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.
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