Mala Mala: Puerto Rico is Burning

Para la versión en español, cliquea aquí


Mala Mala (2014) is a documentary that follows the LGBTQ scene across the island of Puerto Rico. It focuses on several people as they navigate the world around them, their own identity, solidarity, and activism.

Modern Puerto Rico

The 1998 Plebiscite Results

The plebiscites of 1993 and 1998 certainly rocked the island and showed just how uncertain their future was. In 1993, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals opposed a previous ruling that said Congress could treat Puerto Rico differently than a state. In 1993, the pro-statehood governor held a plebiscite that rendered mixed results and the results of the 1998 plebiscite were even more ambiguous.

50.3% chose “none of the above”; 46.5% voted for statehood; 2.5% voted for independence. None of these plebiscites could be used and the cultural and political fallout from the 1998 Plebiscite is still the talk of the Puerto Rican community on and off the island. Along with that uncertainty, Puerto Rico has had to deal with an unstable economy. The island is considered a middle-income country, according to the World Bank. Though manufacturing jobs have migrated to regions with even cheaper labor and fewer protections for workers, the Puerto Rican economy has been bolstered by an informal economy that includes off-the-books labor, social welfare, credit card debt, and crime. The government is the largest employer on the island and the average income is about one-third as high as the average US income and 75% of the income earned by Puerto Ricans in the US. Though, Puerto Rico’s standard of living is higher than many other Caribbean nations. There were other conflicts on the island, specifically in Vieques. On April 19, 1999, a civilian guard, David Sanes, was killed during military exercises held at the US Navy base on Vieques. For years, local fishermen and other islanders had protested the presence of the base on the island and in the wake of Sanes’ death, local citizens’ protests were soon joined by Puerto Ricans across the island and in the States. Residents pointed to a history of health problems that they said were caused by materials used in weapons testing. 

Vieques Protest

President Clinton promptly offered a referendum on the issue to decide the fate of the base. In the meantime, the protestors would leave and weapons testing would continue leaving many unsatisfied. Protests continued on a large scale with Puerto Rican celebrities like Rosie Perez joining in. In 2003, the Navy halted operations on Vieques and the base was closed in 2004. By 2008, Puerto Rico had another crisis to deal with: the recession. Their governor Luis Guillermo Fortuño-Burset implemented an austerity package that included large layoffs of government workers, prompting widespread demonstrations. In this context, talks around independence grew. In 2009, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi submitted the Puerto Rico Democracy Act to Congress. The bill called for a plebiscite that would contain two options for Puerto Rican voters: remaining under the island’s present commonwealth status or opting for a follow-up plebiscite with a range of governance options from statehood to independence. In 2012, 54% of citizens voted against the status quo, effectively approving the second question to be voted on in November. The second question posed three alternate status options: statehood, independence, or free association. 61.16% voted for statehood, 33.34% for a sovereign free associated state, and 5.49% for independence. Though the measure still requires US Congressional approval. Things don’t look to be changing soon with the government declaring bankruptcy in 2015 and corruption across the country rising. The status quo might have to stay for a little while longer.

LGBT Rights in Puerto Rico

Bad Bunny on The Tonight Show

The Puerto Rican diaspora, especially in New York, has been very active in shaping LGBT culture. From the Stonewall activist, Sylvia Rivera, to the tragically murdered star of Paris is Burning, Venus Xtravaganza. And just like in the US, violence against this community continues in Puerto Rico. Between 2003 and 2013, more than 40 LGBT people were murdered and same-sex relationships were only made legal in 2003. Things began to change in 2013 when Senator Ramon Luis Nieves introduced Senate Bill 238 to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It acquired 14 co-sponsors, assuring its passage. The Senate approved the legislation 15 to 11. By the time it passed by the House on a vote of 29 to 22 on 24 May, it had been amended to apply only to employment discrimination. After final action by the Senate, Governor Garcia Padilla signed the legislation into law on 29 May. 80% of the testimonies in the hearing were pro-LGBT and 70 percent of Puerto Ricans favor equal rights for LGBT people according to the latest poll), including a march in which thousands filled the San Juan streets. Then, same-sex marriage became legal in the commonwealth in July 2015, after the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional. Though violence has continued, more attention has been given to it. Famously, Bad Bunny, during a performance on The Tonight Show in 2020, dressed in a long skirt and a large pink jacket, which he stripped away to reveal a white shirt that read “Mataron a Alexa, no a un hombre con falda,” which translates to “They killed Alexa, not a man in a skirt.” His shirt alluded to the harassment a murdered trans woman, Alexa, faced in the hours leading up to her death, as CBS reported Puerto Rican authorities received complaints of a “man in a dress” using the women’s bathroom prior to her murder. Many drag queens like April Carrion and Nina Flowers have been able to make it all the way to Rupaul’s Drag Race. Still, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity was removed from the new civil code of Puerto Rico – enacted with a signature from the Governor of Puerto Rico Wanda Vazquez Garced.

An Economic Story

Mala Mala

As much as Mala Mala is a story about what it means to be trans or gay in Puerto Rico, it is also a detailed account or road trip through the economic jungle of the nation. The documentary navigates the transnational neoliberal economy of the island and how some have benefited from the increase in urban middle class and others are still struggling in the informal economy. These different aspirations are depicted quite clearly in the film. Many of the more middle-class subjects of the film aspire to be North American. Alberic in particular makes constant allusions to the American film, Mean Girls and the TV show, Rupaul’s Drag Race. He describes his persona as a combination of Regina George and Marilyn Monroe and many of his friends’ greatest aspirations is to get on Rupaul’s Drag Race. Many of the other characters that still work in the informal economy long to be Latin American, not North American. Ivana describes how she was born in Puerto Rico but made in Ecuador with her body aspiration being to look like the typical, curvy Latina. But the globalization of Puerto Rico’s economy does not simply make it diverse. The film shows that globalization does not always mean easy access. Paxx, a trans man,  struggles with his identity because though estrogen is available for some trans women, no testosterone is available on the island. This limitation also affects the trans women who, without equal employment opportunities, have to become sex workers. Because of this, the filmmakers ditch the moralistic lens that is often used for this work. Trans women may be the focus of these economic constraints, but it is something that everyone on the island is dealing with. The plight of the LGBT community is the plight of the island itself.

Accepting Duality & Solidarity

Mala Mala

Trans people in Puerto Rico and many other places in the world, often straddle two worlds. They code-switch between what is acceptable and who they truly are. Many others straddle genders themselves, accepting nonbinary identities, but throughout the island, this has been met with a lot of hostility. But why is that? Puerto Rico is well known for its own linguistic duality. Many residents switch in and out of English and Spanish and their culture is infused with the circular migration of Puerto Ricans who come into contact with Cuban and African American culture but any other duality is not accepted. The division that is created by the heterosexual community in Puerto Rico creates even more divisions within the LGBT community. The documentary shows many people within the community who are offended by the mere presence of others in the same community. An older trans woman, Soraya, declares how she would like to distance herself from the “beauty queens” who did not make the transition to become real women but to become caricatures. On the other side, drag queens often express their disappointment in trans women who turn to prostitution instead of more respectable professions. But by the end, these differences appear to fade when a group of trans women form the Butterfly Trans Foundation in order to raise awareness for the vote on Senate Bill 238. Because of this, many of the women who barely share the screen together like Sandy and Ivana begin to work together. The shots appear crowded but supportive. Through a collective goal, these debates around duality fade away. They simply forget their differences and create real change.

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