A national geographic Proposal

Puerto Rico Mix Tape:

Letters on Identity and the American Experience


Identity is the subject of conversations and debates happening around the world, from dining room tables to the highest political offices and global institutions. Complex issues that have arisen post colonization are crossing paths with an intensifying global migration crisis due to climate change, war, and economic disparity. 

These themes are central to the American story of Puerto Rico.


a brief history

There is considerable controversy around the indigenous people of Puerto Rico, those whom Christopher Columbus encountered when he arrived on the island in 1493. While the mainstream story is that the Taino people died out as victims of disease and slaughter within decades of Spanish arrival, in recent years, a geneticist at the University of Puerto Rico has found that more than three in five islanders are descended through the maternal line from American Indian foremothers.

Four centuries of Spanish colonial government influenced the island's cultural landscapes with waves of African slaves, Canarian, and Andalusian settlers. Spain's distant administrative control continued up to the end of the 19th century, helping to produce a distinctive creole Hispanic culture and language that combined elements from the Native Americans, Africans, and Iberians.

In 1898, following the Spanish–American War, the United States acquired Puerto Rico. After Puerto Rico became a United States “protectorate” in the 1950s, Puerto Rican migration to New York City increased exponentially. Puerto Rican communities sprung up in Manhattan neighborhoods such as the Lower East Side (Loisaida) and East Harlem (El Barrio).



Best known as Nuyorican, New Yorkers of Puerto Rican ancestry also define themselves as AmeRican, Borinquen, Boricua, or simply Rican. Reflecting the complex nature of the Puerto Rican diaspora, “Nuyorican” has been popularized not only as a cultural term for Puerto Ricans living in New York City, but also for Puerto Ricans living throughout the United States. 

'Being a Nuyorican is this unique genetic blend of African, native and European.. and whipping it with the fast groove of the greatest, hippest, cosmopolitan city in the world; the New York Experience.' – Diana Gitesha Hernandez


hurricane maria

In September of 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated the American Island of Puerto Rico. Nearly 6 months later, the impact of the natural disaster has exposed the depth of the economic crisis Puerto Ricans were already dealing with, and the extent to which the convoluted political and economical relationship with America has created such vulnerability.

One year on, how are Puerto Ricans responding to the challenging landscape of recovery? 


proposed story format

The concept of the story is 'Puerto Rico Mix Tape' and will feature letters/essays/interviews/poetry from Puerto Ricans and Nuyoricans across a wide spectrum – island-born, mainland-born, living in Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican diaspora living in mainland USA.

Each subject will describe their view on their own identity, creating an anthology of the Puerto Rican experience at this critical time, one year on from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

Each character's story will be photographed on location - where they live, where they work, how they see themselves and their families. The story will be shot in both Puerto Rico and New York City, creating visual texture and contrasting perspectives. 

Additionally, we will shoot portraits of each subject from similar angles and depth of field, to create a series that highlights the incredible diversity of Puerto Rican people.




Puerto Rico

Colourful houses perched seaside in Old San Juan.

Doors painted with PR flags.

Dancing in the street, neighbourhood markets, vibrant street life.

Aerials of tropical forests, dirt roads leading to exquisite turquoise water and white sand beaches.


East Harlem (El Barrio) and Lower East Side, NYC

Lower East Side sidewalks, gritty and grey.

PR flags, brightly painted on shop gates, hanging from windows, flapping in the wind above El Barrio

Snowy days in East Harlem, brick buildings, zigzag fire escapes, yellow cabs.




farmers and restaurateurs - puerto rico

Food and agriculture are the very base of tradition and culture. 

Before the hurricanes of 2017, Puerto Rico was experiencing a farming renaissance, spearheaded by young farmers and a new approach shaped by sustainable, cooperative, and eco-agricultural practices. Farmers markets were springing up all over the island and the restaurant industry flourished, featuring farm to table menus and boosting local agricultural enterprise.

vegetable and fruit farmer • coffee farmer • restaurant owner • chef • bar tender


puerto ricans in military service 

Since 1917, more than 200,000 American citizens from Puerto Rico have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, serving in every conflict since World War I. Currently, more than 10,000 active duty military personnel from Puerto Rico serve across the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The U.S. Navy's largest training area for the U.S. Atlantic Fleet used to be in Puerto Rico and in the Atlantic Ocean surrounding the island, but this was ended after President George W. Bush ordered the closure of the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station and the Vieques Island training grounds. The size of the overall military-related community in Puerto Rico is estimated to be 100,000 individuals.

Puerto Rican military officer • Brigadier General Irene Zoppi • soldier in combat 


writers, poets, musicians, photographers, bloggers -usa and Puerto rico

Puerto Rico's arts and literary history reflect its society and culture. The work of Puerto Rican poets, musicians, dancers, and novelists form a deep and expressive view on colonial rule and love for their homeland.

Nuyorican artists and writers express their fluid identity—which transcends state and national boundaries—by employing innovative narrative forms, language and themes in their creative work.

Esmerelda Santiago • Willie Colon • Bolivar Arellano • Nuyorican Poets Cafe


puerto rican parade - new york city

The annual Puerto Rican Day Parade marches along Fifth Avenue from 44th Street to 86th Street. It has grown to become one of the largest parades in New York City, and with nearly two million spectators annually, it is one of the largest outdoor events in the United States. The parade is held in honor of the nearly four million inhabitants of Puerto Rico and all people of Puerto Rican birth or heritage residing in the mainland U.S.

The parade attracts many celebrities, activists and politicians, both Puerto Rican and of Puerto Rican heritage. This year, the parade will take place on June 10, 2018. 

parade king/queen • street food vendor • dancer • float builder


activists / politicians

Race and ethnic relations, the movement for Puerto Rican independence, and more recently the aftermath of Hurricane Maria have created a culture of activism. Both island-born Puerto Rican and Nuyorican activists from a broad range of society advocate for social change - from community organizers to A-list celebrities.

Ana Irma Rivera Lassén • Lin Manuel Miranda • Rosa Clemente • Pablo Guzmán 


scholars, scientists and athletes

From the US Supreme Court to NASA and the Olympics (Puerto Rico has their own Olympic team), there are Puerto Rican leaders in the worlds biggest leagues. How has their complex identity played out in their success?

Sonia Sotomayor • Amri Hernández-Pellerano • Monica Puig • Otto Flores


elders and youth

Elders offer many years of life experience, wisdom and are witnesses to generational change. A youthful perspective is fresh, naive and hopeful. These views have less filters, less agendas and create opportunities for beautiful, spontaneous portrait photography.

elder man • elder woman • young students • small children



Puerto Ricans haven't 'owned' their identity in over 500 years, resulting in a rich mix of influences and fierce variations in cultural expression. Caribbean lifestyle and a strong European heritage meet American commercialization to create a complex cultural landscape.

This highly visual, deeply personal piece offers a modern view on identity in a globalized world, and explores a slice of the American story that is more relevant than ever before.