Torn Between Two Worlds: My Life As A “White” Hispanic

By October 9, 2015Sylvia's Blog

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.

IMG_0628As 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.

Sylvia Perez

About Sylvia Perez

Sylvia Perez is an Emmy Award winning broadcast journalist, news and health reporter, and major market anchor. Her expertise in revealing the personal side of headline stories and drawing their impact into “news you can use” viewership is now the foundation of Sylvia Perez Productions, a multi-faceted company specializing in video production and event planning for non-profits.

22 Comments

  • Anne Sullivan says:

    I am a very proud Grandmother of a 3 y/o who is half PR and half Irish. I love that his Mom teaches him so much in both languages. I will never experience what you and your family has…I pray that my Grandson doesn’t either. HUGS young lady!

  • Marisol Ortiz says:

    What a great article. Just a few days ago, I was just thinking about how rich the Latino cultures are. Islander. South Americans, Central Americans we are so committed to our traditions. Language. Food, Music and Family. I love how the Puerto Rican man no matter how old or how macho, they great with a string hug and kiss for their brothers. Fathers and buddies. We all greet with a hug and kiss and say “Bendicion” to our elders. We are a tight and loving people.

  • Kim Rosas says:

    Sylvia ,
    Our mutual friend is Jaimie. My husband was born and raised in Mexico. When we married I had to promise to move back if he wanted to. I took Spanish lessons 2x a week for 1 1/2 hrs literally nose to nose with my Columbian tutor. I did this solely to have a relationship with my mother in law. Everyone else thought since I learned their kanguage that they never had to learn to practice speaking English. All the kids were taught English in elite private schools. I even have one sister in law who spent a year here in Chicago to learn English butl never ever speaks to me in MY native language . My husband never taught or spoke to our kids in Spanish until they had taken several levels in school.
    My children are in between two worlds. My husband talks CONSTANTLY about Mexico butler will never move back due to the lack of security and the lack of medical technology. So far, to my knowledge , my kids have experienced very little racism ….but we know that day will come. It’s all very confusing , contradictory and enlightening all at the same time.
    Many times I have felt that I am Hisoanic because my children are. I grew up as plain white bread as possible in Naoerville with practically no diversity. Sometimes I wonder how I got to this point. I understand the best I can what you are trying to say. It is a common and unfortunate, at times, story .
    All my best,
    Kim

  • Kim Rosas says:

    WHERE’S RHE AUTO CORRECT FOR SPELLING???

  • EDMEE says:

    We really need to meet, your experience is valid and I would love to share with you my Boricua home that is alive and vibrant with anything Puerto Rican, right here in the Windy City. Boricua mi casa su casa,.

    Edmee Cappas Velez

  • Julie Howard says:

    I was born in Puerto Rico but raised in Chicago. We only spoke Spanish at home because mom and dad could not speak English. When I started kindergarten I couldn’t speak English. But I learned pretty fast, then spoke more English at home with my siblings. I went on to marry an Irish man and English has become my main language. My Spanish is not perfect but that’s ok. Many of my cousins don’t speak Spanish very well but that too is ok. And you sound as much Boriqua as me ..the language is important, you can always learn it but loving the food, music and culture is even more meaningful and that’s what makes you who you are.

  • Mike Schauer says:

    Sylvia you are a true inspiration on the struggle to know who you are. And your true identity.

  • Jim Waszak says:

    Great story. I am going to share with a dear friend of mine from Puerto Rico.

    Would love to meet you sometime.

    Jim

  • Hector Alvarez says:

    Very interesting piece you wrote, I always wondered if you spoke Spanish when i saw you on the news. Very true about not speaking the language it was opposite in my home growing up in New York and then here in Chicago. My parents always spoke to us in Spanish and of course there broken English or Spanglish as we say in the hood! Very proud of this article and the commitment to the Puerto Rican heritage that you want to remember and keep in the family values. Nothing like a plate of arroz con gandules, lechon y pasteles. My granddaughter is know learning Spanish as she goes thru kindergarten like my parents did with me. I speak Spanish with her all the time and she looks at me weird but she knows that we want her to learn the Spanish language be bilingual and prepared for the real world. You and your family are welcome at our home anytime for a real Puerto Rican dinner and some coquito!!
    Viva Puerto Rico y los Boricuas!!! Best Wishes on the upcoming Holidays, Felicidades

    • Sylvia Perez Sylvia Perez says:

      That’s so sweet Hector. My mom is in town this weekend so we have already partaken in the coquito celebration. haha! Thanks for the kind post. Best, Sylvia.

  • Charlie Pawlowski says:

    A great article. I was born in Chicago my Dad was Polish my Mom Irish so English is the only language i know. My Grandmother would talk in Polish and I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I wish i would have learned even now when someone who is Polish sees my last name and speak in Polish to me i feel bad when i tell them i don’t speak it. I do follow traditions from both sides of my family and cook meals from both sides of the family.

    • Sylvia Perez Sylvia Perez says:

      Hi Charlie. Sounds like we are having similar experiences. Thank you for reaching out. So great to hear you and others can relate. Have a great day. Sylvia

  • Iris says:

    Loved your article! I was born in Puerto Rico and lived there till I was seven. I have four brothers and we were all born there. After we came over to the states we learned English pretty quickly but still very fluent in Spanish. We would always go back to visit. It wasn’t till about five years ago we were all hanging out with my cousins that live there. My cousin left the room to answer a call. He was talking to a friend. I heard him say to his friend what he was doing. He said he was hanging out with his cousins that came to visit from the states. After a pause he said “no, they are not like us, they are not real natives like us.” My heart broke into what felt like a million tiny peices. I haven’t been back since. After that I stopped correcting people when they would assume I was Mexican. I just kind of let them believe it. If I am specifically asked where I was born, I will say Puerto Rico. Other than that I keep my mouth shut. It’s weird because here in the states I’m seen as Mexican but in Puerto Rico I’m seen as a gringa or some sort of fake boricua. So what the hell am I? I’ve had this internal struggle with my identity for a while. Your article was a really refreshing read. Thank you.

    • Sylvia Perez Sylvia Perez says:

      Wow Iris! Thanks for sharing. You can relate. I think there are so many people like us out there. It’s nice to get this response, because sometimes you feel like a lone wolf. That was great. Thanks again. Sylvia

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