La Brega in Levittown

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
On the show this week, we’re bringing you an episode of a new podcast called “La Brega.” And to tell us all about the series is Alana Cassanova Burgess.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Host, co-creator, and producer of “La Brega: Stories from the Puerto Rican Experience,” co-production from WNYC and Futuro Studios. I say that in my dreams now.

Roman Mars:
The name of the show, “La Brega” is a word in Puerto Rican Spanish that doesn’t really have a great English translation. But to illustrate the concept, we’re going to start with a cellphone video that was taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, when the people of Puerto Rico were living in the dark. Some Puerto Ricans were without electricity for months on end and everyone had to find ways to cope. And in the video two people are standing in a carport.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
And so a woman is recording her father, and they’re showing off this invention….

[Woman speaking in Spanish]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
They’ve got like the body – the drum – of a washing machine.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
And then in the middle — what do you call that? The like spoke that comes out of the middle of the…

Roman Mars:
The agitator. The spinner or something?

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
The agitator, that is correct! I think I had Googled that. The agitator has bicycle handlebars attached to it.

Woman: Bueno, llevamos un mes lavando en la famosa bicilavadora.
Father: Bicilavadora…

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
And, this woman’s father is so excited to show off this bicilavadora. So he’s… you know, he’s moving the handlebars back and forth, and showing how it froths up and you get a good lather in the soap.

[Woman speaking in Spanish]
Mira como lava. // Más fuerza que tu le metas, mas lavas.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
They’re just making the most of this terrible situation. So they’re explaining, “Look, it washes so well. You don’t have electricity but you don’t need it. And you get a workout while you’re doing it.” And they’re just having a fun time. You know, Puerto Ricans are really creative. I know everyone says that about themselves — “We’re such a creative people!” But you’re all wrong is the thing.

[LAUGHTER]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Low-key flex but… We’ve been through a lot so there’s this sort of celebration in the video and then at the same time I knew – like, I knew from talking to my own family members – how raw your hands get from washing everything by hand and water. Everyone had to do the most for months. Like, my aunt didn’t have electricity for nine months, right? So they can’t get power back for themselves, they can’t reconnect the electricity because the infrastructure is so poor, um… and the government is failing them. But they find this workaround so that their hands don’t have to crack after weeks and what will become months of washing your laundry by hand. And so, when I was thinking about how to describe the name of this series “La Brega,” to listeners, one of the first things that popped up was this YouTube video that I had watched like 3 years ago.

Roman Mars:
So what is La Brega? Can you define it for us?

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Sure, it is a word that Puerto Ricans use all the time. It’s this catchall word for “I’m struggling with something,” “I’m in the hustle,” “I’m in a situation that I can’t solve, I can’t actually have any resolution to it.” For example, you can’t solve the problem that you don’t have electricity.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
But you can attach some bicycle handlebars to the agitator of your washing machine and you can kind of make due. Maybe you have a terrible boss; you can’t fix that problem, you can’t resolve it but you’re like “alright.” You’re just like, “I’m grappling with it.” I think grappling in a good one.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
But we use it all the time. And I think I only really realized this after Maria. I was reporting for “On the Media” had I was able to actually make a montage of… I was asking people like, “How are you, though? But how are you doing, really?” Which is a hard question to ask when– nobody really wants to get into their feelings because how do you then crawl out of them? And people would say, “Oh, you know, you gotta get used to it,” — acostumbrarse. Wow. I was like, we get used to things, a lot. And that does not seem entirely healthy all the time. And there’s like this celebration of resilience like Puerto Ricans are so resilient. We’re so resilient. But like, why are we resilient? And then, then comes that word. Like how are you doing? Well, aqui en la brega, bregando. Why? You’re also just coping and hustling, and grappling with something instead of resolving, solving it.

Roman Mars:
I mean, this is evident to the fact that we have to talk for a long time to define this thing. That it’s kind of hard to define even. There isn’t, like, an easy equivalent. Why do you think that is?

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
I don’t know but I- I would like to loan this word. Like what has the pandemic been if not for one long Brega?

Roman Mars:
Fair. Yeah, totally.

[MUSIC FADES]

Roman Mars:
So you’ve made a whole podcast series called “La Brega.” Tell us what motivated you to make it and what you wanted to accomplish with this series.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
We wanted to tell really rich, beautifully told stories about a place that really doesn’t get talked about very often on our own terms. You know, we hear about whether it should be a state, what the democrats want, what the republicans want… but very rarely are we talking about our own experience with, for example, austerity policy. What does that look like? What does our own history look like? Why do our suburbs look the way they do? Just, like, making everything about ourselves. And so, you know, we put together this team — we’ve got musicians and artists and reporters and producers and editors who are both from the diaspora and from the island because, you know, it is a really complicated identity and so we wanted to marry those two parts of ourselves together, like one team, one Avenger squad. And at the same time, we wanted to talk to ourselves, obviously, and so early on in production, we realized that we’ve got to make these episodes in both English and Spanish so that we don’t leave anybody out.

Roman Mars:
That’s so cool. So like if you go to the ‘La Brega’ feed, you will find English language and Spanish language versions. They’re side by side?

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Yeah, yeah. You can pick the one you want to listen to. We’ve been hearing that a lot of people listen to both of them and then find like the Easter eggs, like the details that changed-

Roman Mars:
That are different between them.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Yeah. Or couples where one person speaks one language better than the other, they listen together and then discuss.

Roman Mars:
I love it!

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Yeah, I love it too.

Roman Mars:
So we’re going to feature one of the stories that you made for the series and, fittingly to 99% Invisible, it’s the one about Levittown town in Puerto Rico. Sort of the built environment story of the series. So to start, what is Levittown and what’s your family’s connection to the place?

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Well, we say [Levytaun] but it’s spelled the same way as Levittown, in New York, say on Long Island.

Roman Mars:
Yes. And for people who know, Levittown’s were these mass-produced suburbs that were kind of like model suburbs. There’s one in New York and there’s one in Pennsylvania, and it was news to me that there’s one in Puerto Rico, too. So-

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Built by the same company.

Roman Mars:
Built by the same company. Can you tell us a little bit about the Levittowns, in general, and what they were made… the point of Levittowns were in the US and Puerto Rico?

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
I think that their purpose was slightly different in Puerto Rico but in New York, their purpose was post-war cheap housing for returning veterans, essentially. You know, you could take a new highway out to your new house that was going to be built in exactly the same way. You were going to have like a couple bedrooms but you could add another one if needed, um… you’d have brand new appliances and you’d have this new school for your kids, a water tower, a library, police, the whole thing. So they were just these plopped-down communities, basically.

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]
Five years ago, this was a vast checkerboard of potato farms on New York’s Long Island. Today, a community of 60,000 persons living in 15,000 homes, all built by one firm! This is Levittown.

Roman Mars:
You know, one of the things about them, beyond their sort of cookie-cutter manufacturing way that they existed, is that they pioneered some restrictive housing covenants — you are not allowed to be a person of color or Black person in a Levittown in the US.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Correct. Yeah. And I think about this a little bit with the Levittown in Puerto Rico, is that in a way, you had all these migrants coming from the islands to New York. You had a lot of white flight into the suburbs — away from Puerto Ricans, away from people like my relatives, my family. And then when Puerto Ricans went back to the islands in this wave of reverse migration in the late ’60s and ’70s, the company then sold us houses. So it’s like, yeah, they made money twice. And my grandparents moved there when they moved from the Bronx back to the island in the early ’70s. They are from another part of the island called Ciales, which is up in the mountains. It is beautiful. The views are gorgeous. There are streams, there are waterfalls, there are underground rivers. It’s so beautiful. And my aunt lives there and I could never understand as a kid why I would have to visit Levittown which is a….

Roman Mars:
Which is not that, I take it.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Which is not that. It is a lot of concrete. I mean, there’s a beautiful mango tree in the front but it’s still… like, it’s no Ciales. And it is so hot and so flat. But at the same time, it’s sort of beautiful in its way.

Roman Mars:
In what way is it beautiful?

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
I mean, the houses all came in like a white or cream color, like they had no color. And unlike the houses in the New York Levittown, these are like all cement so you can paint like every surface of them.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
And so they can sometimes be quite colorful. You kind of get these sherbet colors. And people also changed them a lot – like adding a second story, added some trinitaria which is a type of bougainvillea, added personality to it.

Roman Mars:
So why did you want to make this story? Like what does the Levittown in Puerto Rico mean to you?

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Someone else says this in the piece, but I’m going to steal it. But it’s sort of Puerto Rico in a nutshell. Like you have this boom and bust story about this desire for modernity and for middle-class success and the American dream but also this bust. There’s so many foreclosures, so many empty homes, it’s so hard to find a job that pays enough to have a house and so it sort of follows that boom and bust idea, but it also is about negotiating this desire for a kind of Puerto Rican success, like this nostalgia for the mountains and for having chickens and a farm. You know, you’ve got your backyard but you also have this successful modernity that my family must have really craved, I think. I just wanted to look into that and figure out why it exists and what it did for people, what it does for people.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so we’re going to play the piece now. This is the English version of episode 2 of “La Brega.” It’s called “Levittown: Where The Good Life Begins.” And we’re gonna start a few minutes in… with the backstory of how the Levittown company came to develop land in Puerto Rico.

[MUSIC]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Instead of a potato field, in Puerto Rico the company started out in 1962 by buying nearly 440 acres of flat swampland in the town of Toa Baja, about 20 minutes from San Juan. They built drainage canals to empty into an artificial lake, I’ve seen the engineering diagrams and they’re impressive. They originally planned to build 3,000 homes but by 1977, there would be over 11 thousand. And just a short walk from the beach, they sold out quickly. The first models offered were Broche de Oro, El Camafeo, La Diadema, La Alhaja, and La Esmeralda — the one with two stories — which my grandparents purchased from friends when they decided to leave the Bronx in the early 70s and come back home. Or at least, to a new home. Here in Levittown, the tag line was, “Donde la buena vida comienza.” Where the good life begins.

Hilda: Si, esta casa es La Camafeo.
Alana: Camafeo, ok.
Hilda: Uh huh. Camafeo.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Hilda Rodriguez lives in a Camafeo model with her daughter, Paula. Hilda was five when they moved in in 1964.

Hilda: Si, en el 64. Nosotros fuimos, nos fuimos como los segundos terceros en mudarnos aquí en Levittown.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Perhaps just the second or third family there.

Hilda: Pioneros, bien pioneros.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
They’re not just pioneers — their story is entwined with Levittown’s. Hilda’s parents started their family in the states, before deciding to come back home to the island. Her uncle was working for the Levitt company, and he offered Hilda’s father a job building the Levittown houses in Puerto Rico…

Hilda: Le ofreció trabajo. […] y la oportunidad de comprarse su casita.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
And the opportunity for him to own his own home:

Hilda: Y escogió este modelo […] tiene tres habitaciones, dos baños completos, marquesina. sala, cocina, comedor.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
The houses are like so many others in Puerto Rican suburbs — flat-roofed cement rectangles with Miami windows. These had built-in planters and carports (marquesinas) framed in decorated cinder blocks. And the catalog really pushed the cinder blocks

[ARCHIVAL TAPE]
“Observe usted lo atractivo de los bloques ornamentales que resguardan el patio, y las jardineras bajo las ventanas, mire cómo embellecen la fachada de esta magnifica residencia!”

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
All the homes came with new General Electric appliances and were wired for telephones. In the 1960s, this was all a sleek, modern dream.

Hilda: Esto era un manglar.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Remember — this had been a mangrove swamp with lots of palm trees.

Hilda: y cuando mami abría la puerta estaba la marquesina llena de jueyes.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
When Hilda’s mother opened the front door, the marquesina — the carport — would be FULL of crabs.

Hilda: están en la marquesina, están en el patio, están en la calle, están en la acera, o sea —
Paula: abuela había dicho, hasta en la máquina de lavar ropa.
Hilda: Si, a veces mami, cuando prendía —

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Hilda’s daughter Paula lives with her in Levittown. She’s starting her career as a math teacher, and she remembers that her grandmother had even found crabs in the washing machine.

Hilda: Pega un CLACK CLACK CLACK – un ruido bien feo y eran los jueyes dentro del motor —

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
They’d get into the motor and rattle around if you turned it on.

Hilda: No se podía tener puertas abiertas porque si no te metían!

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
There were so many that people would collect them in metal buckets — clean them, and cook them.

Hilda: Nunca olvido que mucho comí patitas de jueyes.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
She’ll never forget how many crab legs they ate. The marquesinas were also where Sunday service was held in the early days, before Hilda’s father Don Toño helped to found the local Catholic parish. Hilda was in the first graduating class of the elementary school, named for John F. Kennedy. There was a manmade lake, which still exists, but back then there were paddle boats too. In the US, Levittowns were famous for excluding Black and Jewish home buyers, and there were rules about everything from lawn maintenance to line-drying clothes. But there was none of that in Toa Baja. And in the late ’70s, Hilda remembers a Levittown that was totally lit.

Hilda: Mira, en tal sitio hay un quinceañero, mira en tal sitio, hay una boda, mira en tal sitio, hay un aniversario, pero eran en las marquesinas porque los party eran en marquesina.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Scouts with cars would drive around the different secciones and report back about what parties were happening on a Friday night — a wedding, an anniversary, a birthday.

Hilda: Formábamos el party. Nos quedamos hasta que éramos los últimos en irnos.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
They’d arrive unannounced, get invited to join… and then they’d be the last to leave. Dancing boleros all night long.

Hilda: y la gente quedaba encantada porque lo de nosotros era bailar.
Alana; bailar que?
Hilda: bailar, salsa, merengue guajira, bailar y los boleros, los discos de Santito Colón, Cheo Feliciano. La pasábamos súper bien. De verdad que la pasamos bien, bien, bien.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
I like imagining my grandparents in this landscape, with Cheo Feliciano playing in the distance and neighbors dancing in marquesinas. And maybe after so many years of hearing about the US Levittowns, this is what success looked like to them — life in a modern suburb, instead of a return to the lush but rustic countryside in Ciales. And, as it turns out, that appeal of Levittown? It helps tell a bigger story, about how in the mid-20th century, Puerto Rico’s future ran headlong into the American Dream.

Paula: Abuelo, bendito abuelo, sabía mucho de eso.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
That’s Paula, Hilda’s daughter again. Don Toño, her grandfather, knew a lot about Levittown’s place in Puerto Rico’s history.

Paula: porqué abuelo fue de esa generación que fue bien pobre a realizarse — y por ejemplo abuelo no tenía zapato.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
He was from that generation, she says, that went from being really poor — he grew up without shoes — to going on to get his high school degree later in life, and of course to own his own house.

Paula: Y hubo una política yo creo de Luis Muñoz Marín — que la gente con él fue que tuvo sus primeros zapatos y cosas así.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
So Luis Munoz Marin, the first elected governor of Puerto Rico, is well known for pushing the idea that the island’s prosperity would come not from statehood, and not by independence…

Silva Alvarez Curbelo: Munoz advocated for a third way.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Silvia Alvarez Curbelo is a Puerto Rican historian. She’s also the author of “Un País del Porvenir.”

Silva Alvarez Curbelo: Un País del Porvenir — the land of the future, a country of their future. Porvenir is a beautiful word.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Porvenir means the time that is going to happen — like a point on the horizon, some kind of future of possibility. And Puerto Rico has historically been eager, striving for modernity, she says. Governor Muñoz would promote a massive program — Operacion Manos a la Obra, also known as Operation Bootstrap — to transform the island and reach that porvenir. Operation Bootstrap echoed the New Deal in the United States. It was a massive remaking of the Puerto Rican economy… and actually of the whole island. Government programs gave tax breaks to US companies and engineered a shift from agriculture to manufacturing.

Silva Alvarez Curbelo: And for Munoz, it was this path to modernity because agriculture was, for him, like the symbol of backwardness. Of course, it was the agriculture of sugar, one crop agriculture–

Alana: So it was no paradise, really.

Silva Alvarez Curbelo: No. And industrialization was the thing of the future. Once again, the pais del porvenir.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
To understand why Levittown was such a dream, it’s worth understanding what it wasn’t.

Jorge Lizardi Pollock: Have you seen photographs of how people used to live in the 40s here in Puerto Rico?

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Jorge Lizardi Pollock is a professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Puerto Rico.

Jorge Lizardi Pollock: For example, in this place called El Fanguito? It’s a slum built over a swamp.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
These were wooden houses on stilts, perched over water. In 1940, the average life expectancy in Puerto Rico was 46 years — nearly twenty years shorter than it was in the states.

Jorge Lizardi Pollock: A lot of people used to live with no running water, no electricity, no baths.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Some 70 percent of people lived in the countryside. And housing was a key part of Operation Bootstrap, it was-

Jorge Lizardi Pollock: The way in which the government demonstrates that it was possible to modernize the country and clean up the slums.

[FIESTA ISLAND ARCHIVAL TAPE]
Broad avenues in San Juan lead to residential districts where houses resemble those in Florida, California or Texas…

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Cringe-worthy films like one, called Fiesta Island, marketed Puerto Rico as a prospering outpost that was looking more and more like the United States.

[FIESTA ISLAND ARCHIVAL TAPE]
Everybody grows and loves flowers in Puerto Rico. These are red ginger blossoms. Homes for everybody! Housing gets top priority in Puerto Rico’s booming economy.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Doña Fela, the mayor of San Juan during this period, looked back on it in a documentary in the 1980s:

[DOCUMENTARY TAPE]
Doña Fela: “The miracle was that we created a middle class which was created from one day to the other..”

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
And, that newly minted middle class moving from the campo to the city needed homes. In 1960, roughly 40 percent of housing in Puerto Rican cities was considered substandard. In Washington, DC, the federal government was creating incentives for single-family homes and highways, and Puerto Rico got them too.

Jorge Lizardi Pollock: Just following the promise about the good life in the US, that everybody should have their own house, their own patio or their own car — we just follow that promise.

Alana Casanova-Burgess: So if I say Levittown to you, what is the first thing that you think?

Jorge Lizardi Pollock: Utopia of the middle class. The utopia of freedom.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Up until the Cold War, Washington cared very little for Puerto Rico, if at all. But as Cuba became the poster island for Communism in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico became a capitalist counterpoint.

Jorge Lizardi Pollock: When I think of Levittown, I think of the Cold War utopia and the Cold War promises.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
And one way the US fought back against dictatorships and communism, was by giving Puerto Ricans the chance to own their own homes.

Jorge Lizardi Pollock: So they will become owners. And owners won’t rebel against their own property, they won’t do that.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
This isn’t only true of the Puerto Rican Levittown. William Levitt, of Levitt & Sons, once said: “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.” Governor Muñoz embraced Levittown, and attended the ribbon cutting for it in September of 1963 — it was widely covered in US papers. These homes, with their gardens and their garages for a car everyone was expected to have, would be the model for housing in Puerto Rico for the next 50 years.

[MUSIC]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
But there wasn’t room for everybody in this version of Muñoz’s vision of porvenir. San Juan’s mayor, Doña Fela, said the creation of a middle-class overnight was a miracle. But actually, it was a very intentional miracle, and one with extremely mixed results. The part of this economic transformation that isn’t talked about much is how many people supposedly had to leave in order to make it work.

[MUSIC]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
For local technocrats, the problem was that there was no way to create enough jobs to employ everyone. There were too many people on the island to create a middle class. And that idea… led to some horrible policies.

[MUSIC]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Today, we know more about the shameful project that sterilized roughly a third of Puerto Rican women, and the birth control pill experiments. But it wasn’t only that. In 1946, a government report estimated that around a million people would have to leave in order to make the island prosperous. And by the late 40s, the government would get involved. Really involved.

[MUSIC]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
We’ll be right back. This is “La Brega.”

Roman Mars:
We’ll hear the second half of Alana’s story, which is how Levittown became the place for Puerto Ricans returning from the US, right after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
We’re back with the second half of “Levittown, Where The Good Life Begins.” Here’s Alana Cassanova-Burgess again.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
And we’re back to “La Brega.” We’ve been talking about an American-style suburb whose story is, in many ways, the story of the island in the 20th century at a time when Puerto Rico was being remade in America’s image. The government was trying to transform Puerto Rico’s economy, moving from agriculture to industry, and making a middle class.

Edgardo Melendez: The government realized that without the massive exodus of people, economic growth in Puerto Rico would be maybe hindered or slowed down.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Edgardo Melendez is the author of “Sponsored Migration,” a book about Puerto Ricans moving to the US. He describes an engineered exodus, “a campaign to turn every Puerto Rican into a potential migrant”. The Puerto Rican government would create levers and wedges and pulleys to make modernity work for those who stayed but only by encouraging others to leave. At the same time, the US government wanted cheap labor in cities like New York and Chicago. And so encouraging migration was also in their interest.

Joseph Monserrat: “Puerto Ricans come here to New York and to elsewhere to find jobs to get better education opportunities and other opportunities for their children.”

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
The Puerto Rican government had positions like director of the Migration Division of the Department of Labor, based in New York. Here he is on WNYC in 1955.

Joseph Monserrat: “They are now on the first rung of a ladder which many of our own fathers and grandfathers began to climb just a generation ago.”

Edgardo Melendez: So they created all these programs to help migrants get social services from local governments like New York. English classes, helping kids with their documents so they can move easily to schools in the US. All that sort of thing.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
There was an expectation that boricuas would assimilate easily. But that didn’t pan out.

Edgardo Melendez: Puerto Ricans were being rejected in the United States, even though they were citizens, right? And, of course, the cultural and linguistic differences.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
So there were members of Muñoz’s government who looked for another solution to what they saw as the problem of overpopulation.

Edgardo Melendez: They argued, well, for migrants, it will be easier to incorporate and assimilate in Latin America because of the common culture and language but even in the early 50s, the government sent a representative to Brazil to consider creating a colony of Puerto Rican migrants there.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
The US Government nixed this. Not only did they not want Puerto Rico negotiating with foreign governments, but it would also get too messy to have a bunch of US citizens living in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. And, yes, they made sure there were plenty of flights to the US.

[MUSIC]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
And that’s what gets us to that first Eastern Airlines flight to San Juan, in 1951 — the one that broke Pan-Am’s monopoly.

[EASTERN AIRLINES ARCHIVAL TAPE]
We consider it both a privilege and an obligation to offer Puerto Rico the kind of transport service upon which the continuing progress and prosperity of this island depends.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Governor Muñoz had lobbied for expanding airline access, to make it easier for Puerto Ricans to leave the island. But when he made the argument, what he said was that Puerto Ricans deserved to go looking for jobs as much as anyone else in the states.

[MUSIC]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
It stings when I think about all these machinations to get a million people to leave, to get families like mine to leave. That we were a sacrifice worth making for that shining porvenir. But people wouldn’t just leave for good… Because of the island’s relationship with the US, it was easier for Puerto Ricans to come and go. Many, like my grandparents, would decide to return. And for them and many others coming from cramped and cold walk-up apartments, the dream of success looked a lot like Levittown.

Edgardo Melendez: Now, Levittown is an important phenomena. Because it’s basically an area built by return migrants.

[CBS NEWS ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1971]
The flow is no longer one way, as thousands of Puerto Ricans have decided to return home.

[EASTERN AIR FLIGHT ANNOUNCEMENT]
Eastern Air Lines announces the final boarding call for service to San Juan Puerto Rico.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
August 1971, CBS News.

[CBS NEWS ARCHIVAL TAPE, 1971]
Some have saved enough money to buy small, trim homes in new suburbs — in developments like Levittown, for instance, where life has as much distinctly American a flavor as the suburb’s name.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Levittown has a reputation for being a place settled by the returning diaspora.

Silvia Alvarez Curbelo: I think that is like an intermediate space.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
The historian Silvia Alvarez Curbelo says Levittown was a bridge between the US and Puerto Rico. For returning Puerto Ricans, there was a nostalgia, as several people have told me, for a life in the countryside that existed before Puerto Rico’s big transformation, before people left. Carport in the front. Platanos in the back.

Silvia Alvarez Curbelo: You have to plant a guava tree, a lemon tree, and, you know, like the staples of a garden in Puerto Rico.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
And Levittown’s patios had room for that.

Silvia Alvarez Curbelo: In Levittown, I think that many of the Nuyoricans wanted to have a Puerto Rico that was already vanishing in some way.
Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
My grandfather, Nicolas Casanova, kept ducks and chicken and even geese in his suburban backyard. It’s a detail I hadn’t thought about until Silvia described that longing. But it wasn’t an easy fit for everyone returning from New York. One resident told me (not on tape), that she felt bullied by a teacher who scolded her for speaking English. It was a common story in the 70s, featured in news reports quoting teenagers in Puerto Rican high schools.

[ARCHIVAL NEWS TAPE]
People were laughing at me because I didn’t know Spanish. You would say something wrong, they’d be trying to correct you, most of the time they would laugh.

They make fun of you, the way you talk Spanish, if you say a bad– wrong word in Spanish, they say you can’t speak Spanish right, things like that, and they start calling you gringo.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Schools in Puerto Rico even started offering Spanish courses to the returning migrants, to help them fit back in.

[ARCHIVAL NEWS TAPE]
News Anchor: Unhappy with life in the states, and slow to assimilate in a hostile Puerto Rico, the Nuyoricans say they’re in limbo — not knowing where they belong.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Nuyoricans returning from the states not only struggled to fit in, they also struggled to find a job. And they weren’t the only ones. Hilda — the resident we heard from earlier — says her family had a hard time making ends meet after returning from the states. In Levittown, the mortgage payment on their house, the Camafeo model, was 62 dollars a month. That was a lot for their family.

Hilda: Cuando nosotros nos mudamos aquí — — el costo de la casa eran doce mil quinientos dólares.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Her father Don Tono had worked building the Levittown houses, but when they had all been finished in the late 70s, his next job didn’t pay enough to make the monthly payment.

Hilda: Llega un momento en que papi ya estaba al borde de la desesperación y ya había hablado con mami.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
There came a moment, where he was on the verge of desperation. And her parents were deciding whether they’d give up the house and leave again for the United States, when something happened that changed their fortunes… Hilda can see the scene in her memory. One day, her father got home…

Hilda: y se sienta en la silla del comedor y coge el periódico. Mami está en la cocina y yo oigo que papi dice a mami, “Lusa…”

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
He sits down at the dining room table and opens the newspaper. Her mother, Doña Lucy, is in the kitchen.

Hilda: Mami: que? Ven acá.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Come here, he says. She looks over his shoulder.

Hilda: Y dice que paso? Yo veo que Mami se asoma y mami dice embuste.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Hilda could hear her saying, no way, really, no way —

Hilda: — de verdad, embuste

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
She could see them both with huge smiles on their faces, full of happiness.

Hilda: y pega los dos con una cara de alegría pero yo estoy mirándolos y no se lo que pasa.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Don Tono had won the lottery, first prize.

Hilda: pues papi había comprado billetera, lotería y salió en el primer premio.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
With that money, he paid off the house. A few streets away, his sister was also struggling to pay. He helped her out too.

Hilda: Y gracias, como siempre lo digo, del primero a Dios sobre todas las cosas y después ese milagro — se de verdad que fue un milagro.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
If not for the lottery, they would have gone back to the states. Maybe someday her parents would have returned to the island, but they wouldn’t have kept the house.

Hilda: Definitivamente creo que no estuviéramos aquí. Pero aquí estamos hace 55 años, pues ya.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Instead, she’s been in Levittown now for 55 years. And despite all the good times, all the memories and the promises —

Hilda: yo estoy loca por irme de aquí.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
— Hilda says that the way life is in Puerto Rico, she wants to leave. It’s the crime, the shrinking pensions, the lack of opportunities.

Hilda: Antes siempre se decía que la verdadera familia de uno eran los vecinos.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
But also, people used to say neighbors are your real family — everyone would help each other, care for each other.

Hilda: Un vecino se enferma y todo el mundo se preocupa. Todo el mundo ayuda a todo el mundo, coopera. Ya eso se acabó.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Today, Hilda says, if you die, they find you by the smell.

Hilda: Hoy te moriste pues por la peste, te encuentran.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
This is so dark, but the truth is that there are so many empty homes in Levittown now. Nearly 15 years of a fiscal recession has taken its toll, and then came Maria. According to figures from 2018, over 20 percent of the houses in Levittown are vacant. The elementary school, the one named for John F. Kennedy, was closed as part of an island-wide shut down of hundreds of schools.

Paula: Y pues ahora ya todo no es como antes. Yo pienso que mami tuvo la mejor etapa de Levittown.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Paula, Hilda’s daughter, says her mother saw Levittown’s best days. She lives at home, loves this place, but knows her and her friends have seen its decline. It wasn’t just dancing in the streets — there were also walkways between the sections, and now they’re all closed.

Paula: las personas caminaban todos los paseitos que hay, que ahora todos básicamente están cerrados y es un peligro caminar por en solitario.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
It’s dangerous to walk alone. And the beach that borders the north side of Levittown, Punta Salinas, is contaminated.

Paula: Por ejemplo, la playa de ahí al frente, que ahora está contaminada

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
And Hilda can’t imagine late-night chats outside with neighbors.

Hilda: Tú crees que yo me atrevo ahora? No.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
In the original designs, Levittown’s balconies were all open — but today they’re caged with security bars. Levittown’s lake, once an amenity, overflowed during Maria. The dam was opened, without warning, and houses and streets near it flooded. Hilda and Paula’s home didn’t flood, but other people had to be rescued from their roofs, or flee in the dark. Four people died.

Sixto Isaac Ortiz: Every time I go to work, I take the one 165 road — es la una seis cinco — that’s the road that takes me all Dorado, Levittown, San Juan. And you could see how deteriorated Levittown is actually, post-Maria and before Maria.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
That’s Sixto Isaac Ortiz, a friend of Paula’s and longtime Levittown resident. After Maria, out of boredom, they made “Nuestro Podcast” with some other friends —

Sixto Isaac Ortiz: En este episodio número 4 de nuestro podcast le rendimos un homenaje sumamente especial a Levittown, Toa Baja.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
And one of the episodes is about their home.

Sixto Isaac Ortiz: Hablamos sobre nuestra experiencia…

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
They discussed the awful experience of the hurricane, and they talk about a book of short stories based in Levittown. And, over an hour into the episode, Sixto poses a huge question to the group —

Sixto Isaac Ortiz: muchas personas dicen que el proyecto social de Levittown, lo que se conocía como lo que querían que fuera Levittown, falló.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Did Levittown fail? And his answer, he told Paula and I recently, is yes.

Sixto Isaac Ortiz: You could actually see how Levittown could mirror perfectly the failed experiment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. And that’s just my opinion. And how at the same time it could be mirrored as the failed experiment of the American dream.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
He sees it in the rundown baseball fields, in the abandoned houses, in that drive to work every day on the 165.

Sixto Isaac Ortiz: And that many people, you know, they left Puerto Rico, their own home, their own picket fence, their white picket fence with their dog and their family and their house.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
The financial crisis and austerity policy has blanketed the whole island.

Sixto Isaac Ortiz: More than angry, it makes me sad, you know, that we’re in this time. But this is not only Levittown, this is Puerto Rico in a nutshell.

[MUSIC]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
There was something about Levittown that required a winning lottery ticket to achieve. The promise wasn’t a home, it was A HOUSE. And that suburban model of development was defined by sprawl that clutters the landscape, and by mortgages that have become foreclosures. It wasn’t enough to build houses if you couldn’t create an economy in which people could afford to stay in them. The porvenir that Governor Luis Muñoz Marin had promised had already started to crumble with a recession in the 1970s. Silvia Alvarez Curbelo told me about a diary that he kept for a couple of years during that time.

Silvia Alvarez Curbelo: And it was like he was surprised by the change. And he spoke about the traffic. About the people that were, like, in a hurry. He spoke about the trouble with youth, juvenile delinquency and so on.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
He sounds like kind of just a grumpy old man. People are rushing around too much these days. The kids! He sounds a little. —

Silvia Alvarez Curbelo: Yes. Because. Like, the times accelerated too much!

Alana Cassanova-Burgess: Too much progress, too much progress, too much porvenir!

Silvia Alvarez Curbelo: Too much porvenir! And the unraveling of the porvenir in too many porvenirs. It was not only one.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
It’s as though the vision of having a house got tied up too closely with the American dream, and with an unsustainable consumerism. So, Levittown can feel like a metaphor for the failures of Puerto Rico’s economic experiment — but last time I was there, I saw it through new eyes. I took in the interesting things that were showing through the cracks.

[STREET NOISE]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Cezanne Cardona Morales is the author of a collection of short stories called, ironically, “Levittown Mon Amour” — the one Paula and Sixto discussed in their podcast.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess: Estamos aqui afuera de — yo digo torre…

Cezanne Cardona Morales: Pompa Si, torre de agua. Pompa de agua.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Cezanne and I met under the rust-streaked belly of the blue water tower a couple of weeks before the pandemic, outside what used to be a public library. Like so much else in Puerto Rico, even before covid, it was closed.

Cezanne Cardona Morales: Lo cierto es que se ha convertido, además del icono, es una marca dentro del mapa aéreo. Es decir, los aviones que van a aterrizar tienen que informar que están pasando por aquí.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
It’s part of the aerial map, he says. I checked this out, and he’s right. Pilots have to tell air traffic control that they’re passing it on their way into the airport. In other words, I’m not the only one.

Cezanne Cardona Morales: el propio Levittown me sigue dando sorpresas como ciudad.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Levittown keeps surprising him. Every time he comes here, despite the detritus and the decay, he sees colors that call his attention.

Cezanne Cardona Morales: cada vez que paso por ella, a pesar del detritos que veo de lo que esta se está cayendo, veo colores que me llama la atención.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Writing about this place was his way of making a kind of peace with his country, with Puerto Rico through the fiscal crisis, the deterioration, the difficulty of making ends meet, to leave the resentment about what wasn’t and appreciate what is.

Cezanne Cardona Morales: dejar atrás todo ese rencor de lo que tal vez no fue y apreciar lo que es y lo que tal vez seguir haciendo.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
I asked him — after all this historical research, if I’m trying to see the beauty in Levittown, could he give me some pointers?

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:Sí yo estoy tratando de ver la belleza in Levittown. Me podrías dar algún consejo?

Cezanne Cardona Morales: Bueno, todo depende de qué consideres belleza verdad.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Well, it depends on what you consider beauty. Look at what time has done to this place. Look at the rust. At the shuttered businesses.

Cezanne Cardona Morales: Tal vez eso miral mirar las cosas que el tiempo ha bajado. Tal vez miral la oxidación, los lugares cerrados.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
Looking at closed storefronts gave him the possibility to invent, to imagine businesses that maybe didn’t actually exist. And walk along the boulevard — which is called Avenue Boulevard, a redundant name that tickles Cezanne.

Cezanne Cardona Morales: Caminar por la bulevar. Tal vez la única avenida que una avenida se llame avenida, avenida, avenida Bulevar…

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
It tickles me now too. And much more does, as well. A few steps away from where we sat, the public high school is named for Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos — Puerto Rico’s independence icon. Right there, in Levittown, the American suburb. And then there’s the water tower, which doesn’t actually hold any water.

Cezanne Cardona Morales: Ahora mismo, si observamos… la torre de agua está totalmente inservible.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
It’s a monument to uselessness, a symbol of a failure to have functional infrastructure. And yet, it’s still an icon — visible from the highway, from the streets… and from the sky.

Cezanne Cardona Morales: no es un monumento a nada, sino a nuestra incapacidad de poder construir o de poder llevar agua a un lugar.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
It’s empty, and yet —

Cezanne Cardona Morales: Pero se ha convertido en tal vez en nuestra Torre de Eiffel. Por lo menos para la gente de Levittown, no?

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
It’s become like our own Eiffel Tower, he says — appealing to Cezanne precisely because it doesn’t work. I remember something Paula shared on her podcast — about how she sometimes imagines that there’s a mermaid in the water tower. It’s a vision from “Aquamarine,” a teen movie from 2006 that you should feel no rush to go see —

Paula: hay una escena que a la sirena, la esconden en una pompa asi de agua —

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
In the movie, there’s a mermaid in a water tower.

Paula: oh my god en la pompa de agua de aquí de Levittown como que hay sirenas también — por lo menos eso ha sido el viaje mio.

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
I imagine mermaids up there now too.

[STREE NOISES]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
I had hoped to end this journey in my grandparent’s Levittown, but then the pandemic hit. So instead this summer, I drove from Brooklyn to Long Island and peered up at this other water tower in this other Levittown. While the Puerto Rican one towers over a busy commercial strip… this one is quiet, tucked into some residential streets that curve into each other and are named for plants, like Azalea Road and Iris Lane. I could hear the drip drip drip of water falling from the tank. There’s a baseball diamond there too, and a basketball court. And a group of teenagers were playing, someone was walking their dog. The lawns were tidy, but there were no guava trees, no lemon trees.

[MUSIC]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
This light blue water tower also says Levittown in big letters, although frankly, it’s not as impressive— maybe not as tall as the Puerto Rican one. I imagined getting some bolt cutters for the chain-link fence and getting to the circular door at the base of the tower. I could open the hatch, like the ones on a submarine, and instead of climbing whatever ladder lies on the other side, I could open another hatch and arrive at the other Levittown. As though the water towers were portals. I’d arrive… bypassing airplanes and airports and the danger of a COVID-19 transmission… on Avenida Boulevard. I’d go to Panadería Lemy and order a box of quesito, then walk to my cousin’s house, the same one my grandparents moved to when they were looking for something between one dream and another. In the room where I sleep when I visit, there’s a view of the water tower.

[MUSIC]

Alana Cassanova-Burgess:
La Brega is a co-production from WNYC Studios and Futuro Studios. This episode is available in Spanish as well. And you can listen to either wherever you get your podcasts through La Brega’s podcast feed. This episode was produced by me, with help from Mark Pagan. It was edited by Luis Trelles, Marlon Bishop, and Mark Pagan. Fact-checking by Istra Pacheco. Engineering is by Stephanie Lebow, Leah Shaw Dameron, Rosana Caban, Caria Labaez and Elisheba Ittoop. Original music for La Brega was composed by Balún, and our theme song is by IFE. Additional music from Frankie Reyes. Art for this piece was done by Fernando Norat.

Leadership support for La Brega is provided by the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support provided by Amy Liss.

Deep gratitude to WNYC’s Andy Lanset for his generosity with archival tape. Thanks also to Rebeca Ibarra and Yarimar Bonilla for their ears, and to Carmelo Esterrich, Francisco Rodriguez Suarez and Myrmarie Graw Gonzalez for their expertise. And special thanks to Sophia and Lucinda Bordali, and Olga Casanova-Burgess. Thanks also to Ezequiel Rodriguez Andino.

In the next episode, a very different story about the Shadows of the Cold War in Puerto Rico and a dark legacy we’re still dealing with. Hasta la próxima.

———

Roman Mars:
Thanks to Alana Casanova-Burgess and La Brega for letting us share their story. Go listen to them all. They’re fantastic. Our feature that wrapped around their story was produced by Emmett FitzGerald and our senior producer Delaney Hall. Music by our director of sound Sean Real. Mix by Ameeta Ganatra. Kurt Kohlstedt is 99pi’s digital director. The rest of the team is Christopher Johnson, Vivan Le, Joe Rosenberg, Lasha Madan, Chris Berube, Katie Mingle, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

99% Invisible is a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on radio row which is scattered about the North American continent right now but is centered in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are a member of Radiotopia from PRX, an independent collective of the most innovative shows in all of podcasting. Find them all at radiotopia.fm.

You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show at @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. But our home for Beautiful Nerds is 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

This episode was produced by Alana Cassanova-Burgess, with help from Mark Pagan.

It was edited by Luis Trelles, Marlon Bishop, and Mark Pagan. Fact-checking by Istra Pacheco.

Engineering for the series is by Stephanie Lebow, Leah Shaw Dameron, and Elisheba Ittoop.

Original music was composed by Balún, and our theme song is by IFE. Additional music from Frankie Reyes. Art for this piece was done by Fernando Norat.

Leadership support for La Brega is provided by the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support provided by Amy Liss.

Deep gratitude to WNYC’s Andy Lanset for his generosity with archival tape. Thanks also to Rebeca Ibarra and Yarimar Bonilla for their ears, and to Carmelo Esterrich, Francisco Rodriguez Suarez and Myrmarie Graw Gonzalez for their expertise. And special thanks to Sophia and Lucinda Bordali, and Olga Casanova-Burgess. Thanks also to Ezequiel Rodriguez Andino.

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