto Rico's big transformation, before people left. Carport in the front, platanos in the back.
SILVIA ÁLVAREZ CURBELO You have to plant a guava tree, a lemon tree. And, you know, like the staples of a garden in Puerto Rico.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS And Levittown patios had room for that.
SILVIA ÁLVAREZ CURBELO In Levittown, I think that many of the Nuyorican’s wanted to have a Puerto Rico that was already vanishing in some way.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS My grandfather, Nicolas Casanova, kept ducks and chicken and even geese in his suburban backyard. It's a detail I hadn't thought about until Sylvia described that longing. But it wasn't an easy fit for everyone returning from New York. One resident told me, not on tape, that she felt bullied by a teacher who scolded her for speaking English. It was a common story in the 70s, featured in news reports quoting teenagers and Puerto Rican high schools.
STUDENT People laughing at me because you know, I didn't know Spanish. They would, you know it was... so you would say something wrong, you know, they'd be trying to correct, you know, most of the time they would laugh. [END CLIP]
STUDENT They make fun of you the way you talk Spanish. So, if you say a wrong word in Spanish or something like that, they start saying, you know you can't speak, you speak Spanish. Right. And things like that. And they start calling you gringo. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Schools in Puerto Rico even started offering Spanish courses to the returning migrants to help them fit back in.
NEWS REPORT Unhappy with life in the states and slow to assimilate in a hostile Puerto Rico. The Nuyoricans say they're in limbo not knowing where they belong. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Nuyoricans, returning from the states not only struggled to fit in, they also struggled to find a job and they weren't the only ones. Hilda, the resident we heard from earlier, says her family had a hard time making ends meet after returning from the states. In Levittown, the mortgage payment on their house, the Camafeo model was 62 dollars a month. That was a lot for their family.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Cuando nosotros nos mudamos aquí
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Her father, Don Toño, had worked building the Levittown houses, but when they had all been finished in the late 70s, his next job didn't pay enough to make the monthly payment.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Llega un momento en que papi
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS There came a moment where he was on the verge of desperation, and her parents were deciding whether they'd give up the house and leave again for the United States, when something happened that changed their fortunes. Hilda can see the scene in her memory. One day, her father got home.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ y se sienta en la silla del comedor
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS He sits down at the dining room table and he opens the newspaper.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ y coge el periódico. Mami está en la cocina
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Her mother, Doña Lucy, is in the kitchen.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Mami que? Ven acá.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Come here he says, she looks over his shoulder. Hilda could hear her saying: No way, really no way.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ y mami dice embuste, de verdad, embuste
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Don Toño had won the lottery. First prize. With that money, he paid off the house. A few streets away, his sister was also struggling to pay. He helped her out, too. If not for the lottery, they would have gone back to the states. Maybe someday her parents would have returned to the island, but they wouldn't have kept the house.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Definitivamente creo que no estuviéramos aquí. Pero aquí estamos hace 55 años, pues ya.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Instead, she's been in Levittown now for 55 years, and despite all the good times, all the memories and all the promises.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ yo estoy loca por irme de aquí
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Hilda says that the way life is in Puerto Rico, she wants to leave. It's the crime, the shrinking pensions, the lack of opportunities.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Antes siempre se decía que la verdadera familia de uno eran los vecinos.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS But also people used to say neighbors are your real family. Everyone would help each other, care for each other.
HILDA RODRIGUEZ Hoy te moriste pues por la peste, te encuentran.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Today, Hilda says, if you die, they find you by the smell. This is so dark, but the truth is that there are so many empty homes in Levittown now. Nearly 15 years of a fiscal recession has taken its toll, and then came Maria. According to figures from 2018, over 20 percent of the houses in Levittown are vacant. The elementary school, the one named for John F. Kennedy, was closed as part of an island wide shutdown of hundreds of schools.
PAOLA RODRIGUEZ Y pues ahora ya todo no es como antes. Yo pienso que mami tuvo la mejor etapa de Levittown
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Paula, Hilda'a daughter, says her mother saw Levittown's best days. She lives at home, loves this place, but knows her and her friends have seen its decline. It wasn't just dancing in the streets. There were also walkways between the sections. And now they're all closed.
PAOLA RODRIGUEZ Las personas caminaban todos los paseitos que hay, que ahora todos básicamente
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS It's dangerous to walk alone.
PAOLA RODRIGUEZ la playa de ahí al frente, que ahora está contaminada
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS And the beach the borders the north side of Levittown, Punta Salinas is contaminated. Levittown's Lake, once an amenity, overflowed during Maria. The dam was opened without warning and houses and streets near it flooded. Hilda and Paola's home didn't flood, but other people had to be rescued from their roofs or flee in the dark. Four people died.
SIXTO ISAAC ORTIZ Every time I go to work, I take the One Six Five road, la Uno Seis Cinco, that's the road that that takes all Dorado, Levittown, San Juan, and you could see how deteriorated Levittown is actually. Post Maria and before Maria.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS That's Sixto Isaac Ortiz, A friend of Paola's and longtime Levittown resident. After Maria, out of boredom, they made Nuestro Podcast with some other friends.
SIXTO ISAAC ORTIZ En este episodio número 4 de nuestro podcast le rendimos un homenaje sumamente . [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS And one of the episodes is about their home.
SIXTO ISAAC ORTIZ Hablamos sobre nuestra experiencia [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS They discussed the awful experience of the hurricane and they talk about a book of short stories based in Levittown. And over an hour into the episode, Sixto poses a huge question to the group.
SIXTO ISAAC ORTIZ muchas personas dicen que el proyecto social de Levittown, lo que se conocía como lo que querían que fuera Levittown, falló. [END CLIP]
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Did Levittown fail? And his answer, he told Paola and I recently, is yes.
SIXTO ISAAC ORTIZ More than angry, it makes me sad, you know that that we're in this time. But this is not only Levittown, this is Puerto Rico in a nutshell.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS There was something about Levittown that required a winning lottery ticket to achieve. It wasn't enough to build houses if you couldn't create an economy in which people could afford to stay in them. The Porvenir that Governor Luis Muñoz Marín had promised, had already started to crumble with a recession in the 1970s. It's as though the vision of having a house got tied up too closely with the American dream, and with an unsustainable consumerism. So, Levittown can feel like a metaphor for the failures of Puerto Rico's economic experiment, but last time I was there, I saw it through new eyes. I took in the interesting things that were showing through the cracks.
Cezanne Cardona Morales is the author of a collection of short stories called Levittown Mon Amour.
CEZANNE CARDONA MORALES Pompa Si, torre de agua. Pompa de agua.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Cezanne and I met under the rust streaked belly of the Blue Water Tower a couple of weeks before the pandemic.
CEZANNE CARDONA MORALES es una marca dentro del mapa aéreo. Es decir,
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS t's part of the aerial map, he says. I check this out and he's right. Pilots have to tell air traffic control that they're passing it on their way into the airport. In other words, I'm not the only one.
CEZANNE CARDONA MORALES propio Levittown me sigue dando sorpresas como ciudad
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Levittown keeps surprising him. Every time he comes here, despite the detritus and the decay, he sees colors that call his attention. Writing about this place was his way of making a kind of peace with his country, with Puerto Rico through the fiscal crisis, the deterioration, the difficulty of making ends meet. To leave the resentment about what wasn't and appreciate what is. I asked him, after all this historical research, if I'm trying to see the beauty in Levittown, could he give me some pointers?
Sí yo estoy tratando de ver la belleza in Levittown. Me podrías dar algún consejo?
CEZANNE CARDONA MORALES Bueno, todo depende de qué consideres belleza verdad
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Well, it depends on what you consider beauty. Look at what time has done to this place. Look at the rust, at the shuttered businesses.
CEZANNE CARDONA MORALES Tal vez eso mirar mirar las cosas que el tiempo ha bajado. Tal vez mirar la oxidación, los lugares cerrados
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS Looking at close storefronts gave him the possibility to invent. To imagine businesses that maybe didn't actually exist, and walk along the boulevard, which is called Avenue Boulevard, a redundant name that tickles Cezanne.
CEZANNE CARDONA MORALES Avenida, Avenida. Avenida Boulevard.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS It tickles me now, too, and much more does as well. A few steps away from where we set the public, high school is named for Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, Puerto Rico's independence icon. Right there, in Levittown, the American suburb. And then there's the water tower, which doesn't actually hold any water.
CEZANNE CARDONA MORALES Ahora mismo, si observamos ahi la torre de agua está totalmente inservible
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS It's a monument to uselessness. A symbol of a failure to have functional infrastructure, and yet it's still an icon visible from the highway, from the streets and from the sky.
CEZANNE CARDONA MORALES no es un monumento a nada, sino a nuestra incapacidad de poder construir o de poder llevar agua a un lugar.
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS It's empty and yet...
CEZANNE CARDONA MORALES Pero se ha convertido en la tal vez en nuestra Torre de Eiffel. Por lo menos para la gente de Levittown, no?
ALANA CASANOVA-BURGESS It's become like our own Eiffel Tower, he says, appealing to Cezanne precisely because it doesn't work.
I had hoped to end this journey in my grandparents Levittown, but then the pandemic hit, so instead this summer, I drove from Brooklyn to Long Island and peered up at this other water tower in this other Levittown. While the Puerto Rican one towers over a busy commercial strip, this one is quiet, tucked into some residential streets that curve into each other and are named for plants, like Azalea Road and Iris Lane. I could hear the drip, drip, drip of water falling from the tank. There's a baseball diamond there, too, and a basketball court and a group of teenagers were playing. Someone was walking their dog. The lawns were tidy, but there were no guava trees, no lemon trees. This light blue water tower also says Levittown in big letters, although, frankly, it's not as impressive, maybe not as tall as the Puerto Rican one.
I imagine getting some bolt cutters for the chain link fence and getting to the circular door at the base of the tower. I could open the hatch like the ones on a submarine instead of climbing whatever ladder lies on the other side, I could open another hatch and arrive at the other Levittown, as though the water towers were portals. I'd arrive by passing airplanes and airports and the danger of a COVID-19 transmission on Avenida Boulevard.
I'd go to Panadería Lemy and I'd order a box of quesito, then I'd walk to my cousin's house, the same one my grandparents moved to when they were looking for something between one dream and another. In the room where I sleep when I visit, there's a view of the water tower.
You can listen to the rest of the series wherever you get podcasts. Every episode is available in Spanish and English on the La Brega feed. La Brega was produced and edited by Marlon Bishop, Luis Trelles, Ezequiel Rodríguez Andino, Mark Pagán, Victor Ramos, and by me, Alana Casanova-Burgess. Original Music for the series was composed by Balún. Our theme song is By IFE. Leadership Support for La Brega is provided by the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support provided by Amy Liss. On the Media's technical director is Jennifer Munson.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Brooke and Bob will be back next week. This is On the Media.
New York Public Radio 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 programming is the audio record.