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What is a Puerto Rican?
2005-10-01

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By Carlos T Mock, MD

I recently wrote a brief history of Puerto Rico. The funny thing is that as I wrote the article I could not help but ask, 'What is a Puerto Rican?'

When I was growing up in San Juan, PR, I always thought that a Puerto Rican was someone who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up there, spoke Spanish and was forced to learn English—just because we are part of the USA. We were all loud and loved rice and beans ( red, not black ) , we danced to 'salsa' and 'merengue', and played politics like a contact sport. We were ruled by the three dogmas of the Puerto Rican Culture: Machismo, Religion, and Family.

After living in the United States for the past 23 years, I have become confused. I have met Puerto Ricans here who have never visited the Island, who speak no Spanish, have no idea of our history and culture—yet they 'feel' they are Puerto Ricans. How can this be?

Puerto Ricans are—like any other Latin American race—very nationalistic. I learned at a very young age that Nationalism has no rhyme or reason. Latinos are very proud of their culture and we each have a unique and beautiful heritage. To explain how someone's sense of nationality survives in spite of never being in their homeland, never learning the language, and never voting in a Puerto Rican election ( which always includes a caravan of 100 cars with loud speakers ) , we must look at these individuals as they interact with the larger habitat—the United States of America. Everything is magnified so that Puerto Ricans in the U.S. are responding to the major sins of the 'Evil Empire': Racism and Colonialism.

I have always heard of how bad things are in Puerto Rico. Everything is magnified so that Puerto Rico is very much controlled by the whims of the larger U.S. market. There were two major immigration droves to the USA, both of which were initiated by Puerto Ricans 'looking for a better life' after a downturn in the local economy.

In 1953, the largest migration of Puerto Ricans to the United States mainland occurred, with 69,124 emigrating ( mostly to New York, New Jersey and Florida ) . This entailed mostly unskilled workers who quickly took all the concierge, maid, and gardener positions—unwanted jobs at the time. It resulted in the first big realization of how un-accepting the U.S. mainstream culture was to these pioneers. Their tragic experiences were immortalized in the work by Pedro Juan Soto—SPIKS, a collection of short stories ( published originally in Spanish by Editorial Cultural in Puerto Rico in 1956—translated into English in 1973 by the Monthly Review Press. )

The second large immigration was in the '70s and the '80s and was called the brain drain—doctors, lawyers, architects, wealthy merchants, tired of the Puerto Rican government's mismanagement and corruption, crime, and overcrowding, left in droves. A funny thing happened—due to the color of their skin and their accent—they were greeted with a similarly horrendous racist backlash. They were rejected by the African American community because of their language and their skin color—'cafĂ© con leche'—yet, they were also rejected by the whites, for the same reason. Some returned to Puerto Rico, and the ones who stayed in the U.S. formed a community where they could feel safe. They moved to the same neighborhoods—mainly the warmer climates of Florida and the southwest, and for some unknown reason Chicago—and resisted assimilation into the U.S. culture. My mother, who is a very strong pro-statehood fanatic, refuses to move to the United States because she 'has' to pray her rosary in Spanish. I, on the other hand, have been here since 1983 and could never go back to live in Puerto Rico.

The institutionalized bureaucracy would drive me nuts.

Meanwhile, on the Island, the issue of status became a hot potato. In 1968, Luis A. Ferre was elected governor under the New Progressive Party that favored statehood as a solution to the status of Puerto Ricans. As I have stated before, Puerto Rico became a United States colony as part of the loot of the Spanish-American war of 1898. Since then, the Popular Democratic Party controlled island politics by offering 'commonwealth' as the way to associate with the U.S.—thus selling out the dreams of an Independent Puerto Rico. It meant that we would share currency, citizenship, and defense with the U.S., but were able to keep all the other aspects of our nationality—we would participate as Puerto Ricans in the Olympic Games, and in the Miss Universe Pageant ( where a Puerto Rican has won four times since the contest started ) .

The electoral victory of Luis Ferre and the possibility of 'losing' our country and identity gave a boost to our quest for defending the Puerto Rican culture. The idea of assimilating our culture with that of the United States made every single election since 1968 a referendum on status. The 2004 election for governor of Puerto Rico was won by a margin of 3,000 votes ( out of a total of two million votes cast ) by the pro-commonwealth candidate Luis Acevedo Vila with both legislatures controlled by the opposition party.

Every family can claim at least one member of each of the three ideologies ( statehood, commonwealth, and independence ) and thus politics is seldom discussed at family gatherings. The idea that we may be assimilated by the larger U.S. has strengthened our desire to remain Puerto Rican, thus helping the Puerto Ricans who live in the States to 'feel' Puerto Rican whether they have ever been there or not—whether they speak Spanish or not. If Puerto Rico were ever to achieve statehood, the indigenous culture would be threatened and we would do everything possible to save it.

The Jones Act of 1917 granted Puerto Ricans U.S. statutory citizenship—we are not concerned about immigration problems like the rest of the Latinos in the United States. However, our language, heritage, skin color, and culture forms a bond between all Latinos in the U.S.

So, what is a Puerto Rican? There are 3.8 million Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico and about the same spread all over the United States. Your guess is as good as mine.

Carlos T. Mock currently lives in Chicago and is the author of the book: Borrowing Time: A Latino Sexual Odyssey.


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