For Those Missing Puerto Rico, 'En Mi Viejo San Juan' Is Both Anthem And Lament The official anthem of the capital city, "En Mi Viejo San Juan" also serves as a nostalgic lament, evoking memories of the island for the many forced to leave it behind.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/734164799/734496986" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
For Those Missing Puerto Rico, A Song About Dreaming Of Home

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/734164799/734496986" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

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)

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.