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Romance in Absentia: A Cultural History of Puerto Rican Cinema Found and Lost

Pedro Noel Doreste, PhD Student, Cinema and Media Studies, and Dalina Aimée Perdomo, Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Arts, Museum of Contemporary Photography

Figure 1. Romance Tropical theatrical poster (Juan Emilio Viguié, Latin Artists Pictures, 1934)


Romance Tropical (1934), directed by Juan Emilio Viguié Cajas, is the first feature length Puerto Rican sound film and, at the moment, the earliest extant Puerto Rican film. The film was thought lost for over eighty years when it was accidentally found in the University of California, Los Angeles Film & Television Archive. The locating and restoration of Romance Tropical is an invaluable addition to the ongoing discourse surrounding Puerto Rico’s national cinema, or lack thereof, yet it also raises questions of ownership due to the complicated geopolitical relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. The terms of how the film was found adds to this context, as it was “lost” to Puerto Rico and then given new life by a process of being found, verified, preserved, digitized, screened, and ultimately “rescued” by American institutions such as the UCLA Film & TV Archive and the Packard Humanities Institute, among others. [1] In addition to the troubled nature of the film’s rediscovery and delayed re-exhibition, there remains the fact of the film’s problematic content. The film itself perpetuates certain imperialist and racist ideologies typically associated with the Unites States’ treatment of its unincorporated territories—a relationship of occupation, discrimination, and othering—as it allows a suspiciously white and wealthy Puerto Rico to imagine itself as the metropolis, invading and plundering a different island populated by a black, “uncivilized,” and possibly indigenous society. But such a discussion about Puerto Rico’s own racist history and the politics of film preservation did not take place in the 80 years during which the film was lost, and it appears as if the film’s rediscovery has yet to catalyze it. As of this writing, Romance Tropical has yet to re-premiere in Puerto Rico as the island continues to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane María.

Given this context, the ultimate intent of this project, here published in summarized form, is to issue a necessary corrective to these entities’ teleological understandings of recovery—from decay, disaster, or neglect—as well as to push back against the cult of resilience, here understood as the people’s will to survive in the face of imposed fiscal austerity and state dereliction of duty. The first priority is to complicate the uncritical celebration of this film’s rediscovery given its racist representations of Black Puerto Ricans (in a private conversation, one archivist remarked that it may be one of those films that should’ve stayed lost). The second part will revisit the eight decades during which the film was written about—or more accurately, written around—by the Puerto Rican intellectual class in the absence of the film itself, taking pains to include ancillary discussions in which the film is mentioned, if only in passing, to reconstruct the film’s reception and its many afterlives. The third portion is an ongoing report on how to lose a found film. We trace the rediscovery of Romance Tropical in the Krypton vault in 2016, its inertiatic attempts at repatriation, and the Puerto Rican government’s retaliation against the cultural workers responsible for identifying the film. This, of course, against the backdrop of Hurricane María and the continued destabilizing of Puerto Rican autonomous governance after the imposition of a foreign Fiscal Control Board. Although we are not sure how the recent political turmoil in the island will affect the repatriation of this film, we hope to wrench the colonial archive from its function as cultural sanctuary, a function for which it has proven itself to be miscast.

Set in the capital city of San Juan, Romance Tropical is a story about a young, wealthy woman named Margarita, who falls in love with a struggling writer/musician, Carlos, who is rejected by her father due to his status. Margarita and Carlos are distinctly members of the criollo social caste (Puerto Ricans of white, Spanish descent), albeit of different class positions. Carlos soon devises a way to marry into the family. The simplest way, he discovers, is to follow in the footsteps of white men before him: sail across an ocean, invade an island, and plunder. After he crosses the Atlantic on a sailboat and reaches the Isla Mú, he is briefly captured by the island’s inhabitants, who are all black, coded as an exoticized mixture of indigeneity, African, and West Indian (but played by actual black Puerto Ricans). He is saved by the island’s only inhabitant of mixed descent, Aluma. Aluma confides in Carlos the location of her people’s treasure and, true to form, Carlos steals the pearls and encourages Aluma to try to run away with him. Aluma ultimately loses her life in her attempt to elope with Carlos. Upon his arrival to the white, Hispanic country, Carlos is welcomed with no regard for his newfound wealth, as Margarita finds herself near death due to heartbreak, but the stolen pearls nevertheless ensure their blissful future together. What is remarkable about Romance Tropical’s narrative is the potential reading of Puerto Rico reimagining itself as colonizer, San Juan as metropolis, in the context of the tumultuous ’30s when its citizens were confronting the idea of a Puerto Rican identity as doubly colonized, Spain’s forced assimilation of Puerto Rico interrupted by an American military invasion and their subsequent withholding of civil and human rights.

Figure 2. From the script of Romance Tropical [2]


The script was written by none other than Luis Palés Matos. Palés Matos’ literary imaginary is a catalyst needed to view his work on negritud as more than just trailblazing or artful irony, and is instead, as Mayra Santos Febrés describes it in her writing on race in Puerto Rico, “an expression of the unintelligible.” [3] On the page, Palés Matos’ skillful rhythmic verses can be appreciated in their original format, as experiments in poetic form. These experiments, of course, almost beg to be spoken out loud—shouted even—which is another typical mode of expression in which Palés Matos’ poems have been performed. However, in performances of Palés Matos’ poetry, the work is provided a chance to be interpreted onscreen as the reciters give it its own life. What Romance Tropical provides is a visual and sonoric interpretation of Palés Matos’ work through a script he crafted with the specific intention for it to be produced for the cinema. After decades of debates regarding his status as a pioneer of Afro-Antillean poetry, Romance Tropical offers new insights into these longstanding literary and theatrical depictions of race (while revealing the mode’s blatant racism).

Figure 3. Film still


In late 2016, archivists at the UCLA Film & Television Archive stumbled upon Romance Tropical, which at that point been considered lost for 83 years. It was found by archivist Jan-Christopher Horak while searching for material to feature in an ongoing film series celebrating the Spanish-language film culture of downtown Los Angeles. Horak was aware of Romance Tropical’s status as a lost film and he knew the work of Puerto Rican film archivist Marisel Flores, the Chief Archivist of the Moving Image Archives at the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. Flores was the first person he contacted to assist in verifying the print’s authenticity. Shortly after, the Executive Director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP) traveled to Los Angeles as a representative of the institute—chaperoned by an ICP official since she was not allowed by the institute to travel alone—to formally confirm that it was indeed the lost film. The initial response to the rediscovery of Romance Tropical was unfettered glee, which could be called naive, given both the problematic representation of the very people the film’s restoration purports to inspire and the seedy figures that have commandeered the film’s re-exhibition in Puerto Rico. Horak describes the find as a “miraculous rediscovery” and a product of “archival serendipity.” [4] It was called a “wonderful motivator” in Hurricane María’s aftermath by ICP executive director Carlos Ruíz Cortes. [5] The latter interprets the news as a good omen, not merely because of the sudden enrichment of the island’s cultural history, but also its material recovery from the effects of natural disaster. He appropriates the popular rallying cry created by volunteer groups and aid organizations in the wake of the hurricane: Puerto Rico se levanta (Puerto Rico rises). In an article for the most widely distributed Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Día, Ruíz Cortes gushes about how the film’s restoration affords viewers the “wonderful opportunity of watching the Puerto Rico of the 1930s and enjoy what so many generations were unable to see,” but perhaps there are more similarities between the Puerto Rico of the ’30s and the current moment than the director would care to admit. [6]

Despite the discovery and its importance to Puerto Rico’s national cinema, the film remains the property of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. In fact, its momentous re-exhibition of the film at the Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles in November 2017 was intended as a fundraiser for the Moving Images Archive in Puerto Rico, but we have been able to independently confirm that no funds were ever given the archive. Though the film has finally been found, the island has had to experience its loss in a double manner: Romance Tropical’s Puerto Rican re-premiere was canceled due to the effects of Hurricane María in 2017 and no print has yet to be donated to the island. The Director of the Puerto Rican Athenaeum, Roberto Ramos-Perea, has informed us that UCLA stipulated that the film would be screened in Puerto Rico after the island hosted an official—and UCLA-sponsored—event on the occasion of its re-premiere. UCLA’s own press materials state that “The institute will repatriate a print to the island when the Archivo de Imágenes en Movimiento has recovered from Hurricane Maria.” [7]

It is estimated that 95% of Puerto Rican cultural institutions suffered physical damages attributable to the hurricane, including flooding, mold, etc. Beyond the devastation caused by natural causes, however, the current administration’s austerity measures and general antagonism toward arts and cultural institutions deserve an equal share of the blame, and neither of the two American institutions charged with the film’s restoration and preservation have insisted on the film’s repatriation. Moreover, the building that houses the Moving Images Archive is currently set to be rented out to a private hospitality company, putting its suitability as steward of our cinematic heritage into question, but these cultural institutions have long been suffering from imposed austerity and political maneuvering. The storm became an opportune excuse to treat the fragile state of our archives not as a result of administrative shortcomings and decades’ worth of neglect, but solely as a result of natural disaster. It is clear, storm or not, that Puerto Rican cultural workers who long sought the film and are now advocating for its recovery are attempting to do so in a hostile political environment.

While archivists at UCLA nostalgically wrote about their encounter with Romance Tropical, this process of hollowing out began to take a historical—and human—toll among their Puerto Rican counterparts. Marisel Flores, the aforementioned archivist who played a catalytic role in the discovery of Romance Tropical, was reassigned last year. Her colleague, Roberto Ramos-Perea, wrote to us, in the typical tone of a former stage actor, “The premiere of Romance Tropical in Puerto Rico is no longer in our hands… It’s yet another thing that María has taken from us…” [8] In a private conversation with us, Flores stated that she has unofficially been placed in charge of the film archive once again, due to the fact that FEMA had taken an interest in the archive’s collection since many of its prints were directed by American filmmakers. Flores has quietly served in this ambassadorial role while attempting to work behind the scenes with the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) and other entities to locate and preserve Puerto Rico’s cinematic heritage, lost or found, though she indicates some reluctance as to whether the political conditions are ripe to continue this search. When asked how she reconciles her role as steward of Puerto Rican film history with her career as a public servant, Flores bluntly states, “This administration does not deserve another achievement.”

Part of the reason that Puerto Rican cinema remains an understudied history is that there has not been a tradition of documenting the many mishaps, false starts, and failures in our attempts to establish a national cinema. This project will attempt to open the conversation concerning Puerto Rican cinema by admitting the miscellanea of our stillborn national film history and the transnational residues of film history, prying the study of Puerto Rican film from a long-calcified canon. Further, the timeline of the discovery of Romance Tropical has become inextricably correlated to discussions of preserving important cultural artifacts in times of natural or financial disaster. The ultimate goal of this study is to question the very idea of “recovery,” both in the sense of reclaiming a slice of film history and rehabilitating from national and supranational crises, natural or otherwise, and inquire further as to what it means to recover histories under the specter of colonialism. In the case of Romance Tropical, we argue against recovery for its own sake and propose that its full recuperation is contingent on other forms of recovery, of which repatriation and reparations are part and parcel.


[1] Jan-Christopher Horak, “How to Find a Lost Film,” Archival Spaces, last modified November 10, 2017,
[2] New York State Archives, Tropical Love Motion Picture Case File, File-Box# 16897- 2839.
[3] Mayra Santos Febres, “Raza en la cultura puertorriqueña,” Poligramas 31 (2009).
[4] Horak.
[5] “Encuentran ‘Romance Tropical,’ la primera película sonora puertorriqueña,” El Nuevo Día, last modified April 28, 2017,
[6] Ibid.
[7] Kelly Graml, “Landmark Puerto Rican film thought lost, now restored,” UCLA Newsroom, last modified November 3, 2017,
[8] Private e-mail correspondence with Dr. Roberto Ramos-Perea, April 16, 2018.

Black and Bronze in Veracruz

Black and Bronze in Veracruz

Karma Frierson, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Anthropology 

   If you’re dead set on seeing a black person, I can give you directions to where a black man is—I wouldn’t want you to go home disappointed.  He’s always there, so you need not worry about dropping in while he’s out doing his shopping at Mercado Hidalgo. And truth be told, in these days as he gets older, he could use the company.  If this were a century ago, I’d give you directions from the docks of the port.  They were open then; but now they are inaccessible to those who do not have customs clearance.  Or perhaps I’d give them to you from the train station. The Porfirian era building is still there, but that mode of transportation has fallen by the wayside.  With no logical arrival point and the rapid expansion of the city that has led to over half a million people calling Veracruz home, I want to make sure you can find him.  I suppose the easiest way I can direct you is from the zócalo, the main plaza of the historic center. 

   Veracruz’s zócalo, like many, is a vibrant place that locals and tourists simultaneously use in different ways.  There is a wide open space that is generally empty in the heat of the day, a permanent stage, and a copse of bushes and palm trees surrounding crosscutting pathways that offer shade.  If you face the stage, the municipal palace will be behind you and the famed portales with their roaming musicians ready to play a variety of genres including banda, mariachi, son montuno and son jarocho will be on your right.  On your left will be the cathedral.  Its recent coat of paint makes the façade stand out in a cityscape where old buildings are protected, but not preserved, and different architectural styles abut each other. 

Go toward the cathedral, you will be moving away from the water and toward another flowing body—Calle Independencia.  As you make your way out of the zócalo, the Hotel Diligencias —another allusion to an outdated mode of transportation—will be directly in front of you (1). Turn left, you’ll be going against the flow of traffic, alongside the church, and toward the Gran Café del Portal.  You’ll see ambulatory shoe shines looking downward, trying to find someone in need of a polish, and marimba bands set up to play for the patrons who are taking their coffee outside under the lazily turning ceiling fans that futilely move the warm, humid air.  You’ll have to cross the street and one of the fanciest looking McDonald’s in the area and keep going down Independencia for another block until you get to Calle Serdán and turn right.  Not even halfway down the block you’ll see a diagonal callejón, take that.  You’re almost there.  I would say that the tree growing out of the abandoned building is a clear sign that you’re on the right path, but it’s a relatively common sight.  You’ll be approaching him from behind, but trust me, the statue to Benny Moré isn’t going anywhere.                     

Fifteen years ago the Cuban government and people donated the first statue made of their native son to the people of Veracruz, where, as the sculptor noted, he could “walk among the people who adopted him (2). Benny Moré was immortalized in Callejón de la Lagunilla, a once vibrant space filled with dancing bodies and the sounds of son veracruzano de la raíz cubana—a musical genre originally from Cuba but wholly integrated in Veracruzan popular culture.  The anchoring club is no longer open, and the dancing bodies have moved on, but Benny remains.

He is not the only Afro-Cuban honored in the historic center of Veracruz.  There are plaques to the Cuban musicians Compay Segundo and Celia Cruz in the Plazuela de la Campana, another public space that still hosts four nights of dancing.  What is more, Cubans are not the only Afro-Latinos memorialized.  In the old neighborhood of La Huaca there is a statue to the famed singer Toña la Negra in the callejón named in her honor.  She is, perhaps, the most famous Afro-Mexican there is and a source of pride for many locals in the port city.  The most recent statue to be erected is also to an Afro-Mexican woman—La Negra Graciana, a world-renowned harpist in the son jarocho genre.  A silhouette of her playing now stands in the heavily trafficked Callejón Trigueros, which links the zócalo to La Campana.  The fact that there are statutes to people of African descent is not in itself noteworthy.  Statues abound in the port city—along the malecón or boardwalk there are statues to the Spanish, Jewish, and Lebanese migrants.  There are statues commemorating the soldiers who have fought and died in the four times Veracruz has been heroic. There is even a statue to Alexander von Humboldt.  But the statues to the Afro-Latin American musicians are not on the water’s edge—they are within the lived spaces of everyday life in Veracruz. These statues—most of which were installed as part of government-sponsored cultural festivals—are permanent, inert ways in which locals are telling themselves and others about themselves.

The historic mid-census survey of 2015 was the first time Mexico officially counted its population of African descent.  For those who work in Afro-Mexican Studies, the breakdown in percentages follows predictions.  The highest percentage of self-identifying Afro-Mexicans are in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Veracruz, in that order.  This is what has been reported in the international and national press, and with good reason.  The municipality of Veracruz only had over 25,000 individuals who self-identified as Afro-Mexican and another 5,000 who said yes, in part.  In such a large city, maybe you won’t encounter those individuals—or maybe you will and not realize it.  However, you will, invariably, see persons of African descent cast in bronze, looking out over a population whose local culture acknowledges and valorizes the contribution of people of African descent, both Mexican and otherwise.


(1) Diligencias is a stagecoah or carriage used for transportaion.


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The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect theviews of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.