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


In Words without Borders Nathalie Handal presents a wonderful installment of the City and the Writer series, an interview with filmmaker, writer, and scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner. It was very difficult to choose excerpts; we highly recommend reading the full interview at Words without Borders. In her conversation with Handal, Negrón-Muntaner captures the spirit and emotions of the diasporic travelers who always returns to the place to which they feel deeply and lovingly connected: “Although I reside in New York, I only feel truly alive in Puerto Rico.”

[. . .] 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 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.

[. . .] 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.

[. . .] 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. [. . .]

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