Saturday, March 19, 2011

To be or not to be Puerto Rican

While searching for the best spot to watch the 2009 Puerto Rican Parade I asked a young woman wrapped in a Puerto Rican flag with a coqui frog covering the star, if she knew which streets were not blocked by police barriers. I asked in Spanish. Her facial reaction led me to realize that she did not know Spanish, prompting me to switch to English. According to politicians and newspapers reports there are four million Puerto Ricans living in the continental USA and close to four million living in the island. These reports should lead one to believe that this an easy task to carry out: if you claim to be Puerto Rican then you must be Puerto Rican. But given several factors affecting the history and development of Puerto Rico it is not as simple as it seems to be; and it becomes more complicated as the inhabitants of the island push for a solution to the political status of the island.

Defining what constitutes a Puerto Rican is not determined by claiming a certain kind of lineage. In between the criollos and mestizos, currently there are several other groups claiming to be Puerto Rican: the neo Tainos, peoples that originally lived there when the Spaniards invaded the island, the descendants of African slaves, and finally the children of several other immigrant groups who have migrated to the island. If you live in Indieras, a mountain region near the west coast of the island the probabilities of you having Arawak heritage are much greater than if you are a child of the bourgeoisie in San Juan, Ponce or Mayaguez. If you come from the mountain region in the middle of the island, your ancestry might be traced to the large numbers of immigrants from the Canary Islands, Corsica or Catalonia that settled in Puerto Rico during the nineteenth century. And certainly, if you come from Loiza Aldea, the African influence is undeniable. In between these historical parameters there is the majority of the population: mestizos and criollos whom in different degrees have an ancestor from one of these three groups. To make the situation more complicated, a Puerto Rican might even be a descendant from a lesser known group: from Chinese laborers brought during the nineteenth century to Lebanese, Palestinian, Jewish merchants that have moved during the twentieth century. More recently Cubans, Dominicans continue to shape the definition of what is a Puerto Rican.

Since obviously it is not the DNA, then, what is it? Is it a cultural identity? Not so fast. Simply because you carry a flag or know how to dance salsa (musical genre closer to Cuban guaguanco than to Puerto Rican seis) does not make you knowledgeable of Puerto Rican culture. Is it an identity formed in opposition to other groups and not based on common characteristics? As the USA moves closer to decide if Puerto Rico remains in the current political status, becomes a state of the union or completely independent these four million Puerto Ricans in the USA might have a saying in such important decision. But should they participate, particularly when so many of them know very little as to what constitutes a Puerto Rican. For the people living in the island, such decision cannot be based on artificial identities that are constructed in opposition to other groups, romantic notions of culture or lack of information as to the history of these people. It is certainly not an easy task but a necessary one if the status of the island is going to be finally resolved.

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