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The City and the Writer: In San Juan with Frances Negrón-Muntaner

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of San Juan as you feel/see it?

First, let me say that in Puerto Rico, “San Juan” is technically the name of the entire capital but we tend to call each neighborhood by its own name: Santurce (where I was born), Río Piedras (where I went to college), and Cupey (where I grew up). The only part that includes the full name is Old San Juan, the Spanish colonial city, where I spent a great deal of my late teens wandering, taking photographs, and writing.

Today, the city sometimes feels melancholic, as if it will never recover from so much loss: the hundreds of thousands of people who have left after more than a decade of debt crisis and a devastating hurricane, and the disastrous response by the Puerto Rican and the federal governments. You can see this in the faces of many sanjuaneros, particularly older people, and in the countless abandoned houses and buildings in every part of the city.

But mostly I feel San Juan is a city full of life with a unique perspective on how to weather the growing storms of our moment. This is evident in the graffiti and public art that are often a second skin to those same ruined structures. It is equally present in people’s everyday insistence to be there, to live and love their way regardless.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

It would be too heartbreaking to tell. I am not ready yet. But a painful memory was when my parents cast me out of the house in 1985 once they learned I was a lesbian. I went to live in a small apartment close to the University of Puerto Rico for a year. Then I graduated and migrated to Philadelphia. I never returned to live in San Juan.

Since then, most of my heartbreaking memories are about events that have taken place in my absence but are nevertheless a part of me. One of the most distressing was the death of my maternal grandparents. I remember feeling an enormous emptiness, a desolate loneliness because they loved me so unconditionally as a child. I also felt that the joy of childhood had come to an end, and that neither San Juan nor my life would ever be the same. 

With time, the memory of being away from the city so much has in itself become heartbreaking. So now I am visiting more frequently and growing new roots across the island.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

When I was a kid, my grandparents frequently took me to El Jardín Botánico, a botanical garden that is part of the University of Puerto Rico and rarely visited these days. The garden was magical to me. It had plenty of emerald green helechos (ferns), a “Claude Monet” garden following the painter’s aquatic one in Giverny, and a “palmetum” containing hundreds of palm tree species. To this day, the palm tree and the helecho are the two plants that most say “home” to me.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Despite her status as an icon, I believe that Julia de Burgos (1914–53) is a great poet whose story and work also intersects with many of the core political battles of the century against sexism, racism, and colonialism. I have read the posthumous El mar y tú (The Sea and You) numerous times, and her poems “A Julia de Burgos” and “Ay, ay, ay de la grifa negra” made a deep impression on me when I first encountered them. I was similarly very influenced by the writers of the so-called “generation of the 1970s,” including novelist and poet Rosario Ferré, particularly her novella Maldito Amor (translated as Sweet Diamond Dust); short story writer Ana Lydia Vega; and the fierce Manuel Ramos Otero, Puerto Rico’s first openly gay writer. They started to shake things up by staring down not only colonialism but also coloniality—patriarchy, homophobia, racism, and class hierarchies. They have made my own work possible.


Is there a place where you return to often?

There are five places that I always visit. Not surprisingly, given Puerto Rico’s rich cuisine, three are places to eat: La Bombonera in Old San Juan, where I order a hot chocolate and a mallorca, our version of the Spanish “ensaimada” pastry; Via Appia, a historic pizzeria which also makes a great salad with gorgonzola; and Yerbabuena, a Cuban-Puerto Rican restaurant where I always order a steak, a mofongo de yuca, and Medalla, one of the local beers. The other places are more personal: I go to the beach in el Condado and wonder what the future will bring, and to Cupey, where I grew up and my parents still live.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

For several decades, La Tertulia bookstore in Rio Piedras was one of the most important locations to listen to, and talk about, literature. The appeal of the bookstore, however, was not only its impeccable book selection or programming. It was also that visitors could learn so much about literature and writing by stopping by and talking to people there, including La Tertulia’s staff and the owner, Alfredo Torres. The staff would know what you were working on and even saved books for you as soon as they arrived. Unfortunately, La Tertulia closed in 2017, a death by many cuts: ongoing crisis at the University of Puerto Rico and the town of Rio Piedras; Amazon. Hopefully the store will reopen in the future; it always does. 

Another key location for me is the University of Puerto Rico, a place where major writers from the island and the world have presented their work, including Juan Ramón Jiménez in the 1940s and Mario Vargas Llosa, who first visited in the late 1960s. It was also where I heard Reinaldo Arenas, who had recently left Cuba, read from Otra vez el Mar (Farewell to the Sea, 1985). It was otherworldly.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you? 

In the 1980s, the queer circuit throughout San Juan was definitely its own city. It stretched out from the gay cruising spots in Condado and Ocean Park to the more rural barrio of Caimito, where there was a lesbian “country club” disco that I practically lived in for a year. For me, the walled city section of Old San Juan also was, and remains, its own universe. I used to escape there to discuss philosophy and literature with friends and make sense of the world. Today I am still struck by its beauty and endurance.


Where does passion live here?

Everywhere. You experience it as you move through the city, talk to people, eat, and breathe the ocean air. Although I reside in New York, I only feel truly alive in Puerto Rico. 


What is the title of one of your works about San Juan and what inspired it?

Most of my work is set in San Juan, or assumes it as a reference point. But I just realized that none of my writings have San Juan in the title. A number have Puerto Rico. The most emblematic may well be my first book, an edited collection from 1997 called Puerto Rican Jam: Rethinking Nationalism and Colonialism. The book, which was controversial at the time, was critical of two commonly held ideas: that nationalism “cures” colonialism, and that in a colonial context the main or only transformative politics are nationalist.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside San Juan does an outside exist?”

Yes, in various ways. Outside of San Juan there is what some may dismissively term “la isla”—the “rest” of the island—which I visited little while growing up but now always visit. There is also “el Caribe,” the more than 7,000-island archipelago that contradictorily provides both a sense of belonging and a way to feel superior to others, and “la diáspora,” the 5.5 million Puerto Ricans who live in dozens of cities across the United States and beyond. The United States itself, as a place and as an idea, also casts an enormous shadow. Many Puerto Ricans literally call it “allá fuera,” that which is outside. 

One could say that so much exists outside of San Juan that people often forget what is marvelous inside. But sometimes you can sense it. And when you can, for a moment, nothing else exists.


Frances Negrón-Muntaner is a filmmaker, writer, curator, scholar, and professor at Columbia University, where she is also the founding curator of the Latino Arts and Activism Archive. Among her books and publications are: Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture (CHOICE Award, 2004), The Latino Media Gap (2014), and Sovereign Acts: Contesting Colonialism in Native Nations and Latinx America (2017). Her most recent films include Small City, Big Change (2013), War for Guam (2015), and Life Outside (2016). For her work as a scholar and filmmaker, Negrón-Muntaner has received Ford, Truman, Rockefeller, and Pew fellowships. In 2008, the United Nations’s Rapid Response Media Mechanism recognized her as a global expert in the areas of mass media and Latin/o American studies; she is also a recipient of the Lenfest Award, one of Columbia University’s most prestigious recognitions for excellence in teaching and scholarship (2012), and the OZY Educator Award (2017). Negrón-Muntaner served as director of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race from 2009–16. 

Published Feb 6, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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