Thinking About a Recovered Identity
dentity is not always a clear-cut thing. For example, I´m not the best Puertorican, by any standard. There are those who might say I´m not Puertorican, at all. I was born in New York City, and then raised mainly in Miami, Florida. My spoken Spanish is just OK, nicely accented but stilted, with a limited vocabulary sufficient for daily conversation but not for anything too deep. In Miami, I was surrounded by ex-pat Cubans whose class pretensions often inhibited any pan-Latino identification. Throughout my youth I was a quieter, more intellectual type than my more boisterous relatives, more comfortable thinking, reading, and writing in English than in Spanish, often more at ease with my Anglo friends than in hanging around my more expressively open, raucously emotional family. I certainly was not typical for my family, even. I called myself Buddhist by 14 and began keeping journals in which I wrote poetry and essays, aspiring to be a writer. I read English poetry, American science fiction, the Western “Classics” and Eastern religions; I immersed myself in the Bhagavad Gita and the Zen Teaching of Huang Po, two of the most repeatedly read books as a teen. I also grew up loving the Allman Brothers, Yes, and Led Zeppelin and then got severely punked by the Buzzcocks, Gang of Four and The Clash. I immersed myself in anarchism and radical politics, yet also aspired to be a Buddhist monk and lived 5 years in Japan and now almost 12 in Iceland. I have generally thought of myself as a fairly cosmopolitan “world citizen”.
I am Puertorican.
It´s in my blood, my being. I may think in English, but I feel in Spanish. And I feel in ways that have only a distant connection to the way I think and plan out my life. There are nuances in my being which are not anything “American” or understood in English. It´s hard to explain, but it´s always present. For example, when I took my kids to Puerto Rico a few years ago, after having lived 7 years in Iceland, I felt more “at home” in just the short trip to my uncle´s house a few miles away than in the entire time I had lived up here near the North Pole. Something connected effortlessly. The smiles, the flirtatious glances, the casual, familial bond between people I have never met yet have always “known” all whom accepted me as one of their own, all this was palpable. As well, the bright colors, the rich odors of the country, the expressive hands and constant touching, it was all me, all familiar without words or need for words.
When I recall my grandmother, the only one I ever knew, I regularly choke up from the wind of remembrance that sweeps over me—her perfume smell mixed with the homemade pasteles tucked in her luggage, her kindness, her smiles, her noble love for us. I still get misty remembering our little pre-sleep ritual when she visited, a call-response thing:
“Bendcion, abuela!” my brother and I would say in unison, asking for her blessing.
“Dios te bendiga!” she would always reply.
It is among the most treasured set of moments in my life.
When she was dying of cancer, I was living in Japan and in my late 20s. My sister called me to say this would probably be my last chance to speak with her and, in what was then a novel advance in communications, she connected me to Puerto Rico from her home in LA and, in a three way conversation, I choked. I just didn´t know what to say to her, and really didn´t know how to say it in a way that would convey, could convey how troubled I was at this news and how much I loved her. Her voice was still strong and sweet but it struck me then just how far away I was from who I really am.
I am Puertorican.
That year, 1987, began my search for a way back in. Already too emotionally guarded, feeling too alienated from my own people to ask for help, I began by reading books in Spanish. It was difficult but still, I felt the electric connection, realizing how much I missed the language, lamenting that I understood a vague “something” which was written between the lines in the books I was reading, but that it was then almost forgotten. I saw myself, my family, the emotional content, the colonial mindset, the contradictions, the pride, the shame, the odd mixture of both…I saw that I was Puertorican: that I looked like them, felt like them, emoted like them and most importantly, I belonged with them.
So much of that process required a conscious effort to overcome residual neglect and some lingering shame. There were years I equated my roots with poverty and I didn´t want to feel poor. Still, I had discovered a different kind of poverty with that last experience with my Abuela, which shamed me, and a different kind of wealth in this new exploration I had begun to undertake. And I´m glad I did.
But now that I have children I wonder…who are we collectively? Boricuas? Borinque ños, Nuyoricans? Puertoriqueños? Puerto Rican-Americans? Where do we fit?
When my father spoke of his time in the Navy in WW2, he said that he served “his country.” We knew he meant the US, not Puerto Rico. But why? Well, it´s easy to say that, being born in the Bronx to parents from Puerto Rico, he was “American.”
He was proudly Puertorican, too.
Where did Puerto Rico fit for him? For my mother, born in Arecibo, it was easier and she smothered us in her beautiful language and her beautiful love of her people. But where does Puerto Rico fit in to me, and for those of us who were born in the States or whose main language is English more often than not? As the “world´s oldest colony” why isn´t there the same rise in pro-independence sentiment, the kind that washed all over the world after WW2? Why didn´t we go in that direction? (State-sponsored suppression of its leaders is one answer but only one) Why do so many of us still struggle with our identities? Why can´t we be who we are and not some in-between, hyphenated, pseudo-Americanized Latino Other? Or can we always remain in that in-between identity position and still be true to our culture? But then again, what exactly is “our” identity?
I can´t answer those questions. But some friends and I are beginning to ask them pretty regularly and we are hoping to shake the fog of indifference, to take a look at ourselves and ponder these questions together. Because with over 3 million of us within the US (and an equal number on the island) how we answer those questions will have a great deal of impact on the lives of many more than just 6 million+ Puertoricans. It could begin a conversation about US colonialism (long denied) about Puertorican independence (long suppressed) about the Puertorican people (long neglected except by exploiters) and about Puertorican identity (for many, long confused). We are a rich, literate, musical, lovely, passionate, artistic, warm people and we have much to offer the world. And reconnecting the Diasporic Puertorican community to each other might be a way to shake off some of the doubts about who we are that some, like me, grew up agonizing about.
It might also make my Abuela proud.
José M. Tirado is a Puertorican poet and political writer living in Hafnarfjorður, Iceland, known for its elves, “hidden people” and lava fields. His articles and poetry have been featured in CounterPunch, Cyrano´s Journal, The Galway Review, Dissident Voice, Former People: A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers, North Star, and Op-Ed News, among others. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.