When I was Puerto Rican,
by Esmeralda Santiago
1. “In 1898, los Estados Unidos invaded Puerto Rico, and we became their colony. A lot of Puerto Ricans don’t think that’s right. They call Americanos imperlialists which means they want to change our country and our culture to be like theirs.”
“Is that why they teach us English in school, so we can speak like them?”
“Well, I’m not going to learn English so I don’t become American.”
“He chuckled. “Being an American is not just a language, Negrita, it’s a lot of other things.”
“He scratched his head. “Like the food you eat…the music you listen to…the things you believe in.”
2. “Why do people call Americanos gringos?”
“We call them gringos, they call us spiks.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well,” he sat up, leaned his elbows on his knees and looked at the ground, as if he were embarrassed. “There are many Puerto Ricans in New York, and when someone asks them a question they say, ‘I don spik inglish’ instead of ‘I don’t speak English.’ They make fun of our accent.”
“Americanos talk funny when they speak Spanish.”
“Yes, they do. The ones who don’t take the trouble to learn it well.” He pushed his hat back, and the sun burned into his already brown face, making him squint. “That’s part of being an imperialist. They expect us to do things their way, even in our country.”
3. She taught us the Puerto Rican national anthem, which said Borinquén was the daughter of the ocean and the sun. I liked thinking of our island as a woman whose body was a garden of flowers, whose feet were caressed by waves, a land whose sky was ever cloudy. I specially liked the part when Christopher Columbus lands on her shores and sighs: “Ay! This is the beautiful land I’ve been searching for!” But my favorite patriotic song was “En mi viejo San Juan,” in which a poet says good-bye to Old San Juan and calls Puerto Rico a “sea goddess, queen of the coconut groves.”
4. One potato, coño. Two potato, puñeta. Three potato, carajo.
5. On the way to the bus, men stared, whistled, mumbled piropos. Eyes fixed straight ahead, she pretended to ignore the gallantries, but a couple of times her lips curled into a smile. I strolled next to her half proud, half afraid. I had heard men speaking compliments in the direction of women, but I’d never been aware of them going to my mother. Each man who did a double take or pledged to love her forever, to take her home with him, to give his life for her, took her away from me. She had become public property –no longer the mother of seven children, but a woman desired by many. I wanted to jump on those men and punch their faces in, to quiet the promises and the seductive looks, to chill the heat they gave off, palpable as the clothes I wore. During the entire bus ride home, I was miserable, wrapped in a rage I couldn’t explain or think away. Mami chatted about New York, my cousins, movies, and tall apartment buildings. But I didn’t listen. I kept replaying the walk to the bus stop, her proud bearing, the men’s stares, their promises, and the nakedness her accessible beauty made me feel.
6. Neither one of us could have known what lay ahead. For her it began as an adventure and turned out to be have more twists and turns than she expected or knew ho to handle. For me, the person I was becoming when we left was erased, and another one was created. The Puerto Rican jíbara who longed for the green quiet of a tropical afternoon was to become a hybrid who would never forgive the uprooting.
7. The stewardesses minced up and down the narrow aisle, glancing from side to side like queens greeting the masses. I tried to read in their faces where else they’d been, if their travels had taken them to places like Mongolia, Singapore, Timbuktu. That’s where I’d want to go if I were a stewardess. Not New York, Paris, or Rome. I’d want to go places so far away that I couldn’t even pronounce their names. I’d want to see sights so different that it would show on my face. None of the stewardesses seemed to have been anywhere that exotic. Their noncommittal smiles, the way they seemed to have everything under control was too reassuring, too studied, too managed to make me comfortable. I would have felt better had there been more chaos.
8. I didn’t feel comfortable with the newly arrived Puerto Ricans who stuck together in suspicious little groups, criticizing everyone, afraid of everything. And I was not accepted by the Brooklyn Puerto Ricans, who held the secret of coolness. They walked the halls between the Italians and the morenos, neither one nor the other, but looking and acting like a combination of both, depending on the texture of their hair, the shade of their skin, their makeup, and the way they walked down the hall.