Puerto Rico has always been an escape for me. It is the place my parents consider home even after thirty years on the mainland; it is the place where I wasn’t made fun of as a child for speaking Spanish—I grew up in the South before the large Latino migration—it is the place where I felt normal for eating cocina criolla instead of standard American fare for dinner, and where most of my family still lives.
Coming to Puerto Rico this time around I knew that I had to start viewing the island through different eyes, through the eyes of a researcher. It’s amazing what subtleties you can miss when you dismiss anomalies because “that’s just the way Puerto Rico is.” There are seemingly trivial examples of the hybrid nature of the island such as street names that are half in English and half in Spanish such as Calle Tulip (instead of Calle Tulipán or Tulip Street); the speed limit is in miles per hour but the distance to exits is in kilometers; objects are weighed in pounds, but gas is sold in liters.
English has crept into words and grammatical structures forming a unique Puerto Rican vernacular that consists of words such as janguear meaning to hang out and parkear instead of estacionar for parking. The hybrid nature of Puerto Rico, as belonging to but not part of the United States, is astounding when one really takes the time to soak it all in.
My first few days in Puerto Rico have been an adjustment period. In my three years away I’d forgotten how intense the weather is with 90 degrees heat and humidity hovering around 60%; the atmosphere was a bit oppressive to say the least. I’ve spent the first few days setting up interviews with a list of political actors and professors one of my contacts had made me. I also went to the university in order to find out where my office is and to pick up the letters that will give me access to the library and university database as a visiting researcher. The first few days have been the most difficult because meetings and dates in Puerto Rico are quite fluid, a meeting on one day can easily change, which is frustrating when one has a limited amount of time, but also a very cultural phenomenon. However, even with the leisurely hustle, an oxymoron you will understand if you ever do business on the island, it hasn’t taken long for me to put my “new eyes” to use.
I was sitting back on an especially warm afternoon listening to a group of friends discuss their political views and why they hold them when the conversation took an interesting turn. Story after story began to emerge about how Puerto Rico was in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Children, especially in working class and lower income areas, were taught that Americans were benevolent. Even when it was local aid that the children were receiving, all they heard was how kind and wonderful and rich the United States was. They were taught that all Americans were tall, blond, blue eyed, rich, and above all else far more intelligent than any Puerto Rican could aspire to be. I was shocked that the ideas of White Man’s Burden that one sees in many government documents regarding the issue of annexation of Puerto Rico in the early 19th century had trickled down to form such an atmosphere of inferiority on the island. I found it amazing that an entire nation bought into the idea that they were inferior, that the United States was essentially one big Disneyland with smiling blond, blue eyed, strong men, where there was no poverty and everything was far better than it ever could be in Puerto Rico.
Suddenly, all of the academic pieces I had read on “American indoctrination” and why the majority of Puerto Ricans cannot fathom an independent nation began to make sense. Entire generations were taught that the United States was the ideal to which Puerto Ricans could aim to become, but never achieve; without the U.S. Puerto Rico was nothing, and independence would surely bring about the nation’s demise. And so the Puerto Rican Paradox was firmly engrained into their minds, they were neither American nor Latin American, but the lowest common denominator of both.
With the reality of this ideology reinforcing the literature I read in preparation for this trip, I’m ready to embark further on my research and see what other issues brought about what has been perceived on the island as a colonial identity that led to the radicalization of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico, and the endorsement of violence by the Federación Universitaria Pro-Independencia (FUPI).
Posted by Leani García- MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU