My relationship with Puerto Rico always feels complicated. And subsequently so are my trips there. I often have this sense of being in a space that is quite familiar, yet distant and foreign, which probably isn't particular to me. I think many of us first-generation mainland US-born Puerto Ricans have this sense. Linguistic barriers and bi-racial/ethnic identities further murky the waters of a clear sense of what Puerto Ricanhood means for me. I didn't grow up speaking Spanish, although it was often spoken around me for a number of years. My mother struggled as a child when she arrived in the United States* in the 1950s. Unable to speak English she was kept out of school for a year and attempted to teach herself with her neighbors' schoolbooks. Growing up discriminated against in the North Ward and Ironbound sections of Newark, New Jersey, she was adamant that I wouldn’t have similar troubles with English, which centered on a false belief that bilingualism causes language difficulties as opposed to reinforces cognitive abilities.
*A de facto colony of the United States I prefer to speak of Puerto Rico as a distinct nation
Like my mother initially with English, I’ve struggled to gain fluency in Spanish. A glutton for punishment and determined to master the language, I decided to conduct essentially all of my ethnographic dissertation research in Spanish. What a damn nightmare. But before I officially began this work in Cartagena, Colombia in 2011 I spent the summer in Puerto Rico. And one of the greatest frustrations at the time was speaking to people in Spanish and having them respond in English. This was done primarily in San Juan and sometimes by people who clearly couldn’t even speak English as well as I could Spanish. It just threw sazón on my wounded ego.
But a noticeable shift happened during this trip to Puerto Rico in March. My challenge with Spanish has always been an emotional one, hardly about actual retention and processing. I only came to realize this while studying Portuguese in Brazil in 2001 and finding it easier (even though it is technically more difficult than Spanish) due to the lack of pressure and guilt. Since 2010 my time living in Colombia and Chile has helped to markedly improve my Spanish. While it is still an uphill battle towards what can technically be called fluency, or hell good grammar at times, my confidence has improved dramatically since 2010. So feeling a bit more like didn't have to be ashamed when I spoke brought about a comfort that allowed me to see the island as much more than an ancestral home. It started become more of an extension of myself.
The journey began with my mother and I rolling out in typical goofball fashion.
We kicked it with our amazing friend Sonia who has become so much like family to me over the years. And of course we hit up various beaches around the island because well hell, my soul is tropical and as my girl Marci said, “@machetesymiel is always on the damn playa. I like my fish frozen and shaped like stars muchas gracias.”
I just have to throw this in here because my mother’s obsession with basketball kills me and comes out at the most random of times. This is us at Walgreen’s buying sunscreen on our way to Luquillo Beach.
I visited the town of my mother’s birth, Dominguito, located in Arecibo. By coincidence there was a festival going on and I had brought the family tree I’d obsessed over last year. I was determined to find information about my great-great-great-great grandfather, Jose Ramon Larrieu y Despiau, who was apparently mayor of Arecibo in the 1800s. There’s a legend about him that sounds like some shit straight out Love in the Time of Cholera, well probably because he and bunch of other members of my family all died of cholera. Given his French ancestry my fear is still that our family was plantation owners who fled to Puerto Rico from Haiti during the revolution. I can neither confirm nor deny this potentially shitty historical background. I ended up running into a woman who was selling her book on Arecibo history and I had to point out that she’d missed my great X4 grandpapa. It was a pleasant exchange in my opinion but my mother has since used this incident as an example of something that is just "very typical Melissa.”
(Video Disclaimer: I had not spoken Spanish in 3 mos. #TheStruggleIsReal)
Me, my mother and Sonia hung out in Arecibo for a while. Some of it was quite beautiful and being there was refreshing.
But there was this other side to being in Arecibo that reflected the struggle of the island, one that tourists don't see or care to see. I was struck by the emptiness of the center of town on a Saturday and the abandonment of so many properties.
Yet even amongst the abandonment there were people still trying to make a life in spaces that had lost a sense of vitality, in some ill way like a fetus trying to grow and survive in a mother who has passed on.
We headed to Dominguito and visited my mother’s first cousin who lives in the house once owned by my great-great-grandmother, Concepción “Concha” Rodriguez. I spoke with Junior and other family members who lived nearby about the family tree and although I’d met a few of them before I didn’t feel as connected as I did this trip. I had a sense of who people were, going back for generations, and that made their faces light up. I listened to stories of our family and looked at artifacts of my great-grandmother’s.
Wait, is that antique bottle called, Old Colony??
My mother went back home and I got to spend a few more days basking in the glow of the island. I got to spend time with people who I have grown to appreciate (one of whom will at some point be featured in the memoir... LIBRO!) and see places I’d known over the years.
I was on a quest to buy this serigraph this trip. I first saw it during my summer in Puerto Rico and I had to have it. I shopped around for it and sadly couldn't find it for purchase this time.
However, I did manage to come up on this gem of a silkscreen that I had to cop for obvious reasons.
The struggle for a place in the world is one that is constantly being battled by Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans everywhere. Puerto Rico was one of Spain’s longest held colony (if not the actual longest). It was then almost immediately seized by the United States in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American-Cuban War and has been a de facto colony ever since. Now the island is deep in the throes of a major financial crisis (for a breakdown, check out Ed Morales’ article). As Morales points out, the colonial experiment has clearly failed. American imperialism has rendered Puerto Rico neither foreign, nor domestic. The Immigration and Nationality Act gave Puerto Ricans statutory citizenship, yet the nation remains in limbo without the rights of sovereignty or true US citizenship stemming from the 14th Amendment and statehood. As I struggle to find my own place on La Isla del Encanto I can’t help but to wonder what does all that's happening now mean for its identity and its future? What future will Puerto Rico carve out for itself? What will continue to be imposed upon it? What role do people like me play, those of us who have Puerto Rico in hearts but a life outside of it? My hope is that the we'll see the light before my issues with identity become meaningless because there will be no unique Puerto Rico with which to connect.