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Puerto Rico, How to Eat the Cake and Have it, Too.

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Puerto Rico, How to Eat the Cake and Have it, Too.

Post Posted: Fri May 19, 2006 6:54 am

Puerto Rico- How to Eat the Cake and Have it, Too.

I remember that day like it was yesterday. It was July something-something of 1983, and I was about to be sworn in as a new US citizen. I was at a Federal Building in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The building was as American as one can get, US flags all around, signs and all, but what was outside did not fit the parameters of what I expected the US to look like. I was on a Spanish- speaking Caribbean island, and whenever I went outside, and I tried to speak English to the people, they would just shrug and walk by me saying ,“No entiendo ingles”. Because of my light complexion people had been calling me a “Gringo”, a “Yankee” and “Americano”. Once, I was sitting under a tree relaxing when a local passed by me and flipped me the bird. He probably meant that my presence on the island was not welcome. Little did all these people know that they were the ones that were Gringos and I was the one who was not. How ironic!

In some offices at the University where I went to, I saw anti-American posters saying things like “We Resent the Colonial Yoke” and “Freedom for Puerto Rico”. There would a picture of Puerto Rico wrapped in chains emanating from an evil country northeast of it. On some buildings, on the way to the court house, there were graffiti in Spanish: “Long Live Puerto Rico, Free and Socialist!” There was even one that said: “Yankee, if you do not go, you will die here in Puerto Rico”. To me it was kind of logical: if a person does not go, he will, one day, get old and die where he is. That’s a given truism. I guess they meant “violent death” by a freedom fighter, a “Machetero”, though.

They had all been US citizens for almost a century, and I only had a Green Card and was about to become one of them, i.e., a US citizen. But all of this seemed so surreal that up until this day I cannot make heads or tails of it. Was I in the US or what? Whose citizen did I end up becoming?

The court room was half full, and small to begin with. There were no “Daughters of the American Revolution” waiting outside with doughnuts. The new citizens, maybe thirty of us, many from other Latin American countries even recited poems about their new country in Spanish. By the “new country” they meant “The USA”. Still, while it all sounded great, I somehow left with a funny aftertaste in my mouth. I guess, that is what diversity is all about. However, the Puerto Rican style of diversity was even weirder.

At the University of Puerto Rico, where I was taking courses with Spanish being the medium of instruction, people often referred to Puerto Rico as a “country”. Actually, to most local people, Puerto Rico was simply a nation similar to Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The United States was a foreign country in the eyes of many, if not all, locals. That is why becoming a US citizen there and integrating into a society that was not even English-speaking and completely Latin American was truly bizarre for me. However, many folks were doing just that. There were Middle Easterners who were becoming US citizens and staying in the “country” of Puerto Rico; many Cubans also opted for that route rather than staying in Miami and then, there was I. I loved Puerto Rico, its people and its vehement culture. But I remained forever confused by its identity.

The official name for Puerto Rico was “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico”. However, Massachusetts was also a commonwealth, but it was a state of the US, whereas Puerto Rico was not. To add to the confusion was the fact that when the English word “Commonwealth” was translated into Spanish, it did not become something like “ Riqueza Comun”, but, for some reason, someone came up with the phrase: “Estado Libre Asociado”, and if you translate it back into English, it reads” “ Associated Free State”. So, it is a state after all or what? I was confused again.

Another thing that I had learned while I was there was the often repeated belief of the locals that while they were American citizens, they were not Americans. I always thought that the two were synonymous, but now there were thousands, perhaps millions of people who would tell me time and time again that they were not Americans even though they had US citizenship. One of my professors at the University of Puerto Rico explained that Puerto Rican was a “nationality”, a cultural concept, whereas “American” was “citizenship”, a political aspect. That is how political science would see it, he would say. He had also related a story to me of how when Puerto Ricans would move to the US, they would be asked on various government forms what their nationality was, they would write PUERTO RICAN in huge capital letters forcing the authorities on mainland to change the question on the form to “What country are you a citizen of?” giving the people only one choice- to put the letters “US” in the blank.

In Puerto Rico, they even have a term to describe people of Puerto Rican descent from New York as “Neo Ricans”, and they rarely if ever see them as Americans. However, when I asked Puerto Ricans on the Island whom they considered Americans, many would say “a person born in the United States”. For some reason, though, it would be everyone else except the Neo Ricans. Very strange. Say, a person of Irish descent born in the US would be an American to them, but a person of Puerto Rican descent born in the US would not be. It was again very contradictory and very strange.

I asked a librarian in Puerto Rico once what an American name would be, and she answered “Smith” without blinking. I guess they were still clinging to the old view of America even when America has undergone so much change ethnically and culturally.

Many Puerto Ricans who go to live in the US are routinely asked if they have Green Cards and “Americanos” who live on the Island are called “expats”. Why?

I also remember the days when I used to sit at the library of the University and find a leaflet or two on the desk with more and more political appeals to “Throw Out The Vile Yankees From Our Motherland”. I went to the bathroom then, and stared at another long appeal scribbled on the door of the cubicle by some local revolutionary to “Throw Out Foreigners From the Country, Burn them by Fire and Brimstone, and Establish a Glorious Republic”.

Having observed all that, I have also noticed that these outbursts were from a vocal but small minority. Most Puerto Ricans were very happy to live in their “associated free state”, while considering themselves a country, nonetheless, and enjoying the benefits of US citizenship, such as Affirmative Action and visa free travel to most countries of the world, and lots and lots of jobs on mainland. Who said that you cannot eat the cake and have it, too? It has been done in Puerto Rico.

It was a great experience to become a US citizen in San Juan, but I still feel that something was missing from that naturalization ceremony. Maybe I should have done it in a place like Pittsburgh or Toledo, Ohio? I just did not feel as special as I could have. Things were not quite logical all around me. It was too surreal. However, at the same time, having been called a Gringo before and after the ceremony, I did put a spring in my step. I was now a Gringo with full rights. Just like the islanders around me who had been Spanish-speaking Gringos for almost a century now without ever admitting it to themselves or anyone around them.


You are only as free as your bank account allows you to be.


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