“Are you calling from Puerto Rico?” It’s hard not to roll my eyes at the question. I stifle a chuckle and silently praise the mute button on my cell phone. I’m on a conference call being run by my sister—the owner of the 787 phone number that amuses the caller on the other line. “No. I am in New York, but yes, this is an international phone number from Puerto Rico,” Maria responds very politely. My sister is definitely much more pleasant than me. See? I think to myself. This is why you should get a local phone number—917.
That’s what I did three years after moving back from Puerto Rico to New York back in 2010. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I did so only after Google refused to recognize my 787 as a local phone where I could forward U.S. calls to (can we send someone to give them a class on Puerto Rico-US relations, please?). I am not sure why it took me three years to change that 787 number. Yet, to be fair, it took me a couple of years to change my New York number (my first cell phone number came right out of college when I was living in New York) to a Wisconsin number when I lived there; a year to go from a Wisconsin area code to a Pittsburgh area code. When it comes to area codes, I follow the “if it ain’t broken don’t fix it” tenet for as long as I can.
Interestingly, this is the same reason why my sister has not changed her 787 number. When she first moved to New York for graduate school, she was on a family plan with our grandparents, later with my mother (who also has a 787 although she has been living in Houston for over 4 years now). She has never felt the need to change it, and today calls it an “international number.” She shares, “At first, I kept it for practical reasons because my family over in PR still called me from landlines, and I didn't want them to have to pay extra charges. Then a few years after, everybody had a cell phone, and it seemed to me it really didn't matter to change or not. I actually think that is the way of the future of technology. Eventually, long distance is going to disappear in general. People now live and work remotely from so many different places it really doesn't make a difference where you are calling from.” Exactly. That’s why to 787 or not to 787 should not matter. Or should it? And does it? The 787 divide, if not a phenomenon, seems to be a curious reality amongst Puerto Ricans from the island living stateside, and as it will become evident later on, it’s one that is also part and parcel of the US Puerto Rican experience more generally.
The question of whether to 787 or not is that much relevant today than ever with the mass exodus the island has seen and is seeing (and may continue to see given economic woes). Today, more Puerto Ricans live in the United States than in Puerto Rico itself, covering areas we have traditionally come to associate with the Puerto Rican diaspora, such as New York and Florida, and less likely spots, such as Wisconsin and Georgia. Despite this fact, Puerto Ricans who leave the island behind do not necessarily leave the 787 area code behind. Is it because of some romanticized connection they ascribe to the number? Because of more practical reasons such as a shared family plan? Try as I may, I have yet to identify research that responds to this question.
A possible explanation is that there is no question to answer. “First, you have to establish that this is indeed a phenomenon,” cautions Carlos Vargas-Ramos, research associate at the Center and co-editor of our recent Puerto Ricans at the Dawn of a New Millennium. According to him, it may be very easy to identify a trend where there is none. Yet, let’s assume for the sake of argument that this is indeed a phenomenon. If that’s the case, it’s one specific to the new migratory wave. A comparable exodus from Puerto Rico to the United States has not taken place since the 1950s when communication forms where more cumbersome, less accessible and mobile.
Many factors can help explain why some boricuas leaving the island for the United States in an era of mobile technologies maintain an apego to the 787 area code. The most basic is that the results say more about me, my family, and friends than anything else. Technological advances here are key. Carlos Vargas-Ramos believes that there are few, if any, practices that parallel that of retaining the 787 area code prior to mobile technologies. Technology has changed not only the way we move, but the way we communicate and stay connected to our place of origin. Take Carlos’s personal experience with immigration in his family. His mother, who came to Puerto Rico from Spain, had to wait two years before being able to call her family in Spain. I can’t wrap my head around that, as I am not embarrassed to admit (Ok, I am maybe a little) that I get daily texts from my mom.
Before cell phones, telegraph, letters, and eventually landlines may have connected families on both side of the charco, but none of these traveled well. With cell phones, it’s now possible to not only communicate easily across borders, but also to carry a little piece of that border in your pocket. This practice, according to Vargas Ramos, “may help cement relations with Puerto Rico, or it may be a modern manifestation of keeping contact with Puerto Rico…I think it’s a new manifestation.” It provides a way to “hold on to a physical space amidst the distance.”
Now, the reasons for this are yet to be determined. That is what I discovered when I posed the question to friends via Facebook, text, email, and good old fashion one-on-ones. Of the 42 people who generously shared their 787 stories with me, 18 still had a 787 number. One of them had a 939 code, another code from Puerto Rico. These included people who had newly arrived to the United States and some who had been living stateside for over 10 years. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive sample or study, but it suggests that there is something (whether a unique trend or not is up for discussion) there to look into.
Yes! I have 787
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787 No More
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As this small sample of my friends, families, acquaintances suggests, Puerto Ricans stateside may choose to keep the 787 number for practical reasons—they share a plan, it’s cheaper to keep a plan from Puerto Rico, it’s easier to communicate with x or y family member on the island. They could also be emotional—they want to maintain a symbolic connection with the island, they don’t believe in national boundaries, they want to craft a sense of identity in the United States.
Similarly, the reason why Puerto Ricans stateside may choose to change numbers may be more functional—they may need to for work reasons, to speak with their children’s teachers, they simply did not have a cell phone before moving to the United States; they may also relate to more abstract ideas about space and identity—they want to start with a clean slate and leave the island behind, they don’t believe in national boundaries and know they can create identity in other ways, they feel more connected to their new place. It could even be a mix of the two, whereby the practical masks the emotional and vice versa. One thing is for sure, however, the number matters.
The magical 787 may even matter in important ways to Puerto Ricans born in the United States. That much became evident in conversations with staff writer, Carmen Corchado. Initially, we set to craft a joint piece that would pit 787s against 646s. Yet, the more we talked about it between us and with other Puerto Ricans, regardless of place of birth, it became clear that the number held meaning to all. Below, Carmen’s take:
“Okay. Primero vas a marcar siete ocho siete y depues…” Anytime I hear 787 it’s always in my father’s voice, telling me in Spanish to call my grandmother. Siete ocho siete is the bridge through which I travel to bond with my abuelitos, titis and primos in Puerto Rico. When I was younger, whenever that siete ocho siete popped up on my caller I.D., the confusion I sometimes felt about not having what one imagines is the typical huge Puerto Rican family living in a two block radius dissolves. Seeing that number instantly connected me to the island, and filled me with confidence.
Beyond a connection to my family, 787 connected me to my identity. As a Bushwick born Puerto Rican, whenever I found myself on the other end of a 787, I had an opportunity to prove just how good my Spanish was, how Puerto Rican I was. Conversations with my mother at home where she spoke to me in Spanish and I to her in English, the above 90 scores in my Spanish classes in Junior High School, they all paled in comparison to the real test as soon as I heard, “Hola Carolina es Abuela, Que dios te bendiga.” I could validate that although I was born and raised in Brooklyn, I was Puerto Rican. My cultural self-esteem grew with every muy bien I received on the other end. To be sure, years later I realized I didn’t need a muy bien to define my puertorriqueñidad. Despite that, even today the code holds much weigh. My family may not live 3 houses away from one another, but we are definitely connected by 3 numbers. My digital block.
The same goes for artist and writer Marcia X who was born in Chicago, Illinois, but visited Puerto Rico regularly growing up, “Almost my entire family still resides in Puerto Rico. My grandfather and great aunties down to the babies of my cousins born in the last couple years.”
For Marcia, the 787 reminds her of those trips to the island. As an artist, she visually tries to imagine the history it carries, “[787 reminds me of] el campo, and what rich history that land has. What has it seen, and who has stepped on it, what did they look like. Sort of like propelling myself thru history, imagined but steeped in a reality that I constantly try to read about, and listen to my family when they speak about it.”
In reality, I must add another code—one that anchors me to a whole different experience I share with Boricuas born and raised in Brooklyn and the Bronx—718. Representing and stating the borough you were from in New York has the same effect for New Yorkers as a well-hung Puerto Rican flag. Artists like Jay-Z, Fabulous, and Joel Ortiz nod to their roots by shouting out “718” in their songs. The code was so important that my high school separated the seniors according to their borough during year book group pictures.
In New York, a kind of five borough nationalism exists. In my case, being a 718 from Brooklyn meant being a New Yorker through and through, and having the resilience in my blood to tackle whatever the city might throw my way. At the same time, 718 also connects myself and others to the Puerto Rican community in our borough.
What do these areas codes mean? They are not just coordinates that locate us any and every time someone needs us. They hold the memories and values that trace the pieces of us. From the only life I’ve ever known as a true bred New Yorker, siete ocho siete remains the number of my abuelitos whose lives consisted of going to the beach while I a 718 got smacked in the face by wintery winds. They must have liked it too though because they usually visited during Christmas. “Coge el teléfono que están llamando” will always seem more allá than acá, and yet very much mine.
Carmen's take adds a layer to the question--one that takes into account not only the move from one place to the other, but the back and forth between the island and the United States that generations of Puerto Ricans have seen and lived for decades. In his book, The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move, Jorge Duany characterizes Puerto Rico as a nation that is constantly, you guessed it, on the move. The vaivén between Puerto Rico and the United States dates back to the 19th century and the use of cultural signifiers to tether ourselves to the fluid nation is nothing new. Through these years, symbols—the flag, Nuyorican poetry, seamless codeswitching, parades, and more—have emerged as anchors of a people on the move. 787 might as well be the newest addition to these cultural unifiers and collective consciousness. In the end whether one keeps the code or not may matters less than what it stands for: a nation united beyond borders.
What area code do you have? Why? Share your thoughts with us.
© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 21 July 2015.