In middle school, I knew of only one other Puerto Rican kid, Ricky. He was a cool kid, and I was not, so our social circles never really crossed. One time, though, Ricky and I were in the office lobby at the same time. He was on the secretary’s phone, the cord reaching over the counter. He was speaking in rapid-fire Spanish to his mother on the other end. The other kids didn’t really pay much attention to Ricky’s conversation, but I couldn’t help but eavesdrop. The sound of another kid easily transitioning from English to Spanish and back again, guessing his mother was doing the same on the other end, made me feel a sense of kinship to cool-kid-Ricky that I never thought possible.
Growing Up Puerto Rican
If you looked closely, you could you see signs of our Puerto Rican-ness in our home. A small coquí figurine in the china cabinet, a Puerto Rican flag meant to hang from a rear view car mirror hung on my dresser mirror, a tostoneria with subtle oil stains on top of the back of our stove. Our steady diet of rice and beans, fried pork chops seasoned with several packets of Sazón Goya, and frequently stocked stores of Malta Goya could also clue you in – but only if you were invited to stay for dinner.
Being Puerto Rican was part of our family’s identity. When at a store and my mom either wanted to chide me or confide in me, she’d speak in Spanish. When I visited my maternal grandmother’s house, I learned about the many Catholic saints she displayed around her New York apartment. When my classmates wrote Thanksgiving poems about turkey dinners, I excitedly looked forward to the seasoned pork shoulder we slow-roasted for 6 hours called pernil. Calls were made to “Puerto Rico” rather than a particular aunt or uncle’s house because we knew from dinner time until bedtime 8 of my father’s 9 brothers and sisters were at my grandmother’s home.
These were the cultural bonds that were rarely shared with others while growing up in New Jersey, Germany, and Virginia. We maintained our culture in our home, but I didn’t see how other Puerto Ricans lived their heritage until I was in high school.
Mi Gente (My People)
Without a ton of real life friends and neighbors who knew firsthand what being Puerto Rican was all about, I turned to – and still turn to – celebrities to get a glimpse of how other Puerto Ricans live the Puerto Rican legacy.
Puerto Ricans like America Ferrera, Ricky Martin, Michelle Rodriguez, Rosario Dawson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rosie Perez, David Blaine, Aubrey Plaza, Daddy Yankee, Roberto Clemente, Amaury Nolasco, Erik Estrada, Laurie Hernandez, Chayanne, Marc Anthony, and, yes, Jennifer Lopez. Puerto Ricans that have fair skin, dark skin, red hair and blue eyes, and African hair and brown eyes.
(For a fun list of people with even a quarter Puerto Rican descent, I recommend checking out this article from Huffpost.)
Coming in all shapes and sizes, mi gente are a beautiful people. Some speak Spanish, some don’t. Some were born and raised in New York, earning them the nickname New Yoricans. Some have actually stepped foot on the island that once was Borinquen, some have not.
To be Puerto Rican, I’ve learned, isn’t one thing or another. Everyone lives the same heritage differently, and that’s ok.
Boriqua for Life
I’m no New Yorican like my parents and I wasn’t born on the island like my grandparents and great-grandparents. I don’t speak with an accent and though I still understand Spanish, I’ve lost a lot of the language over years of disuse. (Which is fairly common, turns out. See this article from NPR which discusses language and Puerto Rican identity.) I can hear my mother singing me Spanish lullabies and jump rope songs in my memories, but can’t reproduce most of them with my own tongue. I don’t cook Puerto Rican meals as often as I used to when I first got married, and the only Puerto Rican flag in my home is a small painted one in the fabric of a fan my aunt gave me for my quinceañera. But when I hear some good salsa music on Pandora Radio or see a recipe for mofongo or arroz con gandules or pan sabao on Pinterest, I sit comfortably with my Puerto Rican ancestors who gave me a rich, complex, humble, and fascinating legacy that I can always draw upon.
A Brief History of Puerto Rico
Like most of the islands in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico – or Borinquen as they called it – was mainly populated by the Taíno. Originating from South America, the Taíno had formed chiefdoms within Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean islands. Cristóbal Colón (aka Christopher Columbus) sailed the ocean blue and landed in Puerto Rico in 1493, claiming the island for Spain and renaming it San Juan Bautista (after St. John the Baptist) and calling the town they settled in Puerto Rico (or Rich Port) – later, the names were, obviously, switched.
In 1508, Spain officially declared the island part of its empire and appointed Juan Ponce de Leon as its first governor. In 1513, African slaves arrived, on their way to be traded in the Americas. Centuries later, Spain and the U.S. fought over Puerto Rico and the U.S. won, granting Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship in 1917 and officially claiming Puerto Rico as a commonwealth in 1952.
The question I’ve been asked the most growing up is if one needs a passport to travel to the tropical paradise, La Isla del Encanto, called Puerto Rico. The answer is, no.