For more than 100 years now — over a century — Puerto Rican musicians have influenced the music that all of us hear. From World War I, when the Harlem Hellfighters were instrumental in the development and spread of jazz, to chart topping reggaeton nearly a century later to today and the anthems of Bad Bunny, an unapologetically Boricua artist who happens to be the most streamed musician in the world for two years running. The sounds of Puerto Rico are ubiquitous and they are, very often, the sound of the struggle … or, la brega.
“La Brega,” as it happens, is the title of an incredible podcast, now in its second season, hosted and co-created by Alana Casanova-Burgess, an award winning journalist with previous gigs at “On the Media” and “The Brian Lehrer Show.” The first season of “La Brega” garnered best-of-the-year accolades from the likes of The New Yorker and The New York Times for its reportage into various aspects of often under-examined life and history in Puerto Rico — from potholes and artist-activists to the legacy of colonialism to basketball and to the island of Vieques.
This week Casanova-Burgess joins us on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast” to talk about “La Brega” … and la brega. Now halfway through its second season, the podcast is exploring aspects of Puerto Rican and Caribbean life and history through eight songs. These are influential recordings from different decades that tell different stories about different aspects of life. But they are all about the struggle. Casanova-Burgess discusses the show and what she’s aiming to accomplish through these stories. We discuss the process and thought behind it and we talk about her life here in Brooklyn, naturally, and identify, music, journalism and more.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity. You can listen to it in its entirety in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
“La Brega” is in its second season now, A month or so in. You started the first season by defining ‘la brega,” the struggle. What is the struggle as it specifically pertains to Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans?
It’s a word that people in other countries use as well. I think Venezuelans are fond of saying la brega. But particularly, it’s used a lot in Puerto Rico, and it’s used all the time. There’s a wide range of struggles that you can be talking about. You can be like, “Oh, man. It’s winter. It’s February. Estoy en la brega. I’m just struggle bussing through this month, winter, seasonal effective disorder.” Or you can be like, “Estoy en la brega. I’ve just lost my job.” Or the pandemic. Huge brega. And at its heart, really, to have a brega, one brega, is a solution to a problem that doesn’t actually fix the problem, but allows you to survive with the problem because you cannot have a larger systemic solution.
The example that we use [is] potholes. There’s this austerity crisis, and so the government continues to patch, if they do even get to the potholes, to patch them up, they do a crap job. I’m talking about in Puerto Rico, but the other day I was going over the Manhattan Bridge and I was like, what is this situation? Are we in Puerto Rico? And so a brega for that problem would be if you were a concerned citizen, you would draw or paint a white circle around the pothole so that other drivers could see it and to avoid it.
That was the subject of your very first interview, right? Your first episode in the podcast, you talk to an artist-activist. He’s making these potholes into art, and it’s also a statement. It’s interesting that you went right to the potholes, because that’s what was in my mind when you were talking about the definition of la brega.
That’s my go-to example, because I think it is so exactly right. And actually when the podcast came out, we heard from people from other countries that have a colonial past, of course Puerto Rico has a colonial present. But people in Kenya and in India said, “oh, we have a word like brega.” We have a word that we use when you kind of scotch tape together some sort of solution that doesn’t really fix your societal ill, but it allows you to survive, and you’re just kind of holding it together. I think in India, the word was jugaad, and I was just like, oh, man, that is so interesting. There’s a paper here to be written in this essay, I will explore colonialism as a thing that you put up with.
When I hear “la brega” in your podcast specifically, but as it pertains to a culture, I do think of colonialism. You are making that explicit. It’s not just potholes. Potholes are a symptom.
Yes, potholes are a symptom, but the disease is all around us. And I think the reason why I mentioned the pandemic is because we were all trying to find our own bregas with that. I don’t have any kids, but I can imagine that if you were trying to raise someone who was going to school through Zoom, you probably scotch taped together some solutions for that particular challenge that didn’t really actually solve the problem, but just got you around it a bit.
Well then, yes, I had la brega myself then, because I had two kids here.
You were doing it. Yeah. What are you going to do? Say, “No, I’m just not going to do this?” No, you have to meet the challenge.
The turn phrase, on the website or in the promotional materials, that I liked is “under-examined American stories and histories.” Interesting that you would use “American.” Obviously, Puerto Rico is, as you put it, a colony of America, but these do feel like distinctly Puerto Rican stories. Where do you separate those two?
Interesting. Because the Americas are so much larger than the United States, of course. So Puerto Rico is part of the Americas. So in an even more expansive definition of that, it is, I guess literally technically U.S. citizen stories and part of this country that we should acknowledge. But especially this season, we’re trying to think about ourselves in a larger context as part of the Caribbean, as part of Latin America. And we obviously, and we should think about and talk about the colonial relationship with the U.S. a lot, but the culture is so much also part of being in conversation with these other countries. Being in conversation with Cuba, with the Dominican Republic, with Haiti. We have an episode this season where we talk to the brilliant Afro-Peruvian singer Susana Baca about a song that really affected her, and that she actually has, I think the definitive version of that song.
Which song is that?
It’s “Las Caras Lindas (de Mi Gente Negra).” “The Beautiful Faces (of My Black People).” It was written by Tite Curet Alonso, who’s this masterful Puerto Rican songwriter. He wrote like 2,000 songs, and so many of them were hits. But in this song in particular, it’s just a beautiful ode to Blackness. There’s a lot of discourse right now about the erasure of Blackness in the Latino experience, questioning people’s identity. And one thing that this song does in a very particular way is it celebrates particularly like a Puerto Rican Blackness, but it is so applicable to all Afro-Latino people, people of African descent across the hemisphere. And so it’s been covered in all these different countries and different rhythms and different styles and different voices, and it’s really this gorgeous love poem that can be sung. Susana Baca from Peru talks about what it meant to her when she heard it, what it meant to her to sing it.
I loved learning about Rafael Hernandez, who’s someone I did not know very much about. But you call him out, or your interview subjects call him out for sort of erasing the Blackness of the Puerto Rican heritage or that aspect of the heritage in his songs that were even more nationalistic, like “Preciosa.” Am I getting that right?
Well, what’s interesting about him is that there are other songs where he is celebratory, but in this particular song, there didn’t seem to be room in the 1930s Puerto Rico that he was celebrating to celebrate this particular identity. One of the myths that we’re told is that we are — and I say “we” like Puerto Ricans, but also a lot of people from Latin America are told — oh well we are this perfect blend of the native, the African and the European. And usually there are some extremely cringey, disgusting attributes associated with those three, “the Noble European.” But what Rafael Hernandez is doing there is he doesn’t even mention that particular background, even though he was Afro-Boricua. I think we can fill in the blank there, but yeah, I think we’re trying to talk about race a lot more explicitly.
It’s interesting that you say that you’re sort of expanding the lens a little bit into the Caribbean beyond just Puerto Rico [in season two], but you’re also narrowing the lens to just an exploration of song. I’m a music person, so I was really excited when this started. You go back all the way back to World War I. Talk about this pivot going, looking just at music. You’re starting from the local roots. You’re talking about Bad Bunny and how he is the latest expression of something that does go all the way back to these Rafael Hernandezes of the world. Talk about this decision to focus on music.
The first season we’re very proud of it. But working on it as reporters, as makers, as people who also are living some of the stories — some members of the team more intimately than others — it was also really hard emotionally to make. A lot of these stories are about debt, and obviously when you’re talking about struggle, that’s going to be part of it.
There’s also so much to celebrate about the Puerto Rican experience, and music was a way, of just anchoring that sentiment, that desire for joy. And I personally love listening to podcasts that are joyful to listen to. So it turns out I’m enjoying making one that is joyful to listen to as well. But it also came from: How do we present ourselves to the world? You’re living in Brooklyn. You probably have heard of the Fania All Stars.
So there’s something there to delight in, which is our contribution to the world. And I say that as a person who is not musical, but growing up in New York with a Puerto Rican mother, my experience of Puerto Ricanness was her pointing people out and being like, “Oh you know, Basquiat? Half Puerto Rican.”
My people do that with Jews. “Yeah, he’s half one of us.”
“Oh, my cousin Basquiat.” So that sense too, where you hear the song, right? You could be anywhere in the world, but you hear a song, you’re like, oh, “Mark Anthony, sing it. This is my jam.” So there’s that desire to delight and to just be proud. And then also, these songs are really interesting. I’ve been wanting for years to do something about “El Gran Varón,” which is track two of the series. You carry these story ideas around in your pocket like pebbles, and they just get heavier and heavier and you’re like, I got to do this at some point. And so some of it is just the assumption that other people will also have songs like this that they’ve always wanted to do. And sometimes when you are working in journalism, your editor will always want you to have a peg, a reason to do a story, and then you have to meet that bar. And my hope is that “La Brega” is a place where it’s just like, do you have a thing that you’ve always wanted to do? Come on down with your song of choice, and we’ll give you resources and support you in making an episode all about it.
So the last song you’ve just name checked was “El Gran Varón,” which I was not familiar with. I’m a Willie Colon fan, I’m a big boogaloo fan, but I know he is more associated with salsa. I have “El Malo” on vinyl, “Skinny Papa” is my jam. I was surprised to learn about this song, which has so much ambiguity around it, about gender and sexuality. And even for native speakers, the meaning of the song is so contested, and what it suggests about sexuality, manhood, macho culture or culture in general. Can you talk about that song a little bit? It starts with a father whose son is born, and the son is either gay or trans, but it’s not totally clear, and the question of the pronouns, and then the tragic ending, of course.
That was a great setup. This dad is so proud that their child is born as they understand it as male, and with the name Simón. And they’re proud because this kid is going to grow up to be exactly like his dad, or their dad. It’s a narrative song. So it’s like a narrative salsa, which is not that unusual, it’s also a pretty long song. Grows up and leaves home, and at one point the dad goes to visit, knocks on the door, and a woman answers. And says, “Oh it’s me. It’s Simón, your child.” And this dad, Don Andreas rejects him, or them. Again, the pronouns don’t change in the song. So one of the things we talk about in the episode is that you walk away from listening to the song trying very hard to imagine Simón as anyone other than male, even though we know from the trans experience Simón might have felt perhaps not male. But anyway, the song isn’t clear, so it’s very thorny.
And it’s written in the ‘80s too. So the dialogue was different.
So a lot of this language didn’t actually exist. But sort of a classic story about how do you listen to art or a song from the past with your current ears and sensibilities and cultural framework? So a classic story of, “What do we do with this? What do we do with a problematic fave?” And it sort of seems like there’s regret there. There’s a soneo, which is the improvised part of a song that the singer will add to the written lyrics. And Willie Colon’s soneo, there’s a part where it’s like, if the world gives you lemons, make lemonade. So it’s like this sense that Don Andreas is doing the wrong thing. At the end the kid dies in the tenth bed of a hospital room, so you can imagine that this hospital room is full of patients, and all alone of a mysterious disease. And of course coming out in 1989, you hear the song, there’s no way that you don’t think AIDS. And the other thing about it is that the chorus is essentially, “a tree trunk that grows up to be crooked can never be straightened,” which is kind of a dated way of thinking about queerness.
How do you choose these songs? I mean, eight songs is not very many.
How do we do it? Wrenchingly.
Yeah. I mean I’m pulling for a Palmieri brothers episode, but I’m guessing that’s probably wishful thinking. What’s the process for picking these songs? Because they each speak to a different experience, but they’re also firmly rooted in the local culture.
I think if we had unlimited resources we could just keep going forever. You mentioned the Palmieris, one of my colleagues, Mark Pagan, who’s an editor on the series, and I went to Columbia and saw Eddie Palmieri speak a few months ago. Mark got his album signed.
And actually that talk was about prison, the prison album. “Live at Sing Sing.” And in our heads we were like, there’s a whole episode to be done about prison music, about shows done live from prison, which was at a certain point, that was a thing that could be done. To get back to your answer, it’s hard. I think we wanted to also present different kinds of feelings. For example “El Gran Varon,” that’s the problematic fave episode. We’re not going to do that treatment for every single song. Let’s listen to these lyrics that are kind of fucked up and decide how we feel about them today. That would be boring. If you did eight of those songs, duh, you’d get tired of that. And then there’s, “This song means this to me as an individual framework,” like a personal essay. There’s another way of doing like a biography of the songwriter. This person who wrote the song has this really interesting life, let’s learn about it. And so we were trying to find different textures to do with different episodes as well, so that it wouldn’t just be like, here’s the same treatment over and over again. And we also wanted to do a variety of genres. We’ve got a bolero, we’ve got a reggaeton, we have salsa.
Yeah, merengue, so also trying to mix that up. And then also by decade. We’ve got something from the ‘70s, we got some ‘90s tunes. Trying to take different slices. And then the team had so many different ideas. So after listing them all out, we were like, “Well these two are too similar, let’s do this one. Let’s keep this in our back pocket, et cetera.”
What I’m fascinated with is that you are doing this podcast bilingually, which is really amazing. You’re essentially making each episode twice. I don’t speak Spanish, but I’ve dipped into the Spanish ones here and there. In some cases it sounds like you’re doing some interviews in two languages, the same interview twice. The conversation about Double Bubble in the “Suavemente” episode, for example. Talk about the process, always interested in the process of how stuff gets made. How much more difficult is it to do bilingually, or is it just a fraction of the effort on top?
I like to say that it’s 1.5 times the effort because you already have the story structure. You probably know this as someone who also does this is you think about, “How am I going to un-spool these facts and introduce these characters to you, and in what order? So you have all that work that’s already been done. We’ve already figured out what the structure is in one language or the other. This season we are like 50-50 split, so like 50 percent start in Spanish, and we do the translation the other way. If we know that a guest can speak in the other language we’ll say, “Hey, would you mind if in a couple months we circle back with a few of the questions?” Sometimes, obviously it’s a traumatic story that they’ve told us, it’s a story that’s difficult to tell, and we’re not going to ask someone to tell that story in another language just for a hat trick. We try to be judicious with it, and then we’re also judicious with the language.
My colleague Ezequiel Rodríguez Andino does a lot of the translations, and we think together a lot about what anecdote is going to work, what kind of idiom doesn’t really, like we don’t really have a corollary, so how are we going to deal with that? What would one audience know and the other audience maybe not know? So we were working with all those constraints, and even though I say it’s 1.5 times.
It’s probably 2.5.
Like seven times as hard. We do try to make it a good experience in both languages. I know there are a lot of people who listen to both versions of the episodes because they’re so gassed about figuring out what the differences are, and I think that’s very sweet. I know that there are some couples where one person in the couple speaks Spanish better than English, and so they listen separately and then they’ll talk about it, which is just so nice.
Oh, that’s cool.
My heart feels so full. Yeah.
Take it back even further to the musicians that were recruited to play in the band that was in World War I, and it really took this Caribbean and Puerto Rican swing into the really early, early days of jazz.
The Harlem Hell Fighters. It was a New York regiment, and there was this moment where we need a marching band, this was a segregated regiment, and Colonel [William] Hayward was the white guy who was in charge of it. So he was thinking, “I need these wonderful, because it’s going to be a marching band, where you should use lots of woodwind instruments.” And it turns out that there were a lot of Puerto Rican musicians from municipal bands as well, who were just excellent musicians and had a reputation for excellence. And also a lot of them happened to be Black. Also they were U.S. citizens at that point, so they could enlist or they could join the band. So there was this big recruitment effort.
They went to Puerto Rico and they got all these musicians signed up. And that’s an example of something that the co-creator of the show, Marlon Bishop and I had been aware of for a little bit, like excited. I worked on a project a couple years ago about the Tulsa Race massacre, which also is a story that involves World War I, and so I had learned about this Harlem Hell Fighters Puerto Rico connection with that. And I was like, oh, another story that you keep in your pocket. When is there an opportunity to tell people about the Harlem Hell Fighters?
It’s such a great name too. I’d click on that.
But the centennial already passed. What am I going to wait for here? So Marlon and I were like, “Oh, we got to find a way to work this into the series.” But there wasn’t quite enough for a full episode, so I was like, well what if we use it in the first episode? But yeah, it’s just this way of, again, thinking about excellence in music. Puerto Rico just punches above its weight, and it’s like a Where’s Waldo of music. You know like David Bowie’s guitarist? Puerto Rican. Like that kind of thing where you’re just walking around the universe and you’re like, “You know that rhythm? It’s Puerto Rican.”
Well and you take it all the way up to Bad Bunny, who’s obviously the most streamed artist in the world for two years running now. What do you think about when you think about Bad Bunny? He could only be Puerto Rican.
Oh, what a great way of putting it. “He could only be Puerto Rican.” Yeah. We don’t really say this so much in the series, although we probably probably should, but the Puerto Rican accent has been derided so much. I have members of my family who, not from my generation, but from my mom’s generation who would say, “oh I’m not Puerto Rican. I’m from Spain.” Some bullshit. “I’m from Columbia.” Because the Puerto Rican accent, you wouldn’t want to be Puerto Rican. Because there’s more of a nasal accent, there’s a lot of weird slang terms that get adopted from English. I can tell you a few really cool Puerto Rican words that are only Puerto Ricans. So for example, to hang out, we’re hanging out: un jangueo. There’s a lot of those. If you’re expressing, “Oh, I’m so sorry that happened to you. Que bad trip. What a bad trip.”
So sort of Spanglishisms almost, in some cases?
Yeah. What Bad Bunny does is makes that really cool. It’s no longer junk Spanish or wrong Spanish, or “You don’t say things right you sound like Rosie Perez.” It’s like, no this is like the cool way to talk. And there are lots of other singers trying to emulate that, even though they don’t come from Puerto Rico. So suddenly it’s like being Puerto Rican is really cool.
You’re doing an album as well? You’re putting out covers of some of these classics that you’ve chosen. I read somewhere that you’re working with Xenia Rubinos. She was on this podcast.
Yeah, she did “Preciosa” for us.
Is that a thing that you’re going to release as a playlist, or are you going to put out a record, like press some vinyl, or what are the goals?
Details TK in March, but we’re releasing it in March, and we’re very much thinking of it as a proper album with proper album art, with proper album release that you will be able to listen to that will show up on artist pages and everything. We’ve got some really cool people who signed up to do this, and the vibe — everybody says that now, right? — The vibe of it is, what would these songs sound like today? “Preciosa” is this very proud anthem. The classic version of it is Mark Anthony doing that, belting it out.
It’s from the 1930s though, isn’t it?
It’s a very old song. Then he did a version that was commissioned for a holiday Christmas special honoring Rafael Hernandez. They got Mark Anthony, not born in Puerto Rico, but son of Puerto Rico to come and do a version of it and it was so excellent, that it’s just become the quintessential version. But what we offer is Xenia Rubinos who, like me, not born in Puerto Rico, has never lived there, has a Puerto Rican mother, feels this identity very strongly. And so what does the song sound like coming out of that voice? And I think she brings a real sense of longing. It’s a gorgeous version. Just that sense of missing a place so bad and wanting to be there.
The way you describe it, it’s a sense of nostalgia for something that you maybe never really had. I don’t know, does that make sense?
Exactly. This nostalgia, this yearning for a place you’ve never been. And that’s actually a feature, not a bug of Puerto Rican music. We have another episode, there’s a song called “Boricua en la Luna,” “Puerto Rican on the Moon.” In the song, the singer, the character is singing about, “I would be Puerto Rican even if I were born on the moon.” I love that. It’s like someone not even born in Puerto Rico still saying, “this is mine.” I’m speaking to you from Flatbush. A lot of people with like a Haitian background who were born here might feel, “I’m Haitian, regardless of where I was born, this is my identity.”
You’re a career journalist. You’ve been a producer On The Media and Brian Lehrer Show, which are, I’m not just saying this because you’re the guest, are two of my favorite shows on WNYC. Brian Lehrer is a national treasure.
I’m sure you say that to all the guests.
I don’t! On The Media, they pull no punches. Talk about what you learned from each. Brian Lehrer is a great, gracious host, but he also asks great follow-up questions. Same with On The Media, just really smart and great with the follow-ups, and digging into corners that don’t normally get dug into. What did you learn working on each?
With Brian in particular, I think the sense of community that that show builds, it really feels like not only appointment listening, but also that you’re part of a conversation that’s taking place. Not only, “I heard it on Brian,” but also, “Oh, someone called in and do I actually know that person?” And even in the first episode of the first season, we did a little call out. Like the show didn’t even exist yet, but, I think I tweeted out, “Please call this number and tell us what ‘la brega’ means to you.” Not having a show. We got so many and we built a montage, and that to me feels like very Brian Lehrer. Nobody gives us a manual for how to make solidarity between a place and its diaspora. And you’re just always trying to experiment with coming together and with making one people, which sounds cheesy, but I like it. How do you make one people out of so many different people, and make room for disagreements and different experiences at its heart show up for Puerto Rico? And I loved that, and I thought like, oh, maybe “La Brega” could be that. You have that kind of bridging, and that is a very Brian Lehrer idea.
And then OTM, you’re right, has a very particular point of view, pulls no punches. And I think in our language we try to do that too. We don’t shy away from using the word “colony” in the show. We’re very shy around euphemisms, we don’t like them. And just having a point of view, and our point of view is, “Let’s say when something is bullshit, and celebrate and mourn and have a range of experiences.” And also that idea that I was talking about before, when you don’t need a peg for a story. Let’s set the agenda a little bit here, and talk about the thing that we want to talk about.
You went to Craig Newmark school? The CUNY J-school. is a great school. Where did the journalism bug get you?
I went to Brooklyn Tech, and I remember at some point in high school I tried to make a zine and I think it had one issue. And so I guess as early as that dumb zine. But yeah, I went to SUNY Binghamton, and I ended up being the editor of the college paper there, and I thought I wanted to get into print. SUNY Binghamton, Binghamton University, the place where a whole bunch of Brooklyn kids go when they don’t know where else to go. Great school. I was the editor in chief of Pipe Dream, which is an actual newspaper. I know it sounds like a weed magazine, but it’s not. I really loved it. But I graduated in 2008, which was, as you remember, the best time to be looking for work.
That’s the year I got laid off from what I thought was a dream job, which wasn’t a dream job. And it was my first layoff, and that was a tough year.
Yeah. I’m sorry, you seem to have bounced back.
I went to grad school, also as people do when they don’t know what else to do. And you have to have an internship at the, now called the Craig Newmark School of Journalism. And I landed at The Brian Lehrer Show, and at first I was like, oh, this isn’t print, is this really the thing? As soon as I got there, day one, it was like, oh, this is tons of writing. It’s tons of writing for Brian’s voice. We’re convening a conversation, this is where New York is happening. Lots of fun, creative ways of making radio there. And I never left.
You’re in Flatbush. What’s a typical day like in Brooklyn? Can you shout out any places that you like, or recommend any under the radar Puerto Rican spots?
I mean for my Puerto Rican stuff, I like to go up to La Marqueta, which is in Manhattan, so maybe I shouldn’t tell you about that. It’s called Cocotazo, it’s delicious, good pasteles there. In Brooklyn I live not far from Prospect Park, so that is a delight, an eternal delight. Risbo, it’s pretty great for food near me. I don’t know if you know it, but it’s delicious. Rotisserie meats and other things, and chill backyard. I spend a lot of time working these days, but if I weren’t, there’d be some backyard gardening going on, lots of walks with my dog, love making my way to Green-Wood Cemetery. Another bit of Puerto Rican slang, “todo chilling.” Just chilling.