does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cultural Identity - Who is Puerto Rican?

After reading my first Lamento Borincano post, a fellow blogger asked me to discuss what the general population should know about Puerto Rican culture.

I was about to whip up a response when I stopped to ask myself which Puerto Rican culture I would write about. At the moment, just as many Puerto Ricans live away from Puerto Rico as do on that beautiful Caribbean island. Anyone born on the island is automatically a U.S. citizen. Many of us who self identify as Puerto Rican have actually never lived in Puerto Rico. Some, like me, lived there for a time, but have spent the rest of our lives elsewhere. Some of us speak Spanish only. Others English only. Some speak both fluently. Others manage a hybrid Spanglish. Some can comprehend both languages but speak only one. Some, like me while growing up, interacted in an English-speaking world away from home and a Spanish-speaking one at home. To this already rich mix, I can add many permutations. All I have to do is overlay variables like historical time period, urban versus rural, religion, politics, age, socioeconomic class, intermarriage, skin color, and gender. Given that, my first exploration of Puerto Rican culture is necessarily a definitional one. Who is Puerto Rican?

The first thing I can say is, “We are surely a hybrid bunch.” Yet, that is not a satisfying answer. Given our diversity, what leads some of us to self identify as Puerto Rican, particularly if we have never lived there? Are we Puerto Rican because our parents or grandparents were born there and/or we eat Puerto Rican food, celebrate Puerto Rican holidays, enjoy the music and dances, identify with the island's history and the issue of its political status? Conversely, what is it that leads others to identify us as Puerto Rican? Why, for example, was my green-eyed, fair-skinned father denied housing once the landlord realized papi was Puerto Rican?

I end with a promise that I will explore this complex issue in future posts. In the meantime, I really, really, really welcome comments any of you, Puerto Rican and not, have on the question: Who Is Puerto Rican? I thought I knew what it meant to be Puerto Rican until I had to explain it to someone else so I need all the help I can get.

My next post on this subject will share what a friend, who grew up on the island but now lives mostly on the mainland, considered noteworthy about Puerto Rican culture.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What Humberto, the Bookworm Hamster, Taught Me

Okay, admit it, who among you was called a bookworm at some point? I’ll raise my hand. When I was a kid, I even used to take a flashlight to bed so I could read under the covers. I still find myself surrounded by books, with their bookmarks at various stages of progress. So when I recently came across the children's book Humberto, the Bookworm Hamster by Mayra Calvani, my interest was piqued. After reading it, I found myself measuring my life against it.

I guess, at heart, I must still be the targeted 4-8-year-old reader. From the start, Mayra Calvani easily drew me into the tale of Humberto the hamster who loves, just loves, books. He turns down invitations from the squirrel, rabbit, and beaver because “I don’t have time. I’m too busy reading.” He reads while he eats, while he exercises on his wheel, even while he brushes his teeth. Rather than play with others, Humberto prefers to have his books transport him to a Paris café, the Egyptian pyramids or Saturn's rings. Then a storm causes disastrous flooding in his neighborhood, and Humberto’s books are about to be swept away. Tempted to focus on rescuing his books, he turns his attention instead to finding food and shelter for his friends. In the process, he learns the true meaning and joy of friendship.

As a self-admitted bookworm, I had expected to find Calvani’s book interesting. What I did not expect was that this beautifully illustrated children’s tale would apply so resoundingly to my current life, particularly my blogging life. Since I began blogging, I have been struck by how much fun it is to write for my blog and also to read other blogs. I can be carried off for hours and, in the meantime, dinner is not prepared, clothes are not washed, my dear husband has not received a hug, and friends and family have not heard from me. Humberto is a powerful reminder that we are social beings in the flesh and not just on the page.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Short Story or How The Family Business Launched Me As a Published Writer

After writing about my family's religious influence, posting this short story seems appropriate. I harbor no illusions that it is New Yorker worthy, but it holds special meaning for me. Not only is it fitting in light of my previous post, but it was also the first of my stories to be published. I can still remember when the editor called to say he wanted to publish it. I burst out laughing and then quickly had to explain that I wasn’t laughing at him, that my laughter was one of sheer joy. I was going to be a published writer!

Reader reactions to this story fascinate me. It is interesting that, of all my stories, this the only one that more than one review wanted to publish. Originally, I had not even intended to submit it for publication. I did so only after, in my critique group, the atheist loved it because it made him laugh and the evangelical Christian asked me to share it with her women's group. I must be doing something right, I thought, if I can engage both ends of the spectrum. Incidentally, my husband swears this is a true story. It is not, though the incident could well have happened, given my family background.

Here is the beginning of the story. You can read the rest of it at my other blog.

This is what happened between the amen and the hallelujah. It was a stormy Sunday morning, not one for venturing out to church, certainly not in a foreign country where we didn't even know where to go. It's not that we were faithful about attending services back home. We went barely once or twice a year, but it became a church morning despite the inclement weather.

The amen came in a thunderclap. I was still in bed, half asleep, not quite awake, when the skies split open and spewed out damnation.

"Amen!" my father would have said.

He was a Pentecostal minister, the kind who breathed fire and then salved the pain by the laying of hands. He was a dancing preacher man. Got up in that pulpit and, Lord, he was gone. Something took him over—I won't say the devil got to him because that's what he was preaching against—but his voice strummed like a bass guitar strutting out a beat or a howling banjo stringing out a scream. It was all jumbled up together and in between came the hush. Like a singer dropping to pianissimo, he pleaded with sinners to come up and fall on their knees….

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Family Business

The evangelical ministry was the Mercado-Santiago family "business." My mother and father were both ordained ministers. Two of my mother’s sisters entered the ministry. Another married a minister. My uncle's wife embraced the ministry, one of several in-laws to do so. Some of my cousins are currently ministers. Nothing pleased my parents more than that their church produced more than thirty ordained ministers who went on to lead their own congregations.

Given that, expectations were high that I would also be a minister or at least marry one. To my parents’ disappointment, I neither became a minister nor married one. In fact, I left their religion altogether. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I reveal that I “attended” their denomination's seminary in my early teens. My overprotective mother, averse to leaving me alone with potentially sinful influences, took me along while she attended seminary. As a consequence, I sat in on every single class of Biblical history and hermeneutics, often silently arguing with the professor.

Some might say I am still arguing. Believer or nonbeliever? On a given day, I might fall into either camp. What I am not, repeat not, is a proselytizer. There is no surer way to get my hackles up than to come up against someone who believes I must be Saved. Aware of just how unfathomable the nature of reality might be, I respect anybody’s nonviolent attempt to explain the meaning of existence, be it in spiritual or non-spiritual terms. Just don’t try to convert me.

There was a second family business, the words business, and that one I did join. I already posted How the Rediscovery of My Father’s Words Led to My Writing Fiction. In the course of his long ministry, my father wrote well over a thousand sermons. As relaxation, he also wrote poetry, some of which is still recited in various churches. After he died, we found a worksheet, complete with editing marks, on which he had been composing a poem about the challenges in the life of a minister. That tattered piece of paper, which I have framed, constitutes the sum total of my material inheritance. Then again, that peek into my father’s interior struggles added to the valuable emotional and wisdom inheritance I also received from him. Here’s the first verse. On my other blog, I have posted the full text.

Cuando a tus puertas llegue el desaliento
When discouragement shows up at your door

y la tristeza minar quiera tu vida
and sadness wants to undermine your life

recuerda del Señor, su buen ejemplo
remember the Lord’s good example

cuando la embarcación estaba pereciendo
when the vessel was about to capsize

serenó a la mar embravecida.
He calmed the tumultuous seas.

Rev. Miguel A. Mercado

Oh, I almost forgot. My father’s mother at one time was supposedly a Spiritualist medium. So, having been surrounded by religious leaders and also being a preacher’s kid, are you surprised that I write about people coming to terms with religion and spirituality?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Mi Lamento Borincano - Part 2

In a comment to my previous post, A Cuban in London wrote that hearing the song Lamento Borincano “got to my very core …. it expresses pretty much the sentiment that underlines Latin American identity.”

Since his comment, I have not stopped thinking about why this song also seems to reach into my deepest self; unsettling me, sometimes with joy, sometimes with tears. This is a song about a Puerto Rican peasant, a jíbaro (hee′ bah roh), who sets out joyfully for the market with his products, only to find the market desolated, with no buyers because of harsh economic conditions. He wonders what will happen now to his family and to his country.

When I was a child, one of the worse things others could call you was a jíbaro, meaning a country bumpkin. If they then found out your family was also from the rural mountain town Lares, which mine was, you were really in trouble. Never mind that Lares holds an exalted place in Puerto Rican history for being the cradle of its independence movement. The terms jíbaro and Lares somehow conjoined in the image of the Puerto Rican version of the rube; this time, wearing a straw pava hat.

Ironically, the term jíbaro has become iconic as a positive sentimental symbol of "the roots of the modern Puerto Rican people, and symbolizes the strength of traditional values of living simply and properly caring for homeland and family."

This evolution in the public’s perceived worth of the jíbaro is in some ways representative of my own. In the heady days of my business career, it was tempting to be swayed by the trappings of privilege and power. I hope I have since learned the difference between gloss and gold and that, in my novel about Angélica Miranda, I succeeded in portraying her and her humble family with both realism and respect.

Check out The Bronx Latin Jazz All Stars and other artists performing the song Lamento Borincano. If anyone has a good rendition by a female vocalist, please let me know. I prefer one in the música típica tradition rather than in the operatic vein, if you know what I mean.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Mi Lamento Borincano or My Puerto Rican Lament

If you have followed the thread of my posts, you know that one of my novels is about a Puerto Rican Pentecostal family which immigrates to the U.S in the 1950s. The protagonist, Angélica, grows up to live a dual existence between her American secular life and her Puerto Rican evangelical life. Though my writing benefitted greatly from my similar background, the novel is not autobiographical. Instead it is a tale told in the spirit of Gabriel García Márquez [“Macondo is not so much as place as it is a state of mind.”].

This is not to say that writing this novel was not an emotional journey for me, particularly so when doing research about 1940s rural Puerto Rico, the staging ground for both my family and Angélica’s. When I write, I often play background music appropriate to the time period or setting. For 1940s rural Puerto Rico, there was no question which song I would choose to inspire me. No matter how often I hear the classic "Lamento Borincano" by the famous Puerto Rican composer of popular songs Rafael Hernández Marín, its opening chords carry me back to a way of life I often heard about as a child, but never knew first hand. It captures the longing I saw in my parents’ eyes for the homeland they left behind. Here is Marc Anthony singing background for images of Puerto Rico in the 1940s.

When I wanted a change, I would shift over to "Preciosa," another famous song by Rafael Hernández Marín; here, too, sung by Marc Anthony, this time at Madison Square Garden.

The longing captured in these songs makes me wonder whether it gets imbedded, even generations removed, in the DNA of those exiled from any homeland, whether it be Africa, Europe or Puerto Rico.

Translation links for: Lamento Borincano , Preciosa

For reasons I can't seem to correct, the comment option is sometimes not showing up on this post. I love reading your comments. If the link does not appear below, please hit: Post a Comment.