Entre Aquí y Allá: Puerto Rican Youth in the Midst of the Vaivén

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By: Sandra L. Soto Santiago

Photo: Richard Lee, flickr

Photo: Richard Lee, flickr

Carlos is a 14-year-old boy born in Puerto Rico. He lived in Puerto Rico with his mother and siblings until he was eight, when she decided to move to Philadelphia. Moving was not easy for Carlos, especially because he left many friends and family behind and also because in the first months of school his grades were heavily affected by all the changes that came from the move. After a couple of months in school he felt that his English had improved greatly, his grades were much better and he liked his new school. When Carlos turned thirteen his grandmother in Puerto Rico became ill and his mother decided to move back to take care of her. While living in the U.S. Carlos often spoke with his abuela over the phone and saw pictures of her in his mom’s Facebook account. When he learned about her illness he was very saddened and knew that even though he would rather stay, the family had to be with her.  However, he was also sad about leaving his school and his friends again. He did not remember what school was like in Puerto Rico and felt scared of going there.

During his first day of school in Puerto Rico Carlos’ main concern was the language. He knew Spanish and often spoke it with his mom at home but not with his sibling or his friends. He did not use it in school either and in his new school everyone seemed to only speak Spanish except for his English teacher. In the next couple of weeks Carlos went through the same process as when he moved to Philadelphia. His grades went down and it took him a while to get used to the new school. But he also made new friends and found two classmates who, like him, had lived in US.  Although he missed life in Philadelphia he liked being in Puerto Rico and spending time with his grandmother. He enjoyed being close to the beach and had forgotten how much he liked going there with his family. He wondered how he would survive without the warm weather all year round if his mother moved back. Carlos felt torn between the things he loved about here and there and was not sure that he could choose between these places. But he did not get to choose. After a year in Puerto Rico his mother decided to return to Philadelphia and move his grandmother there with her so she could take better care of her. Although Carlos’ story is fictional it resonates with the stories I heard in the year I worked with Puerto Rican teenagers who had recently returned to Puerto Rico.

I spent a school year conducting ethnographic work in two schools in the town of Mayagüez. In my conversations with the returning students and their parents I often noticed their transnationality, particularly in the ways they felt attached to Puerto Rico and the U.S. and their perceptions of schools in each place, always thinking dually about here and there and in the different systems in each location. I found that students did not stop being part of one location to become part of the other but rather adjusted to the spaces wherever they were. They constantly referred to their other school and community settings in the U.S. and contrasted their learning, school resources and things they liked and disliked about each place. During my study two of the six students I worked with moved back to the U.S. with their families.  They both returned to the state in which they lived prior to returning to Puerto Rico. Students learn that they have to maintain their bilingualism, and their connections with their communities and schools in both places because there are good chances that the family will move back and forth between these in more than one occasion.

These families were part of the Puerto Rican vaivén, the constant movement between the Island and the U.S.  These ties with both locations make so many Puerto Ricans transnational migrants who are simultaneously embedded in two places. Factors such as the increase in access to technology, cell phones and affordable airfare, have contributed to strengthening these connections and to this generation being raised more transnationally than others before it. They have adopted these dynamics as part of their lifestyles as children and upon becoming adults they will very likely continue to do so and to pass them on to the new generation.  Although not all Puerto Rican migrants participate in these dynamics, transnationalism impacts all layers of Puerto Rican society. This helps close the gap between los de aquí y los de allá as more Puerto Ricans currently participate in transnational lifestyles or are more cognizant of them.

Sandra L. Soto Santiago is Assistant Professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus. She received her PhD in Reading and Culture at the University of Arizona, Class of 2014.

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