They can't feel me anymore
Robert Torres was born in Puerto Rico and came to New York with his mother, Marta Gutierrez, in 1968, when both were very young (she was only sixteen when he was born). Now 30 years old, he has graduated from college and returned to the city, where he’s founded a school for low-income kids, in hopes of intervening in the generally downward spirals of their lives.
These spirals are familiar and excruciating for Robert, as revealed in Laurie Collyer’s cogent, insightful documentary, Nuyorican Dream. Shot between 1995 and 1999, and narrated by Robert, the film is only partly his story. It also considers the experiences of his immediate family: Marta, his brother Danny (who has since spent “most of his time in jail”), and his sisters Betty, Tati, and Millie, as well as Betty and Tati’s young children. As the film begins and Robert describes his siblings, the camera pauses briefly on framed photos in Marta’s house, each showing a smiling child’s face, full of hope and youthful promise. It’s not long before the film shows their present-day faces, considerably weathered though they’re all only in their 20s. As Robert informs you, all of his siblings, save for 13-year-old Millie, have been or are involved with drugs and/or crimes, mostly robberies committed to accommodate their addictions.
As Robert puts it, he’s the “only one who made it” out of the projects, but it’s a success that pains him, because, he says, when goes back to visit, “It’s almost like I can touch them but I can’t feel them, or they can’t feel me anymore.” It’s observations like this that make Nuyorican Dream an unusual and self-conscious documentary. (That, and its haunting, politically incisive soundtrack, featuring songs by Mobb Deep, Big Pun, Wu-Tang Clan, Los Sabrosos, Hurricane G, and Chulu—the fact that Jellybean Benitez is one of the film’s executive producers, along with John Leguizamo, might explain how such a stellar group was assembled.) Rather than pretending objectivity and maintaining an observational distance on its subjects’ legal and environmental problems, the film takes a stand that is overtly political, emotional, and moral, but never moralistic. It does not judge its subjects or ask you to judge them, but respectfully allows them to represent themselves. Angry and sad that they cannot imagine attaining the material and psychic fortunes that make up the so-called American Dream, Nuyoricans—defined here as “Puerto Ricans living in New York or who have lived in New York and returned to Puerto Rico”—struggle to find their place.
Robert discusses the history of Puerto Rico as Spanish and U.S. colony (it became a U.S. commonwealth in the 1950s) and contemplates the ways that this status has rendered the population victims of prejudice and economic abuse. He’s got numbers (in the U.S., 37 percent of all black and Latino children live in poverty, 65 percent of the prison population is made up of minorities) and he’s got his own family’s history to draw on: his stepfather, now divorced from Marta, has endured years of drug addiction and rehab; his mother is raising Betty’s three children, because she’s in and out of hospital, owing to her own addictions to heroin and crack; Danny is in and out of prison (“This is hell”); and Tati is also an addict, living with her husband (also an addict) and 5-year-old daughter in Florida, though she’s progressed to the point that she has a steady job at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Even as Robert contemplates his siblings’ experiences, he’s also dealing with his own issues, including frustrations in running his chronically underfunded school, day-to-day ordeals with individual students (“It’s about choices: education or the street”), and his personal life, when he has scant time for it. A thoughtful, careful, and ambitious man, Robert sees his family’s situations as complicated and multi-causal. It’s not just that he worked harder or was “smarter” than his brother and sisters. Try as he might, Robert can’t come up with a clear set of reasons that he escaped their shared poverty and the others did not. And the film never simplifies the issues, though it is unnerving to see that family members go about their daily business—fighting among themselves, doing drugs, even, apparently, passing drugs to one another—as if the camera crew isn’t even there. Occasionally, a bit of a boom mike in the frame reminds you that they’re surrounded by strangers, but for the most part, they all behave as though it’s all good.
Obviously, editing down some four years worth of footage has allowed the makers some familiarity with their subjects, as well as an abundance of material from which to select representative crises or exchanges. Still, many of the scenes are quite unnerving, as when Robert visits Betty in the hospital, where she appears weak and miserable, but still smoking a cigarette while hiding in the bathroom of her room: this after her previous, heartfelt description of her plans to go straight. Or, on a Christmas Day, Danny calls Marta’s house, where the rest of the family is opening presents, and while Robert and Betty try to have a conversation, you can hear Marta yelling at Danny, asking him why he does this to her? You feel uncomfortable watching and hearing all this, and might pause to wonder at the courage of this family to reveal themselves in this way, and at their hope that the film might inspire real social change.
Certainly, everyone in the film has a heartbreaking story, even Millie, still living at home with Marta, and feeling beset by demands to take care of her sister’s children and worse, her mother’s necessary and perpetual distractedness: “She’s supposed to be taking care of me now.” But it may be that Nuyorican Dream‘s most effective moments come in its displays of the family’s efforts to care for one another, despite and because such efforts are so difficult. Their love is so strong, so undeniable and so fierce, that it survives the devastations wreaked by the Nuyorican Dream.