Discovering ourselves is kind of like forming something out of a block of clay. We work into it, trying out different shapes. These shapes we create can be influenced by the tales we inherit about ourselves and our family’s collective identity. And as you venture out into the world, your community helps inspire your work too. What started as a formless lump begins to mimic the world you see around you.
I was raised in Colorado where the air is clean and the mountains fixed at the west remind me to stay humble. It’s been a major driving factor in who I am. But I’m also Puerto Rican; steadfastly proud of my island and my heritage. Over the years, these two identities melded together on my lump of clay, not quite representing either perfectly.
When I was younger, I found myself constantly defending my Puerto Rican identity. “No, I’m not Mexican, I’m Puerto Rican. Yeah, I don’t speak very much Spanish but I’m still Puerto Rican. No, I’m not the best at salsa or bachata but I’m STILL PUERTO RICAN“.
In truth, I’ve always felt disconnected from this part of myself. Yes, I am Puerto Rican and proud but I often found myself wondering what that really meant. How could I claim this identity when I was so isolated from it? When I’m constantly having to defend it against classmates and strangers and even other Puerto Ricans?
I was tired of feeling like my culture didn’t belonged to me. So at the beginning of this year, I decided to book a ticket. And soon after my sister decided to book one too.
For almost the whole month of August, we take up residency in my titi and tio’s colorful little home in the mountains of Jácanas, a campo not too far away from the city of Yabucoa. For almost a month we are two girls with minimal to no grasp on the Spanish language and two elderly relatives that barely speak any English communication through fragmented sentences and a shared love for tostones.
My memories of this place feel distant and dreamy. They’re that of an 8-year-old child’s after all. Reggaetón bump through the windows of passing cars and the smell of salt sits heavy in the air; all familiar yet distant. This is a new world. One that is both mine and not. I find my roots here but in many ways I feel more like an observer.
My sister and I find a sanctuary on the warm front patio, making friends with the cats that lounge there. We explore the quiet hillside of Yabucoa which seem to be solely inhabited by my cousins and cousin’s cousins. “Esto es la casa de mi primo” and “Esto es la casa de mi hermano” is a common sentiment as we’d whip up the mountain to my titi and tio’s house. We meet more family than I knew we had. Even though most of them only speak Spanish, I feel a warm bond with each of them.
When I’m not working remotely from my favorite spot on the patio, we are exploring the island. It’s more vast than I imagined. The mountainous jungles tapper off into arid flatlands which lead to pristine white beaches which intermingle with twisting mangroves. My singular view of this island expands.
We trek the bustling streets of San Juan where there’s art around every corner, the art of mi gente. The colorful buildings send my heart into a fit of bemused joy.
We find a wall of wishes in Guánica. What better place to cast your deepest desires into the universe than La Isla de Encanto?
Every corner of the island is fantastical, holding an air of ancient magic. This is the land my distant indigenous relatives flourished on, it’s the land my distant European relatives stole, and the land my distant African relatives were forced to toil over. But, through it all, it’s a land that survived. And as the years wore on, it brought fourth a new kind of inhabitant to call it home; a beautiful blend of heritage you can still see evidence of to this very day. It’s so very moving and humbling in a way I can’t quite put into word to see it all as an adult.
Yes, this is the island of lizards and snails and mystery I knew as a child. But, more so, it’s an island and a people that perseveres through the ages. Through the hardships, may they be hurricanes or a corrupt leader, Puerto Rico pushes forward bravely with a smile and a killer salsa track playing in the background.
My trip to Puerto Rico left a stamp on my very soul. I feel more connected to my home there than ever before. I made memories with my sister I’ll cherish forever. And I met family I hope to never go so long without seeing again. It was the trip I’m so grateful I got to take. Estoy tan orgulloso de ser puertorriqueño.