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.


Sun Singer said...

One thing it would be interesting to know, from both the perspective or those living in Puerto Rico as well as those living elsewhere but self-identifying as Puerto Rican--is the general feeling about the country's relationship with the U.S.

Do most want total independence, to become a state or to keep the status quo?


Efrain Ortiz Jr. said...

Excellent that can be answered in many ways..The poet Mariposa states in her poem 'Ode to the Diasporican', "being Boricua
is a state of mind
a state of heart
a state of soul…No nací en Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico nacío en mi."
to that end I say " you are what you want to be, you are what you define yourself as, you are that which you associate with the most....", yes, I am a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, Pero con orgullo y corazon 'tambien soy Puertorriqueño'.

Ann Victor said...

An interesting question indeed, Judith! And one that can be equally relevant to South Africa (we have 11 official languages - and that's just the main dialects!) And there has also been a South African diaspora. So your question also makes me think:who is South African?

One can take this thought a step further. Should we be asking who is Peurto Rican, South African or American or should we - as a species capable of both logic and emotion - be moving away from focusing on our national(or racial or gender or religious)identities and rather start focusing on our internal similarites rather than our external differences?

A case in point. My husband and I watched a Tunisan movie last night (with English subtitles)Called "Un été à La Goulette" it was made in 1996 and showed the relationship between three friends, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim. Great watching. There was a beach scene where everyone sat eating watermelon. It could have been a scene from a Durban or Cape Town beach and made us realise, once again, how the joys and sorrows, hopes and fears of people remain the same whether they're Christian, Muslim, Jew or Puerto Rican, South African, American!

A Cuban In London said...

Interesting post that explores identity markers and which ones we choose for ourselves.

My first interaction with Puerto Rican culture was through that famous line 'Cuba y Puerto Rico son, de un pajaor las dos alas'. After that I struck up a good friendship with two Puerto Rican reporters who covered the Panamerican Games in Cuba in 1991. And they were in one of the categories you mentioned. They were both born and bred in Puerto Rico but left for the US int heir teens and did their higer education there. They were fluent in both English and Spanish and they were fiercely patriotic, as in Puerto Rican patriotic.

But with US hegemony on the island for so long, then how can you tell what is Puerto Rican and what isn't? What is indigenous and what is imported? And does it matter? And does it add to the social fabric of Puerto Rico as a nation or does it take away from your national identity?

I look forward to your elaborating on what being Puerto Rican means to you.

Very good post. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Greetings from London.

Nevine said...

Judith, I have to admit, I'm not very knowledgeable about what being a Puerto Rican is. However, I do look forward to your future explorations into this subject as this will allow me to begin building an idea of what it is to be Puerto Rican, and this straight from someone who is a Puerto Rican. You seem to have had such a rich and seasoned life, very likely atypical to what many Puerto Ricans have experienced, and I'm happy to share some of those experiences with you. To say the least, we very often form impressions that come as a result of pre-formed molds and our desire as humans to group people into as few packages as possible just to make it easier for us to "understand". It's enlightening to be able to form a more accurate idea, I think, through this type of forum. Thank you for your presence, Judith, and I look forward to more on this topic.


Judith Mercado said...

Sun Singer: At the risk of stepping on the land mine that is this complex issue, I will answer your question about PR political status and the wish of the people. There are passionately held views on all sides. There have been several referenda on the island about the issue and always the current “commonwealth” status has held. The option for statehood has been a near second, and the option for independence a distant third. And of course the US would have the final say. The issue is complicated by the migration back and forth between PR and the States.

Efrain: Thank you for that poem. It captures the essence of the question I asked. It’s why I love the song Preciosa where it says: “Yo seré puertorriqueño por donde quiera que ande, o, porque lo llevo en la sangre por herencia de mis padres.”

Ann: You are absolutely correct. The issue of cultural identity is one that, in this increasingly mobile world, applies to more than the Puerto Rican people. And, yes, cultural identity is perhaps not what we should not focus on when it lead to divisiveness. I wonder though if there is some "gene" for cultural identity that leads so many of us to embrace the concept.

Cuban: Puerto Rico and Cuba are close in more than just geography, history, and alma. I would imagine that with the Cuban diaspora of the last few decades, many of the questions I raised in my post also apply to Cubans.

Nevine: I look forward to posting in the future about Puerto Ricans, the culture, etc. I must admit some apprehension about having tackled such a complex issue. But, if all I do is convey my own experience and feelings, well, I think I’m capable of doing that.

Jm Diaz said...

Im not Puerto Rican... But being Colombian, I can relate to the multitude of spanglish mutations that go around.

Sun Singer said...

You avoided the land mine quite well.


Judith Mercado said...

From another site where this post was published come the following two comments:

Since my adolescence was spent in Chicago, I did feel different but in a good way. So many peers couldn't believe my nationality; it was great to let them see a non stereotypical Puerto Rican. My youngest is working towards her doctorate in clinical psychology!!! I think we are breaking the stereotype....I still love the food and the warmth from the family.

When I am asked, What are you, Italian, Mexican, Puerto Rican? I will respond I am a Puerto Rican. But what am I really? Well anyone born in PR is a Puerto Rican but I was born in Indiana. So I am a Hoosier. Well let me think. There really is no Puerto Rican blood or race. People came to PR from other lands, My great great grand parents are buried in the Canary Islands of Spain. I hear we have relatives who are descendants from France, Israel and some who look oriental . When I visit PR I feel Puerto Rican. When I live in the US I feel American but I know that most white Americans look at me as a non American, or a spic .If they see me walking down the street some might confuse me for an Anglo but if they see my name tag - I am not one of them. This has nothing to do with my educational background or the color of my skin . Puerto Ricans come in all flavors in the educational field. I am a Real Estate broker and I also worked for a steel company as an Electrician for 32 years . I have an Electrical certificate from Purdue University. We have a Supreme Court Justice who is a Puerto Rican and we have a blind singer who is a super star, Jose Feliciano. We have people of all walks of life. I believe when someone says that their nationality is Puerto Rican they really are speaking incorrectly. I believe being Puerto Rican (especially if you were not born there) is being identified by a culture or a group and not a race. I like being Puerto Rican but I don’t wake up in the morning thinking I’m a Puerto Rican. Mostly I wake up thinking how lucky I am to be so good lucking. :)

Domingo Hernandez said...

I was born and raised on the island and came to New York at the age of 7. Most of my schooling was done in New York. I still have relatives not only on the island but all over the USA. As I've gotten older I become aware of how little I know. Of the 8 to 10 million Puerto Ricans both living on the island and all over the world, how many do we really know? In my case I would say just a few hundred. So then how can I really speak for or about so many when I know so few? I suspect that our multi-cultural,multi-racial, multi-ethnic experience blesses us with an appreciation for diversity but curses us with an inability to fully unite in a vision of ourselves.