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Frances Negrón-Muntaner

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Foreign, for Now

Posted: 12/01/11 10:59 AM ET

It's no secret that there is something magical about the movies and here is a bit of evidence: Last month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, better known as the entity that awards the Oscars, miraculously resolved Puerto Rico's political status without a referendum and without telling anyone but the island's film commissioner, Mariella Pérez Serrano.

And this is how they did it: By simply writing a letter through which the Academy unceremoniously dashed the hopes of a Puerto Rico-made film titled América from being considered for an Oscar in the "foreign language" category. In snubbing América, the brief letter further reiterated the Academy's new policy toward submissions from Puerto Rico: that entries from the island will no longer be accepted under the foreign language rubric because its inhabitants are US citizens.

The reasoning behind this change of status is not clear. There are some who believe that the Academy stopped considering Puerto Rico-made movies for fear that they would have to accept Spanish-language films produced by US directors, a prospect that would open up even more opportunities of recognition for a cinema that can be seen everywhere in the world. Others think that Mexican-American directors want to put a stop to the policy out of the belief that island Puerto Ricans are getting a free ride since they can compete under the foreign language category without residing in a sovereign country.

Regardless of the Academy's motives, the first flaw in their logic is the very notion that Spanish is a language foreign to the United States. Spanish was not only the first European language spoken in the territory presently occupied by the US, it has also persisted as an important form of communication and expression across the nation ever since. Today, over 50 million Spanish speakers call America home, a fact that makes the US the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, only behind the Republic of Mexico. Equally impressive, any child currently born in Los Angeles, where the Academy has its headquarters, is equally likely to pick up Spanish or English as a first language.

But if the Academy insists that Spanish is an alien tongue, pues, muy bien. We can then move on to the second lapse in their reasoning: that Spanish-language movies produced in Puerto Rico should not be considered as foreign language films because islanders are American citizens, just like others that live in any of the 50 states.

In classic Hollywood Spanish: "Ay, caramba!" While it is true that the federal government treats Puerto Rico as part of the US when it comes to recruiting soldiers or collecting campaign donations for presidential candidates, it does not when it comes to fundamental citizenship rights. These include the right to vote for the same president that sends Puerto Rican soldiers off to war as well as the right to have representatives with both a voice and a vote in Congress. Even further, the nation's highest legal authority, the Supreme Court, has clearly declared that Puerto Rico "belongs to, but is not part of, the United States."

In other words, Puerto Rico and the United States are neither the same nor equal entities. As a result, a great part of the island's cinema not only looks and feels differently, it is also produced under conditions of cultural vulnerability and economic precariousness in an industry that is dominated by American, English-language productions made with enormous budgets. Within this context, to unilaterally annex Puerto Rican cinema to that of the U.S. will result less in it being recognized as a vital part of American culture than in rendering it invisible as a distinct form.

So, for as long as films from Puerto Rico comply with the Academy's criteria of being "feature-length motion picture[s] produced outside the United States with predominantly non-English dialogue," it is inexplicably punitive to exclude América and other island-made films from consideration in the foreign language category. Even if such foreignness is, as we know, made in America, no accent on the "e."


Frances Negrón-Muntaner is the director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University.