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March 11, 2021, 10:38 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Fully bilingual, no voiceovers: How one podcast centers the Puerto Rican experience

Every aspect of La Brega, from the scripts to the sound design to the original music and illustrations by Puerto Rican artists, was produced in a way that would speak to a Puerto Rican audience.

How much do you really know about Puerto Rico?

The island, an unincorporated territory of the United States since 1898, often makes it into mainstream, English-language news in a way that’s removed from its people. Stories focus on the likelihood of a statehood bill passing, the island’s debt crisis, or natural disasters. The decisions about those things, due to Puerto Rico’s status as neither a sovereign nation or a state, are made more than 1,500 miles away from the island, in Washington D.C.

It’s no wonder then that the term “la brega” or “bregar” gets used so often. “La brega” expresses the way someone deals with or hustles through a problem, an injustice, that they can’t fix.

To Alana Casanova-Burgess, a reporter and producer for WNYC, “La Brega” could almost be summed up by the pothole problem in Puerto Rico. Potholes are rarely fixed properly and so people have to do all sorts of things to get around them.

She described a video in Caguas, Puerto Rico, where a water truck couldn’t make it to its destination because it hit a pothole.

“There’s a lot happening here,” she says. “A truck filled with water tried to reach a community that had been without it, then that truck gets swallowed by a hole in the road, that was caused by a broken water pipe. And lastly, as if adding insult to injury, the water in the truck was lost to the pothole.”

This is just the first episode of La Brega: Stories of the Puerto Rican Experience, a bilingual podcast series about the island’s past and present. It’s a co-production between WNYC Studios and Futuro Studios, the podcast and programming arm of Futuro Media.

La Brega has seven episodes, and each one is produced in English and Spanish. It’s one of the few fully bilingual podcasts series that services audiences in two languages. Vice’s Chapo: Kingpin on Trial also has bilingual episodes; ¿Qué Pasa, Midwest? is presented in English and Spanish and tells stories about Latinxs in the heartland.

The idea came out of a lunch between Casanova-Burgess and executive producer Marlon Bishop at Futuro Studios. They both cared about Puerto Rico and were frustrated by the mainstream coverage they were seeing of the island. After they developed the idea for a deeper narrative podcast about Puerto Rican history, they got the green light from their respective organizations.

“We wanted to serve, first and foremost, the Puerto Rican audience, and that included both the Puerto Rican diaspora and Puerto Ricans on the island,” Bishop said. “[Editor] Luis Trelles brought up the idea of doing it entirely dual-language. If we don’t do that, then we’re not serving a Puerto Rican audience. How do we make a project that really represents the community, and that is equitable in how it’s created?”

Futuro Studios had produced bilingual podcasts before, but it was a new experiment for WNYC Studios. Neither, however, had experience in producing a podcast like this one during a pandemic. Casanova-Burgess did her first interviews on the island in February 2020, and once the team realized the pandemic was here to stay, they had to rework some of their plans and come up with safety protocols. In some of the interviews, you can tell that people are wearing masks as they speak.

La Brega’s stories range from U.S. surveillance in Puerto Rico to quash the pro-independence movement to the David vs. Goliath-like basketball game of the United States vs. Puerto Rico in the 2004 Athens Olympics. The episodes not only center regular Puerto Ricans, but they focus on informing Puerto Ricans first, rather than diluting and over-explaining for an American, non-Spanish-speaking audience.

“With [the secret surveillance files known as las carpetas], there’s a rich history that a lot of people in the United States don’t know about,” Casanova-Burgess said. “There’s also a Puerto Rican audience who doesn’t know that history. And then there’s a third level in that episode, which is the actual story of this family and their belief that there was an informant close to them. We were looking for stories that would be surprising and new and fresh, even to a Puerto Rican audience. Once you hit that bar, it’s obviously going to be new and surprising to, to an English-speaking, non-Puerto Rican audience.”

Eleven out of 12 people on La Brega’s production team identify as Puerto Rican. The episodes feature collaborations with journalists regardless of their audio experience, including Puerto Rico’s Centro de Periodismo Investigativo. Casanova-Burgess held workshops over Zoom to train journalists who didn’t have audio experience.

“We wanted to have everything be very lyrical and have a strong point of view,” Bishop said. “We weren’t doing a cold, distant report. Every person had a very close relationship to the topic.”

One way La Brega centers Puerto Rican voices is that it doesn’t use voiceovers. Casanova-Burgess and Bishop instead opted for bespoke translations. Where possible, all of the sources were interviewed in their dominant language (either English or Spanish) and then in their secondary language. When that wasn’t possible, or when archival footage was only available in one language, the reporter would explain what was being said in the clip either before or after it was played.

“We wanted to make sure that we weren’t making two different things from scratch, because that wouldn’t make any sense,” Bishop said. “But at the same time, we didn’t want to just take the easiest road. We wanted to take the road that led to the best listening experience in both languages. We’d write one script in the dominant language of whoever the reporter was. Once that was fully edited and fully completed, we would do the translation.”

In the episode about Levittown, a suburb of San Juan built to emulate the middle-class lifestyle of Levittown, Long Island (minus the racism), Casanova-Burgess was able to use archival tape from WNYC from the 1950s when Eastern Airlines ran its first nonstop flights from New York to San Juan. WNYC sent a radio crew and had tape of the ceremony being conducted in English and Spanish.

In the Basketball Warriors episode, reporter Julio Ricardo Varela interviewed basketball player Rolando Hourruitiner about how his team beat the United States in an Olympic basketball game. In English, Rolando described it as a “David vs. Goliath” matchup, but in his interview in Spanish, he also said it was like the Taínos vs. Spanish conquistador Diego Salcedo, a reference that would hit home for Puerto Ricans.

“I was hanging out with some friends who were saying how great it is to hear Puerto Rican Spanish because they were always told growing up that they had to mellow their accents in professional settings and polish off the edges of that very particular Boricua way of speaking,” Casanova-Burgess said. “[Our producers] Ezequiel Rodríguez Andino and Victor Emanuelle Ramos really looked through a lot of the scripts and thought about the moments where we could more Puerto Rican, for lack of a better phrase, and be a little funnier.”

Every aspect of the podcast, from the scripts to the sound design to the original music and illustrations by Puerto Rican artists, was produced in a way that would speak to a Puerto Rican audience. Since it premiered on February 24, some of the feedback the team has gotten is that without the bilingual component, many listeners wouldn’t have been able to access it.

“We’re going beyond the traditional audio journalism bubble,” Casanova-Burgess said, “so an audience beyond that bubble can enjoy it.”

POSTED     March 11, 2021, 10:38 a.m.
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