Romance Tropical

A photography and video project based on the black and white enigma of a lost Puerto Rican film, colonial romance, and the color technology that frames it.

By artist Mónica Félix.

Showing July 3 - September 7, 2020

"Of course, the New York Times had printed a positive review and was a better known, well-established and highly respected publication, but should not the words of a fellow Puerto Rican have offered more advance indication about how Puerto Rican audiences might receive the film?"

- Naida García-Crespo

Juan Viguié’s Romance Tropical and U.S./Puerto Rican Film Coproduction in the 1930s

During the 1930s, in Puerto Rico, the turbulence of the Great-Depression years served as a stimulus for intellectual discussions about the “nature” of a Puerto Rican identity and the value of nationalist cultural productions. Moving past the socio-political debates about the “essence” of the nation and its people, filmmaker Juan Viguié Cajas bypassed the sociological and pedagogical approach that dominated nationalist undertakings in the fields of literature and journalism and in the process attained some financial success. Specifically, Viguié strove to realize international distribution and financing by attending closely to what drew audiences into the theater.

The archives document conclusively that Viguié’s Romance tropical was the first sound film both to be made by a Puerto Rican and to be shot in Puerto Rico. Although the film clearly belongs in the annals of Puerto Rican cinema history (directed by Juan Viguié, featuring a Puerto Rican cast, and shot on the island), a Latino filmmaker and entrepreneur from California, Frank Z. Clemente, also made important contributions as producer and distributor toward the success of the film.

Frank Clemente was born in San Francisco in 1904, and later settled in Los Angeles where he dedicated his professional life to the film industry and in 1933 started his own independent production company, Latin American Pictures Corporation, which produced Spanish language films. It seems that Clemente’s corporation did not succeed in Hollywood, as he quickly moved to New York in 1934 and established another independent film company, Latin Artists Pictures Corporation. Through his Latin Artists Pictures Corporation, Clemente worked with Viguié on the production of Romance tropical. The records do not show how Viguié established a relationship with Clemente but, however they met, Viguié and Clemente’s relationship proved fruitful, for Clemente’s connections could aid the film’s promotion and distribution in the Spanish language market in the United States.

Perhaps because of a pre-established plan to cater to a U.S.-based audience, the plot of Romance tropical appears to rely on established generic conceptions of Caribbean-themed Hollywood movies. That script reveals a story that revolves around Carlos (Jorge Rodríguez), a writer and musician, and his courting of an aristocratic woman named Margarita (Ernestina Canino). Margarita’s father, Don Patricio (Sexto Cheummont), rejects Carlos as a suitor for his daughter on the grounds that Carlos is a penniless artist. When Don Patricio prevents the couple from meeting, Carlos in despair embarks on a transatlantic sailboat voyage. The action then flashes forward to a “savage” African island called Mu, where Carlos teaches Spanish to a native princess called Alura (Raquel Canino). Alura tells Carlos of a water pit guarded by a shark god that houses beautiful pearls, and that only the tribe’s medicine man can get past the shark. Carlos devises a plan to steal the medicine man’s ointment to get to the treasure but tribal soldiers discover him in the process and he must flee the island with the treasure and a wounded Alura. Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, Margarita slowly deteriorates from heartache. Carlos’s boat lands in Puerto Rico where Alura dies, bequeathing the treasure to Carlos. Meanwhile, Don Patricio has searched frantically for Carlos as the only person who can save his daughter. Finally, Carlos, now with Don Patricio’s approval for marriage, saves Margarita and gives her Alura’s pearls.

The film’s script describes a tale remarkably similar to that of the top-grossing film of 1926 Aloma of the South Seas, which Paramount shot in Puerto Rico and for which Viguié had worked as a cameraman. The Puerto Rican film, however, has an important genre elaboration: Romance tropical includes musical numbers. Both films present a scorned white lover who sets sail for “savage” tropical islands. Both offer an alternative “uncivilized” love interest in a native princess, who have notably similar names: Aloma and Alura. Finally, both leading men eventually reunite with their original white lovers and return to their “civilized” lands. However, in contrast to Aloma, Romance tropical shows self-awareness about its fictitious nature. Such self-awareness emerges in Romance through the use of a framing device: beginning at the opening of the film, Rosa (Cándida de Lorenzo), Margarita’s grandmother, repeatedly reads to her granddaughter a fairy tale that mirrors the film’s plot and provides flash-forwards.

Thanks to Frank Clemente’s involvement, Romance tropical premiered on October 12, 1934 in New York City at the Campoamor Theater in Spanish Harlem. Clemente’s involvement and the location of the film’s premiere, along with its Spanish dialogue, suggests that the filmmakers envisioned the audience of this film as U.S. Latinxs. The New York Times, though not a Hispanic newspaper, reviewed the film positively. However, the reviewer did point to technical problems in the film, noting that, although the film was visually pleasing, the sound reproduction, particularly in relation to the clarity of the dialogue, was weak. The Film Daily also reviewed the film positively, highlighting its “colorful native background.” Although Variety featured the film for more than nine months on its list of releases, from November 1934 through September 1935, it did not carry a review but only a one-line description:  “first picture made in Porto Rico.”  In their reviews, Film Daily and the New York Times made similar claims about the film’s status as a first, both stating that it had been “labeled the first 100 percent Porto Rican production.” That both these publications use the word “labeled” suggests that promotional material deliberately used the “pioneering” stamp as an advertising strategy, despite knowing that the film had multiple predecessors.

Alongside its positive reception by The New York Times and Film Daily critics, Romance Tropical received an extremely negative review from Spanish-language newspaper El Curioso. The writer for that publication, Tello Casiano, saw the film as a shameful degradation of Puerto Rican culture (in essence, a “sellout”):

I went to the theater to see a “Tropical Romance” with Puerto Rican flavor, and instead I saw an “Anglo-Saxon Romance” with Hollywood flavor… I saw the adultery of our customs and modalities, and I also witnessed the violation of our idiosyncrasies. The first Puerto Rican cinematographic production was a commercial triumph, but a patriotic failure… Let’s call the film NULLITY so as not to call it a BETRAYAL.

Casiano’s critique of the film focuses on the ideological-political implications of the filmmaker’s alliance with a stereotype-filled plot. In the critic’s view, the film does not offer an accurate representation of Puerto Ricanness and instead has consciously adhered to U.S. film genre conventions and colonialist representational tropes, making the film a wholly incompetent cultural ambassador. However, Casiano also points out that the film attracted audiences (naming it a “commercial triumph”). Given that Romance tropical was in Spanish, and that it premiered in a theater located in Spanish Harlem, it is very likely that the people who made this film a “success” were the same people that Casiano thought the film misrepresented.

Whether the film deliberately appropriated Hollywood tropes or not, its likeness to other U.S. productions certainly did not mean that the film failed to culturally resonate with, nor even, in the Puerto Rican audience’s perception, truthfully represent their nation and people. In fact the film ran in Puerto Rico for over 15 weeks, the longest run for any Puerto Rican film up to that date. Puerto Rican audiences clearly found the film appealing. Igor Kameneff, a critic writing for El mundo in 1935, even ventured to suggest that it was in fact the unoriginality of the script that resonated with Puerto Rican audiences:

Although not new, the plot of the film is interesting. It has been said that the plot is that of a feuilleton and that is perhaps the precise reason for [screenwriter] Luis Palés Matos’ success. There have been very few men of letters who have been able to give the public what they want, and the writer who has not learned this lesson does not write for cinema.

It seems that for the filmmakers, giving the public what they wanted was not a question of nationalistic pride, but of good business sense.

Indeed, local critics described the film as a success based on apparent audience acceptance, even enthusiasm, both on the island and in the United States. However, despite the film’s triumph on the island, the Puerto Rican critics consistently cite the positive U.S. New York Times review as evidence of the film’s achievement, relying on outside perceptions for validation. Conspicuously, none of the Puerto Rican reviewers cited Tello Casiano’s review of the film, even though El curioso addressed Spanish speakers in New York City and would very likely have had a large Puerto Rican readership. Of course, the New York Times had printed a positive review and was a better known, well-established and highly respected publication, but should not the words of a fellow Puerto Rican have offered more advance indication about how Puerto Rican audiences might receive the film? Apparently not, since in contrast to Casiano’s warning of “humiliation,” Puerto Rican audiences appeared to enjoy the film, and it seems that no one in Puerto Rico, at least publicly, acknowledged feeling a sense of betrayal or misrepresentation from Romance tropical.

The absence of documented objections in Puerto Rico to the film’s stereotype-filled plot certainly does not mean that Casiano’s denunciation was not fully warranted.  The script validates his critique of its problematic representations, for the descriptions of settings and characters are replete with orientalist depictions of Africa and Blackness. The filmmakers appear to have transferred all the stereotypes that Hollywood had promoted about the tropics onto black populations. The Black inhabitants of Mu Island are superstitious, uncivilized and very sensual, and only the mixed-race Alura can connect with and understand the ways of the civilized (white) Puerto Ricans. Still, even the sympathetic Alura dies towards the end of the film, ensuring a representation of Puerto Ricaness and civilization as whiteness (and hence Spanishness). The filmmakers’ construction of Puerto Ricanness as European whiteness seems to follow the same pattern that Frantz Fanon described for Martiniquais racial identity, for as he explains, white colonial hegemony forces the colonized subject to shape his/her worldview in terms of a dichotomy of races, constructing whiteness as all that is positive and desirable. The film’s popular reception arguably bespeaks a 1930s Puerto Rican desire to be conceived as civilized or on par with the colonial metropolis, and hence, as equally white.

Although the film found success in Puerto Rico as well as, by all evidence, among Spanish-speaking audiences in the U.S., Viguié and his producer Frank Clemente did not make another film together. Moreover, the records suggest that Juan Viguié did not make another fictional film in his career. For his part, Frank Clemente continued working in the film industry. Juan Ortiz Jiménez attributed the split between Clemente and Viguié, and also Viguié’s move away from fiction, to a lawsuit over royalties brought by the actresses. Further, Kino García claims that due to the lawsuit Viguié sold the rights to the film for $6,000 and then disengaged himself completely from the project and from fiction filmmaking.

Whether or not the actresses sued Viguié, I believe that deep systemic problems can sufficiently account for his move away from feature filmmaking. First, the Puerto Rican exhibition market was too small to sustain the high costs of feature filmmaking, especially during the decade-plus-long Great Depression. Secondly, without a major production company backing the project, Romance tropical probably did not play in big U.S. markets, limiting its profits. Even though Viguié did not produce another fiction film, he continued to work for a number of years as a prolific and successful creator of documentaries and newsreels.

Prólogo

2013-2014

Sometime in the late 1930’s, the film Romance Tropical vanished. Regarded as the first film with sound made in Puerto Rico, and second Spanish-language talkie in the world. The film premiered at Teatro Campoamor in New York City. Directed by the filmmaker Juan E. Viguié, a script written by poet Luis Palés Matos with music by the composer Rafael Muñoz; three well-known names in the arts of Puerto Rico. The narrative of the film revolved around a man’s search for love and riches and a ‘savage island’ called Mu.

“Drama that tells the story of a handsome young conductor who falls in love with a high-society girl, but he is poor and her family rejects him. So the lover sets out on an adventure in the southern seas in search of fortune, reaching a distant island. There he becomes consort to the queen of the island. The tribe has a treasure and the young man convinces the queen to flee with it. But in the attempt the queen dies so he returns to San Juan with fortune and manages to marry the first girlfriend.”

- Silvia Alvarez-Curbelo, in her book Idilio tropical: la aventura del cine puertorriqueño (1994)

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production shot

Image courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Teatro y Cine del Ateneo Puertorriqueño

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Colección Juan Viguié

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film camera

Image courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Teatro y Cine del Ateneo Puertorriqueño

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Colección Juan Viguié

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Post-production room

Image courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Teatro y Cine del Ateneo Puertorriqueño

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Colección Juan Viguié

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film rack

Image courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Teatro y Cine del Ateneo Puertorriqueño

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Colección Juan Viguié

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production shot

Image courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Teatro y Cine del Ateneo Puertorriqueño

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Colección Juan Viguié

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production shot

Image courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Teatro y Cine del Ateneo Puertorriqueño

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Colección Juan Viguié

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production shot

Image courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Teatro y Cine del Ateneo Puertorriqueño

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Colección Juan Viguié

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film camera

Image courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Teatro y Cine del Ateneo Puertorriqueño

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Colección Juan Viguié

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film set light

Image courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Teatro y Cine del Ateneo Puertorriqueño

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Colección Juan Viguié

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film projector

Image courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Teatro y Cine del Ateneo Puertorriqueño

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Colección Juan Viguié

Libreto-1

Script at the New York State’s Motion Picture Commission

Image courtesy of Naida García-Crespo in 2017

Libreto-12

Script at the New York State’s Motion Picture Commission

Image courtesy of Naida García-Crespo in 2017

Libreto-20

Script at the New York State’s Motion Picture Commission

Image courtesy of Naida García-Crespo in 2017

Caption

New york times - film review

Image courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Teatro y Cine del Ateneo Puertorriqueño

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Colección Juan Viguié

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Puerto Rico Ilustrado - Film Review

Image courtesy of the Archivo Nacional de Teatro y Cine del Ateneo Puertorriqueño

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Colección Juan Viguié

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Poster image courtesy of John Viguié.

"Félix’s work in many ways acts as a prosecution, of the exploitation of Puerto Rico, of the female body, where the hetero and the masculine inscribe its oppressive claims every day. The work is also a deictic gesture to the relationship between coloniality and a sordid love story, where a dangerous alchemy of forces always comes to a head, and it is almost always the colonized who get the short end of the stick."

- Á.R. Vázquez-Concepción

Romance Colonial: Brief analysis of Mónica Félix's Romance Tropical

“How can women analyze their exploitation, inscribe their claims, within an order prescribed by the masculine? Is a politics of women possible there?” -Luce Irigaray 1

"When the forces of production enter into a baneful symbiosis with the relations of production that they were supposed to blow wide open, there is no longer any dynamism upon which critique could base its hope."-Jurgen Habermas 2

“In terms of time, the chronology of the past, present, and future has also increasingly lost its meaning as we come to understand the continuity of the past with the future—and, prodded on by the actual acceleration of historical processes, to deal with the present moment as an extension of the past into the future rather than as an independent temporal period.” -Maya Deren 3

Puerto Rico in the 1930s: a historical backdrop to Romance Tropical

The Independent Movie Database (IMDB) states about Romance Tropical: “ROMANCE TROPICAL (1934) is the first Puerto Rican feature film with sound and the second Spanish language movie with sound in the world.” 4

According to historical sources, during the 1930s in Puerto Rico, when the film Romance Tropical was produced, the nationalist ideology had emerged, but it had not managed to, nor did it ever, galvanize the masses as the labor movement had in the 1920s. According to historian Fernando Picó, in 1922, a group of dissidents from the powerful local political party Partido Unión, as well as sympathetic youths to the cause of Puerto Rican independence founded the Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista). Its first president was José Alegría. In the decade of the 1920s, Picó explains, the Nationalists actively intervened in the polemic about the obligatory use of English in public schools. They gave emphasis to the defense of national identity and propelled the study and reflection of the Puerto Rican historical reality. 5 While the film is in no way directly linked to the Nationalist agenda or its political aims, all of these elements, to various degrees of depth, are present in the plot of Romance Tropical. They partly form the basis for this historical analysis of both the film and the body of work by artist Mónica Félix surrounding Romance Tropical, which has been 7 years in the making.

By 1929 the Nationalist Party was presided by Pedro Albizu Campos and entered into a more militant phase of resistance to US cultural and political control. At the turn of the decade, Albizu’s fiery political rhetoric had split the country between those that favored US presence on the island and/or benefitted from it, and those that existed in a growing sphere that did not. Albizu also managed to swing the attention of Puerto Ricans towards the problem of US cultural domination and the insufficiencies of the political programs of the parties that shared power. 6

The crisis of the 1930s evidenced the failures of the US economic and social development model for Puerto Rico. In the face of this failure the Nationalists evoked the Puerto Rican situation prior to the US invasion in 1898, but in doing so idealized it. During this time the Nationalists gave great importance to the cultural values that they considered inherent to Hispanic roots. Among these values, Picó continues to explain, was highlighted the Catholic faith, the Hispanic traditions regarding the role of women in society. 7 The bourgeois social class and the characters depicted in Romance Tropical are arguably adherent to similar values to these.

Romance Tropical, as conceived by its writer Luis Palés Matos, a major literary figure from Puerto Rico, is a recapitulation of the  colonial history of the island, where economic pressures drive a young white man to engage in exploitative behavior towards people of color abroad to bring the booty back to their metropolis and declare themselves as owners of their destiny. The plot of the film, can be argued, is a riff on the racist myth of Christopher Columbus. It is a gross portrayal of a destiny stolen from the indigenous and the Afro-Caribbean, racistly addressed by Palés Matos as savages in the film’s very screenplay. This is also nakedly admitted and discussed by the characters in the film as well. To the shock of many, this rococo fantasy of exploits and bourgeois infatuations was penned by a Puerto Rican, not some glib Hollywood writer with no sensitivity or knowledge of the nuances and complexities of Puerto Rican culture.  This reflection on the film’s controversial content began from the onset of the project when Mónica Félix began researching the film in Puerto Rico’s General Archive in 2013. About her research there she explains that, “the images I found at the Archivo General de Puerto Rico about the film showed the main actors in the images of the film as white and in most cases wearing whiteface make-up; a trend very commonly used in movies at that time. Yet, in stark contrast, the tribe of savages was black, all except for their princess, a lighter skinned woman…  The subtleties of what we still suffer today as a society: a pigmentocracy... I am a light-skinned puertorriqueña de Cayey who learned the true meaning of racism once I uprooted to the United States. This has also meant that I’ve looked back at my experiences as a “blanquita” in Puerto Rico to see further into it. Through these lessons I have come to understand my own culture’s painful discrimination and self-hatred.” In the photographic work produced by Félix around Romance Tropical, the artist invites us, Boricua or not, to like her tackle these colonial sentiments and attitudes head on.

Upon analysis of their usage, I argue that tropical and colonial can act as interchangeable terms in Palés Matos’ writing. The term tropical many times acts as a means of Disneyfying or wildly aestheticizing the colonial enterprise. The term tropical here acts as a colonial disguise, as these actions of plunder like those presented in Romance Tropical are not uncommon to the global south. The term tropical can be used to cloud or sanitize the troubled colonial past and postcolonial present that peoples, but specifically women on this part of the globe have experienced across generations. The term tropical acts to conceal the colonial specter that haunts its iconography, masking a brutish process of grand-scale cultural gentrification.

Romance Tropical, Romance Colonial

Artist Mónica Félix does not appropriate Romance Tropical out of nostalgia, the work is no mere reprise of the film, but rather the artist offers an invitation for us to look back to a time where the Puerto Rican bourgeois society was presented with a powerful image, the first film in which it saw and heard a version of itself. What does the film suggest were we like as a society in the 1930s, prior to the launching of our constitution and local governance in 1952? How are our local mores and folkways, performed or otherwise, manifest in the film Romance Tropical?  How much have we changed (if at all)?  These are all questions that Felix presents us with, and they swirl across the mediums and surfaces of her appropriative body of work surrounding Romance Tropical. These also contour the challenges and indictment  she presents to the ideological state apparatuses and the Puerto Rican cultural players and institutions that want to welcome and enshrine this film uncritically into our cultural canon.

Félix’s work in many ways acts as a prosecution, of the exploitation of Puerto Rico, of the female body, where the hetero and the masculine inscribe its oppressive claims every day. The work is also a deictic gesture to the relationship between coloniality and a sordid love story, where a dangerous alchemy of forces always comes to a head, and it is almost always the colonized who get the short end of the stick. She begins a process of unraveling that runs the gamut from having us look at the film as well as its English translation, to entirely contemporary photographic explorations into the films iconography and utter lack of cultural responsiveness.

Maya Deren, high priestess of experimental film, explains that when we agree that a work of art, cinematic or otherwise, is creative it means that it can conjure up an entire reality, and it is just an experiential fragment of that reality. 8 Certainly the production of Romance Tropical, in spite of its commercial film status, is creative. About her analysis of the fragments that she used to reverse engineer the film prior to it being found, its look, and plot Mónica Félix explains are, “a series of self-portraits that tell a half-truth, half-imagined and yet fully lived story. I named them Ernestina and Raquel as a reference to the original actresses' names. They were sisters, daughters of a wealthy man from San Juan. I read he funded some of the film production in exchange that his daughters star in it. This is one of the reasons why all the male figures in my images are clearly dismembered, leaving the male presence as a texture.” It is fundamental to highlight that the self-portraits and videos by Félix were produced in 2015-2016, before the original script and the copy of the film were found. The colonial imaginary suggested in the few existing production shots to piece together the look of the film and visualize its mise en scène, as well as research into the production was the motor of her search for the film and screenplay. Additionally, it must be noted that, like Deren, Félix has self-financed this project since its inception, relying on no institutional support and working as its director, producer, acting talent, editor, and general project manager and curator.

Mónica Félix wants to crash through the roof of the creole (or criollo), cinematic fête galante that Luis Palés Matos so shamelessly conjugated in the script for Romance Tropical. 9 Through her works, the artist breaks down the semiotics of the absurd outdoor flirtation that mask the troubling colonial narrative the film presents the viewer with, not just in its gender politics, but its grotesque, racist depictions of Caribbean cultures. Félix calls out  the bigoted tale for what it is, and demands that we answer for its excesses as a work of art, and maybe even our blind, instinctual celebration of a film that should elicit reflection and deep discussion in light of our 21st century awareness of the constructs of gender and race, and our commitment to progress towards decolonizing our individual and collective imaginaries.

Theorist Louis Althusser productively complicated the relationship between domination and subjugation by elaborating and developing the interpellation process, where individuals recognize themselves as subjects through ideology, thus illustrating how subjects can be complicit in their own domination. Throughout his work, Althusser emphasizes the pervasiveness of ideology and interpellation by elaborating on how subjects are produced by Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) such as the family, educational institutions, and media such as literature, radio and television. This notion that an individual can be interpellated through various mediums has become integral to theoretical fields such as cinema and media studies and cultural studies.10

This act of seeing how we as individuals can be interpellated through literature and film is also central to how Mónica Félix operates as an artist, and how in this body of work she directs the manipulation of the very images and sound of the film to produce her critical work around its ideological content. She presents us with the opportunity for us to see our cultural logic as subjects through the film Romance Tropical, and invites us to venture to answer those difficult questions regarding gender and race in our Puerto Rican culture, both on the island and further afield in the diaspora. The work is also an invitation to begin having the difficult public conversations both in Puerto Rico and beyond that will enable collective healing, and contribute to the process of dismantling racist patriarchal narratives, bigoted cultural institutions, and other non-inclusive cultural practices on the island and the US.

1 Luce Irigaray, as cited from an essay by Lisa Tickner, extract from ‘Sexuality and/in Representation: Five British Artists’, in Difference: On Representation and Sexuality (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984) 19; 28-9.

2 Jurgen Habermas, "The Entwinement of Myth and Enlightenment," 118.

3 Maya Deren, & McPherson, B. R. (2005). Essential Deren: Collected writings on film. Kingston, NY: McPherson. 30-31

4 This claim can be contested, Hollywood’s first Spanish-language feature film was produced independently, Sombras habaneras (1929), starring René Cardona and Jacqueline Logan, and the book titled The Rise of Spanish-Language Filmmaking by Lisa Jarvinen can be looked at for evidence of Spanish-speaking films made in Hollywood and beyond prior to 1934

5Francisco Picó, 2008, Historia general de Puerto Rico. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Ediciones Huracán. 249-251. Translated by Á.R. Vázquez-Concepción

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Deren also goes on to state that, “it is revealing that the best use of cinematic form (camera, editing, etc.) appears in those commercial films which seek to describe an abnormal state of mind and its abnormal perception of reality...” No such abnormal states appear represented in Romance Tropical, but Félix raises the issue that the entire film Romance Tropical might be in its entirety the product of an abnormal perception of reality.

9 “Fêtes galantes, usually small in scale, show groups of elegantly attired men and women, most often placed in a parkland setting and engaged in decorously amorous play.” https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/fte-galante

10 Althusser, Louis. 1972. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Monthly Review Press. 174-176

Ernestina & Raquel

2015-2016

Drama and aesthetics of Romance Tropical were elements of a ritual to conjure from the shadows, the raging spirit of the female trope. The artist embodied the postures of rapture and doom while her machine became the eyeball. A body of work based on half-truths and imagined visions about the process of dismembering a cinematic plot.

"The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normative narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line."

- Laura Mulvey, in her essayVisual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975)

escena de fantasía | ernestina

Sound Design by Josefina Rozenwasser Marin

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INT. RESIDENCIA SAN JUAN - RECÁMARA DE ERNESTINA - CONTINUO

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escena de muerte | raquel

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"Though the film has finally been found, the island has had to experience its loss in a double manner: Romance Tropical’s Puerto Rican re-premiere was canceled due to the effects of Hurricane María in 2017 and no print has yet to be donated to the island."

- Pedro Noel Doreste, Dalina A. Perdomo Álvarez

Beyond Repatriation: Puerto Rican Film/History Found and Lost

Romance Tropical (1934), directed by Juan Emilio Viguié Cajas, is the first feature length Puerto Rican sound film and, at the moment, the earliest extant Puerto Rican film. The film was thought lost for over eighty years when it was accidentally found in the University of California–Los Angeles Film & Television Archive. The locating and restoration of Romance Tropical opened up new possibilities for the study of Puerto Rico’s national cinema, or lack thereof, yet it also raises questions of provenance and ownership due to the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. The terms of how the film was found reproduces this relationship, as it was “lost” to Puerto Rico and then given new life by a process of being found, verified, preserved, digitized, screened, and ultimately “rescued” by U.S. cultural institutions. In addition to the troubled nature of the film’s rediscovery and the re exhibition it has been thus far denied, there remains the fact of the film’s problematic content. The film itself perpetuates certain imperialist and racist ideologies typically associated with the Unites States’ treatment of its unincorporated territories—a relationship of occupation, discrimination, and othering—as it allows a suspiciously white and wealthy Puerto Rico to imagine itself as the metropolis, invading and plundering a different island populated by a Black and indigenous people. As of this writing, Romance Tropical has yet to re-premiere in Puerto Rico as the island continues to recover from the cumulative effects of Hurricane María, local and federal corruption, recurring earthquakes, and the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Romance Tropical is a story about a young, wealthy woman named Margarita, who falls in love with a struggling writer/musician named Carlos, to the disapproval of her father. Set in a city unnamed but otherwise identifiable as the capital city of San Juan, they are members of the criollo social caste (Puerto Ricans of white, Spanish descent), albeit of different class positions. Carlos soon devises to curry favor with the father and marry into the family. Following in the footsteps of white men before him, he is to sail across an ocean, invade an island, and plunder. After he crosses the Atlantic on a sailboat and reaches the Isla Mú, he is briefly captured by the island’s inhabitants, who are all black, coded as an exoticized mixture of indigeneity, African, and West Indian (but played by non-professional, black Puerto Rican actors). He is saved by the island’s only inhabitant of mixed descent, Aluma, who soon falls in love with him, with tragic results. What is remarkable about Romance Tropical’s narrative is the potential reading of Puerto Rico reimagining itself as colonizer—an imperialist fever dream whereby San Juan becomes metropolis—in the context of the tumultuous thirties when its citizens were confronting the idea of a Puerto Rican identity as doubly colonized, with the legacy of centuries of Spanish imperialism suddenly interrupted by continued U.S. occupation.

Among many notable Puerto Rican artists who were involved in the film’s production, the script was written by none other than Luis Palés Matos, widely considered as a pioneer of Afro-Antillean poetry. On the screen, Palés Matos’ literary imaginary is a necessary critical lens through which to view his work on negritud as more than just an exercise in Afro-Puerto Rican representation or artful irony—after all, Palés Matos was white. On the page, Palés Matos’ skillful rhythmic verses can be appreciated in their original format, as experiments in poetic form, complete with a dose of regionalisms, latent musicality, and onomatopoeic flourishes. These experiments, of course, almost beg to be spoken out loud—shouted even—which is another typical mode of expression through which Palés Matos’ poems have been performed. However, understanding the film as an audiovisual performance of Palés Matos’ original writing, the work is given a chance to be interpreted onscreen as the reciters give it its own life akin to the author’s vision. Romance Tropical provides the spectator a visual and sonoric representation based on a script crafted with the specific intention for it to be produced for the cinema, in opposition to the musical score composed by big band leader Rafael Muñoz. After decades of debates regarding his appropriation of Afro-Caribbean culture and language, Romance Tropical inserts itself as a novel piece of visual evidence into this long standing discourse on literary and theatrical depictions of race, while revealing the mode’s blatant racism. Discussions about the exploitation or outright fabrication of Afro-Puerto Rican culture have long accompanied Palés Matos’ literary work, yet what Romance Tropical provides is an opportunity to pair an intellectual care for cultural specificity with a concomitant attention paid to the specificity of film as a medium. These necessary discussions of anti blackness in Puerto Rican modernism as well as the film’s place within the national cinematic canon have yet to take place due to a series of misadventures the film has suffered since its rediscovery.

In late 2016, UCLA archivist Jan-Christopher Horak stumbled upon the print of Romance Tropical while searching for material to feature in an ongoing series celebrating the Spanish-language film culture of Los Angeles. Horak was aware of Romance Tropical’s status as a lost film and he knew the work of Puerto Rican film archivist Marisel Flores, the chief archivist of the Moving Image Archive (AIM) at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP). Flores was the first person he contacted to assist in verifying the print’s authenticity and, shortly after, she traveled to Los Angeles to formally confirm that it was indeed the lost film. The initial response to the rediscovery of Romance Tropical was unfettered glee, which could feasibly be called naive given both the problematic representation of the very people the film’s restoration purports to inspire and the manner in which the film’s re exhibition in Puerto Rico has been commandeered by local authorities.

Despite the discovery and its importance to Puerto Rico’s national cinema, the film remains property of the UCLA Film and Television Archives. In fact, its momentous re-exhibition at the Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles in November 2017 was intended as a fundraiser for the AIM in Puerto Rico, though no funds are believed to have reached the archive. Though the film has finally been found, the island has had to experience its loss in a double manner: Romance Tropical’s Puerto Rican re-premiere was canceled due to the effects of Hurricane María in 2017 and no print has yet to be donated to the island. UCLA’s own press materials state that “The institute will repatriate a print to the island when the Archivo de Imágenes en Movimiento has recovered from Hurricane Maria.” According to Roberto Ramos-Perea, Director of the Puerto Rican Athenaeum, UCLA has stipulated that the film would be screened in Puerto Rico after the island hosted an official—and, of course, co-sponsored—event on the occasion of its re-premiere. As the past three years have shown, however, institutional bureaucracy and the lingering effects of natural disasters are just two obstacles in the way of recovery. Beyond natural causes, the current administration’s austerity measures and general antagonism towards arts and cultural institutions deserve an equal share of the blame, and neither have the two U.S. institutions charged with the film’s restoration and preservation insisted on the film’s repatriation. The storm became an opportune excuse to treat the fragile state of archival and theatrical infrastructures on the island not as a result of administrative shortcomings and decades’ worth of neglect, but solely of natural disaster.

In the cultural sector, this has meant consolidating public agencies to increase government efficiency and limit spending. While archivists at UCLA affectionately wrote about their encounter with Romance Tropical, this process of hollowing out began to take a historical—and human—toll among their Puerto Rican counterparts. Flores has since been reassigned to another department and it is unclear if institutional leadership shares her commitment to the repatriation of the film. When asked how she reconciles her role as steward of Puerto Rican film history with her career as a public servant, Flores bluntly states, “This administration does not deserve another achievement.” She has since quietly served in an ambassadorial role while attempting to work behind the scenes with the International Federation of Film Archives and other organizations to continue the search for and the preservation of Puerto Rico’s cinematic heritage. It is clear, storm or not, that those Puerto Rican cultural workers who long sought the film and are now advocating for its recovery are attempting to do so in a hostile political environment.

Part of the reason that Puerto Rican cinema remains a severely understudied history is that there has not been a tradition of documenting the many mishaps, false starts, and failures of our attempts to establish a national cinema—or of questioning whether the national is a compelling way of understanding the dispersed nature of Puerto Rican filmmaking across colonial time and space. In its eighty years of absence, the film and its disappearance have been the subject of many musings, ranging from claims that its director was inspired by the nationalist films of Leni Riefenstahl to speculations that the film perished in the infamous 1937 Fox vault fire, though none having the benefit of being able to consult the primary text. The rediscovery of Romance Tropical in 2016 has opened the floodgates, so to speak, despite its continued inaccessibility. In the three years since it was found and functionally lost again, the film has generated renewed academic attention, it has served as inspiration for art installations, and it will have been the focus of at least three documentary features and countless articles in both the local and international press. Otherwise understood, the many afterlives of Romance Tropical—given the stubbornness of its absence—become impossible to separate from the film itself.

In the current moment, Romance Tropical forces us to reimagine what forms preservation may take in times of national crises, natural or otherwise. The film’s intellectual and artistic afterlives offer a corrective to teleological understandings of recovery—from decay, disaster, or neglect—whereby remediation may temporarily stand in for the repatriation of cultural heritage. In the film’s suspended state between lost and found, scholarly and artistic analyses of Romance Tropical have begun the work of addressing the racist filmic representation of Black Puerto Ricans, which had previously been allowed to congeal into literary convention, and of denouncing the inept and inertiatic attempts at the film’s repatriation, whose operative colonial logics constitute an affront to Puerto Rican cultural sovereignty. Although we are not sure how the recent political turmoil in the island will affect the repatriation of this film, we hope that this project will wrench the colonial archive from its function as cultural sanctuary, a function for which it has proven itself to be miscast.

“The premiere of Romance Tropical in Puerto Rico is no longer in our hands,” Roberto Ramos-Perea laments, “For now, it’s yet another thing that María has taken from us.” While we await the film’s prophesied return to the public sphere, projects such as Mónica Felix’s provide the greater Puerto Rican community the assurance that, regardless of whether our histories may at times appear to be just out of reach, our art reserves its claim to memory.

Epílogo

2017-2020

The film Romance Tropical (1934) was announced as found in 2017 at the UCLA Film Archives. This now almost 90-year-old object had emerged abruptly into the future to a new era of technology. Today the majority of film projections are digital projections that merge three basic colors of light - RED, GREEN, and BLUE (RGB) to create a full-color spectrum image. Against all odds, here are two perspectives of the film Romance Tropical; the original black and white version and an analysis of the film that captures the past in the present.

A digital camera captures the digital projection of the film at different shutter speeds. It documents the process of fusion and separation of colors that read as gradients of black and white to the human eye. These modern devices creates a new artifact; the unnoticed colorization of Romance Tropical.

“But to think of the mechanism of the cinema as an extension of human faculties is to deny the advantage of the machine. The entire excitement of working with a machine as a creative instrument rests, on the contrary, in the recognition of its capacity for a qualitatively different dimension of projection.”

- Maya Deren, in her essay Cinema as an Art Form (1946)

Romance Tropical (1934)

All English language translations taken from the original screenplay by Luis Palés Matos.

rgb (romance tropical)

Score by Rosana Cabán

Soundscape by Mónica Félix

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Agradecimientos

Á.R. Vázquez-Concepción

Angel Otero

Arnaldo Cotto

Ben Gillin

Carrie Mae Weems

Dalina A. Perdomo Álvarez

Dana DeGiulio

Donald Escudero

Gabo Camnitzer

Gregory Amenoff

Idalisse Sepúlveda

Isel Rodríguez

 

Ixiana Hernández

John Viguié

Josefina Rozenwasser Marin

Joyce Oller

Juan Félix Aponte

Juan Félix Lozada

Justine Kurland

Karla Michelle Álvarez

Katherine Hubbard

Laura Bravo

Leeza Menskin

Leilani Pérez

Liesl Henrichsen

Luis Gonzaga

Lydia Aponte Malavé

Marisel Flores-Patton

María Laboy

Marlo Daniel

Matthew Buckingham

Mireia Estrada Gelabert

Mónica Santa

Mónica Torres Viera

Naida García-Crespo

Pamela Reynoso

 

Pedro Noel Doreste

Rachelle Mozman

Roberto Ramos Perea

Roberto Rodríguez

Ron Gregg

Rona Yefman

Rosana Cabán

Sara VanDerBeek

Shelly Silver

Sofía Maldonado

Susanna Coffey

Yamil Collazo

MónicaFélix_01

Bio & Collaborators

Mónica Félix

Mónica Félix (b. 1984) is an interdisciplinary artist, professional photographer, and yoga instructor born and raised in Cayey, Puerto Rico. She has a BA in Communications from the University of Puerto Rico, a Photography Certificate from Pratt Institute and currently finishing her MFA in Visual Arts at Columbia University. She moved to New York City to pursue a career as a visual artist and professional photographer for which she has been based in Brooklyn since 2010. In 2013 she was the recipient of the Lexus Grant for Artist at the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico. She has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Puerto Rico, New York, California, and Spain. Her work is a personal account on the representation of the migratory experience of one female body; the fantastically compromised corners of this traveled life. The devices for this identity study are photography, video, installation, writing, and performance.

www.monicafelix.com

IG : @monicafelix

Josefina Rozenwasser Marin

Rosana Cabán

Á.R. Vázquez-Concepción

Pedro Noel Doreste

PhD Student in Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago

Twitter: @littoral_rPRsnt

Dalina A. Perdomo Álvarez

Curator + Writer

IG: @curadoraboricua

Naida García-Crespo