Musa Syeed, Director, Valley of Saints
On my first morning in Puerto Rico, kites filled the air over El Morro, one of the old Spanish fortresses on the coast. I stepped onto the field, filled with summer camp kids and their families, with two aims: to get someone to let me fly their kite and to get over my fears and use my long dormant Spanish. I would seamlessly weave myself into the scene.
I made a couple attempts, trying to pretend I spoke the language well. But I was met with blank stares. So, I decided on a different approach: I admitted my ignorance. I asked a guy how to say kite in Spanish. He told me the local word was “chiringa.”
We struck up the usual tourist conversation. And when I told him that I’m American, he replied, “But you don’t look American.” As I tried to explain my family background, his kid lost her grip on her kite, and he asked me to hold onto his kite as he chased the runaway one. So, I took the spool.
I had spoken in Spanish. I was flying a kite. But I didn’t feel like I was part of the scene.
Now, I’ve heard the “you don’t look American” line everywhere I’ve traveled, including within America. But with the complexities of Puerto Rican identity, I guess I had expected the statement to be more nuanced.
Thankfully, these questions of identity were teased out in every Film Forward screening, where we had more time–and top-notch translation!–to dig into these topics. My film Valley of Saints, along with Beasts of the Southern Wild, sparked very relevant and pressing questions about belonging and responsibility to one’s home.
In Puerto Rico, this conversation usually centers around the question of staying or going to the U.S. Many young professionals have found it difficult to find employment in Puerto Rico, so they are leaving, in the thousands, to the U.S. There are now more Puerto Ricans in the “mainland” than in Puerto Rico. Most of the young artists and professionals were upset with the loss of their best and brightest. Many affirmed that they would never leave, that they were dedicated to building up their society.
This was all very familiar to me, since much the same is happening in Kashmir. With armed conflict, corruption, and instability always looming, many Kashmiris–including the protagonist of my film–can’t wait to get out. But it’s always a bittersweet escape.
The conversation at the screenings eventually turned less black-and-white. Instead of posing the choices as leaving or staying, one man suggested the role of the “pilgrim”. Perhaps it was necessary to take a journey away from home, to gather experience and perspective on that path, and bring that back to share.
All this made me think more about where do I fit in. If I was a “pilgrim”, where would I start, where would I go, and where would I return to? There are many places I could call home, but I’ve never wanted to have to make the choice to be attached to one.
On the plane back to New York, I came across this quote from Maya Angelou, which crystallized the issue:
“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”