If I told you I possessed these traits, what would you call me? With no more information could you decide whether I was Latina, Italian, Indian, or even native American. These biological markers may help you figure out what I am but there are invisible, far more definitive, forces at play. What I speak of are the cultures, customs, traditions, and even long established ways of thinking that we are all born into. The histories that we connect with and continue to sew by simple participation. The sense of belonging, fulfillment, and worth that membership of any culture garners. And yet, it is very possible for a crisis of identity to arise from a culture under strain or in transition. A point under discussion in Paper Tangos by Julie Taylor.
In a book that fuses the history of Argentina with the creation of tango, Taylor has uncovered that the Argentinean identity dilemma and tango are one in the same. One a deep seeded internal rift, the other a beautiful and passionate manifestation of that very inner struggle. Although I only read the first chapter of this book, Taylor raised the question of identity early on and it’s one I am all too familiar with.
Much like the Argentineans, my people are at odds with themselves and colonialism is to blame. Once called Borinquen, Puerto Rico was home to the indigenous Taino Indians. In 1493 a certain man by the name of Christopher Columbus pulled up to shore and the fight for dominion of the island followed swiftly thereafter. While battles for domination raged amongst the powerful nations of the time, the Tainos became slaves on their own land attempting to expel the pale skinned strangers but ultimately remaining in the grip of Spanish rule for over 400 years. It wasn’t until the end of the Spanish American War that Spain came to part with Puerto Rico, gifting it to the United States in the Treaty of Paris in 1898. Sure the Spanish are responsible for the modern Puerto Rican’s three pronged gene pool and the numerous issues that arise from a people with a rapidly evolving appearance, but I believe Puerto Rico’s status with the United States has caused and continues to cause the most damage to the Puerto Rican identity.
When the U.S. gained ownership of the island, Puerto Ricans too gained something, a set of questions regarding who they are. When the Spanish came to Puerto Rico they were there for the long haul and immersion in the Taino culture over time and revolts and resentment caused a blending of cultures and blood. They brought with them Spanish men with wandering eyes and Africans to help work the land. As anyone can imagine there was mingling between these people and before long babies of all sorts of genetic combinations were being born. To this day full blooded Puerto Ricans rage from fair skinned, blonde hair, and blue eyes to wide nosed, dark hair and skin. This vast difference in appearance has caused it’s fair share of problems within families, when the kinky haired daughter envied the straight haired blonde, and across the island when favor of a more European look caused people to once again question themselves. In the end the cultures and traditions of the Spanish and their African guests mixed with the Tainos, changing the original culture of that land but adding to it as well. Over the many hundreds of years people began accepting the fused culture as their own and even the new name, Puerto Rico. Soon being Puerto Rican meant speaking spanish, being whatever color you wanted and a dissolving resentment towards rulers who did more than rule from afar. Unlike the U.S, which has done unto the Puerto Rican people many graces and much harm, the Spanish, who are responsible for even more harm, have left behind pieces of themselves. The Spanish were there on the island for many years with the Tainos and the Africans giving and taking, adding and subtracting parts of their own culture. I feel like to the U.S. Puerto Rico is just this beautiful exotic land and a second thought.
Puerto Rico belongs to the United States but are we more than an annoying afterthought in the minds of our lands rulers? Sure we have citizenship, a grace that I do not mean to belittle, but is that all? Sure islanders can get a welfare check every month but they cannot vote for president. Sure islanders can serve in the United States military but the real war is within us. There is a civil war raging quietly inside and it’s Puerto Rican against Puerto Rican; islander verses mainlander.
Living on the island of Puerto Rico and being a Puerto Rican living in the states are not day and night experiences, in fact, they are the same in many ways. We Puerto Ricans are a marginalized people struggling for status within ourselves and in the outside world. We are constantly having to prove ourselves to the world and because of a growing cultural rift, to each other. Have you ever noticed how fans of sports teams that consistently lose games are the loudest most die hard of them all. Have you ever noticed that a people who are unsure of themselves are the ones to rep the most, plastering their flag on any and everything and screaming at the top of their lungs their origins. Well sorry to blow the cover of everyone who does this but it is a front. Covering your body with the insignia of your team or the image of your flag and shouting your loyalties does not make your team win and it certainly doesn’t make anyone any more or less Puerto Rican.
Even though I believe a love for our culture, people, and island in addition to a connection to our history through the practice of our customs and traditions is what makes us Puerto Rican, the separation of island and state has given rise to two major kinds of Puerto Ricans, the hick and the fake. The hicks are what Puerto Ricans with misdirected anger about their identity call islanders. The fakes are what Puerto Ricans with misdirected anger about their identity call mainlanders. The hicks are angry with the fakes because they feel like all opportunities are given to them and they still choose poverty and struggle. They feel like they are giving up the culture that makes them Puerto Rican by assimilating into American life. The fakes are angry because they feel like the hicks assign themselves cultural superiority because they actually live out their lives on our motherland, hence the fakes loud and at times bordering obnoxious repping. All this anger is fueling the onslaught of Puerto Rican on Puerto Rican warfare but we are missing the true target all together. Address and the assimilation required to survive and thrive and the jealousy are secondary to the true reason behind all the anger, the void within and the question that comes along with it. Am I Puerto Rican American or am I a Puerto Rican living in America? Am I a product of my culture or is my culture a product of the people who’ve reigned over my land, of failed independence?
I know what being Puerto Rican means to me but I am still uncertain of what it is that truly and irrefutably defines a Puerto Rican. Still, what I do know is that I am dark hair, tan skin, slender nose, and almond eyes. Yes, I am an assimilated Puerto Rican who was born and raised in the states and doesn’t speak spanish fluently but I am Puerto Rican nonetheless, through and through! I do not know what it’s like to live on the island but I consider it my motherland and she calls to me. I am latina. I am a combination of the people history has brought to my island; Taino, Spanish, African. I am the sense of belonging, fulfillment, and worth that being Puerto Rican has given me. I am a connection to the tumultuous history that bore my people and their questions of self. I am Puerto Rican. I am a single stitch on the fabric of my peoples history. Yo soy Puertorriqueña.