They are funny, and the often absurd Puerto Rican political landscape gives them plenty of material. They are El Cangrimán, El Rata and Oscar Marrano, the three main writers of the Puerto Rican online-based paper El Ñame [ES] (“The Yam”), a “clear send-up” of the famous digital satire paper The Onion. As an example of their humor, El Ñame recently published the story “The Puerto Rican Government Prepares a Simulacrum of a Mining Accident, Just in Case,” [ES] in reference to the miner's accident in Chile which attracted global media coverage. Although its absurd, Puerto Ricans expect anything from the government.
El Cangrimán, El Rata and Oscar Marrano have been writing fake stories for El Ñame since they founded it in 2005. It has grown immensely since then: it receives around 1,000 daily visits, has close to 7,000 members in its Facebook fan page, and almost 2,000 email subscribers. It also has a Twitter feed.
I interviewed El Cangrimán, El Rata and Oscar Marrano on behalf of Global Voices. They have a great sense of humor, and are very funny, but they also are pretty serious about their work.
Global Voices (GV)- What motivated you to make use of political satire in a digital publication?
El Rata: El Ñame actually started as a personal writing outlet between El Cangrimán and me — we never really intended other people to read (much less like!) the stories we wrote, and to a certain degree, I still can't believe people DO read and like our stuff. The fact that we use political satire came as part of the “personal catharsis” aspect of writing: we write about things we find funny; things we find ridiculous; and things that piss the hell out of us. It just so happens that Puerto Rico is a never-ending source of political ineptitude, so a lot of topics that inspire us to write are borne out of the political mess in which our beloved island is mired.
El Cangrimán: As El Rata stated, El Ñame started as sort of a a private joke between him and myself, and it is my outlet for the outrageous and appalling news that seem to come out from Puerto Rico every day. As for using satire, besides the obvious reason that laughing about things helps me keep my sanity, I use it because I think a good laugh can open people up to have a constructive dialog about the, well… unfunny things that Puerto Ricans have to deal with every day.
Oscar: Also, we initially thought that if we had a really cool blog we'd be able to meet girls. Unfortunately, it hasn't really worked out that way. Perhaps our dry and often dark sense of humor projects our general lack of sensibility better than we'd hoped it would.
GV- What have been some of the issues you have covered in El Ñame?
El Rata: We've covered pretty much anything that's been part of the zeitgeist of Puerto Rico and the world during these years we've been publishing our rag: stories having to do with the judicial process against Aníbal Acevedo Vilá (the previous governor of Puerto Rico); stories pertaining what the current administration has been up to; and stories having to do with whatever is happening on the island or around the world. We have made a conscious effort to satirize the failings of all political parties because, frankly, being “slanted” towards a particular party simply blinds you to making fun of its own stupidities — and we don't want to limit our sources of material!
El Cangrimán: One thing I find myself writing a lot about is about the gross ineptitude of many of Puerto Rico's elected officials, who do things that seem taken right out of our fake headlines. When you have a senator (a senator!) like Evelyn Vázquez that seriously proposes to look for a sunken treasure and use it to fund the Central American and Caribbean Games in Mayagüez… You just have to write about that!
Another pet peeve of mine is what I believe to be the sad state of affairs of the news media in Puerto Rico. Just a couple of weeks ago, Primera Hora [ES] dedicated a front page to the fact that Puerto Rican women do not like to be woken up by their partners in the middle of the night for sex. The biggest newspaper, El Nuevo Día [ES], recently gave an inordinate amount of headlines to the divorce of Roberto Alomar and model Maripily, something that quite frankly belongs in the tabloids. Meanwhile, The Economist points out that Puerto Rico is in a 4 year recession and that gets only a passing mention with no serious follow up analysis.
Oscar: One thing we take pride of is the breadth of topics that we are able to cover without displaying even a hint of knowledge or expertise. We continuously make a conscious effort to show our total ignorance in topics as diverse as sports, technology, and even science. One would think that after writing so many inflammatory or offensive stories our conscience would be killing us, but our lack of remorse is only surpassed by our ability to rationalize our M.O.: if we don't write fake stories and spin the truth absurdly, someone in WKAQ or El Nuevo Día will. And we absolutely cannot have that!
GV- How do you use humor as form of social critique?
El Rata: We often use sarcasm and irony subtly (and sometimes not so subtly!) to criticize something that we find ridiculous. I find that if you state outright what you want to say, you simply inflame people who disagree with your point of view; however, disguising your opinion in humor, you allow them to see things from a different point of view without feeling “attacked.” It is said that “many a true thing is said in jest,” and never is that more true than with political satire.
El Cangrimán: I think humor can be a very powerful tool to have a meaningful conversation about touchy or controversial subjects. If I can get my reader laughing right off the bat with my fake headline, he or she will be more receptive about what I'm critiquing. Just as importantly, if the reader disagrees with my point of view but I made him or her laugh anyway, he or she will hopefully respond back voicing the opposing point of view, if not with more humor, at least with a cordial tone. It can completely change the dynamics of the conversation.
Oscar: However, we have to keep in mind that sarcasm as a form of social critique is not for everyone, and there is always someone who will take exception to our jokes. And this is understandable, given the subject matter that we comment on. We sometimes find ourselves “voting” on whether a particular story or idea may be too harsh, but usually the decisive factor is whether we think the story is funny or not, and not how potentially offensive it could be. Of course, it also helps that we publish our potentially offensive critique in such a “reputable” newspaper such as El Ñame, where very few ideas can ever be too offensive. For the most part, our readers know what to expect from us.
GV- How would you describe the blogosphere and social media networks in Puerto Rico?
El Rata: The way I see it, the blogosphere and social media networks in Puerto Rico are still in their nascent period: they are certainly starting to take hold (to the point where the “old media” such as El Nuevo Día and Primera Hora now boast having “blogs” as part of their publications), but, due mainly to the fact that the Internet itself is not as prevalent as in other countries, the reach of bloggers and social media networks is not as broad as it could be… yet. Certainly the new generations are getting more and more of their information online, so with time I am sure we will see a shift in how information is dispersed, and we will find that more and more people learn about what's going on in the world through online publications and social media networks.
El Cangrimán: I think the Puerto Rican blogosphere is dominated mainly by pure opinion blogs and in that sense, there is still a lot of growing up to do. For example, I love Nate Silver's blog fivethirtyeight.com (which is now a part of the New York Times). Nate is a statistician and his specialty is doing statistical analysis of political polls, and in 2009 he uncovered possible fraud by a pollster routinely used by major news agencies. That is the kind of blogger I would like to see more of in Puerto Rico: professional fact checkers.
Oscar: But even at this early stage (that El Rata was referring to), the potential of the blogosphere as an information medium is there. We have seen instances recently where traditional media outlets have used material published in local blogs. For example: TV gossip show Dando Candela used several blog posts from Evaristo Salgado's blog, Sorpréndeme [ES], as source material. Also, El Nuevo Día relied on at least one occasion on the opinion of blogger Robi, from Robi News [ES], for a sports story. Whether this will result in a local version of ESPN columnist Bill Simmons (who published his very successful Boston Sports Guy blog before being hired as a full time ESPN columnist) is debatable, but it shows promise.