Puerto Ricans as a Subordinate Group in America
We were walking to church when mamá told us to pray for a man named Harry Truman, el presidente de los Estados Unidos. “He is going to let us finally become our own country,” mamá explained. I had heard those stories before.
Abuela liked to tell stories about how Puerto Rico had never been free. She said that first Christopher Columbus had come to the island and he had helped Spain to conquer los Tainos. Abuela always spoke about the great injustices Columbus and Spain had done to los Tainos; she said her mother was a direct descendent of those early Puerto Ricans, which made us part native Taino.
Mamá hated those stories. Her parents had come to Puerto Rico from Spain; Puerto Rico was her home and she was always upset by the idea that her earliest ancestors might have enslaved my father’s ancestors. She said to let the past stay in the past.
At church, I prayed for Mr. Truman because my mother said to. I prayed for him because he was going to make up for all the mistakes the Spanish had done to the country all those years ago. He was going to make us free again. Mamá said that Mr. Truman was como un savior.
We read newspaper articles about the drafting of the new constitution. We were our own country, but we were not. We were part of the United States, while still being Puerto Rico. We were protected, even while we were independent. Walking down the street, I could hear people talking about what “commonwealth status” could mean for Puerto Rico’s future. Some were against it, others thought it was the best way. But the constitution did not solve everything; stores closed down, houses became decrepit, Papá lost his job.
Three years after the Puerto Rican constitution was signed, Papá said we were going to move to America. He had cousins who had gone and had found jobs immediately. He said that more and more people were leaving Puerto Rico for places like New York City. I had seen a picture of New York City once. It was called the “Big Apple.” I had never seen buildings so tall; I had always thought that the people who could call New York City were the luckiest people in the world. And soon, I would be one of them.
We left in the middle of the night. The ride was not long and I looked out the airplane window, watching the night sky. We landed in an airport outside of New York and took a taxi in. We drove across a large bridge; I could barely see the water. It looked like another sky with all the buildings and lights reflected in it. And then, we were inside the city. There were people walking around. I heard people talking to Spanish. There were stores with familiar names and foods advertised in the windows.
It was almost as though we had never left home.
I couldn’t sleep that night; I was kept awake by the sound of taxis and car horns and people shouting from one building to the next. Mamá tried to sing lullabies to me, the same songs she used to coo when I was a small child, but now, the songs did not induce sleep but kept my eyes more alert. I thought of home. I thought of palm trees. I thought of the ocean. I was afraid I would never see Puerto Rico again.
But Puerto Rico came to me.
More cousins and aunts and uncles and friends left the island for America. They did not only come to New York. They went to places like Texas, California, New Mexico, and Florida. My best friend, Juana, went to Texas on vacation. She sent me a postcard of a man riding a bull. “He spoke Spanish to me,” she wrote.
After my Tía Felicia moved to Florida, she invited us to visit. I could see the oceans. I could see palm trees. It was warm. It was Puerto Rico in America. Felicia made tostones y arroz y pollo asado. I could have stayed in Florida forever but after two weeks, I was beginning to miss New York. I had grown used to the traffic. I was comfortable in Florida, listening to almost everyone speak Spanish and being able to understand them, but I couldn’t help but want to be back in the city, where I could walk from my neighborhood to Little Italy to China Town and eat something from every part of the world.
Years later, I left New York for New Jersey to go to college. I had children. My husband was a Cuban man; his family had moved to Puerto Rico shortly after his birth. We had Cuban and Puerto Rican flags hanging on the outside of our house. When the very first Puerto Rican Day parade was announced, my husband took the Puerto Rican flag down from the front of the house and handed it to me. We left early in the morning, with our children. Flags were for sale at the many vendors lined along the street; food was also being sold, and little pieces of jewelry with the Puerto Rican flags on them.
“Boricua,” the crowd shouted together. I did not shout with them at first. My children stood on their toes to look over the shoulders of the people standing in front of them. They shouted with the crowd. My husband reached out and held my hand. I looked up and down the street, shocked by the thousands of Puerto Ricans gathered together. Spanish was mixed with English; people danced together, music was being played from loudspeaker. I felt at home.
I leaned against my husband; together we screamed with the crowd, “Boricua!”
U.S. Census Bureau American Fact Finder. (2004, April). “Percent of People 5 Years and
Over Who Speak Spanish at Home: 2005”. Retrieved April 20, 2007 from factfinder.census.gov.
U.S. Census Bureau American Fact Finder. (2004, April). “Map of Spanish Speakers in the
United States”. Retrieved April 20, 2007 from factfinder.census.gov.
CIA World Factbook. “Puerto Rico.” Retrieved April 20, 2007 from www.cia.gov.