Are you Puerto Rican or American? Hesitantly, I don't know what to say when people ask me this question because I feel that I have to choose between the two ethnicities. Since I was born in the U.S., I am considered American. But, if I say I am American, I am asked about my origins. Thus, controversy evolves around inhabitants of Puerto Rico because they are considered Americans since Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States.
My skin is white, my eyes are hazel, and my hair is light brown. I am confused with Europeans, such as Italians, Portuguese, or Spanish. As early as the sixth grade, I experienced prejudice indirectly. I grew up in a predominately white neighborhood where I consistently heard racist thoughts about Latinos. Throughout the hallways of my school or outside in the playground, I would hear that Latinos are drug addicts; they don't work; they depend on welfare. I also heard comments, such as Latinos are gang members, Latin mothers are slaves to their husbands, and the only job Latin women can have is working as a maid. Growing up, there were few Latinos in television and Hollywood. Even then, Latin characters were portrayed negatively. They were criminals, maids, gang members, drug addicts, or drug dealers. Presently, a dramatic change has occurred with more Latinos in the media along with different characters. Since Latinos were portrayed negatively in the media, many people internalize this belief bringing forth racism.
During the sixth grade, I encountered a critical stage in my life where I denied my heritage by saying that I was American. I wasn't lying because I was born in Newark. However, I never told my classmates I was a Latina. I didn't lie about my background or denied my race because everyone assumed that I was either Spanish or Portuguese. My experience had to do with feeling accepted by my peers. Also, I was very shy and I didn't have the capacity to stand up for myself or other Latinos. While they talked about Latinos, I kept quiet; I didn't want them to think of me negatively. This experience lasted throughout the school year. When I returned to school after the summer break, half of my classmates were Latinos.
The Latinos in my class differed in the way that they were proud to say they were Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Dominican. Thus, I pursued a relationship with these classmates and I began to feel differently about Latinos. I realized that I was taking part in the prejudice thoughts my previous classmates had toward Latinos by concealing my identity. I also recognized that Latinos were struggling to pursue a better life and that we are looked down upon. As a result of discrimination, it is difficult for us to accomplish our goals in life. Presently, every opportunity I get, I talk about my culture. I discuss the hardships Latinos face and I describe my experience growing up Puerto Rican. Although I am Puerto Rican, I don't know as much about my culture as I should. Reading Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America by Juan Gonzalez has brought new insights to my knowledge of Puerto Ricans and Latinos in general. Gonzalez focuses on language and writes that speaking Spanish is treated as a handicap instead of as an asset (226).
Gonzalez gives us a brief history of Puerto Rico. He writes about the changes of the official language, which was English in the past and has changed to Spanish. Nonetheless, controversy over language exists when statehood is proposed. Many argue that Spanish should remain the official language while others oppose. This opposing argument raises an important issue because if the official language would change, a huracan over culturewill evolve. Our culture will change eradicating our native language. Furthermore, language itself brings forth racism from other Latinos. Even though Latinos speak Spanish, Puerto Ricans are criticized because we don't speak the "correct" language. Thus, it is our language that distinguishes us from other Latinos and not all Puerto Ricans speak the same. Just as there is controversy with African Americans speaking Ebonics, Puerto Ricans are also criticized for speaking Spanglish. Spanglish results when Spanish is not the dominant language a person speaks.
Unfortunately even some of the best Anglo historians have misread that movement as one that is seeking separation rather than inclusion. Take Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Schlesinger's response to the multicultural movement. "It may be too bad that dead Europeans males have played such a large role in shaping our culture. One cannot erase history" (214).
Latinos are not trying to erase history. We are trying to include knowledge about our own historians and writers. Why do we have to wait until college to learn about Jose Marti, Ruben Dario, and Rigoberta Menchu among other important Latin authors? In fact, it wasn't until I took Latin American literature in college, that I learned about Ruben Dario, Rigoberta Menchu, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Miguel Angel Asturias, etc. In addition, it wasn't until I took Race, Nation and Borders in American literature, that I learned about Jose Marti, Juan Gonzalez, and Demetria Martinez. These literary works are fascinating because their style of writing differs from what is normally read in school. Latin authors write about their own experiences and the experiences of other Latinos, which I can relate to. I enjoy reading Shakespeare, but I would have liked the opportunity to read Latin stories. Latin stories allow us to identify with the characters. We don't get the same feeling from reading Romeo and Juliet as from reading about a single parent living in the ghetto struggling to support her family. The romance that occurs in Romeo and Juliet is quite fascinating and appealing; however, the story does not reflect reality in Latin cultures. Furthermore, Growing Up Puerto Rican, which is my favorite book, reflects our experiences. Each character tells a different story, which Puerto Ricans can relate to. When reading this book, you feel a sense of security and relief knowing that others share your experiences. One issue that comes up is being a "true" Puerto Rican. Does speaking Spanish and eating arroz con gandules make you Puerto Rican? Do you have to be in the island to be Puerto Rican? What exactly is a ÒtrueÓ Puerto Rican?
When I visit the island, I am called a gringa, so this makes me American. Therefore, I am not considered a "true" Puerto Rican in my native land. In the United States, people believe I am European based on my appearance. Inhabitants from the island don't consider me a "true" Puerto Rican because I do not pursue certain customs and traditions. I don't eat rice and beans. I don't know how to dance to salsa; I don't even like salsa for that matter. Also, I don't listen to bombaor plena,neither do I know how to dance to this music. As a result of a Euro centric school curriculum, I don't know much about Puerto Rican historians or writers. Furthermore, I know Spanish but I prefer to speak English. Therefore, I have become Americanized.
Throughout the experiences I have been through, such as meeting proud Latin kids in school and reading about the experiences of other Latinos, I am proud to say that I am Puerto Rican. I will teach the future generation about our culture, including traditions and customs. My children may not have the opportunity to read about well-known Latinos in school, but I will make sure they learn about prominent scholars, such as Jose Marti and Rigoberta Menchu. Also, speaking Spanish is very important because our culture is based on the language. After all, one day the official language of Puerto Rico might change to English. However, we can't forget our roots, or where we came from. Even though I was born in America, I am Puerto Rican!