Exclusive Interview with Andrés Feliciano, Filmmaker of “Paper City”
By: mariana mcdonald
The following interview was recently conducted with Andrés Feliciano, co-producer and music director of Paper City, an exciting new film about the “American Dream” and the school-to-prison pipeline. A feature-length documentary set in the Puerto Rican community of Holyoke, Massachusetts, Paper City has toured film festivals nationwide and was featured at the International Puerto Rican Heritage Film Festival in 2014 in New York City. Feliciano and co-producer/ director Akil Gibbons have built on their very successful Kickstarter campaign to use Paper City as a vehicle to build a national network of activists, pairing the film with a curriculum for use in communities nationwide.
mm: What do you do for work?
AF: I work in film and music production. On the day-to-day, I work as a production assistant and as a background actor on major film and television productions in New Orleans and Atlanta. I am also a film producer and music producer.
mm: Are the conditions in Holyoke worse than or representative—in your opinion—of the economic and social conditions faced by the Puerto Rican Diaspora elsewhere?
AF: That’s a good question. It’s hard for me to say, because—as much as I would like to be, I am not an authority on figures within the Diaspora as a whole—and that is something I would like to be more aware of and knowledgeable of. But from my understanding, the conditions and problems that Puerto Ricans face in Holyoke are not dissimilar to problems that are faced by Puerto Ricans in other urban communities—and this is both now, and historically speaking—in communities like the Bronx, in Boston, and Hartford, in Chicago. Other places that are epicenters within the Puerto Rican Diaspora definitely face issues like these where you have housing shortages and even housing discrimination in the history of Holyoke, as well as lack of economic opportunities, lack of job opportunities, high unemployment rates, disparities in education, the War on Drugs, and mass incarceration.
mm: How would you say Paper City is relevant to Puerto Rican communities of the Diaspora today?
AF: Paper City shows the links between the history of Puerto Rico and the history of Holyoke, which is the history of the United States—and the current situation in Holyoke, in the United States, and in one Puerto Rican community.
I think Paper City does a very good job of showing the links between say, the 1898 occupation and ground invasion of Puerto Rico by the US Armed Forces and takeover by the US federal government, and the flight of so many Puerto Ricans from the island to the mainland in search of work. Large tracts of land were bought up by US corporations that were previously inhabited by many who were subsistence farmers in the wake of slavery in Puerto Rico under the Spanish.
The Puerto Rican community inherited a deficit, if you will, coming into Holyoke. They inherited abandoned factories, where the corporations had left, in search of either a similar or higher profit margin than what they had had before, because the economy changed—and that’s for a number of reasons. The Puerto Rican community inherited a lack of jobs and a lack of social infrastructure, because the money was not in the community any more—it had come, and it had left.
mm: How will Paper City help Puerto Rican communities?
AF: Paper City can help Puerto Rican communities because, for one thing, it very succinctly gives a context and a link to the historical factors that affect Puerto Rican communities in the US today, and the problems that many Puerto Rican communities in the US, especially in urban America, face—and that is critical, because if you don’t know your history, you don’t know your future; and that goes for any peoples. So for Puerto Ricans, where our history is so very important to our identity and our national identity—as a nation—we have an opportunity through Paper City to help young people especially to see the links between what was happening in Puerto Rico in 1898… and what is happening in the US to Puerto Rican communities that emigrated to the US—now.
mm: What will you do with Paper City?
AF: Paper City is intended first and foremost to be an educational program for middle school and high school students, so its intended destination is in the schools, the classrooms, the juvenile detention centers, the community centers, the churches, and in the minds of the youth of urban America—and that includes the Puerto Rican community.
Martin Luther King, Jr.—whose final book before he was killed, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, is a fantastic analysis of the future of America at the tail-end of the Civil Rights movement and the beginnings of the Vietnam War. He saw these things happening, and he saw that there were links between them—and in this book, which we studied as a text upon which Paper City’s ethos was founded, these problems are happening still today—and we have not solved them. And so this is part of a continuum.
mm: How will Paper City’s messages and its use in the schools help build alliances between Puerto Rican communities and other communities facing mass incarceration, detention, police brutality, and the War on Drugs?
AF: Right now, we are launching Paper City as a free public educational resource online—both the film and the curriculum—that is an open-source curriculum upon which people can provide feedback, develop, evolve, and reuse over time to better suit the needs of our communities that are suffering from these problems.
Paper City intends to build a movement—nationally—of educators, concerned individuals, young people and organizations who are fighting on the front lines of these issues of drug policy, mass incarceration, criminal justice, economic justice and education reform, and educational change. We can create an online community of educators and concerned people and young people who are fighting to stop the school to prison pipeline—and can connect communities like Ferguson that are affected by an unjust police regime that lacks accountability and representation, as well as Puerto Rican communities that are facing high dropout rates like in Holyoke, where you have a 60% dropout rate and over 40% Puerto Rican population.
mm: Will Paper City and its curriculum and website be available in Spanish?
AF: Yes. We’re working on that right now. The film will soon have Spanish subtitles. The curriculum will also soon be presented in Spanish language format. And this is critical again because of the links between, say for example, incarceration of Black and Puerto Rican populations in urban America who are very heavily affected by drugs, drug dealing, and the War on Drugs—as well as the detention regime that affects immigrants in this country in the matter of hundreds of thousands a year—mostly from Central and South America and México, but also from other countries as well. There’s a link between these two things where the law—and the enforcement of the law, and the lack of accountability presented by the general public—is creating a problem in which our peoples’ bodies are being siphoned into a system where they have no freedom, their freedom is restricted, their rights are restricted, and people are making money off of it.
mm: What has it been like for you—as a Puerto Rican musician and filmmaker—to work on Paper City?
AF: It’s been incredibly rewarding. This is what I consider, if there ever were one, a career case—this is a life project. Being able to participate in this, this being something that can help my community as a Puerto Rican, that can help my people as a Puerto Rican, is incredibly honoring and rewarding—especially given the fact that we are treading new ground, and pioneering a territory in which you can use film and music and the arts in combination with education and social justice to actually bring about change through empowerment of the youth. So that is a huge honor for me, both as a Puerto Rican but also as a human being, as an American, as whatever categories I may fall under or put myself in. I believe that this is something that is more important than anything else I’m doing—and that is a blessing, really—as a Puerto Rican, to see Holyoke and to have interacted with it.
mm: What advice would you give to aspiring young Puerto Rican filmmakers, musicians, and/ or community activists?
AF: Your experience, first of all, is valid. You are valid, your experience is valid. Don’t let the only images you may see of Puerto Ricans represented in films and TV dictate your validity and existence—“I am only valid if I fit those things”—No. No matter whether you are white, black, “mixed”, Puerto Rican, no matter how you look as a Puerto Rican, no matter where you come from as a Puerto Rican—whether your family is from Loíza, from Mayagüez, Ponce, San Juan, or Bridgeport—you are valid, and your experience is valid.
And this also goes for our intersecting identities in gender, queerness, transgender folks, no matter what your identity is, you are valid, you know? Because—can we talk about the fact that a young queer teenage activist was killed and decapitated in Puerto Rico a few years ago, and their body was found on the side of the road? Can we talk about that? Because that’s part of it, too. Because we also have challenges within our own communities through things like machismo that we still have to address and still have to deal with, right—and racism and colorism, which are present both on the island and in the states, right—and we need to deal with those things in order for that to happen.
You’ve got to stay strong on your identity, because people profit from you losing that. People profit from us being in prison, people profit from us shooting and killing each other, people profit from us hating ourselves, and not believing in ourselves, and giving into fear, and not taking chances that are valuable, and taking chances that aren’t valuable. People profit from that. And we cannot allow that to continue. So to the young people: don’t ever let anyone tell you that you are not who you believe you are and who you want to be. Because no one is ever who they “want to be” at that very moment. It’s an act of the future that you are validating and affirming in the present.