Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Show of Force

Though Latin America is often cast as the "other" to the US, and indeed the very concept of "Latin" America was originally designed to mark a difference from "Anglo" America, in practice the division is hardly so clear. Large parts of the USA, such as Southern California, Texas, and New Mexico, were once part of the Spanish Empire, and migration in the twentieth century has meant that not only the Southwest but also much of Florida and all the country's large conurbations (New York, Chicago, San Francisco) have significant Latino populations. Moreover, there is increasing hybridization and transculturation, not least thanks to the vibrancy of Latin popular culture and the general fascination for all things Latin that Hollywood continually reproduces and reinforces.

But Puerto Rico is a special case. Neither fully part of the United States nor fully independent, its status as "Free Associated State" or unincorporated Commonwealth leaves it in something of a juridical and cultural limbo. Though Puerto Ricans are US citizens, and have the right to vote if and when they live on the mainland, Puerto Rico is not formally represented within the US constitution in the same way that, say, states such as New York or Hawaii are.

A Show of Force posterA Show of Force addresses precisely this issue of the island's peculiar and ambivalent status, by means of a depiction of the notorious "Cerro Maravilla" case. In July, 1978, two young pro-independence activists were killed as they attempted to sabotage a television tower on a mountain outside of San Juan. It turned out that they were murdered in cold blood by the Puerto Rican police, who had set a trap aided by an informer within the independentista. And it took more than a decade of investigation and legal proceedings to get even near the bottom of the subsequent cover-up.

The film's fictionalized account focuses on the character of Kate Meléndez, a television reporter who is first on the scene of the murders and who later devotes herself to bringing the truth to light. Kate's a useful character for the movie's dissection of Puerto Rican identity. She's a light-skinned and fair-haired daughter of a military father and non-Puerto Rican mother, who sent her back to the US to study.

A Show of Force stillBut she is also the widow of a noted pro-independence lawyer, and this alliance by marriage gives her access to and sympathy with those who are struggling against the US yoke. When her blond daughter reports that schoolfriends have told her she is American rather than Puerto Rican, Meléndez insists that all Puerto Ricans are American, too. And yet she tells her mother "You're so American; you're such an optimist," suggesting there's a distinct sensibility on the island that means that Puerto Ricans are different in some important ways.

One of the film's characters, a sinister police chief, insists that there can have been no judicial executions, no cover-ups, because "This isn't Chile, this isn't Cuba. We're Americans!" Yet the Cerro Maravilla case, and the subsequent political and legal hearings, are often termed "Puerto Rico's Watergate", ironically suggesting that the scandal ties the island closer than ever to mainland political patterns in the 1970s. Perhaps that's another reason why the film-makers chose to focus on a campaigning journalist as their protagonist.

It's as though only the role of the media, however much they may be associated with the opposition and pro-independence groups, can provide some guarantee that this is a specifically Anglo form of corruption, rather than the Latin political violence that they anxiously fear it otherwise so closely resembles. But the constant presence of the cameras makes us aware of the play of representation, of the ways in which cultural identity itself is also a frame-up.

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