Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Politics of Flags, Gandules and Lechón

Oye, if you haven't noticed by now, I love the Puerto Rican people so much. We have done many great things and we have an abundance of potential. Nonetheless, due to the fact that we have been dragged through the mud of history for so long, we have picked-up some negative habits that act as barricades in our way to a healthier, more vibrant community.

Por ejemplo: Anyone who even briefly listens to a fast-paced, ficha slamming domino game or catches some bochinche hidden between the aisles of the grocery store, will notice the common “Pero bendito,Puerto Ricans are just so lazy” or “We are not united like the Mexicans are!” It is just too common for us to think of ourselves as just collectively lacking y punto. Instead, I suggest, there should be a: “Las cosas son bien malas, but look at all we have accomplished!” or “how do you think we can change things?” And even better: “how can I challenge myself and my people to address certain issues that is understood as pressing and important?” I assure you, things would be much different for us as a community if we all asked questions that were a little more critical and dedicated even a little time to making things better for us all. This is not to fall into the same trap of cynicism from atop an ivory tower, but to push and agitate the people that I care so much about.

Undoubtedly, there will be those who will respond to all this with: “but I don't get into politics.” Others, even worse, will say “¡La gente de La Division son bien locas!” because many of us working in the community believe in independence for Puerto Rico, which is an often tainted idea. Sorry to shock you though, Boricua, but politics is does not exist just through a ballot box or marching down the street, but can be found in everything we do, like at a domino game or the grocery store. Mejor dicho, Puerto Rican identity and culture is highly political and the expressions of which speak to strong beliefs that can serve as points for community action.

Many of our people enjoy the smell of arroz con gandules don't we, with a little lechón on top of that during Christmas Eve while playing parranda in the background, right? What did it take for that to even be possible, decades after Boricuas came to the U.S., and still be present amongst the third and fourth generations? Those everyday things like food and music from an island across the ocean, reveals the collective push to affirm that we should not erase who we are. While other ethnic groups were skillfully allowed to Americanize over time and forgot their language and traditions, Puerto Ricans never hyphened our identity to “Puerto Rican-American.” As the salsa lyrics by the black Boricua composer, Tite Curet Alonso, eloquently states, “Yo sé que no te gustó que yo plantara bandera, pero a lo hecho pecho, también yo tengo derecho” (“I know that you didn't like that I put up my flag, but what's done is done, I too have a right”). Even our flag, made in 1895 by pro-independence exiles in New York City and made illegal until 1952, is a colorful political statement that we are here and refuse to change, especially in the United States.

Just recently I took my grandmother and her partner to a concert of age-old Puerto Rican music full of trovadoras and rapidly playing cuatro guitarists from the island and Humboldt Park and noticed the songs, sung by young ladies of the mountains, praising “our flag and our nation.” And interestingly enough, as I looked to my left, I saw my grandmother and her boyfriend – in their 50s and 60s - teary-eyed and quietly emotional. I asked if everything was ok and she responded: “This reminds me of my parents and my childhood... I miss Puerto Rico.”

She has been in the U.S. for 43 years and her boyfriend, for only 3 years. Their time of distance is different but their physical distance is not. They no longer live in Puerto Rico, but Puerto Rico stays alive in them and those, like myself, who cannot remember dancing danzas at weddings under the palm trees. But still, we are Puerto Ricans, whose identities are located here, in Chicago and in Humboldt Park, different but with strong connections, like Spanglish, simultaneously new and old. We are The New Boricuas, you can say and saying so is very political. And as we see ourselves as political beings we must, hopefully, see that each and every one of us can be actors in social transformation and must do so on behalf of the needs of our people.

Originally published in La Voz del Paseo Boricua newspaper, December 2010 edition

A Chicago Puerto Rican in Hartford

It always baffled me when friends and colleagues of mine would see me outside of the fluid boundaries of Humboldt Park and comment, “Oh wow, you’re outside the two flags!” While such remarks are made in fairly good-humor, they are more telling about the deep-seated feelings about people who do community work. In other words, “those activists” are too narrow-minded or insular; they do not experience or understand the world outside a few blocks, which of course, is bad. All in all, a sentiment of “I could never do that kind of work, because I’ll end up like that” is felt. That kind of idea only damages the possibilities of maintaining and expanding work that seeks to improve the lives of community residents. And more importantly, those who get hurt the most in the process are the very residents themselves.

Just recently, I traveled outside the neighborhood to attend the Puerto Rican Studies Association Conference in Hartford, Connecticut. Although I listened to the work of the Puerto Rican intelligentsia, which for me proved that our communities can also produce great scholars and intellectuals, I also wanted to understand what connections could be drawn between academia and the people they study. This faraway New England city always peeked my interest due to its very large Puerto Rican community, which, in terms of proportion, is the second largest in the U.S. Plus, the mayor and much of the political establishment is led by Boricuas. Therefore a few friends and I ventured outside the walls of the swanky hotel where the conference was held to see what links could be made between Paseo Boricua and Park Street, the economic and cultural center for the Hartfordian Boricua.

As we walked down Park Street, there were visible signs of urban decay and poverty: the multiple young men, walking around with seemingly nothing to do and some “run-down” homes and buildings. Of course, this is what outsiders too often focus on, especially when visiting communities of color. What is most important and amazing, and perhaps sometimes even overlooked by community workers and academics, were the distinct signs of economic and cultural development. Block after block there were small business ventures that included everything from restaurants and cafes, to bookstores, record shops, and jewelers. As I entered these places of business, it was obvious that they were all owned by Puerto Rican and Latina/o longtime residents who also employed longtime local residents of color.

Social networks and civic engagement seemed to be rich, with residents conversing with each other as they walked down the street and in cafes, and some passing out information on electoral candidates. Furthermore, there were multiple buildings that have been reconstructed to look like structures in Viejo San Juan, with pastel-colored façades and iron-gate balconies. The neighborhood also included murals and community centers that depicted cultural and political themes of the island. Yes, social ills existed, but there was a community that was economically vibrant and culturally puertorriqueño – an important place in which to continue addressing the problems we face as a nation.

In Humboldt Park, we are also developing our community on our own terms, similar to that of Hartford, by holistically intersecting economics, politics, health, housing, and education within the framework of Puerto Rican identity. All this is done with the idea that in a racist and classist society, how can we own the places we live in, create a legitimate internal economy, and address the issues that affect us. Thus, to those that say that community workers are too “stuck” in Humboldt Park, I say that it takes a strong connection and sense of rootedness in your own community to truly appreciate and understand what others have built and to create a common agenda that will lift us all up as a people.

Originally published in La Voz del Paseo Boricua newspaper, November 2010 edition

I'm more Puerto Rican than you...

As I have written before in this column, the issue of Puerto Rican identity, especially for those who are from the Diaspora, i.e "Diasporicans" (Boricuas in the U.S.) is a complicated and even painful one to discuss.

Who defines who is and is not Puerto Rican?

Why do Puerto Ricans that are second and third generation, who cannot speak Spanish and have only seen the island in the photographs, proudly display the flag on everything, from tattoos to car stickers?

Are Puerto Ricans on the island really in a privilaged place in terms of knowing who they are and where they stand as a people?

To research these questions, I turned to none other than facebook – the social networking website - to began a discussion. I began it with a statement that I do not believe (and it will explain itself as you read), but wrote it to stir people's minds and emotions. I hope the comments selected will enrich your opinions and thoughts on Puerto Rican identity. The following is an abridged (and grammatically correct) version of what transpired vis-à-vis Facebook:

Me: I'm more Puerto Rican than any Boricua born on the island because I have had to fight for my identity instead of having it handed to me...

Diasporican #1: AMEN!!!! How can I even begin to explain that to others??

Islander #1: Everyone has their own experiences... I don't know if you are more Puerto Rican but ultimately it is the way you feel...

Diasporican #2: It's interesting you say that because I've had this discussion with my cousins on the island, and they just don't get it.

Islander #2 (my aunt): And of course I disagree with you at least 50% of the way. You know your history, you fight for Puerto Rican rights in Chicago, you live the flavors. You might be more Boricua than some but not most. There's a couple of people that discredit our island but most of us love our background. We do have a love-hate relationship with Puerto Rico but you have to live here (not read about it or experience it during vacations) to understand that. That's why no one from here will ever understand or accept when you say you're more Puerto Rican than the ones living here, but if that's how you feel, ok.

Islander #3: You think we have not fought for our identity Xavi? You don't think as a Puerto Rican I struggle everyday to show these mofos we exist? You don't think it hurts when I see maps in history books that don't even have the island on it? You think our identity is handed to us just because we were born en la isla? La isla, its already a dilemma my man. Its even harder, you know why? Because I was born in a place like no other: with their own traditions, culture, climate, people, their own selves; yet, we are not recognized. We are "La isla del encanto" con el desencanto de no ser nada. Ni esto, ni lo otro. We too have to fight for our identity, much more than anybody. ​¿Dónde nació Pedro Albizu Campos, Ramón Emeterio Betances, Juan Antonio Corretjer? No fue en New York, no fue en Chicago; yet, this are los próceres, the ultimate fighters of our independence, the people you emulate. ¿Dónde nació Lolita Lebrón? ¿Dónde nació Filiberto? Who organized and said to La Marina "salte pal carajo de Vieques"? Nobody gave me my identity, nobody gave nobody anything. You could be from NY, CHI, Puerto Rico. If you identify yourself as a Puerto Rican you are still looking for your identity and ESPECIALLY if you were born in Puerto Rico.

Me: I'm loving this discussion. I do have to say that identity is much more complicated than one thinks. I myself began this discussion with an essentialist view of identity... and I did it on PURPOSE. Do I believe Puerto Ricans on the island or in the Diaspora are more Puerto Rican than each other? NO! Because we are a nation of 8 million, not just 4 million on the island or in the Diaspora. The point of initiating this discussion was to 1) To prove to everyone, even my dear Titi, that it is painful and wrong to say a person is "more" than someone else, especially in terms of identity and 2) To see the different reactions between my friends who were born or live on the island and those who are “”Diasporicans”. The differences are clear. All those who were born or live on the island reacted negatively to what I had to say while my fellow “Diasporicans” cheered me on. Isn't that ironic? LOL

Me: Oh an by the way, even though I agree with you 100%, Lolita Lebrón joined the Nationalist Party in New York City. The campaign for the freedom of the five Nationalists began in Chicago. The last grouping of Puerto Rican Political Prisoners were almost all born in Chicago or in New York and the campaign for their freedom started in Chicago. Betances wrote his most eloquent writings in Paris and Hostos did so in the Dominican Republic and Chile, and Juan Antonio Corretjer wrote “Boricua en la luna” in Chicago, which is the greatest proof that without the Diaspora, Puerto Rico would be incomplete. Oh, and the Vieques movement would not have been successful if it wasn't for the compañeros in the U.S.

Islander #2 (my aunt): Well I think you're full of it. Even if you were trying make some kind of experiment, of course we were going to get offended. It's like if I say I'm more American than any soldier who has served in Afghanistan or Iraq.

But you're right, there is a difference between Puerto Ricans who live in the U.S. than those who live here in Puerto Rico. We think it's very funny when you people demand liberty, equality, march and complain about our social/democratic issues when all you know is due to books and newspapers.

When you all move here, work here and contribute here then we can actually talk more seriously.

Me: Ok, Titi, let's take back that Puerto Rican flag you hold so dear and bring it back to New York where it was made. When you're willing to do that, then I'll say what you wrote makes sense.

Also, who's "you people?" Let's not be essentialist here and regroup everyone into one experience and category. I guess my "experiment" didn't really work, because you still feel you have the right to define who's a "true" Puerto Rican...

Through observations, I believe that the two things that elicit the most discussion from Puerto Ricans and even divides the Puerto Rican family is the conversation on puertorriqueñidad and the status of Puerto Rico. In terms of identity, as you have read, there is no easy way to describe what constitutes a “true” Puerto Rican and what criterion exists to allow someone into the category of “Boricua de pura cepa.” But here is some food for thought:

When one actively excludes people from a community, you are actively developing feelings of anger, sadness, and confusion. However, one also fans the fires of empowerment and affirmation. It is like when my grandmother came to the U.S. in 1967 and was “greeted” with racism. In turn, she held onto her Puerto Rican roots and worked to instill in her children and grandchildren the beauty of being Boricua, even though most were not born there. It pushes me to tears when some of my cousins call me “American” instead of what I truly am. How can you tell a little boy, with a smile on his face and a Puerto Rican flag, during a hot summer day during the parade that the symbol he carries does not represent him? And that is why the “Diasporicans” cheered me on in the discussion. They, too, know the pain of being ignored, the love they feel for a country that sometimes wants to forget that half of its citizens left the island, but those same citizens will have Puerto Rico in their hearts and memories, forever

Originally published in La Voz del Paseo Boricua newspaper, December 2009 edition