By Maritza Lopez |
At the beginning of the documentary The Puerto Ricans: Our American Story, opera singer Justino Diaz sings, in his signature baritone voice, “En Mi Viejo San Juan” (“In My Old San Juan”) with tears in his eyes. A song known by Puerto Ricans, it expresses the diaspora of Puerto Ricans living in the United States, and the longing for return to the island. Puerto Rico, a former Spanish colony, became a U.S. territory after the Spanish-American War in 1898. This historical event opened up a new port for Puerto Rican immigration to the United States. The importance of family, food, music, and culture is what strengthened the bond among Puerto Ricans living in the United States and beyond. Their story is similar to other immigrant stories: traveling to the United States for a better life, the sacrifices they made to ensure their children have a much better life than them, the longing for the homeland, and strength in community.
This documentary highlights the common feeling that every immigrant shares, which is the constant juggling of identities in order to fit into the mold of the society they emigrated to. Puerto Rican author Esmeralda Santiago likens this juggling of identities to “a child jumping double dutch…two ropes going in opposite directions very quickly…It is a constant juggling, a constant jumping up and down trying to be in one place to another” (Esmeralda Santiago 32:45). It is strength of community and traditions that made living on the mainland bearable and essential to preserve culture to pass on to future generations.
Culture, food, and religion play a major role in the lives and identities of Puerto Ricans. The matriarchs – mothers and grandmothers – are revered for their strength and wisdom as well as their cooking. Fathers would work long days to make sure their families were provided for; going to church, as well as celebrating baptisms or communions, were social affairs that the whole family – as well as the extended family – participated in. “I always tell my friends – the friends who are not Puerto Rican – that the longest Christmas season on the planet is here in Puerto Rico. It starts after Thanksgiving and it ends eight days after Epiphany, after the 6th of January” (Ednita Nazario,17:34). Their faith gives them another source of comfort for being displaced, just like the biblical stories of displaced Jews scattered all over the Roman Empire from Jerusalem.
The smells of home-cooked dinners of pollo guisado, plátanos, or arroz con habichuelas brings back memories of family gatherings or dinners with a euphoric sigh to any Puerto Rican. The list of native dishes is endless and was influenced by Spanish, African, and Taino cuisine. Salsa and Bomba, dance styles created in Puerto Rico, were also influenced by the triad of cultures from which Puerto Ricans trace their origins, and is wildly popular today from house parties to ball-rooms.
Puerto Ricans have subtly influenced American culture through the years. The contributions of Puerto Ricans in the arts and culture of America instilled a sense of pride within the Puerto Rican community, from actors like José Ferrer – the first Hispanic to win an Oscar, EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony winner) actress Rita Moreno, and the vivacious energy and legacy of Raul Julia to musicians like Tito Puente, described as the “Puerto Rican Frank Sinatra” (wliw.org). “There are so many Puerto Ricans that we shouldn’t forget, our history is full of them. Great poets, politicians, thinkers, musicians, actors…I, myself, will forever be grateful to all those people who opened so many doors in so many ways” (Ednita Nazario, 33:30). The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, in lower Manhattan, is an American cultural landmark and is a testament to the literary contributions of Puerto Ricans to American literature. It is also a popular spot in New York City for Latin poets to congregate and share poetry.
There is also the pilgrimage that Puerto Ricans make when they go back to the island, so that they can learn about their roots and their families. I remember going to Puerto Rico as a child during the nineties, and the sights, sounds, and smells left a permanent mark that will stay with me forever. The sun seemed to shine brighter on the wide, rolling green hills on the mountains dotted with palm trees that swayed against the tropic breeze. The air that starts crisp and fresh in the morning transitions to a humid temperature mid-day and into a balmy evening, while the squeaks of coquis – their native frog – can be heard for miles through the night. No trip is complete without being introduced to countless cousins, Tíos and Tías that you’ve never met in your life, and realizing the branch of your family tree stretched farther back than you’d imagined. That is the image of Puerto Rico that the natives take with them wherever they go. These trips help strengthen the identity of American-born Puerto Ricans and help them realize where they come from. “And of course, there is for us the annual trip to Puerto Rico, and that was getting on La Pan American…to make this trip to la Isla…but when the plane lands there is this round of applause…because we are home” (Jimmy Smits, 29:32).
Of course there are some who hold a dual cultural allegiance when it comes to their cultural identity. They have to wonder if they are more Puerto Rican than American and vice-versa. This cultural identity confusion is intensified by their offspring born in the United States. They have to figure out if they are an American who has Puerto Rican history or if they are Puerto Rican at all. This type of natal alienation puts their cultural authenticity into question, which was something that Olympian tennis player Gigi Fernandez struggled with when she competed in the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. “I always had a struggle deciding whether or not I wanted to be in Puerto Rico or wanted to be in the United States… In the end it was a hard, emotional decision because I very much feel like I’m Puerto Rican, and my heart is there. I think a lot of Puerto Ricans feel the same way because we are Puerto Rican yet we are U.S. citizens and it is not clearly defined” (Gigi Fernandez, 31:51). She ended up placing first, winning the Gold medal for the U.S. in 1992 and again in 1996.
Despite all of the hardships and sacrifices that Puerto Ricans face when immigrating to the U.S., including the potential loss of identity and culture, their contributions and willingness to share their culture with a country that itself is a cultural melting pot is what helps them survive and thrive. The cultural contributions of Puerto Ricans to American culture cannot be ignored since it is ingrained in its history, from food to film and beyond. Puerto Ricans have always been there, and they will continue to contribute as long as their imaginations and aspirations allow them to, using the small lush island as an anchor for their cultural identity.
The documentary The Puerto Ricans: Our American Story may be watched in its entirety at the WLIW21 website.
Maritza Lopez is an English major at Lehman College where she studies creative writing. She enjoys lively discussions about philosophy, literature, and television, was a recipient of the John W. Wieler award in 2015, and wrote a play that has been adapted for the Lehman stage.