For Those Missing Puerto Rico, A Song About Dreaming Of Home

Jun 20, 2019
Originally published on June 20, 2019 9:10 pm

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.


Step inside Puerto Rico's National Foundation for Popular Culture in Old San Juan and you'll find a well-stocked display of CDs and records for sale, organized by artist or musical style: Sylvia Rexach, Maelo Rivera, rumba, salsa. But then there's a tab that catches the eye because it names neither an artist nor a style, but rather a theme: "nostalgia."

Within the canon of popular Puerto Rican music, there is no shortage of songs about that sentiment — particularly about nostalgia for the island itself, often written by or for or about people who have had to leave Puerto Rico for one reason or another, but who yearn to return.

Music racks at Puerto Rico's National Foundation for Popular Culture in San Juan.
Adrian Florido / NPR

It is one of the tragedies of Puerto Rico's modern history: the recurring waves of people forced to migrate, driven out by the economy, or by war, or by natural disasters like, most recently, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. When you consider that there are more Puerto Ricans living off the island than on it, it's no wonder that nostalgia is such a pervasive theme in the music of the island and its diaspora.

One of the oldest and most enduring of these songs is Noel Estrada's "En Mi Viejo San Juan" ("In My Old San Juan"). Written in 1943 and first recorded by El Trio Vegabajeno in 1946, it's about a man who leaves his beloved island with a plan to return, but finds himself unable to:

Adiós, adiós, adiós
Borinquen querida
Tierra de mi amor

"Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, beloved Borinquen, land of my love." As the years pass and he grows old, his desire grows more urgent:

Mi cabello blanqueó (My hair turned white)
Ya mi vida se va (My life is ending)
Ya la muerte me llama (Death is calling)
Y no quiero morir (And I don't want to die)
Alejado de ti  (Far from you)
Puerto Rico del alma (My soul's Puerto Rico)

Estrada wrote the song at the request of his younger brother Eloy, who was drafted during World War II and stationed in Panama. As the story goes, he was homesick, and in a letter asked his brother to write him a song capturing the longing he felt for his island. In the decades that followed, the song was recorded by all kinds of artists, Puerto Rican and international. Its popularity exploded when Mexican singer Javier Solís released his version in 1965.

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Over the decades, "En Mi Viejo San Juan" has tugged at the heartstrings of millions of Puerto Ricans. When Estrada wrote it, the biggest wave of migration in Puerto Rico's history was just beginning. U.S. government policy to industrialize the island destroyed the farms on which most Puerto Ricans worked. Hundreds of thousands of people left for the U.S., where the post-World War II economy was booming.

Today, a different exodus is under way. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the island as it struggles under a recession going on its 13th year; billions of dollars of public debt that have decimated the government's ability to provide basic services; and austerity and budget cuts imposed by a federal board that Congress appointed to take control of the island's finances. One estimate by that board predicts that Puerto Rico will lose another 20 percent of its population in the next five years.

Though "En Mi Viejo San Juan" is nearly 80 years old and resonates most strongly with an older generation of Puerto Ricans, it still provides a soundtrack for the heartache that people old and young feel over this somber reality. Its final words, reflecting an eternal hope despite the circumstances, may be the reason why:

Me voy (I'm leaving)
Pero un dia volveré (But I'll come back someday)
A buscar mi querer (To search for my love)
A soñar otra vez (To dream again)
En mi Viejo San Juan (In my Old San Juan.)

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Go to Puerto Rico, stroll the blue cobblestone streets of Old San Juan and it won't be long before you hear it drifting out of the doorway of a restaurant or bar or played by a street musician tucked under a stone archway on a rainy day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN MI VIEJO SAN JUAN")

SHAPIRO: This song is "En Mi Viejo San Juan" - "In My Old San Juan." It's become an unofficial anthem for millions of Puerto Ricans who've left the island and longed to return. NPR's Adrian Florido brings us this story as part of our American Anthem series.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Puerto Ricans have been leaving their island for much of its modern history - forced too often by economic necessity or war or, as we saw recently, natural disasters like Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. During World War II, a young man named Eloy Estrada left when the U.S. government came calling on its colony in the Caribbean.

EMANUEL DUFRASNE GONZALEZ: He was sent to Panama when there was (speaking Spanish) - when there was the draft.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: Emanuel Dufrasne is a music professor at the University of Puerto Rico. And as the story goes, he says, Eloy Estrada was homesick. And in a letter home, he asked his big brother, the composer Noel Estrada, to write him a song capturing the longing he felt to be back on his beloved island. What Noel came up with was "En Mi Viejo San Juan," written in 1943 and first recorded by el Trio Vegabajeno in 1946.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN MI VIEJO SAN JUAN")

TRIO VEGABAJENO: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: "In my old San Juan," Estrada's lyrics begin, "how many dreams I forged during the years of my youth."

DUFRASNE: He's saying that in one afternoon, he left towards a foreign country because destiny had it that way. But his heart stayed in front of the sea in old San Juan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN MI VIEJO SAN JUAN")

VEGABAJENO: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: As it happened, the song coincided with the start of the biggest wave of migration in Puerto Rico's history. From 1945 and into the '60s, hundreds of thousands of people left. They were drawn to the U.S. by its booming post-World War economy. They were also pushed by U.S. policies that industrialized Puerto Rico but destroyed the farms on which most people worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN MI VIEJO SAN JUAN")

VEGABAJENO: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye," the song says.

DUFRASNE: It has a, let's say, an enchanting simplicity. And that makes it a good candidate to be a musical success.

FLORIDO: In the decades that followed, "En Mi Viejo San Juan" was recorded by all kinds of artists, Puerto Rican and international. Its popularity exploded when Mexican singer Javier Solis released this version in 1965.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN MI VIEJO SAN JUAN")

JAVIER SOLIS: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: By the time this recording came out, many people who had hoped to be gone only a few years found they still hadn't returned, a tragedy reflected in the song's most poignant lyric.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EN MI VIEJO SAN JUAN")

SOLIS: (Singing in Spanish).

DUFRASNE: And the part where it says (speaking Spanish), that his hair has become white because he has been away a long time and then he feels that (speaking Spanish), death is calling me. (Speaking Spanish) - that part, I can get very emotional because I imagine that person. He is close to death, and then he wants to return to his homeland. And he cannot.

FRANCISCO MARRERO AND BRAULIO SALVA: (Playing music).

FLORIDO: On a recent afternoon in Old San Juan, musicians Francisco Marrero and Braulio Salva played this song for me on guitar and the cuatro puertorriqueno.

MARRERO AND SALVA: (Playing music).

FLORIDO: Marrero works for Puerto Rico's National Foundation for Popular Culture. And we went for a walk through Old San Juan.

FRANCISCO MARRERO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "We Puerto Ricans have such a deep love for our homeland," Marrero said, "a love that transcends social and political and class differences. And it's a love that often grows much deeper and stronger among Puerto Ricans who've left."

That was true for those who left around when "En Mi Viejo San Juan" was written, and it's still true. Ana Margarita Irizarry left to study in Chicago in 2005, the year before Puerto Rico's economy plunged into a recession that it's still struggling under. When they were ready to return to the island, she and her husband searched for jobs but found nothing.

ANA MARGARITA IRIZARRY: I started to sing to myself "En Mi Viejo San Juan" the moment I realized it was going to be hard to move back. And as the economy got worse and progressively worse, as it has, that option felt further away.

FLORIDO: When they could, they'd come to Puerto Rico to visit.

IRIZARRY: And that's when - every time I would leave on the plane, that's the song, you know, I would put - like, it was like the soundtrack in my head. Right? That song would just, like, make me cry every time.

MARRERO AND SALVA: (Playing music).

FLORIDO: Last year, after 13 years away, Irizarry finally came home. She considers herself lucky. Many never get the chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RESIDENTE: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: This is Rene Perez, a popular rapper better known as Residente. He made his homecoming last year, after more than three years off the island.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RESIDENTE: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: His show filled Puerto Rico's biggest baseball stadium. It was eight months after Hurricane Maria. Many people who'd fled the storm's aftermath still hadn't returned. And emotions were raw because the exodus was continuing by the thousands, as budget cuts and austerity imposed by a federal board that took control of the island's finances have made it even harder for people to get by.

Then there was this surprising and reflective moment. Residente invited Justin Purtill, a guitarist, to come out onstage and riff for a while.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN PURTILL: (Playing guitar).

FLORIDO: It took a moment for the packed stadium to realize what Purtill was playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PURTILL: (Playing guitar).

FLORIDO: When they did, Residente raised his arms, inviting the entire stadium to sing one of this island's most enduring anthems.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish).

FLORIDO: Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish).

PURTILL: (Playing guitar).

(APPLAUSE, CHEERING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.