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Hunting for Anime Fandom in Puerto Rico

by Jean-Karlo Lemus,

Even though Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony, anime consumption on the island was for a very long time fairly unrecognizable to anime fans in the United States. The island lies in a very convenient geographical position, putting us between both American continents. Likewise, media from both continents regularly reaches us: local Puerto Rican publishers and broadcasters would release media from the United States as regularly as they would from Colombia. When it comes to anime, this ends up with a very colorful blend.

Urotsukidōji manga creator Toshio Maeda at Puerto Rico Comic Con in 2012

Let's start with manga. For a long time in the United States, manga was available in “floppies”, much like your average DC or Marvel comic. These were sold in comic stores until the trade paperback formula became the preferred format. Be it floppies or tankoubon, manga was hard to find on the island; Puerto Rico is only 100 miles wide by 35 miles long, so it's just big enough for someone in the center of the island to have to go out of their way to a “local” comic shop. And dedicated comic shops in Puerto Rico are very few and far between, with more shops having opened and closed in the past twenty years than there are currently open. One shop, Dave's Comic Clan, actually carried bins of old floppy-format comics from Viz and Central Park Media like Futaba-kun Change!, Time-Traveler Ai or old single-issues of Raijin Comics. But Dave's Comic Clan shuttered around 2013, leaving Metro Comics to be the only long-standing comic shop on the island.

YouTube user Emilio Torres Garcia visited Dave's Comic Clan on November 24, 2012, a week before it closed its doors.

Of course, the now-defunct bookstore chain Borders was also an option—and, for many, the only source for manga on the island. But this was also problematic. There were only three Borders stores on the whole island: one in Mayagüez, near the Western side, and two in the San Juan area. So buying volumes of Naruto would involve a day's drive to either place and wading through a crowd of other fans reading by the shelves (“manga-cows”, we used to call them). And even that didn't last long, as Borders went bankrupt in 2012. Currently, issues of manga can be found at Walmart, courtesy of the Spanish publisher Norma. It's not too hard to find volumes of Ai Yori Aoshi or Chobits in Spanish. But most readers depend on less legal means to get their fix. Shonen Jump magazine did arrive on the island and there was definitely a population of fans that subscribed to the magazine—but this wasn't terribly common. You definitely had to crawl around to find a copy of any kind of manga at a neighborhood pharmacy's magazine rack (doubly so if you wanted an English copy instead of a Norma edition). If you lived in the non-San Juan parts of the island, finding a copy of Shonen Jump magazine was like winning the lottery. And if you could find an issue of Shonen Jump, you could subscribe to the magazine! Having to be shipped to the island meant that your issue would come possibly a week late or so, but waiting for that new issue to come in made every first week of the month feel like Christmas.

Cosplayers at Puerto Rico Comic Con in 2015 dressed as characters from Kill la Kill.

Now, what about anime? This is where things get interesting! Most anime fandoms in the U.S. started courtesy of college anime clubs sharing fansubs. But this isn't really the case in Puerto Rico, either! There are very few, if any, anime clubs on the island. Anime consumption was available through a much more convenient means: local television.

Back in the 1960s, anime got its start in Puerto Rico with Astro Boy, as did many other Western countries. Astro Boy's Spanish dub was even produced on the island, with Astro himself being voiced by Esperanza Martínez. As the decades wheeled on, other familiar shows like Meteoro (that's Speed Racer's Latin American name) or Mazinger Z would occasionally pop up. But the real big heavy-hitters came in the 1990s. Picture this: in order to watch an episode of Ranma ½, many anime fans in the United States would have to drive out of their way to an anime club, or know someone who distributed sixth- or seventh-generation copies on VHS. In Puerto Rico? All you had to do to watch Ranma ½ was tune in to Telemundo before school!

There wasn't a single local channel in Puerto Rico's airwaves that didn't air anime—even the local public broadcasting channel (WIPR, channel 6) aired Zenki as part of a kid's programming block! The selection was fairly diverse, including the typical big-hitters as well as more obscure oddities. I already mentioned Ranma ½ on Telemundo, but that same channel also aired Rurouni Kenshin (I cannot, for the life of me, figure out if it was a Spanish version of Samurai X or if it was a dub of the proper version), along with Dragon Ball Z, Slam Dunk, and Teknoman (the U.S. adaptation of Tekkaman Blade) as late as the early 00s. WAPA, Puerto Rico's oldest TV channel, offered Pokémon in Spanish, right around the same time that Pokémon was available on The WB's afternoon animation block, meaning kids could watch it in English and Spanish on the same day if they could get away with it. And even channel 11, Teleonce (now a branch of Univisión), aired anime as part of its Saturday morning lineup. This included La Leyenda del Zorro, a Spanish dub of Kaiketsu Zorro.

Now, you may be asking, “What about Saint Seiya?” And that would be a good question! Saint Seiya is a massively-popular series in Mexico and South America, to the point of parody. And yes, Saint Seiya did air in Puerto Rico, via WAPA. But it never reached the same meteoric fame as it did in the rest of Latin America. While it and many of the aforementioned shows were within arm's reach for many Puerto Rican children (and served as the gateway drug for many), we also received American television broadcasts via cable. So the old slew of classics from Kids WB and Fox Kids (and later the FoxBox) were also enjoyed by children at the same time: Nelvana's Cardcaptors, Digimon, and the old edited-for-TV Escaflowne competed heavily for children's viewing time on Saturday mornings. So while many children in Puerto Rico were predominantly Spanish-speaking, quite a few supplemented their English reading comprehension by watching Yu-Gi-Oh!'s prolonged explanation of Pot of Greed's effect.

And then there was Toonami. Cartoon Network's action cartoon block started in 1997, and when anime came to it, a massive wave of children were introduced to the old-guard favorites like Dragon Ball or Sailor Moon. Cartoon Network ran many of its shows in Spanish on Puerto Rico's cable services, but Toonami's shows were exclusively in English—you had to watch local television if you wanted to hear Goku be called “Kakarotto el Saiyajin”. The Toonami classics are nostalgic hits for nerds in America, and they were no less beloved by fans in Puerto Rico. The same goes for Adult Swim: Puerto Rican high schools and middle schools during the early '00s had their own fair share of girls with InuYasha doodles in their margins, with everyone staying up very late to catch Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex at midnight. Cable also gave access to things like The Anime Network, but this wasn't a terribly common channel to be subscribed to. What was much more common was Locomotion.

Locomotion was an animation-exclusive channel (114 on DirecTV!) available on the island during the 00s, and even if you excluded the bizarro Western cartoons it aired like Quads or Hotel Spaghetti, its selection was, in a word, eclectic. It had shows from all the licensors: from Central Park Media, you'd see Nightwalker: The Midnight Detective and that eternal classic, Agent Aika. Bandai unleashed Saber Marionette J upon Locomotion, giving the Channel One of its most-rotated shows that remained formative long after the United States fans had grown exhausted of Lime's bizarre swollen cheeks. You could also catch Blue Submarine No. 6 edited into a TV movie once in a while. In a truly puzzling move, Bandai also licensed both Eat-Man shows, as well as the Silent Möbius television series.

Spanish-language dub of Saber Marionette J

From ADV, we had Neon Genesis Evangelion, though Burn Up Excess lasted far longer in rotation, as did Let's Dance With Papa. But most famous was the never-ending presence of Cyberteam in Akihabara. Funimation was a little late to the party: by the time Fullmetal Alchemist started airing in 2006, the channel had already been rebranded as “Animax”. More delightfully, because the Puerto Rican broadcasts for Locomotion were the Latin-American broadcasts, all of these shows were dubbed into Spanish—or even subbed! The more obscure works like Nightwalker or Eat-Man had full Spanish subtitles, most likely out of necessity. But Saber Marionette, Serial Experiments Lain, Geneshaft, Let's Dance With Papa and many others were dubbed into Spanish. You can actually find the Spanish dub for some of these shows on their DVDs; ADV's old Burn Up Excess disks have their dubs, as does the out-of-print Bandai clamshells for Saber Marionette. You may be asking yourself, “Were any of these dubs good?” And frankly, they are! The Saber J's Spanish actress for Lime, Christina Hernandez, hews far closer to Megumi Hayashibara than her English voice actress, and if you needed Blue Submarine No. 6 to sound stiff and a little pompous then they succeeded at just that.

What about that modern-day gift that is streaming? Well, it definitely took a long time to come to Puerto Rico! For several years, licensors like Funimation would announce anime on websites like Gaia Online—but fans in Puerto Rico wouldn't be able to access the streams because of rights restrictions. Funimation simply hadn't licensed the series for our region. These days, that's not a problem at all: Netflix runs the same content in Puerto Rico as it does in the United States, and Crunchyroll works just fine for us. And just as well; now that hardly any local channels air children's programming in any capacity, there was no need to keep the likes of Slam Dunk on the air. They'd rather air soap operas from Central or South America, pushing older anime fans to use their time and money elsewhere, provided they can find stuff to buy!

As mentioned earlier, Puerto Rico doesn't have terribly many comic shops. If you're the kind of person who buys DVDs, you'd have to crawl through a Walmart to find the more mainstream stuff. If you can trek to a Best Buy in the San Juan area, you can definitely score more obscure fare, but outside of that piracy runs rampant. It's a unique case, however: “flea markets” are fairly popular in Puerto Rico, and it's not uncommon to see the bigger bootleg DVD sellers hawking disks burnt with anime on them. You're bound to find your Narutos or Fairy Tails, but you're also likely to find more byzantine choices like the 1997 Berserk—or even 1970s mecha classics like Getter Robo or UFO Robo Grendizer! Online anime retailers like Right Stuf do ship to Puerto Rico, but they're not well-known outside of a small cluster of consumers.

Spanish-language dub of Mazinger Z

Which leads us to today! While a progressively-aging group of anime fans still hold classics like Saber Marionette close to their hearts, modern anime tastes in Puerto Rico are much more in-line with their mainstream American counterparts. JoJo's Bizarre Adventure found its own Puerto Rican fandom, just like in the mainland, and hits like Sword Art Online and Kill la Kill left as much of an impact there as you could imagine. Puerto Rican anime fandom is still warm and vibrant, even a little closer-nit than the US, and we have plenty to share with fans on the mainland.

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