The Struggle from the Edge of the Diaspora

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Photo: sfchef, flickr

Plaza del Mercado, Río Piedras, Puerto Rico. Photo: sfchef, flickr

By: Nicolás A. Ortiz Youngblood

Sometimes people say in life not to worry about being different, about standing out, or not fitting in. Sometimes, uniqueness is cherished and celebrated. Unfortunately, I can say that throughout most of the few years that I have spent living on our planet I have been searching for my place, for where I belong, for with whom I belong. Yes, sometimes I am proud of my “other”-ness; I believe that coming from diverse beginnings has made me an open-minded individual, one who will be more willing to respect and appreciate the differences that exist throughout the world. My identity includes homosexuality, feminism, hispanidad, being a person of color, and being religion-less, which are plenty of reasons to feel different and afraid in today’s society, and I would expect that being member of an oppressed minority group would eventually teach any person to be slow to judge and hurt others. As good as that sounds, when it comes to a sense of belonging to a group or a community, or any type of collective entity, one does not want to be different. A person wants to be just like everyone else. He or she wants to be easily identified as “one of us”.

May it be known that I consider myself a member of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, but I do not believe I can claim “Puerto Rican-ness”, as much as I would like to. Or maybe I can? How much of the culture has to be present for one to claim to be Puerto Rican when he or she is born and raised outside of the Island? I am a child of an interracial and interethnic marriage: My mother and her side of the family are African Americans, and my father and his side of the family are Puerto Ricans. I say I am a member of the Diaspora because of the link I have though my father, but I do not think the way I was raised gives me enough credit to call myself “Puerto Rican and African American”; I should probably only call myself African American.

I was raised by both of my parents in the same household, but I did not receive equal amounts of their respective heritages in my upbringing. I was born and raised in the southern state of Georgia, away from the members of my father’s side of the family, and around those of my mother’s side. How I view the world today and how I conduct myself is mostly owed to my mother and her side of the family, who were always involved to some degree with my education and cultural expression.

The relationship I have with these family members played a major part in what would determine things like the music I listened to, the television shows I watched, with whom outside of the family I identified myself, the type of food I ate on holidays, as well as regular days, the historic figures who meant the most to me, etc. And I appreciate it all. I love them to the moon and back for all that they have done for me and all that they continue to do for me, and, if anything, I can consider myself African American; although, at times even having that cultural background has not been enough to prove that I was a member of that community, especially when people considered my last name, the majority of my physical features, and the way I spoke. It is true that because of this, sometimes I feel out of place even among my fellow African-Americans. So, if that part of my identity can be questioned and at times ‘revoked’, imagine how I feel towards the other side of the cultural makeup of my (extended) family. I would have liked to have had both cultures equally present in my upbringing.

Fifty-something years ago, my father was born in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, and a year after his birth my grandmother and other family members moved to the States. He was raised there, and to my knowledge he has never returned to Puerto Rico, but I would be hard-pressed to believe that Puerto Ricans, either from the Diaspora or from the Island, would not think that he was Puerto Rican. Even more Puerto Rican is my abuela: she was actually raised on the Island. Do not think about questioning her puertorriqueñidad; she is so Puerto Rican that her English is still very heavily accented, and a native English-speaker might have to train his or her ear to make sure he or she understands abuela.

To the best of my knowledge, my grandmother raised her children in a Puerto Rican household. My father learned to speak Spanish, albeit el español jíbaro, because my family came from the mountains. He is familiar with the classic salsa artists and songs. He knows about the food: for example, every Christmas he and the rest of the children had to pitch in and help make los pasteles. He is a baseball fanatic, and my abuela raised him to be a Catholic man. Who knows what else he knows about Puerto Rican culture that he may not have told us. He had all the makings of “typical” Puerto Rican man, if there is one, because my grandmother made it so, only the assembly took place outside of Puerto Rico; culture can be passed down from generation to generation, regardless of where a family is located. That is why neither I nor anyone else should ever question la puertorriqueñidad of someone who was born and raised outside of the Island if his or her parents and family members insisted on teaching the culture. Unfortunately, I am frustrated, and passionate, at 25 years of age, because the cards of my life had unfolded in such a way as to permit others to legitimately question my ‘Puerto Rican-ness.’

For whatever reasons that he may have had, my father made very little, conscious effort to pass his culture to his children. Subconsciously, there were a few things that were introduced to my sister and I in the background: he was always watching baseball, he would walk around speaking Spanish on the phone to other family members, coffee was a big thing for him, he always played salsa on the home stereo or in the car, etc. Of course, being kids, we usually did not think twice about this stuff. Yes, up to a certain point abuela was involved by trying to speak to us on the phone every now and then, in her difficult-to-understand English, and she would send us pasteles every Christmas. Yes, my father did try to have me play t-ball and later baseball, and for a few Sundays my immediate family went to mass at a Catholic church, but that was pretty much it, and very early on in my and my sister’s lives.

That is where the Puerto Rican influence stops. When my grandmother developed arthritis and could no longer make and send her delicious pasteles, my father did not decide to keep that beloved, traditional, iconic dish in the family by teaching us how to make them, despite knowing how to. We were not introduced to anything else along the lines of la comida criolla. He did not teach us how to speak Spanish. There were no stories about the salsa or baseball legends from Puerto Rico. Do not even mention la politiquería that happens on the Island. I can understand, and forgive, his ways to a certain extent: I mean, what he knew about recent developments on the Island was always going to be limited if he never went back to it, but there seems to have been so much from the culture that abuela taught him that he did not pass to us. I may not have ever come to write this essay had he done his fair share in passing on the culture.

I can claim minimal knowledge or recognition of salsa, pasteles, the Catholic Church, and baseball. Come on! That is nowhere near enough to say I was raised with Puerto Rican culture, so how could I claim to be African American AND Puerto Rican? There are other members of the Diaspora who have had so much more Puerto Rican influence in their upbringing, and they still have to fight to prove themselves in the ongoing conversation about identity that takes place between the Island and the Diaspora (I have a friend who is from the Island and who questioned the ‘Puerto Rican-ness’ of la India, who was born in Río Piedras, raised in Nueva York, and became one of the most recognizable voices of salsa).

As for me: I feel as though I am literally on the edge of the Diaspora; please do not breathe in my direction because this very weak piece of string that is connecting us could snap, and that would be the end of my connection. I do not think my situation is completely rare, but I cannot say that I personally know any other members of the Diaspora who have also been pushed into dangling off of the edge of the community limits; and this makes for a lonely struggle. I was not even lucky enough to be raised in one of the typical areas in the States that are home to large populations of Boricuas. I do have the sense that there are other interracial and interethnic families with mixed children who feel similarly, but I acquired that more so through reading and television than through personal experience. Yet, as weak as the presence of my father’s culture was in my upbringing, it was enough for me to be aware of the existence of la puertorriqueñidad, even if I did not feel that my life was directly influenced by it.

For a few years now I have been trying to right what I feel has been wrong, and a year ago I was finally able to make my way to the Island for the first time, the origin of everything Boricua, thanks to a friend, the support of my family, hard work, and the educational system. Due to the way my reality has developed, today, tomorrow, and every day after, I have to work more than twice as hard to acquire forcefully that which I was not allowed to learn naturally: the language, the customs, and the perspectives on life. There is no better place to learn than from the source, but since I am learning the way that I am, I will never truly be Puerto Rican; the best I can hope to attain is something similar to the title ‘honorary Puerto Rican’, a status that I hope would incite more and easier inclusion in the community, with less questioning.

As far as I understand the way culture and community membership works, if one wants to gain access and acceptance, inclusion and validation, he or she has to appeal to the members of that group and prove to them that he or she is worthy of entrance. In other words, the person must demonstrate the possession of the characteristics that those members typically assign to their idea of a member, thereby showing that he or she belongs to that community. In this case, I consider the Puerto Ricans from the Island and those from the Diaspora who were raised in what is considered to be Puerto Rican culture the gatekeepers who have the key to the community. I may have my opinions regarding a multitude of topics concerning Puerto Rico, but at the end of the day I cannot grant myself membership; that is, I believe that cultural self-identification can have very limited power in regards to perceived membership. I could learn Puerto Rican culture and consider myself Puerto Rican, but if Puerto Ricans do not accept me as Puerto Rican, if they do not include me in the boundaries of their (inter)national and cultural community, if they do not relate to me as another Puerto Rican, whether from the Island or as a diasporriqueño, and do not allow me to relate to them as such, then I cannot be a full participant in Puerto Rican culture and claim puertorriqeñidad to the full extent of what it might encompass.

The situation is really similar to a double-edged sword, and I am trying my best not to cut myself while I go hacking at the jungle of mixed feelings that shrouds this journey of discovery that I have put myself on in my efforts to learn what was not taught to me. At times I feel so much frustration and resentment for not being given the opportunity to be a full member of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, and it does not help that, for awhile now, my father and I have been estranged as a result of some seriously unfortunate family circumstances. Nor is it helpful that, as far as I have ever been told, I have no family members on the Island, since it is said that all followed my abuela to the States. So, although I have arrived on the Island, it looks as if I have to do this alone, a.k.a. the hard way. Despite those obstacles and despite not being the typical traveler, I do have to admit that this case seems to have given my life extra purpose and adventures.

Even while being a child I decided to do what I could to learn what I was not taught, and ever since there has been no stopping me. I began to learn Spanish sporadically between middle school and high school, then I majored in it for my Bachelor’s Degree, and after a certain point I made just about every paper or project about Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries and cultures, including in classes that were not part of my major. I joined a Spanish club and Latin American cultural organizations that operated inside and outside of school. I searched for and listened to the tropical genres of Latin music, mostly salsa and merengue. In Facebook, I “liked” the pages of the major periodicals on the Island to keep up with local news. I was ‘all over’ Esmeralda Santiago’s memoirs, and I looked for other works by Puerto Rican authors and authors ‘diasporriqueños’. I was the one, years after abuela could no longer make us pasteles, who asked her for her recipe, and I was the one who motivated my immediate family, my father included, to help me make pasteles for Christmas (my grandmother on my mother’s side of the family, my mother, and my sister have always LOVED them as well). And after some help from an extremely generous and good-hearted friend and her family that I met as an undergraduate, as well the belief of some very supportive Spanish professors from Georgia Regents University and Columbus State University, today I am writing this essay from my room in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where I am studying for a Master’s Degree in Linguistics, all for the sake of learning the culture and language that had existed throughout generations of my family. I consider myself very lucky, but very driven as well.

I have so much left to see and to learn, so much left to practice. That is not to say that I will forget the African American culture that I was raised with, nor will I begin to be unappreciative of it. Curiously enough, the African American side of my family has been extremely supportive of my journey to find a culture that is not theirs, and if I am able to put down roots and build a life in Puerto Rico, whoever my spouse may be will have to overlook the fact that I come from ‘Gringolandia’, and if we have children, he will have to be supportive of our children learning that culture and additional perspectives through me. I do not want to commit the same mistake that my father did while raising my sister and me alongside my mother.

Of course, and rightly so, some islanders have said that I was crazy for coming here during these rough economic times, but my conviction to being introduced to, surrounding myself with, and assimilating to Puerto Rican culture has not been deterred and I am determined to be the best Puerto Rican non-Puerto Rican there is. If my good luck continues, I will be able to graduate here, find a nice job on the island, maybe continue to pursue another degree, meet the love of my life, start a family, and have the bloodline run through the Island for a few more generations, in addition to providing a way for the members of my father’s side of the family to either be re-introduced to the Island or to see it for the first time. And of course, the members of my mother’s side of the family will have me as a connection for visiting the Island.

I am the only one from my family que está en la brega, trudging along here; at times I feel extremely lonely and overwhelmed because of the journey, and also because of everything else one would expect for a young adult to experience at this stage of life, but I have not been in Puerto Rico for long, at all. This essay represents where I am in becoming familiar with la puertorriqueñidad; it represents myself and perhaps the other members of the Diaspora who are in fact not the most knowledgeable of cultural boundaries, key elements of culture, or the gatekeepers who determine what those components may be. We have been placed on the limits by our circumstances and we may have not been schooled much on certain ideas and visions of culture, but we do have our own ideas and visions based on our lives and experiences, all the while still being interested in learning and growing through a search of cultural identity. I have much work ahead of me, and it will take much time and effort to accomplish the goals I have set for myself, but I am willing and able! So, here’s to hoping!

Nicolás A. Ortiz Youngblood was born and raised in Augusta, Georgia where he received a B.A. in Foreign Languages with a concentration in Spanish, as well as a minor in Sociology, from Georgia Regents University. He is currently studying for an M.A. in Linguistics at the University of Puerto Rico, while he also pursues interests such as racial and ethnic relations, gender relations, and Puerto Rican Spanish, literature, and customs.

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