Lo Que Le Pasó A Santiago: Puerto Rico’s Only Oscar Nomination

Para la versión en español, cliquea aquí

This week I will be focusing on Puerto Rico with my theme being “Love in Puerto Rico”. I would have loved to spend more time on the Spanish-American War and its immediate aftermath but I couldn’t find a Puerto Rican movie about it. Feel free to research it though!


Lo Que Le Pasó A Santiago (1989) tells the story of a recent retiree, Santiago, who on one of his walks through Old San Juan, meets Angelina. He is immediately enamored but she is hesitant to reveal her personal life to him. As their relationship grows, he learns more about her, himself, and his grown children.

Struggling for Political & Economic Independence

Luis Muñoz Marin

In Puerto Rico, the last half a century has been marked by the Operation Bootstraps initiative. Formed by Luis Muñoz Marin, the second native Puerto Rican governor of the island and the first to be elected, Operation Bootstraps sought to take Puerto Rico out of the agricultural economy and modernize it. But even as Puerto Rico attracted an influx of big American companies, and became a center for manufacturing and tourism, the decline of its agricultural industries led many islanders to seek employment opportunities in the United States. Between 1950 and 1970, more than 500,000 people (some 25 percent of the island’s total population) left Puerto Rico, an exodus known as La Gran Migración.

Operation Bootstraps brought large amounts of US and foreign investment to the island, but wages did not increase at the same pace, and manufacturing salaries on the island remained four or five times lower than those in the States. By some estimates, foreign interests controlled up to 70% of the island’s wealth. Because of this, the PDP which had ruled Puerto Rico since 1940 was finally defeated by the New Progressive Party candidate Luis A Ferré in 1968. Realizing the era’s uncertain economic and social climate made the PDP vulnerable, pro-statehood leader Carlos Romero Barcelo took the reins of the New Progressive party, changing the tone of its political message to voters as governor from 1977 to 1985. He argued that the US Civil Rights movement and the social safety net created by President Johnson would protect Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rican Independence Rally

The PNP didn’t rock the boat. They remained a pro-business party out to take the supporters of the PDP. It can be argued that a more conservative, pro-business, pro-establishment group of young voters was made possible by the success of Operation Bootstrap, which allowed a growing number of young, educated Puerto Ricans to join the professional ranks. These young voters saw themselves as middle-class capitalists and tended to see the New Deal ideals of Muñoz as outdated. They wanted a North American lifestyle. In addition to the worldwide economic downturn of the 1970s, the PDP’s loss of power and popularity has been blamed on Muñoz Marin’s failed plan to transform the island into a center for petrochemical enterprises. Once the scheme failed to materialize, Muñoz tried working with US lawmakers to create tax incentives to attract pharmaceutical and electronics firms to the island. At this time, nationalism also took hold of the island and it was met with a lot of opposition from the powers that be. Two independence supporters were shot by police posing as revolutionary sympathizers in the Central Mountains in 1978; the incident exposed deep political fissures and government corruption. Other groups flew the Puerto Rican flag as an act of defiance since for a time it was illegal. By 1989, this nationalist fervor of the people at home and abroad led the governor to ask the US Congress for a plebiscite on the island’s future status.

Living in the Past

Lo Que Le Pasó A Santiago

The film opens with an unsatisfied Santiago at his going away party. He narrates how little he cares for the young men that have now taken over the posts of his friends and colleagues. He also laments how business used to be about people and now it is all about money. The past was far better. He has visions of his wife, talks about how he should have bought her the country house they always wanted and visits her grave rather regularly. Angelina seems to be of the same accord. When he meets her, she is dressed like someone out of the past and they share the same outlook on present-day Puerto Rico. It’s no coincidence that they meet in Old San Juan. Angelina even says the reason she was even at the park that day was because her usual haunt was too crowded with tourists, not like in the old days. They recognize themselves in each other. They are old souls that wish Puerto Rico would not continue to change. Angelina even decides that in the new fast-paced and busy world of scheduling and meetings, their hangouts will be purely chance encounters. Just like the good old days. In a way, this is very good. They stop with their boring routine and find a spontaneous new love, but it also has its downsides. Angelina may appear to be this cheery, elegant woman, but she is rather isolated. When Santiago sees her country house, he is shocked by how much it resembles the country house of his dreams. However, there is no one around but the relics of her rich family’s past. She dazzles him with stories of her heroic Spanish general grandfather, but her family is overly glorified. Later, Santiago finds out that her story is far more tragic. She was abandoned by a Spanish naval officer and forced by her father to give up the child. In a fit of rage, she shot and paralyzed him and was subsequently in and out of insane asylums. Her romanticization creates a false and isolating reality. Maybe Angelina and Santiago need each other to pull themselves out of this fantastical abyss.

The Next Generation

Lo Que Le Pasó A Santiago

One of Santiago’s main worries throughout the film are his two children. His daughter is often too busy to deal with her father or her son and spends a lot of her time at work, getting ready for work, or fighting with her husband. Her decision to do a long-term training program in the US shows she isn’t too interested in the old ways of Puerto Rico but the new ways of North America. His son has struggled with mental illness and lives in an asylum. For a reason Santiago cannot comprehend, he spends a lot of his time reading the bible and talking about the Lord. Santiago’s daughter often tells him that he is wasting his time visiting him and Santiago should just accept that his son will never get better and he should just move on. Though all signs point to the fact that she is correct, he is actually a force of change. When Santiago initially tries to take him out of the asylum, his son refuses. Santiago has to rework his strategy. He is going to be real with him. He tells his son that there is not as much money as there used to be and he will have to pull his own weight. The two of them will have to help each other out. From that point on, his son starts to become a real adult who takes on responsibilities. He dotes after his father and when Santiago gets sick, he takes care of him at the hospital and gets him to talk about his personal life. He gives Santiago a space to talk and relax for once. This allows Santiago to do the same for Angelina. He decides not to tell her he knows about her tragic past but he will make sure she does not spend the rest of her life alone in the past. The last scene shows Santiago introducing her to his family. More importantly, a vision of his wife looks on. This time Santiago does not see her. He didn’t conjure her image and she is finally happy to see the route her family has taken.

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