Before we even get started—a disclaimer. It is not my intention or mission to say what is or what isn’t a Puerto Rican. Rather, I want to share a story—my story—one of many that speak to what a Puerto Rican is. I’ve always wanted to. If I had to guess why, I guess the desire was driven by many experiences where I was constantly told I was neither this nor that, that I wasn’t this or that enough, and that I was this and a whole lot of other things. And yet, in the being told, I rarely got to /say/ what I am. For those moments, I decided to start a conversation first with myself and later with other Nuyorican women searching for their “Yo” in who we are, who we think we are, and why.
Let’s start at the beginning…
My parents met in Villa Carolina, Puerto Rico. They were high school sweethearts during the late 70’s—a romance that paved the way to our family. My sister came first. My brother followed two years later. Hence 2/3rds of my family were born in the island.
My mother never thought she would leave Puerto Rico, but my father couldn’t find work that would allow him to support his growing family. One of his uncles offered to help my young father by training him in construction stateside. After a short stint in Florida, my family moved to New York, first living with another one of my father’s uncles in the Bronx and then moving to Bushwick, Brooklyn, where they would have my other brother and finally me.
Being a Puerto Rican, and particularly a Puerto Rican in a New York with a growing number of Nuyoricans, was a big deal as my mother and sister put it. I grew up hearing my mom’s stories of going to the clubs of Puerto Rico, where her and her brothers owned the dance floors. My sister always made it a point to say she was born in Rio Piedras and could speak perfect Spanish. In my family, being a Puerto Rican from the island was a badge of honor you displayed proudly. I always felt different not having Puerto Rico as the setting to my stories.
My father, who’d always been a car fanatic even in Puerto Rico, took a liking to hanging out with “Nuyoricans” in garages while they changed Mustang motors and drank Budweisers. Many of his new friends came at all times of the day, calling for him outside our first floor window. Although I suspect my father did not mind, my mother did. “Ellos no tienen consideracion porque son de aca,” she would say. They were “bad influences” on my dad since my mother complained how he spent most of his time hanging out with them in the streets of Bushwick. To say I was Nuyorican was a big no no. I listened, and growing up I didn’t want to be associated with them. Things are different now, but back then, ay bendito.
Ask me what I was during those years, and I would, without question, proclaim myself “Puerto Rican.” I was as confident about this as my junior high school friend who wore her beaded Puerto Rican flag necklace to school well after the parade came and went. “Oh so you were born there?” someone would ask. “No I was born in Brooklyn,” just as secure. The person asking the question, be it a stranger or a closer acquaintance, would always conclude the conversation with, “You’re not Puerto Rican, you’re American.” This is not a political piece so let’s not get into how that phrase is wrong on so many levels. Instead, let’s talk about how that questioning impacted the questions I asked myself.
My young soul tried to make sense of it. It didn’t matter what anyone said, how was I not Puerto Rican? The flag hung high in my house. My mother played salsa every Saturday morning while she cleaned, and I became closer to my abuelitos, tios, and primos every time I visited Puerto Rico. I was left with this…I wasn’t Puerto Rican enough because I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I never called myself American because to be Puerto Rican was to be American, but to say that I was American didn’t necessarily signify that I was Puerto Rican. I didn’t want to leave it out. Above all, I didn’t want to be Nuyorican because jesucristo look how they act?
And then 9/11 happened.
New Yorkers mourned together. It didn’t matter who you knew, when you visited the WTC, and where you were that morning, the events became and remain the day that shook our core, our sense of self and identity. To me, this day marked the day I realized I could never take New York out of the equation when defining myself. New York was where I would ride the back seat of my dad’s Buick over the Williamsburg Bridge while listening to Frankie Ruiz, a memory that remains vivid in me every day. It was where I began feeling that being Puerto Rican was more than just something you leave to stand alone, where I realized that Puertoricanness was not a static identity. New York would always be the setting to any story I ever told.
I finally learned to embrace the Nuyorican term when I went to Hunter College and discovered what it meant. Professor Pedro López Adorno introduced the Nuyorican Poets Movement, and I was instantly filled with power and pride. Writers such as Miguel Piñero and Pedro Pietri voiced the hardships of being Puerto Rican in New York City. They wrote about the Puerto Rican experience that really hit home for me, in one way or another. I used to think some things that happened to my father were unfortunate situations that just happened to him like his bosses making fun of his “bad English.” But the Nuyorican writers helped me to understand my father’s Puerto Rican in the U.S. experience. He was a U.S. citizen discriminated against while trying to achieve the American Dream like Juan, Miguel, Olga, Milagros, and Manuel in Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary.” I don’t think he has ever gotten over it. These writers defiantly pointed out the hardships they were facing being Puerto Ricans in the struggling neighborhoods of New York City, and it felt good to know that we weren’t alone.
The Bushwick I grew up in during the 90’s is not the Bushwick of today. The streets were just as mean as Piri’s Spanish Harlem, but that did not necessarily capture my experience. I spent more time inside my house reading and doing my homework. My parents barely let me go outside unless my brothers were playing catch or my father was outside with his friends. Call it Latin@ gender dynamics 101. They knew that the outside really was a concrete jungle even before Jay-Z and Alicia Keys sang it. As much as I loved the work of Pietri and Piñero, I felt a little disconnected from it because I did not see my perspective captured in their Nuyorican stories. As men, the street life and hustle were big genres in their writing, and although I witnessed it, I was never a direct part of it. Mother would always say “tu no quieres ser una mujer de la calle” when I begged to go outside. Those are issues for a whole different article.
I found more kindred experiences in the writings of Nuyorican women. Nicholasa Mohr’s writing spoke true to me. Her book, Nilda, was the first novel written by and about a Puerto Rican woman who grew up in el Barrio. Her book centered on the female perspective and barrio life with themes on family and the world of art and education as a substitute to violence. She has stated that publishers pushed for more “Nuyorican ghetto life” because that’s what sold in the market. She refused. Mohr’s narrative in many of her writings are not entirely free of violence, drugs, and the realizations of growing up in a lower income neighborhood in New York and neither is mine, but the experience doesn’t solely have to be that.
I will never forget reading Mariposa’s “Ode to the Diasporican,” where she concludes with “What does it mean to live in between? What does it take to realize that being Boricua is a state of mind, a state heart, a state of soul?...¡Yo no naci en Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico nacio en mi!” It was the first time I felt connected to something that spoke to my complicated experiences of identity—one that includes my gender. She spoke about how she too was told she wasn’t Puerto Rican because she wasn’t born on the island. She described New York City as her playground, an account much more endearing to me than the battle zone the male writers made it out to be. Why couldn’t we have more stories like that?
It dawned on me when I read Raquel Z. Riverá’s, “Will the ‘Real’ Puerto Rican Culture Please Stand Up.” I couldn’t have explained the distance I felt between my experience and that of some other writers any better. She states that Puerto Ricans develop their identity based on the island, others on their experience off the island, and some based on both. Most importantly, she affirms that identity is not monolithic and that, “contemporary culture is what it is, not what we want it to be…there has not been, there is not and there will never be a homogenous Puerto Rican culture.” This reminded me of the first class I ever got to study about my Puerto Ricanness. There, surrounded by other Latina women at a Latina Women’s class, I realized other women struggled with the same questions I struggled with. We just didn’t know what to call it. Our professor, Melissa Maldonado-Salcedo, gave us a space to explore the many identities that make us who we are, signified by our class, race, gender, place of origin, communities, families, and on and on and on. These intersected to form unique answers to the question of “Who am I?” We were empowered to own our stories and further claim them.
It is perhaps for this reason that I’ve dedicated myself to learning, understanding, and sharing my story and that of other Puerto Rican women. Like the Godmother of Nuyorican Poetry Sandra Maria Esteves says in her piece Autobiography of a Nuyorican, “And as in birth from her darkness, the free-giving sun inched slow to visibility, revealing all color and form sculpting edges of definition in the shadow and light of multiple universes.” Indeed, the Puerto Rican woman’s experience, whether it be on the island or outside of it, is deeply subjective and should be made even more visible. Searching for my story and finding the words to write it myself has made me confident that women can, will and want to talk about how they identify themselves and why. There’s proof. I’ve interviewed three different women who have journeyed through the complications of being a Puerto Rican woman outside of the island. Their stories, as unique as mine, reveal the breadth of experiences packed into that one identity.
A fellow friend Naya Valetin has been surrounded by Puerto Rican culture all her life. As the granddaughter of Adela Fargas, the owner of the popular Puerto Rican restaurant in the Lower East Side Casa Adela, being Puerto Rican in New York was at the core of the development of her identity, “I am Nuyorican. I own it because it is a fact.” Naya connects her strong sense of being Nuyorican with her desire to find out about her family’s. “The sounds, the smells, even the pictures on the wall. It’s all part of the family tree, and it’s so important because my grandmother would always say, ‘You’re going to be here but don’t forget.’” Naya carries the torch by always reminding herself to always reach for above and beyond, and by surrounding herself with women who do the same.
Newyorican Girl writer, Julia Torres-Barden, on the other hand, had to find her roots all on her own. In her book, she describes how the divorce of her parents at a young age led to her mother’s resentful washing away of her Puerto Rican identity. It started when Torres was deleted from her name, “Maybe she was trying to keep me from something negative she experienced. She was raised during a time that to be Puerto Rican meant you put yourself in harms way and I can understand if she wanted to protect me to some degree.” In a phone interview, Julia shared how the need to find out who she was could no longer be silenced once her mother passed and she had children of her own, “To not know anything about that history really started to bother me, and I started thinking about my own legacy. Being a Puerto Rican from New York is its own breed. My roots are from the island of Manhattan by way of Puerto Rico. I reclaimed my identity.” She added Torres back to her name and started studying Puerto Rican history. She began to visit the island often and has even become an advocate for equal voting rights for Puerto Ricans.
Linda Nieves-Powell says a different conversation has to be had within the community—one that welcomes the many expressions of our identity. In 2009, writer of, “Yo Soy Latina” and “Stereotypically Me,” Nieves-Powell was involved in a protest to ban MTV’s True Life episode: “I’m Nuyorican.” The episode followed three young “Nuyoricans” as they pursued careers in boxing, joined the Air Force, and belly dancing. It received backlash from the Puerto Rican community for presenting a stereotypical and negative image of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. With two out of the three characters disrespecting their parents, one of them calling Puerto Rican “spics,” and another being a high school dropout, Nieves-Powell felt strongly that the title generalized the Nuyorican experience. Now, Linda feels a bit of guilt for helping to take the show off the air, “They should have showed all different types and called it something else. Now that I think about it, I should have allowed that to play as part of our space towards empowerment and evolution. Let’s see all the parts we love and hate and allow access to our story.” For Linda, being able to identify oneself is not a simple task; it has to take into consideration many things like the different communities in New York City that interact with each other. She urges the younger community to say, “This is who I am whether you like it or not.”
Latina, Afro-Boricua, Chi-Rican, Mexi-Rican, Puerto Rican. The identities are many and can even be occupied by the same person at once. As much has become clear through my own journey, through that of others I discovered in classes, in books, in these interviews. Mariposa once led a Centro “History and Culture of Puerto Ricans in New York City” lecture in 2009 and read, “I walk with the stride of a native Nuyorican, like I got somewhere to go…History all around me.” I too walk with the clear step of knowing that I am Nuyorican, in many of its manifestations, and that my story is just one of many in the Puerto Rican experience.
© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 13 March 2015.