It is difficult to sit still when the rattlesnake makes a “scratch, scratch, scratch.” Sound from a guiro syncopates against the rhyming lyrics of a Puerto Rican plena. Pedro Rivera and Susan Zeig’s film, Plena Is Work, Plena Is Song, travels from the sugar plantations of Puerto Rico to the docks of San Juan to the streets of New York’s barrio, in search of this unique musical form.
Everywhere the camera roams it finds plena singers, pleneros, combining a rhythmic mix of politics, comments on daily life and love, to create a spicy Caribbean stew of protest, satire, and joy.
The plena’s roots go back to the early 1900s when the majority of Puerto Ricans were peasants, artisans, or farmers. By the late 1920s RCA had created its first plena recording star, Canario. One woman, who recalls working for only 50-cents a day, says, “In those days the poor person’s only source of enjoyment and news was the plena.”
New pleneros, like Mon Rivera and Rafael Cortijo, donned suits and bowties in an effort to move their songs off the streets and into venues like New York’s Palladium and the Tropicana, or into American living rooms through television during the 1950s. Their plenas still enlivened every imaginable topic: unrequited love, mechanization, funerals, unsafe factory conditions, and many more.
During the 1960s the form’s commercial viability declined, but the film captures its continuing influence as a large, plena-throbbing throng of people attend the 1985 funeral of popular singer Ismael Rivera. A young man takes the filmmakers on a tour of his shanty town in the shadow of San Juan’s skyscrapers. He tells how his father taught him the meaning of plenas, how the pleneros helped build the city, leaving lingering rhythms in the slabs of concrete and in the hearts of the people.