iLe Uses Puerto Rican History To Focus On 'Odio'
Puerto Rican singer/songwriter iLe's debut album iLevitable took the indie Latinx musical world by storm in 2017, winning a Grammy for Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative album with its mix of passionate classic boleros and vulnerable, sensual original songs. Now, iLe's first new work since her Grammy win is a striking revelation of a different kind.
"Odio" (Hate) recreates the events of July 25, 1978 in which two young activists of the Puerto Rico independence movement were killed by intelligence agents of the Puerto Rico police near the WRIK Communication Tower at Cerro Maravilla ("Marvelous Hill" or "Hill of Wonders.") The hilltop area where the young students were killed is the same location of of the song's video.The message of both the song and the accompanying video is a plea to all humans to rid themselves of the violence within, as we watch the results of a violent chapter in the island's history.
Advisory: This video contains violent imagery.
The backstory to the events depicted in the video is emblematic of the legacy of the island's colonial relationship with the U.S. According to historian and writer Silvia Álvarez Curbelo, a retired Communications professor from the University of Puerto Rico, iLe's video exposes the story of what she terms a "watershed moment" in Puerto Rican history to younger people who may not be familiar with that controversial incident.
As Álvarez Curbelo tells it, two young university students, described as "naive" and "full of idealism and a Utopian vision" of a free Puerto Rico, were armed with two revolvers, some wire and a box of matches. They made their way up the mountain where the television tower was situated with plans to sabotage it, according to an informant who had infiltrated the student movement and was accompanying them. They were ambushed by police who were awaiting, tipped off by the undercover agent.
The true circumstances of the deaths of the activists were only later revealed in the course of a series of intense televised hearings held by the Judiciary Committee of the Puerto Rico Senate. Initially, the Puerto Rican and U.S. governments described the killings as acts of self-defense against terrorists. But Álvarez Curbelo explains that the widely-watched televised hearings eventually revealed that the killings of the activists had been a "lynching." It came to light that the two young men had surrendered and begged for mercy before being beaten and killed. There was no evidence that they had plans to bomb the television tower as was initially claimed.
The revelations led to the conviction of ten police officers on perjury charges and two on charges of second-degree murder, a judicial process which Álvarez Curbelo describes as a "reckoning," a revelatory "loss of political innocence." Puerto Ricans saw the force of a political repression that they had not previously experienced.
From her home in San Juan, iLe spoke by phone about creating the song "Odio" in the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes that struck the island last September.
"I was looking at Twitter, and the news, and the headlines, and people's comments and it was making me anxious, upset and indignant about a lot of things," iLe says.
She says she initially did not have the events of Cerro Maravilla in mind when writing this song, but rather, was composing music in response to the debacle that was the U.S. government's post-Hurricane Maria recovery response, upset at what was happening in her homeland. She comments that the island still functions with a colonized mentality after so many years.
"It scares me," she says. "It's become a lifestyle for the Puerto Rican. We have a somewhat submissive attitude, practically accustomed to humiliation, and we don't hardly notice that that's not right."
We have a somewhat submissive attitude, practically accustomed to humiliation, and we don't hardly notice that that's not right.
The Maravilla hearings took place before iLe was born, but four decades later, the story still haunts the island as it faces the post-Hurricane Maria crisis. For iLe, the Maravilla events highlight a ongoing attitude of neglect of the U.S. government towards Puerto Rico as well as a parable showing how unremitting hate can only result in destruction without the possibility of dialogue and finding a common ground with adversaries.
iLe concludes that despite the fact that "Odio" depicts a very specific story in Puerto Rico's history, the lessons of the song and the video against polarizing "the other" are timeless and universal.
"We've lost nuance and transparency, from Twitter and social media to politicians when they speak to others," iLe says. "We need to be honest and direct, but not insulting, and to be willing to understand each other as people."
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