Encore: For Those Missing Puerto Rico, A Song About Dreaming Of Home

Dec 27, 2019
Originally published on December 27, 2019 5:48 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Go to Puerto Rico, stroll the blue cobblestone streets of old San Juan, and it won't be long before you hear it - drifting out of the doorway of a restaurant or bar or played by a street musician tucked under a stone archway on a rainy day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

A SHAPIRO: The song is "En Mi Viejo San Juan" - "In My Old San Juan." It's become an unofficial anthem for millions of Puerto Ricans who've left the island and long to return. NPR's Adrian Florido brings us this story as part of our American Anthem series.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Puerto Ricans have been leaving their island for much of its modern history, forced to often by economic necessity or war - or, as we saw recently, natural disasters like Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. Eloy Estrada left during World War II, when the U.S. government came calling on its colony in the Caribbean.

EMANUEL DUFRASNE: He was sent to Panama when there was (speaking Spanish) - when there was the draft.

FLORIDO: Emanuel Dufrasne is a music professor at the University of Puerto Rico. And as the story goes, he says, Eloy Estrada was homesick. And in a letter home, he asked his big brother, the composer Noel Estrada, to write him a song capturing the longing he felt to be back on his beloved island. What Noel came up with was "En Mi Viejo San Juan," first recorded by El Trio Vegabajeno in 1943.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN MI VIEJO SAN JUAN")

EL TRIO VEGABAJENO: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: In my old San Juan, Estrada's lyrics begin, how many dreams I forged during the years of my youth.

DUFRASNE: He's saying that in one afternoon he left towards a foreign country because destiny had it that way. But his heart stayed in front of the sea in Old San Juan.

FLORIDO: As it happened, the song coincided with the start of the biggest wave of migration in Puerto Rico's history. From 1945 and into the '60s, hundreds of thousands of people left. They were drawn to the U.S. by its booming post-World War economy. They were also pushed by U.S. policies that industrialized Puerto Rico but destroyed the farms on which most people worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN MI VIEJO SAN JUAN")

EL TRIO VEGABAJENO: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, the song says.

DUFRASNE: There's a, let's say, an intent in simplicity. And that makes it a good candidate to be a musical success.

FLORIDO: In the decades that followed, "En Mi Viejo San Juan" was recorded by all kinds of artists, Puerto Rican and international. Its popularity exploded when Mexican singer Javier Solis released this version in 1965.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN MI VIEJO SAN JUAN")

JAVIER SOLIS: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: By the time this recording came out, many people who'd hoped to be gone only a few years found they still hadn't returned, the tragedy reflected in the song's most poignant lyric.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN MI VIEJO SAN JUAN")

SOLIS: (Singing in Spanish).

DUFRASNE: And the part where it says, (speaking Spanish), that his hair has become white because he has been away a long time. And then he feels that (speaking Spanish) - death is calling me. And (speaking Spanish), I can get very emotional because I imagine that person. He was close to death. And then he wants to return to his homeland, and he cannot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN MI VIEJO SAN JUAN")

FLORIDO: On a recent afternoon in Old San Juan, musicians Francisco Marrero and Braulio Salva played the song for me on guitar and the cuatro Puertorriqueno.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN MI VIEJO SAN JUAN")

FLORIDO: Marrero works for Puerto Rico's National Foundation for Popular Culture, and we went for a walk through Old San Juan.

FRANCISCO MARRERO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "We Puerto Ricans have such a deep love for our homeland," Marerro said, "a love that transcends social and political and class differences." And it's a love that often grows much deeper and stronger among Puerto Ricans who've left. That was true for those who left around when "En Mi Viejo San Juan" was written. And it's still true.

Ana Margarita Irizarry left to study in Chicago in 2005, the year before Puerto Rico's economy plunged into a recession that it's still struggling under. When they were ready to return to the island, she and her husband searched for jobs but found nothing.

ANA MARGARITA IRIZARRY: I started to sing to myself "En Mi Viejo San Juan" the moment I realized it was going to be hard to move back. And as the economy got worse and progressively worse as it has, that option felt further away.

FLORIDO: When they could, they'd come to Puerto Rico to visit.

IRIZARRY: And that's when every time I would leave on the plane, that's the song, you know, I would - like, it was like the soundtrack in my head, right? That song would just, like, resonate and make me cry every time.

FLORIDO: Last year, after 13 years away, Irizarry finally came home. She considers herself lucky. Many never get the chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RESIDENTE: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: This is Rene Perez, a popular rapper better known as Residente. He made his homecoming last year after more than three years off the island.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RESIDENTE: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: His show filled Puerto Rico's biggest baseball stadium. It was eight months after Hurricane Maria. Many people who fled the storm's aftermath still hadn't returned. And emotions were raw because the exodus was continuing by the thousands as budget cuts and austerity imposed by a federal board that took control of the island's finances have made it even harder for people to get by.

There was this beautiful moment, though, when Perez invited Justin Purtill, a guitarist, to come out onstage and riff for a while. It took a moment for the packed stadium to realize what Purtill was playing.

(CHEERING)

FLORIDO: When they did, Residente raised his arms, inviting the entire stadium to sing one of Puerto Rico's most popular anthems.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

A SHAPIRO: And this piece first aired in June as part of our series American Anthem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.