What Happened to Santiago?: The Legacy of Puerto Rico’s Lone Oscar Nomination

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What Happened to Santiago?: The Legacy of Puerto Rico’s Lone Oscar Nomination

Our engagement with awards shows is endlessly contradictory. For every thinkpiece that claims the Oscars to be anti-art or irrelevant, there are others that celebrate each new milestone the awards body reaches. After all, the increased attention towards films like Parasite (2019) and Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) following the former’s historic Best Picture win in 2020 and the latter’s landmark Best Actress nomination this year, prove that the Oscars are valuable when it comes to shedding light on the kinds of movies that generally fly under people’s radars. Perhaps it’s for this reason that we tend to refer to movies in tandem with awards so often, regardless of whether or not they merit discussions that go beyond what they did or didn’t win. When we say that awards don’t matter, what we really mean is that they do. Directed by Jacobo Morales and released in 1989, the Puerto Rican romantic dramedy What Happened to Santiago (née Lo que le pasó a Santiago) is the quintessential example of a movie whose legacy hinges almost entirely on the Academy Awards—for better or worse.

Its place in the island’s film canon is often reduced to it being Puerto Rico’s first and only movie nominated in the Oscars’ Best International Film category—which, at the time, was named “Best Foreign Language Film.” The reason it stands alone? In 2011, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revised its rules for the category, barring all U.S. territories (including Puerto Rico) from participating. However, the category wouldn’t be revised as “Best International Film” until 2019, making this decision egregious at the time: Considering PR’s relatively humble industry and the Academy’s insular nature, it’s unlikely that a Puerto Rican production stands a chance at being nominated in any of the general races, even if it were to receive a campaign, which makes What Happened to Santiago that much more of an outlier—and the island’s ineligibility in the International category all the more unfortunate.

Despite its anomalous place in Oscars history, What Happened to Santiago’s recognition at the 62nd Academy Awards seems not to have translated into much discussion of the film’s merits in the decades since, with the few retrospectives on the movie focusing mainly on its nomination. As such, it would probably come as a surprise to many that it’s actually quite an oddball of a film—one whose Oscar-bait premise takes an audacious turn in the third act, with a plot twist that comes out of left field, resulting in something entirely bizarre.

What Happened to Santiago centers on Santiago Rodrígiez (Tommy Muñiz), a 65-year-old curmudgeon who has just retired from the accounting job he has been working for 40 years. He has a 35-year-old daughter, Nereida (Johanna Rosaly), with whom he doesn’t see eye-to-eye, and a son, Eddie (René Monclova), who is going through a religious phase after completing a drug rehabilitation program. Eddie is an artist and the career-focused Nereida is in the process of divorcing her husband, which Santiago insists is taking a toll on their young son. Clearly, there’s a generational conflict going on here: Nereida is a modern, idealistic woman whereas her father seems disillusioned by the present, seemingly stuck in place as the world around him continues to change. 

“Sorry to be a little late,” Santiago tells his wife’s gravestone during a visit to the cemetery. “It’s the traffic, the city—the usual, which gets worse every day. You don’t know how tired I feel.”

Santiago spends most of his mornings either taking walks or watching passerby in Old San Juan. One day, he happens upon a local film shoot for what appears to be a period piece. In this amusing sequence, we see a crew attempting to film a woman in old-fashioned garb riding a horse when, suddenly, the director yells “cut” in order to shout at a passerby who accidentally walked onto the set, disrupting the process. The stranger (Gladys Rodríguez), a woman who appears to be in her late 50s or early 60s, walks over to a bench across from Santiago and the two make small talk.

“What a beautiful horse,” she says, seemingly unfazed by the whole affair.

“Yes, but the director is awful,” Santiago replies. “He doesn’t realize that all of his yelling is scaring the horse.”

There’s an obvious parallel to be drawn between the director and Santiago himself—an irritable man who lives in the past and finds himself at odds with the modern world. He recognizes this archetype, but doesn’t seem to see himself reflected in it. Still, he and the woman hit it off, and after a couple more chance encounters their relationship blossoms into a charming romance. However, the woman, who only introduces herself as Angelina on their second date, appears hesitant to reveal any information about herself outside of brief childhood anecdotes. This eventually prompts him to hire a private detective to satisfy his curiosity. What he discovers, however, is much stranger than anything Santiago—or viewers, for that matter—could have imagined.

It goes without saying that not everything about What Happened to Santiago works. Without spoiling anything, the twist—which comes a mere 15 minutes before the film’s conclusion—lends itself to tonal whiplash despite the happily-ever-after ending that follows. Morales’ script also juggles a few too many subplots for its own good, leaving the issues between Santiago and Nereida unresolved. Still, the film as a whole tells a poignant story that addresses the universal fear of growing old and the universal desire for companionship—all while doubling as an quirky treasure that somehow managed to fall under the radar outside of the commonwealth, despite the Academy’s recognition.

Over a decade after the ban was enacted, Puerto Rico’s exclusion from the Oscars’ International category continues to be a sore spot for critics and filmmakers—many of whom perceive the island’s disqualification as reflecting a longer history of exclusion against locals by national institutions. Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship on March 2, 1917 (precisely one month before America’s entry into World War I), which makes them eligible for the draft. They are also required to pay most types of federal taxes, but cannot cast a ballot during the general presidential elections unless they hold residence in one of the 50 states. Being a territory of the United States makes Puerto Rico a bit of an oxymoron—simultaneously part of and not a part of the country at large—and one that extends to how its art is treated. Given the Academy’s well-documented bias against non-English films in the general races, the International category represents one of the only spaces where these “foreign” films actually have a shot. PR’s exclusion from this category, despite its Spanish-language cinema facing bad odds in those aforementioned races, yields a similar duality to the territory’s political status.

“It’s one more instance of the United States taking us off the map so that we do not exist,” artist and filmmaker Carla Cavina said in 2018, following an ultimately unsuccessful campaign from local filmmakers to overturn the ruling. Morales, director of What Happened to Santiago, also stated that he finds Puerto Rico’s inability to compete in the Oscars’ International category “incomprehensible,” seeing how the territory’s sovereignty has allowed it to compete apart from the U.S. in other international competitions, including the Olympics and the Miss Universe pageant.

As such, What Happened to Santiago’s legacy as PR’s only Oscar-nominated film is bittersweet. On one hand, its nod for Best Foreign Language Film is a reminder that the Academy has long been open to recognizing wacky art to some degree—even if more idiosyncratic films have broken the Oscar mold even further in the decades since. On the other, it’s a reminder that Puerto Rico’s film industry, small as it may be, has yielded its fair share of groundbreaking projects in recent years—so many of which have yet to be discovered outside of the island. 

Whenever the Oscars break new ground by recognizing underseen works from around the world, we applaud it. How long, then, must What Happened to Santiago stand alone as Puerto Rico’s only nominee? From sexually transgressive thrillers like Ari Maniel Cruz’s Under My Nails (2011) and Before The Rooster Crows (2016) to powerful vocational documentaries like Mala Mala (2014), the island’s film output has been rich and exciting. Another Oscar nomination won’t change that, but perhaps it’ll get audiences around the world to notice.

Ursula Muñoz S. is a critic, journalist and MFA candidate at Boston University who has previously written for news and entertainment outlets in Canada and the United States. Her work has appeared at Xtra, Cineaste, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. For further reading, feel free to follow her on Substack and X, where she muses about Taylor Swift and Pedro Almodóvar (among other things).

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