Ramón Emeterio Betances is one of the most important figures in the history of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Called by many “the father of the Puerto Rican homeland,” he was instrumental in the Puerto Rican abolition movement in the 19th century, one of the intellectual leaders of the pro-independence movement and the 1868 rebellion known as the the Lares Uprising (El Grito de Lares), as well as being key in the independence movements of Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He trained as a physician and surgeon in Paris, selflessly offering his help to the poor, for which he was also called the “Father of the Poor”. Betances was also a journalist, essayist, poet, novelist and ambassador of Puerto Rico in all but title.
In spite of all of this, Betances is an illustrious stranger to many Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rican official history barely mentions him, and many people on the island perhaps only know his name.
For this reason the filmmaker Tito Román Rivera was given the task of creating a documentary film about Betances, an idea that emerged during his studies at the International School of Film and Television of San Antonio de los Baños in Cuba. The film titled El Antillano [es] [The Antillean in English] offers an overview and vindication of the life of one of the main proponents of the Antillean Confederation as a way to curb U.S. expansionism. The magazine Diálogo Digital [es] interviewed Román Rivera about the genesis of his project:
A partir de la necesidad de que se hiciera un primer proyecto de largometraje que presentara a esta figura, que es totalmente desconocida en el País por la gran mayoría de los puertorriqueños, nuestra intención ha sido desde el principio crear un documental que presentara generalmente la biografía de Ramón Emeterio Betances, pero que a la vez fuera atractivo para la juventud.
Starting from the need to create the first feature film about this figure, completely unknown in this country by most Puerto Ricans, our intention from the beginning has been to create a documentary that in general represented a biography of the life of Ramón Emeterio Betances, but at the same time is attractive to youth.
The film, produced by Román Rivera’s company Caserío Films [es] is a completely independent production. It is worth noting that the film has so far not received any help from the Film Corporation of Puerto Rico; instead, it got a good part of the necessary funds through a Kickstarter campaign, and then received help from the Puerto Rican Endowment for the Humanities during postproduction.
The documentary premiered the night of April 7 at the University of Puerto Rico's theater in Río Piedras, on the eve of the 187th anniversary of Betances’ birth [es]. The reception from the audience was extremely positive, and the theater was filled almost to capacity. Román Rivera also received, in a message to the public, a call from the political prisoner Oscar López Rivera from the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, United States, which caused much excitement among those present.