Voices e / Magazine / Barrios

 

II.

      Craving Puerto Rican food after our first few days of hard-core research, my colleague and I finally relent and turn to our oft-consulted local contact, Maria Friday, the director of the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) residence hall where we’re crashing. As Ph.D. students enrolled in an intensive two-week long graduate fieldwork course, we’ve been off and running since our first day in St. Croix, attempting to survey Crucian literature and interview every writer we can. Maria has been tirelessly working to keep us well-informed, and so, a bit timidly, we admit our weakness (after an obligatory disclaimer that we like the Crucian fare we’ve had so far) and express our need for some Puerto Rican eats. Not that Maria wouldn’t understand. A Viequense who immigrated to St. Croix with her parents as a young child, she knows all about Puerto Rican food. Married now to a Crucian, she has lived in St. Croix for over forty years. She knows just about everyone, gives us invaluable insight into the writers we should speak with, switches effortlessly between Puerto Rican Spanish, Standard English and Cruzan English, and always greets us with a smile and a kiss. So when we admit our cravings, she throws her head back, belly laughs, and happily gives us the skinny on the indispensable Puerto Rican hot-spot where it’s really at: la pollera de Millín! (La Reine Chicken Shack in English).La Reina Chicken Shack Two blocks off the main road on 75, the spacious single-story edifice houses a serious chicken barbeque range, complete kitchen, well-stocked bar, bumping dance floor, and picnic area spacious enough for ample congregating. On her suggestion, we head there for lunch and feel instantly that we could be at any of the chinchorros típicos that proliferate across Puerto Rico—local b-b-q joints offering roast chicken, pork, and varied acompañantes. After our first meal of carrucho, white rice, habichuelas rosadas, and tostones, we are unanimous about eating here as often as possible: one meal easily feeds two (and we can EAT!). Aside from the awesome food, the picnic tables are always full, the DJ beside the bar blasts bachata, reggaeton, salsa, reggae and hip-hop classics, and clusters of domino players are always set up across the yard. It’s easy to forget we’re not in Puerto Rico, until the end of the meal when we sop up left-over guiso with johnny cakes, a fried-bread delicacy typical of many Anglo-Caribbean islands that will fill any stomach. Millín, the owner, established the family business decades ago. His son, Millito (who is a bodyguard for the governor) often works the counter. After a few days, we’ve been here so often the regulars know us—“¡les gusta la comida aquí!” We respond with broad smiles and belly rubbing, and another disclaimer: we’re visiting St. Croix from Puerto Rico, of course we love the food! Our affiliation has been duly noted.

      The social dynamic of la pollera is just as enticing as its victuals. To put in the academic plug, it has been our base for many a discussion regarding our literary project to speak with Crucian authors and examine how Crucian identity and history is expressed in the poetry and prose we’ve been feverishly reading. But just as stimulating as our academic survey of Crucian literature are the more visceral cultural and linguistic intersections that are instantly apparent at this social nexus. The cashier takes our order in perfect Puerto Rican Spanish while intermittently shouting client numbers to the crowd in Cruzan. The DJ demands in Spanish that the white car move out of its illegal parking spot across the yard (that’s me!) and then announces the same message a moment later in English (I’m already on my way to move it). Shouting friendly advice to us from the bar, a Portocruzan radio personality argues with his friend about sending us towhat he considers a sketchy Puerto Rican night-time hangout—not la gallera! Instead, he steers us to Sharky’s, a restaurant/bar with a mixed crowd that watches NBA on big-screen TVs while karaoke rivals compete for first prize, belting out Alicia Keys, Elvis Presley and Marvin Gaye. Just like similar establishments in Puerto Rico, dominoes are widely popular at La Reine Chicken Shack, but the table on the billboard’s mock-display holds seventeen dominoes per player (we’ve yet to figure that one out—in PR you play with seven). Even though coffee’s not on the official menu, Millito brews us some fresh every meal out of respect for the Puerto Rican post-meal tradition. And so the common Caribbean literary metaphorof the mixed pot—symbolic of mixed heritage—is also reflected in a typical la pollera plate: Puerto Rican habichuelas with Crucian johnny cakes to sop up the broth. Yes, puertorriqueñidades abound here, and yes, la pollera may in many ways be a haven for isla cultural identity, but it is also a meeting ground for the myriad ethnic, cultural and linguistic varieties that coalesce in St. Croix.

      It is no coincidence that Don Millín and Maria Friday were both born in Vieques and immigrated to St. Croix. Equally steeped in a history of colonization by differing European powers, St. Croix and Vieques also share similar neocolonial histories and relationships with the U.S. Although affected by different policies in different ways, both islands are unincorporated U.S. territories that have a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives and receive federal funding but are not taxed by the IRS. This current status and the policies leading up to it has influenced the migratory patterns between the islands that so affect not only their demographics, but also their ethnic, cultural, and linguistic realities. Heavily dependent on sugar economies throughout the colonial period, U.S. interests in the Caribbean have directly affected these islands for over a hundred years. When Puerto Rico became a U.S. colony in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, St. Croix was still colonized by the Danes. Twenty years later, embroiled in World War I and determined to maintain control of the Caribbean region, the U.S. purchased the Virgin Islands of St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas from Denmark for the amount of $25 million in gold as part of its military strategy. That same year, Congress passed the Jones Act, granting U.S. citizenship (and the right to be drafted to war) to all Puerto Ricans. Virgin Islanders would be granted citizenship ten years later in 1927. Given their geographic proximity, the extreme instability of a collapsing sugar industry, the deplorable labor and living conditions experienced by sugar workers, and the legalization of immigration between the island-territories, migration between Vieques and St. Croix was frequent in the early twentieth century. During World War II, the U.S. Navy expropriated two-thirds of Vieques to establish naval bases for training and bombing exercises, spurring thousands of Viequenses to relocate in St. Croix. The interrelatedness of these islands is therefore largely shaped by a shared history of sugar plantation economies and neocolonial status.

      And so the disjuncture and loss I glimpsed years ago gazing from Vieques to the hazy outline of St. Croix is refocused at la pollera into continuity and regeneration. Vibrantly represented in this fluidity of cultural, linguistic and ethnic manifestations coalescing over barbequed chicken and rice and beans, the Portocruzan community that is so underrepresented (and misunderstood) in Vieques and Puerto Rico testifies to the ways a remapping of the archipelago must consider not only political and territorial links forged by neocolonial power relations, but also the nuanced relationships of diaspora and home: the human connections between past and present and the ways they are expressed daily. This Portocruzan reality, however, can certainly not be limited to a descriptively jolly experience of an afternoon at la pollera. Any glossy image of cultural melding and hybridity is necessarily a fiction (and that metaphor is not lost on this literature student). The ways Portocruzan identity is lived is not nearly so neat as to say Viequense migration has resulted in new forms of Crucian island life reworked in a different place, The End. As we would soon find out first-hand.