The Voices of “La Brega: Stories of the Puerto Rican Experience”

“Brega pana, dale.” This sentence may appear nonsensical to many readers, even those who consider Spanish their first language. Yet for Puerto Ricans, whether they are located in the ever-expanding diaspora, on the island, or in that uncomfortably pliable space of the in-between known as the vaivén, the sentence teems with familiarity. Combined with the right intonation, the cajoling phrase aims to convince “you” (the pana– a genderless PR slang for friend) to bregar.

The colloquial Puerto Rican verb bregar implies, at its core, some kind of negotiation or exchange, one that can range from the casual, to the intimate, to the political. Bregar can also be used as a noun. As discussed by Arcadio Díaz Quiñones, to be in la brega is to assume the ever-shifting posture of one who finds a way through conditions of vulnerability and precarity (20). Díaz Quiñones juxtaposes the uses of bregar with the “piedad” (piety) and “autocompasión” (self-compassion) of the “¡Ay bendito!,” another quintessential Puerto Rican phrase, but one whose sole power lies in its enunciation (21).[1] In contrast, when one opts to be in la brega one chooses to be open to possibility and ingenuity. Far from a panacea, however, to bregar is to implicitly accept that one’s situation is the result of a broader systemic framework. Bregar is thus a posture of compromised agency that emerges from the need to mitigate chronic circumstances.

Alana Casanova-Burgess’s seven-episode podcast series “La Brega: Stories of the Puerto Rican Experience” is an exemplary brega in and of itself. The 2021 series, co-produced by WNYC Studio and Futuro Studios, teaches and performs, subverts and questions, in Spanish and in English, about the various ways in which Puerto Ricans live bregando when faced with the inheritances of neocolonialism. For, as Díaz Quiñones makes clear “[l]a colonia, la brega, y el deseo de modernidad llevan vidas paralelas”[2] (86). The stories of “La Brega” are an emotional rollercoaster of hope and betrayal that narrate how Puerto Rico, seemingly poised to soar after the establishment of the Estado Libre Asociado (ELA) or Commonwealth in 1952, was instead gutted from the inside out with lofty promises of economic development. Typically, when this story is told, if it is even told at all, it is presented from a top down perspective. Countering this, “La Brega” gives the very Puerto Ricans that lived and continue to live through these tumultuous circumstances the chance to tell their stories.[3]

The first episode of the series, hosted by Casanova-Burgess, is titled “¿Qué es la brega?/What is la brega?,” and it introduces the concept of bregar by discussing the Instagram account “Adopta un Hoyo” (Adopt a pothole). This citizen intervention created by Cheo Santiago was an attempt to bregar with the deteriorating state of the roads in Puerto Rico. Indeed, I often experienced these potholes growing-up on the island, and in recent years they have only gotten worse. Not only are they responsible for the early demise of many cars in Puerto Rico, but they also make driving on the island particularly life-threatening. Yet, Puerto Ricans have to bregar with this situation every time they need to get somewhere. It’s just the way life is.

Using the ubiquity of Puerto Rican potholes as a springboard, Casanova-Burgess asks listeners to ponder what it means for a government to demand that its citizens lean on la brega in order to survive. This critical question is applicable far beyond Puerto Rico, for to bregar is also to perform resiliency, a quality that, on a global scale, is demanded more and more from those least positioned to perform it. Furthermore, in the face of ongoing crises such as austerity measures and climate disasters, resiliency quickly takes on the air of hubris. In this way, “La Brega,” while very much about Puerto Rico, also offers the island as a case study for our interconnected world. The podcast is thus aligned with Puerto Rican filmmaker and scholar Cecilia Aldarondo’s powerful 2020 documentary Landfall, which, while evidencing the impact of Hurricane María on the island, also places the cataclysmic event in critical historical context. In addition, in 2021 Landfall hosted “Puerto Rico as a Handbook for Our Times” a series of public virtual talks that covered a range of topics such as disaster capitalism, transfeminism, community organizing and mutual aid, and decolonial strategies between Puerto Rico, Palestine, and Hawai’i.

As a bilingual Puerto Rican, I listened to the initial episode of “La Brega” first in Spanish and then in English. Ultimately, however, I opted to listen to the series in Spanish. This decision was both emotional and pedagogical. As a scholar specializing in Latinx studies and located in a Spanish department, it is rare that I get the chance to hear other Puerto Ricans speaking Puerto Rican Spanish in academic settings. Indeed, after many years of teaching all levels of Spanish language at multiple institutions of higher learning, I have learned to bregar with my Caribbean tongue, coaxing it to reduce its speed, goading it to resist the urge to cut off “s”, and prodding it to remember that “r’s” should not sound like “l’s.” While these actions have helped students of all backgrounds and ethnicities understand me better in the classroom, I never forget that I need to do this because Puerto Rican Spanish is not representative of the “neutral” Spanish that is expected in the L2 classroom.  For example, a recent study on the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (RAE), a resource commonly suggested to student learners of Spanish, found that it “repeatedly presents Peninsular Spanish usage as if it were General Spanish or ‘neutral Spanish’ and portrays Latin American Spanish as the ‘other’” (Rodríguez Barcia and Moskowitz, 498). Hence, although Puerto Rican Spanish remains my first language, what continues to be true is that there are few resources for use in the academic classroom where it is uncritically centered. “La Brega” is one of them.

As a Latinx studies scholar, one of my professional goals is to counter the homogeneity that undergirds the structures of Spanish language instruction in the United States. For this, “La Brega: Stories of the Puerto Rican Experience” is an invaluable cultural and linguistic resource. Listeners are able to hear Puerto Ricans of all ages tell their own stories in their own words. Those who are closely listening will note the shifts in rhythm and vocabulary between older Puerto Ricans and younger ones, as well as the sometimes easy, sometimes tense relationship between Spanish and English. One episode that exemplifies these aspects is episode # 6, “Las cartas de la quiebra/The Bankrupcy Letters,” which details the plight of the “acreedores sociales/micro-creditors” of the Puerto Rican government’s debt. This episode, narrated by journalist Luis J. Valentín Ortiz, presents an ideal place to discuss Puerto Rico’s position in the crosshairs of Spanish and English given that the bankruptcy cases are overseen by the US Federal Court, or, as the episode describes it “la corte del imperio” (the Empire’s court). This means, of course, that all paperwork and proceedings are available solely in English and are thus inaccessible to many of the Puerto Rican plaintiffs, especially those who cannot afford an attorney.

“La Brega: Stories of the Puerto Rican Experience” also serves as a powerful example of island-diaspora collaboration. The creative team includes individuals based in Puerto Rico and in the United States, and the episodes have several hosts. For example, Chris Gregory-Rivera, a photographer, guides us through episode #3, “Una encyclopedia de traición/ An Encyclopedia of Betrayal,” one of the few bilingual resources on the “carpetas,” the infamous surveillance files kept by the Puerto Rican police on its own people. Julio Ricardo Varela, founder of Latino Rebels and Editorial Director for Futuro Media, guides us through “Guerreros del basket/Basketball Warriors” an episode that brings to light the powerful “cultural nationalism” that saturates Puerto Ricans, given that, despite its colonial relationship to the United States, the island has its own Olympic teams. The last episode of the series “Se acabaron las promesas/The End of the Promises” is hosted by CUNY professor Yarimar Bonilla, who is also the interim director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (CENTRO). She is the first woman to assume this position since the center’s founding in 1973. Bonilla’s narration ends with a powerful question: how do we deal with a crisis of the imagination? For, as the series chronicles, Puerto Rico will keep bregando, but being in la brega is not enough. What we need is a new way of doing things, a path not yet apparent. Yet, this level of creativity can become impossible to generate when our energies are drained by just getting through another day. Here, too, Puerto Rico’s experience resonates with much of the world as we consider how to re-build lives and communities in the context of an ongoing global pandemic.

Finally, “La Brega” also exudes collaboration in its show notes. Here, listeners interested in learning more will find links to resources such as scholarly works and documentaries, the well-known podcast Radio Ambulante, and the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, an alternative news source I came to rely immensely on during the crisis that surged after Hurricane María struck the island in September 2017. In this way, “La Brega” positions itself to be easily integrated into classrooms looking to discuss Puerto Rico from its own perspective. It is bound to spark conversations that, while unable to provide answers, will raise critical and necessary questions.[4]

Works Cited

Díaz Quiñones, Arcadio. El arte de bregar: Ensayos. Ediciones Callejón, 2000.

Rodríguez Barcia, Susana and Andre Moskowitz. “An Authentic Pan-Hispanic Language Policy?

Spain as the Point of Reference in the Spanish Royal Academy’s Diccionario de la          

Lengua Española.International Journal of Lexicography, 32(4), 2019, pp. 498-527.

[1] All translations are my own.

[2] “[t]he colony, la brega, and the desire for modernity lead parallel lives”

[3] The University of Notre Dame’s project “Listening to Puerto Rico” is also an invaluable repository of these stories in video format: https://listeningtopuertorico.org

[4] Another pivotal resource for a discussion on Puerto Rico in contemporary times is The Puerto Rico Syllabus, a collaborative educational source spearheaded by Yarimar Bonilla, Marisol LeBrón, Sarah Molinari, Isabel Guzzardo Tamargo and Kimberly Roa: https://puertoricosyllabus.com/

Dr. Rebeca L. Hey-Colón, is an Assistant Professor of Latinx Studies in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and Faculty Affiliate in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, Latin American Studies, and Global Studies at Temple University.

Photo credit: Artist Fernando Norat, photo used with permission from WNYC Studios and Futuro Studios.

One comment

  1. Being an outsider reading this article has given me a new prospective on what Puerto Rican people go through. It’s disheartening to actually witness what the islanders have to contend with, even though they are part of the Mainland.

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