On Being Puerto Rican and the Art of La Brega: A Conversation with Alana Casanova-Burgess

Illustration courtesy of WNYC Studios and Futuro Studios.

Soon after I moved to New York City in 2014, I discovered an exhausting truth: To be a Puerto Rican living stateside is to be a walking explanatory comma. So almost daily I’ll need to clarify or contextualize a comment for a well-assuming but ignorant non-boricua.

It might go like, “The first presidential election I voted in was 2016 — explanatory comma — because people in the island can’t vote in federal elections.” Or, “Yes, I’ve been fully bilingual since I was a kid — explanatory comma — because Puerto Rican schools are required to teach English due to our status.” Or, more times that I’d care to admit: “Have you considered traveling to Puerto Rico — explanatory comma — and no, you don’t need a passport to travel because it’s part of the U.S.” You get the gist.

The explanatory comma has haunted me in my professional life, too. Because Puerto Rico is a colony, our home is often forgotten in the national narrative. When our stories are told, they are not often told by us or with us in mind. They are filled with explanatory commas, and the lack of a Puerto Rican lens often leaves the door wide open for erasure, oversimplifications, infantilizing reporting, and straight up misinformation.

Which is all to say, I’m really excited about La Brega: Stories of the Puerto Rican Experience, a new limited series by WNYC Studios and Futuro Studios that unpacks what it means to be boricua through seven different storylines, ranging from potholes and the debt crisis to the one time our Olympic men’s basketball team defeated the U.S. Dream Team. Last week, I spoke with fellow bori and La Brega host Alana Casanova-Burgess about making an anthology that’s unapologetically for and by Puerto Ricans.

AGR: Why did you create La Brega?

ACB: Two years ago I met producer Marlon Bishop for lunch and we talked about how it felt like the time was right to do something deeper and more historical with more context about Puerto Rico. There has been, I would say, a little bit more attention on the island since Hurricane Maria. But it’s not, as you know, often not a very good kind of attention, which you’ve written about so well.

Around that time, the magazine Guernica did this beautiful anthology about the American West, where every piece was done by a different writer. As I was reading that, I was like, “Wow, it would be really cool to do an anthology with Puerto Rican voices.” And that was where Marlon’s idea and my idea met because every episode in the series is reported by a different person.

We wanted to do something historical, but also something that put a Puerto Rican audience first, that really didn’t try to explain the island to anyone. I remember we talked about the explanatory comma and how we were going to try to really avoid that at all costs. We’re really always trying to think about, regardless of whether it’s an English or Spanish, speaking to a Puerto Rican audience. We don’t want to leave anybody out.

I was so excited to see the voices you’re including such as a scholar of the stature of Yarimar Bonilla and amazing journalists like Luis Valentín Ortiz and Julito Ricardo Varela, among others. So much of the reporting about our people it’s usually not done by our people. What are some of the issues you had the team explore in this anthology?

For example, we knew that we wanted to do an episode about the fiscal crisis. Every time in the U.S. press, we see the fiscal crisis centered around the bondholders from Wall Street firms, these hedge funds that are involved. But they do not really talk about Puerto Ricans who are acreedores sociales — the micro-creditors — people who are public employees in Puerto Rico who are owed money by the government. Even in that piece, we’re centering a different perspective. This is not a piece about Wall Street at all. It’s just not.

We knew that we wanted to do a piece about Maria and, entre comillas, reconstruction. We have an all-star with Cristina del Mar Quiles, also from Centro de Periodismo Investigativo. Talking about how post-Maria reconstruction has gone, I think it’s hard for a lot of people to keep in their minds that Puerto Rico has been failed both by Washington and by their own government. That episode is about FEMA and a particular statute called Section 428, and we can see there that in the way Cristina did her investigation, there’s a way in which Washington failed and the Puerto Rican government failed. Two things can be true at the same time.

That sentiment — that two things can be true at the same time — is core to the Puerto Rican experience. Which brings me to asking: How did you pick La Brega as the name for the podcast? I just feel la brega is such a Puerto Rican term, a complicated term. It’s so hard to explain to others, even fellow Spanish speakers. It’s about hustling through the struggle, a state of constant surviving, but I don’t know if any of those descriptions accurately describe what it means.

It’s funny because a lot of people on the team have read and are familiar with Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones’ work. I read La Memoria Rota for background on the Levittown episode, and I read El Arte de Bregar which is where de cómo y cuándo bregar is from.

We were already very infused with “Arcadioness” in the team. We had a very specific vision of what each episode was adding, but we actually didn’t have the title until we really sat down and were thinking, “Well, each of these is about a particular struggle,” and that word struggle kept coming around and around. And I think at one point I said, “Why don’t we call it La Brega?”

And then, just as you’re saying, we were like, “We are shooting ourselves in the foot by having this word that is so hard to describe. People are going to see it in their iTunes feeds and be like, La Brega? What is this?” But then, we couldn’t get away from it. It just seemed the obvious answer.

Once that was the obvious answer, then the first episode became, how do I conceptually explain this to people? There are a couple of different levels of explanation in that Hoyos episode. It’s like, yes, what is literally la brega? But also questioning la brega. Why do we use this word all the time? What is it about our government and our society that makes us celebrate struggle? That’s weird. So I was trying to thread a needle there with welcoming an audience who might not know what that means, but also having something fresh there that everyone could enjoy.

Using Hoyos to kick off the podcast was brilliant. As you were describing Puerto Rico’s massive pothole problem in that first episode, I kept thinking of the one hoyo near my childhood home. It’s been there all my life, and it has never been fixed. So even now when I go back home, I drive this tiny, white Toyota that my parents got me when I graduated high school. It’s over a decade old. And it’s just so difficult to avoid the damn, fucking hoyo when you are in this tiny car. As I was hearing the episode, I was like, “Yeah, this is definitely for and by Puerto Ricans.” It just reminded me of the importance of having journalists who know their own communities, and can speak to and about those specific audiences and that specific brega. Which is a long-winded way to ask: How did you pick the voices for this anthology?

In a perfect world — if we weren’t in a pandemic, if money weren’t an issue — this could be a 50-episodes series or something. There are so many good bregas, so many talented Puerto Rican voices. And that would have been really fun! But, you know, the limits of the human vessel. We knew what a good episode was when we heard a pitch. And it had to be centered on an actual person’s experience. They’re also all kind of personal. The person telling the story is also in the story to a certain extent, to varying degrees. We wanted them to all be surprising and new to a Puerto Rican audience, so the bar is going to be pretty high. But even the carpetas episode — you know what las carpetas are, yeah?

Yeah, my family had carpetas!

Well! A lot of people might have heard about las carpetas, but they might not know all the details about how they were assembled and all that. But that episode is about one particular friendship that was ruined when la lista de chotas came out, when the carpetas were returned to people and you could see who was informing on you. There it’s like, yes, the episode is about las carpetas but it’s really about answering this question about personal relationships and betrayal.

I love it because it works on all these different levels. If you’ve never heard of this program before, you’re going to learn something. If you have a PhD in las carpetas, you’re also going to learn something. It’s about particular humans and how this program messed with their lives.

With Levittown, which is the episode that I reported, I don’t think a lot of people know that there are Levittowns in the United States — even those who live in Levittown, like my family.

I had no idea! I started listening to the episode and when you said it, I was like, “What?!” I just thought Levittown was just Puerto Ricans using a name in English. Like la avenida Roosevelt. I did not know that there were actually so many of those suburbia projects across the U.S.

Right. Even if you’re Puerto Rican, you’re going to learn something here! Or maybe the way I should put that is, especially if you’re Puerto Rican, you’re going to learn something here. Because that bar is so high, then it’s a story that everybody can listen to.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Award-winning Puerto Rican journalist. Senior Writer at New York Magazine’s The Cut. Formerly GEN, Refinery29, and more. Read my work: https://www.thecut.com/