Images from Talento de Barrio (click on this title link to see YouTube video of whole film; L-R-C refers to character's position in the frames below)

Edgar (C) tries to save a little girl from a shootout.

Showcasing that gangsters have a code, Edgar (C) threatens a man for bringing his kids to a drug point.

Edgar’s sister Natasha (R) complains to her brother that $50 is not enough for her needs.

Insinuating that the film's villain, Jaico, (C) is “bad news,” an inmate (L) gives him a dirty look as he leaves prison.

Agents González (L) and Matías (R) serve as examples of failed government policies.

A club scene indicating the “sexual aspects” of reggaetón.

Edgar and Natasha’s mother Esther (L) is constantly concerned about Natasha’s behavior.

Jaico (L, in the black hoodie) betrays Edgar and breaks the gangster code by doing business with a rival gang.

Edgar’s (R) first performance as a reaggaetón singer, after a rocky start, ends up being a success giving him an option for a different life.

Jaico makes unwanted sexual advances to a drunk Natasha in the parking lot of the venue in which Edgar has just performed.

The gang brutally beats up a man for breaking the code by sexually abusing children.

With great delight, Esther (R) assumes that Sorible (C) is pregnant because Edgar is marrying her, suggesting that pregnancies are the main reason why people marry in her community.

Superimposition of Edgar’s life choices: music or drugs. A shot of money changing hands appears over the sound board in the studio where he's recording an album.

Jaico (L) murders Wichy (R) and “El domi” (C) to take control of the drug point.

Esther (L) saves Natasha from a drug overdose in Edgar’s house.

Jaico (third from the left) aggressively confronts a religious community activist because the man peacefully asks him to stop shooting in the air — an activity that produces many accidental deaths every year in Puerto Rico.

Natasha’s corpse after Jaico brutally rapes and kills her.

Jaico’s villainy is shown when he threatens to shoot a child in order to disarm Edgar.

After a concert Edgar is shot, suggesting that no matter what lifestyle changes he makes his past will always hunt him.



National identity, cultural institutions, and filmmaking in “paradise”— Puerto Rican successes of Talento de barrio and Broche de oro

by Naida García-Crespo

Historically, Puerto Rican film production has encountered many obstacles for its success and development.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Underfunded and over-criticized, films made in Puerto Rico by Puerto Ricans have rarely been financially successful. However, in the years 2008 and 2012 two films appeared that defied this bleak economic trend. José Iván Santiago’s Talento de barrio (Straight from the Barrio,2008), starring reggaetón artist Daddy Yankee, and Raúl Marchand Sánchez’s Broche de oro (With a Bang, 2012) both broke Puerto Rican box-office records for local productions and surpassed the local ticket sales of such popular movies as The Dark Knight (2008) and Finding Nemo 3D (2012).[2] While Broche de Oro is a family-friendly coming-of-age story with a well-known and institutionally respected cast, Talento de Barrio is a film about drug dealers in a housing project and stars popular singers of reggaetón, an urban music genre popular among low income communities. Despite the remarkable accomplishments that both films achieved, the institutional recognition that they received could not be more different. Both the Cinema Corporation of Puerto Rico (a government institution) and the Puerto Rican Association of Cinematographic and Audiovisual Producers openly congratulated, recognized, and endorsed Broche de oro as an outstanding Puerto Rican achievement.[3] Such recognition was not awarded to Talento de barrio.[4] Why have the achievements of Broche de oro been celebrated while Talento de barrio’s have not? What is it about Daddy Yankee’s film that makes film institutions and government officials uncomfortable with it despite its popularity?

Puerto Rican films made in Puerto Rico rarely crossover into the U.S. mainstream market or even the Hispanic U.S. market. There have been notable exceptions, though, for example in 1934 Juan Viguié’s Romance Tropical reached New York where it had relative success. In 1979 Columbia Pictures picked up Efraín López Neris’ Isabel la negra for distribution in the Latin market under the name Life of Sin. More recently in 2006, HBO studios acquired the DVD distribution rights to Jaime and Tony Vallés’ Casi, Casi after a successful run in the film festival circuit. And in 2007 Maya Entertainment distributed Mariem Pérez Riera and Carlitos Ruiz Ruiz’s Maldeamores in the Latin market.[5] Puerto Rican films also often make it into the neighboring Dominican Republic (and vise versa) and are frequently shown on Puerto Rican T.V. stations as special viewing events, as well as on the government’s T.V. station Canal 6 (Puerto Rico TV). Despite the fact that films do make it out of Puerto Rico, they rarely gain back the production investment, leaving filmmakers in dire positions.[6] Thus, the successes that both Talento de barrio and Broche de oro experienced set them apart from previous productions and guaranteed for them media and institutional attention.

Talento de barrio is a semi-autobiographical dramatic gangster film focused on Edgar Dinero (Daddy Yankee), a young man involved in drug trafficking in the public housing project where he lives, but who has the dream of becoming a reggaetón artist. The film resembles in many ways Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), a film about a struggling reggae singer who migrates to Kingston looking for economic opportunities. He ends up turning to the drug trade after other social institutions (domestic and construction work, religion, entertainment business) fail to economically provide for him. The two films place an emphasis on the work opportunities for young underprivileged men in urban (post-colonial) areas. In addition, like Henzell’s film, Talento de barrio had a very successful soundtrack that aided the film to gain popularity. In fact, the soundtrack to Talento de barrio surpassed the success of the film—reaching the number one position in Billboard’s Hot Latin Chart for eight straight weeks and significantly aiding film promotion.[7] However, unlike the star of Henzell’s film, reggae singer Jimmy Cliff, Daddy Yankee had already broken into the U.S. music market with his hit single “Gasolina” before Telento de barrio was filmed.

In a more contemporary context, Talento de barrio resembles in its plot, themes, and general grittiness, 1990’s African-American gangster/coming-of-age films like John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, and Albert and Allen Hughes’ Menace II Society as well as more recent examples like Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow (2004). However, unlike these films, which were critically praised for their “authentic” portrayal of urban life and violence, critics disregarded Talento de barrio as a significant achievement (both in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico). The film, however, unlike these U.S. tittles, is also concerned with highlighting its star, Daddy Yankee and his music, in certain instances to the detriment of its potentially powerful storyline. In this regard Talento de barrio follows the conventions established by other “rap films” such as Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile (2002) starring Eminem, and Jim Sheridan’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2005) starring 50 Cent. Like Eminem’s and 50 Cent’s films, Daddy Yankee’s relies heavily on the singer’s star status for promotion, and makes use of musical performances to attract audiences into the theaters. The similarity in approach to their stardom extends beyond filmmaking because Daddy Yankee had even established a relationship with rapper and record producer Dr. Dre, who famously produced both Eminem and 50 Cent’s debut albums.[8]

In contrast, Broche de Oro is an amiable comedy about generational family relationships and the lives of the elderly (including friendship and sexuality). The film echoes certain aspects of Donald Petrie’s Grumpy Old Men (1993) as well as Marcos Carnevale’s Elsa & Fred (2005), particularly in their portrayal of the relationships between older men and of elderly sexuality. The film also resembles Fred Schepisi’s It Runs in the Family (2003), or even a Disney made for T.V. movie like Johnny Tsunami (1999) in its portrayal of troubled father-son relationships. Apart from clear differences in genre between Talento de barrio and Broche de oro, other differences can be found in their targeted viewers. While Talento de barrio has working-class appeal, Broche de oro is geared towards an upper-middle-class audience. The acting talent in the films offers another contrast. Well-known and respected Puerto Rican director and actor Jacobo Morales plays Broche de oro’s lead role of Rafael ‘Yele’ Medina, while Daddy Yankee’s performance was critically met with skepticism and disdain because of his fame as a reggaetón singer.

In terms of formal aspects such as editing and cinematography we have to recognize that Broche de oro is of superior quality to Talento de barrio. However, I believe it is not the technical quality of Talento de barrio that has kept it in the institutional margins but instead its blunt portrayal of illegal activities and violence in Puerto Rico. In the Puerto Rican nation-building process, intellectual elites have envisioned cinema primarily as a way to promote a positive (tourist friendly) image of the island, rather than as an artistic medium that aids social progress. Talento de Barrio’s genre (the gangster film), stars (reggaetón artists), and setting (a public housing project) make the film difficult for elites to accept as an adequate and constructive image of Puerto Rico. On the opposite end, Broche de oro, with its beautiful scenery and family-friendly plot, showcases Puerto Rico as a genial land devoid of social problems, and hence perfect for attracting tourists.

Policy, public relations and filmmaking—
cinema and nation-building

Since 1916, with the appearance of the Tropical Film Company, cinema production in Puerto Rico has been understood as a cultural/touristic undertaking. The mission statement of the past film company reveals a long standing link between filmmaking and nation-building in Puerto Rico,

“The [Tropical Film] company will accomplish more important patriotic work than all the advertising and journalistic campaigns, which are excessively costly and limited. As you already know, a film on tour can be exhibited throughout the Union’s territory and speaks through the eyes with the public, those who know how to read and those who do not, of which there are not a few in North America, and this is what interests us, that people see that Puerto Rico is not the “pig’s ear,” as Champ Clark would generously say.”[9]

Since these early declarations of the public relations potential imbedded in cinema, Puerto Rican cultural institutions have envisioned cinema as a cultural ambassador more than a business.

Government and cultural institutions visualize films’ role as promoting a view of Puerto Rico as a culturally active, refined country. For example, in his defense of the existence of a government branch dedicated to stimulate cinematic production, José Orraca-Brandenberger, president of the cinema and video section of the Ateneo Puertorriqueño, declares,

“We can justify the government’s investment of public money to stimulate a film industry in varied ways. The most obvious is tourism. How many times have we seen a place on the big screen that causes in us a desire to visit it, to see it with our own eyes? The less obvious one is the stimulus of capital investment in other areas of manufacture and commerce.”[10]

In a similar posturing, Law 27 of August 22, 1974, which was dedicated to creating the Puerto Rican Institute of Cinematographic and Television Art and Industry, justifies the institute’s creation on the grounds of

“promoting the integral growth of the cinematographic and television arts and industries, their educational, economic and cultural value, in benefit of the best interests of the Puerto Rican public.”

As we can see, the institutional interest in cinema in Puerto Rico is predicated on the idea that this industry can economically benefit other industries in the island.

In recent years with the passing of the Law for Economic Incentives for the Puerto Rican Film Industry of March 4, 2011, the governmental approach has changed from promoting local productions to attracting foreign producers to film in Puerto Rico. This new approach looks to sell Puerto Rico as an industrially advanced locale, a paradise full of skilled talent and low taxes. While this change in approach has been met with criticism by cultural intellectuals for disregarding cinema’s role as a nation-building tool, it has nonetheless remained in effect.[11]

Taking into consideration the economic and “cultural” interests that have marked the discourse regarding filmmaking in Puerto Rico, it is not surprising that a film that depicts the island as violent and socially unequal has not received institutional accolades. I myself find that Broche de oro deserves a great part of the praise it has received. However, the film also more readily fulfills the government’s ideas of what cinema should do for Puerto Rico than Talento de barrio. After all, the settings of Broche de oro are the tourist-appealing Old San Juan and the pristine beaches of Loíza, while Talento de barrio takes place in a public housing project (in the Residencial José Gautier Benítez in Caguas). As José Orraca-Brandenberg envisioned in his mission statement for cinema, you might want to come see the natural beauties of Puerto Rico after seeing Broche de Oro, but not after seeing Talento de barrio.

The gritty mise-en-scène of Talento de barrio bespeaks the filmmakers’ desire for “authenticity,” as we learn from such statements as the film’s star Daddy Yankee assurance to journalists that the film would “capture our [musicians from the slums’] real problems.”[12] To achieve a sense of the “real,” Talento de barrio was shot on-location in the Residencial José Gautier Benítez, a public housing project in Caguas, Puerto Rico, called “Villa Verde” in the film. However, the potential negative impact for tourism does not necessarily arise from the chosen setting, but rather from associations between genre and mise-en-scène. For example, the low-income neighborhood of New York’s lower east side does not seem as threatening in an endearing coming-of-age film like Raising Victor Vargas (2002) as it does in a gangster film like Mixed Blood (1985). In other words, Talento de barrio’s genre, the gangster film, assured an unflattering image of Puerto Rico for potential tourists.

Of drugs, gangsters and melodrama—
Talento de barrio
and the gangster film

The gangster film genre has a long history. The early date of prototypes such as Biograph’s The Moonshiners (1904) and D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) give evidence of the long-standing curiosity and fascination among filmgoers for stories about organized crime.[13] Across the twentieth century the gangster film developed into a genre with distinct characteristics. As Steve Neale enumerates some of the elements present in most contemporary gangster films:

“[E]mphasis placed on organizational roles and rituals, and on elaborate, ethnically influenced codes of language and conduct; the studied if ironically modified “biographical,” rise-and-fall structure; the equally modified adoption of montage sequences and scenes of ritual violence; allusions to actual figures and events; and a “reinterpretation of the generic conventions of the crime film in the direction of the family melodrama and the epic” through the inclusion of familial and social “setpieces” on the one hand, and production values and scale on the other.”[14]

From the 1948 Robert Warshow’s article “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” to contemporary film scholars like Barry Langford, Thomas Leitch and Steve Neale, critics have interpreted the themes present in the gangster film as speaking to collective anxieties concerning ideas about social inclusion and the open opportunity society imbedded in the myth of the “American Dream.”[15] For them, the gangster film aims to answer the question: what are legitimate and illegitimate ways of moving ahead in America?

While not exactly engaging with the “American Dream,” Talento de barrio does reflect preoccupation with economic/capitalist legitimacy and social failure. The film is, as well, a melodrama that makes moral arguments about the necessary family sacrifice that illegitimate financial success exacts. In this regard the film adheres to a traditional conservative line concerning the moral implications of crime: in the end, crime does not pay. However, at the same time the film suggests that people involved in the drug trade are victims of a society that refuses to deal with its own inequalities. Of course, such social criticism is far from original. For example, Thomas Lietch argues that in the 1932 version of Scarface, the leading character Tony Camonte acts out the Depression era audience’s “desire to avenge themselves on the system that has kept them down.” Importantly, however, Talento de barrio is the biggest local commercially popular film to address this issue in the Puerto Rican context.[17]

Although most critics in the U.S. (including those writing for Variety, The L.A. Times, and The New York Times) negatively reviewed the film, Talento de barrio has remained the top grossing Puerto Rican film in Puerto Rico.[18] Such success signals that, despite its flaws, the film has resonance (thematically or in genre) for a wide number of Puerto Rican viewers. [19] Critics condemned the film for having, as The New York Times reviewer Neil Genzlinger described it, a “cliché of a script.”[20] The film does follow very closely the gangster film formula, with loving mothers, overprotective brothers, abusive police force, a gritty setting and a good dose of moral preaching. However, these so-called clichés represent deeply ingrained class prejudices present among the Puerto Rican middle and upper classes.

While they do not appear on screen for long, the two police agents, Matías (played by Norman Santiago) and González (played by Rafael Acevedo), embody social discourses that condemn the poor as lazy and opportunistic. Early in the film, agent Matías proclaims, “How can these people not do shit all day? ... here the poor have it easy,” a line commonly repeated by middle-class Puerto Ricans. That the two police officers are not portrayed in a positive light is a sign of a somewhat veiled critique of past government policies, particularly the “mano dura contra el crimen” (strong hand against crime) of governor Pedro Rosselló, which supported the indiscriminate raiding of Public Housing Projects by the National Guard. In addition, the negative portrayal of government institutions might reflect animosity towards institutional attempts to criminalize and censor underground (precursor of reggaetón) and reggaetón music styles because they were imagined by state figures like police superintendent Pedro Toledo to incite criminal activities and drug consumption.[21]

According to a study of the consequences of aggressive law enforcement in Puerto Rico conducted by Alfredo Montalvo-Barbot, police belligerence appears to diminish community cooperation with law enforcement rather than curtail crime.[22] As the character of agent Matías comments in the film, “Typical! Nobody saw or heard anything,” for communities are reluctant to point the finger at their own members. Further, in many instances, drug lords are seen as more positively involved in the community than the government itself, because “it would not be uncommon to see drug dealers, who happen to be gang leaders, finance festivities and other community activities.”[23] In addition Montalvo-Barbot found other policy perception problems,

"Several residents expressed concern that after years of social and economic neglect of public housing projects, they were becoming political scapegoats. In the view of some residents, the military invasion was based on the erroneous notion that the public housing residents were responsible for the wave of crime on the island and for controlling drug trafficking at all levels. This sense of discrimination was based on what many residents perceived as the differential treatment given by the police to doctors and lawyers who often frequented the drug points [as clients] prior to the invasion.”[24]

Arguably the disdain Talento de barrio’s characters express for the police officers realistically depicts the attitudes of many public housing residents. In addition the film subtly represents the known complicity of middle and upper class individual in the drug trade by showing well-dressed people with expensive cars purchasing drugs in the background.

Still, it would be an error to claim that Talento de barrio unambiguously justifies organized crime among the impoverished. For example, the opening sequence of the film shows Edgar running to save a little girl caught in a gun fight between rival gangs, only to find that the girl has been fatally wounded. Again, towards the end of the film we find another child, in this case a boy, victimized by gang violence. This time the film’s villain, Jaico (played by Ángel Rodríguez), uses an innocent child as a shield to force Edgar to stop shooting at him. Thus, we see a critique of the egotistic drive that leads gangsters to disregard the well being of those in their communities. Even Edgar’s mother, Esther (played by Norma Colón), a hardworking teacher who wants nothing to do with Edgar’s criminal life, is unable to save her own daughter from drugs and violence.

It is precisely when the movie focuses on family relations that it becomes most critical about the illegal drug trade. From a brief conversation between Edgar and his mother we learn that Edgar’s father sold drugs, and also that he died as a consequence, as the dialogue implies although no one explicitly says so.[25] Even so, the character of Edgar’s sister, Natasha (played by Angélica Alcaide), offers the most visible example of the film’s message that criminal life corrupts the innocent. It is also in the interactions of Edgar, his mother, and Jaico with Natasha that the film becomes most melodramatic. In the narrative, Natasha personifies the cautionary tale. She suffers every bad consequence of Edgar’s life. The film suggests that the drug trade threatens the patriarchal family structure by removing men from the household (through incarceration, death, or simply abandonment), and that the absence of a proper strong and caring patriarch reduces the possibility of having a healthy family. The film proposes that Edgar’s mother, while well intentioned, cannot substitute the male figure, and thus this absence exposes Natasha to unwarranted dangers.

In this sense, the film takes an extremely traditional standpoint towards women, a point rarely mentioned in reviews but for which it warrants criticism. In the film’s semiotics, the desecration of the female body stands primarily as the ultimate affront to male power. That is, ultimately, in this film, the violence Jaico commits against Natasha is really violence directed at Edgar. In the film’s world rape is understood as an affront that one man perpetrate on another by violating his “property” (“his woman”). The constant abuse dealt in the film to Natasha, who is raped twice, beaten, and shot, illustrates the drastic negative cost that crime has on Edgar’s life. Thus through Natasha’s plight, the film deploys two very conservative moralistic messages: first, that the egotistic nature of the drug trade prevents men from taking proper care of their families, and second, that women must take care not to engage with or “attract” depraved, unruly men.

From the opening scene, the film presents Natasha as a one-dimensional character whose life revolves around having fun and spending money. Her mother is unable to control her, and her brother gives her money but not attention. She wears “provocative” clothing (short skirts, tight shirts and pants), misses school, steals money, drinks alcohol, takes painkillers and sedatives, and goes clubbing despite being underage, all signals that she is “out of control.” But the film is also careful to suggest that Edgar, and others like him, are responsible for her tragic life. For example, at the beginning of the film, Edgar’s mother informs him that his sister is unruly and begs him to help her; however, rather than heed his mother’s warning, Edgar gives Natasha fifty dollars. We later see her and her friends buying “Palis” (sedatives like Xanax) and “Percocet” (painkillers) and ingesting them along with alcohol. Through the successive editing of events, the film suggests that Edgar is in fact supporting his sister’s drug habit.

Apart from representing the failure of familial responsibility, the character Natasha, also illustrates the rules of the underworld. Like other gangster films Talento de barrio takes care to present the criminals as respecting the code of “honor among thieves.” In Leitch’s words:

“No matter how dishonest they are in their dealing with the law, gangsters must honor their debts to each other and refrain from betraying each other whatever the provocation.”[26]

Jaico’s rape of Natasha assures us that he is depraved even by gangster standards. When Natasha maintains a relationship with Jaico despite his abusive behavior, the film clearly ascribes her continued victimization to Edgar’s fraternal neglect. Natasha buys drugs, attends parties, and engages with Jaico all inside Edgar’s turf, but Edgar is too self-involved to notice.

However, Edgar's blindness extends beyond his sister’s actions. He does not notice other aspects of Jaico’s villainous disrespect of the honor code beyond his violent involvement with Natasha. For example, we are first introduced to Jaico as he is coming out of prison while the other inmates are screaming and condemning him as a “snitch.” As Chad Trulson explains, in prison culture

“being a snitch and shirking loyalty by ‘talking to the screw’ and ‘riding leg’ may be the foremost affront to the inmate prescription to be loyal.”[27]

Therefore, we know from the beginning that Jaico is not loyal to anyone but himself, and in that sense he is not fit to be a proper gangster. When we see him arrive at Villa Verde and be warmly and unquestionably welcomed by Edgar we also learn that Edgar has the opposite problem: he is too loyal. In fact, Edgar’s tragic flaw is precisely his loyalty. That he refers to his subordinates as brothers indicates that Edgar sees his gang as an extension of his family, an error that costs him his sister’s life and puts his own life in danger.

In his analysis of the gangster film, Barry Langford notes,

“typically, the gang itself is both indispensable and a burden, even a threat, to the gangster: he needs the support of his soldiers, and it is by his ascent from the ranks that his self-assertion is measured; yet the gangster knows only too well how dangerous it is to rely on any ties, even those of blood.”[28]

But Edgar appears not to know that he cannot rely on anyone and his assumption that others behave like he does leads to his destruction. In addition, while the film promotes loyalty as a positive value, it is also the direct cause of many of the characters’ deaths. Therefore other loyal gangsters like Wichy (played by César Farrait) and “El Domi” (played by Víctor Roque) die because they place unwarranted trust in Jaico.

The issue of loyalty spills beyond the screen. In an instance of “life imitates art imitates life” many of the film’s other actors are reggaetón musicians like Daddy Yankee. Artists like César “TNT” Farrait, Ángel “Maestro” Rodríguez, Samuel “Gringo” Gerena, and Julio “Voltio” Ramos, just to name a few, play most of the key roles in the film. The presence of other reggaetón musicians as actors indicates that the filmmakers were concerned with using real musicians who according to them grew up in impoverished neighborhood like the film’s characters. Even if the musicians were cast because of friendship ties or a marketing plot, the producers described their presence as part of their claim to “being real.” Daddy Yankee asserted in an interview,

“[I]t is not a biographical film, but I will show where reggaetón artists come from, that we come from the hood, and I will depict our real problems.”[29]

In fact, the film encountered criticism in the local media because a known drug dealer, José “Coquito” López, had a cameo appearance. Daddy Yankee defended López’s cameo by stating that he grew up with him (“he was my brother”) and that he only knew him as a record producer. However, that López was involved in the film only furthers its claim to legitimacy as an accurate representation of musicians in impoverished communities. I would argue that it is precisely the film’s interest in being “loyal” to the musicians’ troubled beginnings that makes it so disconcerting for those who want to sell Puerto Rico as a tropical paradise.

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