Remember that song made famous by Cher called “half-breed?” If you are under 40 I’m sure you don’t. I’m probably dating myself but I always remember hearing that as a child and thinking, “I can relate to this song.”
“My father married a pure Cherokee
My mother’s people were ashamed of me
The Indians said that I was white by law
The white man always called me Indian Squaw.”
No, I’m not half American Indian. But I am first generation Puerto Rican. I’m more proud of my heritage now than ever before. But as a child I felt like a “half-breed”. Both my parents are from Puerto Rico but my father’s career as an army soldier brought him to the United States. I was the youngest of 5 and the only one born in the U.S.
My older siblings had a hard time transitioning from Spanish to English and struggled in the American schools. At that time, there was no such thing as an “English as a second language” classroom. So that meant you were placed in a regular classroom with all English speaking students and teachers. I can’t imagine how difficult and embarrassing that was for my siblings. I was raised with English as the FIRST language in my home. My parents saw the struggles my siblings faced being Spanish only speakers in an English spoken world. So they vowed English would be the dominant language spoken in the house. The hope was the rest of their children wouldn’t face the same shame and embarrassment. It was a move that was driven by how much they loved us. But it also meant I was a Puerto Rican who couldn’t speak Spanish. And that’s just wrong…right?
So does that make me a “real” Puerto Rican? Our Latino friends questioned our parents’ motives saying they were not honoring or carrying on our traditional heritage. We became so homogenized that sometimes my American friends would say “I don’t even think of you as Puerto Rican. I think of you as normal. Normal? That meant white or caucasion? I never understood that and it bothered me. I wanted to be identified as Puerto Rican. If I was, did that mean I wasn’t “normal?”
Talk about a struggle! At the same time, I remember how mortified I felt whenever friends would come over and my mom was making a traditional Puerto Rican dinner: Pasteles, Arroz con Dulce, or even the pig intestines, menudo. That particular dish wound send fumes wafting over a 10-mile radius leaving people saying, “What is that smell?” Ha! It wasn’t exactly apple pie. When we celebrated Latino holidays with our friends from Puerto Rico, I felt uneasy and uncomfortable. Everyone would be speaking Spanish. I couldn’t understand most of what they were saying, and they would tease my siblings and I because we couldn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t fit into the world of my ancestors and living in the US was all I knew, yet, I felt different.
It wasn’t that people were racist towards us. The struggle was more within. It’s something I still deal with today. Now, I’m a married mother of two, and I try to continue the traditions of my heritage with my children, from food to celebrating certain holidays, to getting them involved with the annual Puerto Rican parade every year in Chicago.
As a public figure, I’m often asked to speak at different events. When Hispanic Heritage month rolls around I sometimes get a little nervous, hoping that the people who attend these events that I host will be understanding when I speak in English and not Spanish.When I hear Latinos saying he or she isn’t really Hispanic because they can’t speak the language, to this day, I cower in shame. They’re talking about me. I can’t speak the language, so how can I possibly know what it means to be Puerto Rican. Throughout the years, I’ve taken Spanish lessons but I’ve never gotten to the point where I feel like I could be placed in a room of Latinos and speak the language fluently.
In the long run, I know it really doesn’t matter. I’m proud of where I came from. I’m proud of my parents’ struggle to make our lives better so we wouldn’t know the poverty they were faced with as children. I’m proud when I see a Puerto Rican flag. I want to move when I hear salsa. And nothing makes my mouth water like a hot plate of arroz con habichuelas and tostones, rice and beans with a side of fried plantains. When I meet another Puerto Rican I feel an instant kinsmanship. I want to hug them and say, I’m Puerto Rican too. We have something in common.
I remember the first time I stepped off an airplane in Puerto Rico as an adult. I walked around the airport and saw all these familiar faces. That guy looks like my father, that kid looks like my brother. She looks just like me. I felt as if I had come “home” in a way. But it also gave me a feeling of sadness because I knew I was an outsider. I couldn’t speak the language, I didn’t understand what it was like to be “boriqua”, a native of the Islands. I wanted so badly to be connected in more ways than I was.
But since then, I’ve come to realize being Puerto Rican isn’t about being able to speak the language. It’s about being proud of a heritage, that maybe isn’t always so “normal” but it’s unique in a way that puts me in a special club of people. It means carrying on the traits, traditions and beliefs, that I try to instill in my children, and that hopefully, they will instill in their children too.