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Walidah Imarisha
Date Published: 
June 01, 2006

Taking its name from The People’s Boricua Army, aka Los Macheteros –– a clandestine radical military organization in Puerto Rico fighting against colonialism –– this film is a challenge, an interrogation on struggle, a call to arms. Designed to make people question, to make people uncomfortable, and above all to make them think, New York native Vagabond’s new release explores the concept of terrorism, violence and freedom in a post 9/11 world. Armed with a soundtrack by Puerto Rican punk band Ricanstruction, who say their music is only as loud as the bombs the US military dropped on the island of Vieques, Machetero demands to be heard.

The film tells the story of Pedro Taino, a Puerto Rican “terrorist” who uses violence as a weapon against the colonization of his island. The film is tied together by the disembodied dialogue between Pedro and a French journalist who comes to interview him while he is in prison. The interview is the common theme throughout the movie, often as faceless voices over harsh and beautiful shots. Jean and Pedro meet face to face on screen in the middle of the film, and the confrontation and begrudging respect that grows is captivating.

Underneath this is the story of a young drug dealer/rebel who is inspired by Pedro’s example and his journey to understanding and self-discovery. Pedro’s character and the young rebel’s often blend together in a way that questions how much things have changed in the world for oppressed people of color.

Even though the vision for Machetero was conceived several years ago, the assassination of Los Macheteros leader Filiberto Ojeda Rios on Sept. 23, 2005 by FBI agents outside his door has lent the film a frighteningly prophetic and profound relevance. He was wanted for the 1983 robbery of a Connecticut Wells Fargo armored truck which netted $7 million for the revolutionary organization. Rios, 72 years old, was left to bleed to death on his doorstep. In the wake of Rios’ murder, the FBI has targeted over 400 people who support Puerto Rican independence from the US and in early February 2006, they raided the homes of numerous independentistas on the island.


In this context, Machetero, which depicts scenes of police raids, brutal interrogations, imprisonment of freedom fighters and the criminalization of young Puerto Ricans, blends fact and fiction together in an eerie and haunting creation that links the genocide of the Tainos, the original inhabitants of Puerto Rico, down to the “commonwealth” colonial status the island languishes under today.
One aspect that adds heavily to that blurring is the role of Pedro’s mother, played by former Puerto Rican political prisoner of war, Dylicia Pagan. Pagan, who served nearly 20 years for seditious conspiracy, offers a gravity to the film that is unparalleled.

Vagabond said about the film, “The theme of the film is centered on the unending cycle of violence. The recent events of 9/11 and the refusal of the corporate controlled media in this country to critically look at the situation were the inspiration of the film. Terrorism is not something that grows up in a vacuum. There is a cause and effect like anything else in the world.”

Machetero, which Vagabond calls “an allegorical narrative,” is at once a cinematic innovation, an extended music video, a political education class, a manifesto (or anti-manifesto, in the words of Pedro Taino) and a history lesson. It is a Puerto Punk opera with a cast of mostly non professional people whose realness is both heartfelt and immediate. The style of the filmmaking sabotages linear time lines and smudges characters. Interwoven through the film, silence is alternated with sudden splices of loud ass punk songs that create a soundtrack as jarring, disturbing and captivating as the film.

Machetero is an incredibly necessary film for the content it unflinchingly explores, for its interrogation of who exactly is the terrorist in these days and times and for the innovations in film techniques that blur the line of reality and fiction. Because for oppressed people, our fiction is often our reality.

Machetero offers no simple answers. It doesn’t even ask simple questions. It does demand both a recognition and a reckoning, and it must be answered with something.