What Does It Mean to Be Puerto Rican? A (Short) Intro on Cultural Identity for Travelers Heading to Puerto Rico Jen Bouchard October 15, 2019 Hispanic American Heritage Month 1 Comment Traveling can be more than just visiting a place. In fact, what a lot of globe trekkers love about traveling for pleasure is that it’s an opportunity to learn about the people who live in or have connection to a destination. A place can have a key part in people’s identities, both on an individual and a cultural level. So, to travel somewhere and “experience its culture” – in a healthy and respectful way – is not only about seeing the expression of a cultural identity for yourself, but also appreciating and trying to understand the people tied to it. But it helps to know a bit before you go. Cultural identity is, after all, complicated. And having a baseline understanding of a culture is a must for almost any trip, but especially for one to Puerto Rico. If there was ever a place with lots of context for talking about its cultural identity, it’s Puerto Rico. Its history includes colonization; migration; and a layering of influences from Taíno, Spanish, and West African cultures and languages (to name just a few). The island (although it’s technically an archipelago) has been a place of mixing ethnicities and origins for generations. Being in the Caribbean, between the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands, adds even more to the mix, as well as its status as an unincorporated territory of the United States. The resulting traditions, styles, art, flavors, and more are distinct and unlike any other. But the best perspectives of the complex culture and identities of Puerto Rico comes directly from Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rican-Americans. A good place to start is journalist and writer Raquel Reichard’s “16 Reasons Why Being Puerto Rican Is the Best” article for Cosmo, which delves into the uniqueness of Puerto Rican families. “Speaking of family: Yours is a huge, close one. And it’s very likely that you’re meeting cool new primos annually,” she writes. “The diversity just within your family is beautiful. You find joy in looking at astonished faces every time you explain that your black/brown/white siblings are 100 percent related to you even though your skin and hair texture are completely different from theirs.” “We love our music, food, families and religion! To me being Puerto Rican means I love deeply, eat richly, worship weekly.” Family is also an aspect touched on in a multifaceted definition by one man, Alex Garcia, when asked in 2002 by The Morning Call on what it means to be Puerto Rican (that also included food, music, and religion). “When I sit at the table with my family having a delicious Puerto Rican dinner including white rice, red beans, fried-chicken and a Malta (a typical malt drink from the island), I am known for often saying I am so glad to be Puerto Rican because we eat ‘good!’” he told the Pennsylvania newspaper. “Of course being Puerto Rican means much more to me than food. It means that I am part of a culture of people that love deeply, are family centric, believe in a higher being and at heart are, idiomatically speaking, ‘buena-gent’ [good people]. We love our music, food, families and religion! To me being Puerto Rican means I love deeply, eat richly, worship weekly.” “We are humble people and we work in Puerto Rico as a big family and we actually care about each other.” Today, the specter of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in the fall of 2017, looms over any current conversation. But Puerto Rico is rebuilding – including its tourism – and, according to rising musical star iLE, so is part of the the Puerto Rican identity. “I don’t want to be negative or anything but, sometimes we learn the most when we are uncomfortable,” she said to PBS almost a full two years after Maria. “I think Hurricane Maria taught us that. We obviously, because of our colonial situation, we’re always expecting someone else to do the job for us…But in Hurricane Maria, we had to do it all by ourselves. And we had to help out people on our own. The weird thing about it is that we did it so naturally because it’s in our blood, it’s in our way of living. We are humble people and we work in Puerto Rico as a big family and we actually care about each other.” Because there are many people of Puerto Rican descent living in the U.S. who identify closely with their Puerto Rican identity, a major part of the Puerto Rican experience is the duality with the United States. It’s most notably explored in the work of award-winning author Esmerelda Santiago “There were two kinds of Puerto Ricans in school: the newly arrived like myself, and the ones born in Brooklyn of Puerto Rican parents,” she explained. “The two types didn’t mix… To them, Puerto Rico was the place where their grandparents lived, a place they visited on school and summer vacations, a place which they complained was backward and mosquito-ridden. Those of us for whom Puerto Rico was a recent memory were also spilt in two groups: the ones who longed for the island and the ones who wanted to forget it as soon as possible.” The dual identity of many Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rican-Americans goes beyond citizenship, encompassing the very language they use to the describe themselves – many use the word “boricua,” which comes from the island’s indigenous name Boriken or Boriquín. As college journalist Sabrina Negrón expounded on in The Amherst Wire in 2018: “I am Puerto Rican. For the longest time, that sentence felt self-explanatory; I am from the island, I embrace the culture, most of my family lives there, I eat the food, I listen to the music … It seemed simple. As I grew older, however, I found myself explaining a lot. Yes, I speak Spanish. No, I’m not Spanish. Yes, I am a citizen. No, it’s not because I have a green card. Yes, Puerto Rico is part of the United States, but no, not really…As someone who is caught between two cultures — a Puerto Rican who has been on the mainland for most of her life — I crave to know how my fellow Boricuas cope with their seemingly dual identities.” There are many more voices and perspectives to add to this discussion of what it means to be Puerto Rican. Do you identify as Puerto Rican or Puerto Rican-American? What insights do you have to add about culture and identity? Maybe you know of another person’s viewpoint to consider? Feel free to share in the comment section.