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The Puerto Ricans: Our American Story

Originally produced in 1999, THE PUERTO RICANS: OUR AMERICAN STORY was the first program of its kind, embodying the honor and passion of a rich heritage caressed by warm island breezes and set to an irresistible rhythm. The program explores lives lived in two worlds – a bicultural existence that as many in the program describe it, can be equally enriching and unsettling.
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Filmed on both the United States mainland and the island of Puerto Rico, the program explores the customs and traditions that have bonded Puerto Rican families for generations. And just as the mix of spices, sofritos, is essential in any Puerto Rican kitchen because it not only colors the food but gives it flavor, THE PUERTO RICANS: OUR AMERICAN STORY illustrates how the customs, traditions, dances, and, of course the music that is the pulse of the Puerto Rican culture, are the unique identity of a thriving American community. As Roberto Clemente, Jr., son of the late baseball legend, asserts in the program, “It’s a very good thing to be Puerto Rican right now.”

As Tito Puente explains in the program, “even if you become [assimilated in the United States], your heart is really down there in the island.” These cultural connections are so powerful for Puerto Rican families they exist even for those living on the mainland who have never been to the island. Of course, for those who have been to the island – even for a brief visit – there is an inextricable bond to la Isla. When Jimmy Smits describes the preparations for his first childhood visit at age five as if it were a religious ceremony- complete with starched white shirt, vest, suit and tie – his vivid memory recalls an experience shared by many in the Puerto Rican community.

According to author Esmeralda Santiago (When I Was Puerto Rican), being Puerto Rican American is “like a child jumping double dutch… two ropes [Puerto Rican and American identity] going in opposite directions very quickly… it is a constant juggling, a constant jumping up and down trying to be in one place or another.” And Jimmy Smits expresses the way many Puerto Ricans experience their world as he describes a favorite recipe, alternating between his two native languages to express it fully, remarking “it’s funny… certain things I have to say in Spanish to know what they are in English.”

This duality put tennis player Gigi Fernandez at a crossroads as she prepared for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona and had to choose between representing the mainland or the island. Fernandez talks in the program about her personal struggle with the two worlds of Puerto Rican life as “a hard emotional decision… but a very easy career decision” because she knew the only way she would win was on the U.S. team. Representing the United States that summer, Fernandez became the first Puerto Rican woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

The program also pays tribute to Puerto Ricans whose lives and careers left an impact on the Puerto Rican community and brought recognition to the Puerto Rican community in American mainland culture, including the late actors Raul Julia and Jose Ferrer, baseball player and humanitarian Roberto Clemente and singer Tito Rodriguez, described in the program as the “Puerto Rican Frank Sinatra.”

THE PUERTO RICANS: OUR AMERICAN STORY is produced by WLIW New York, whose other PBS specials celebrating the diversity and ethnic character in America include A LAUGH, A TEAR, A MITZVAH (Jewish Americans); THE CUBAN AMERICANS; THE POLISH AMERICANS and THE MEXICAN AMERICANS.

Produced by WLIW New York; Producers: Ron Rudaitis, Sam Toperoff; Executive Producer: Roy Hammond; Format: CC STEREO.

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